Posts Tagged Ramona

Nostalgia and Those Childhood Favorites: Which books are we just sentimental about, and which books stand the test of time?

Fresh or Frozen?

For many of us of a certain age, there comes a time where we want to impart to our children, or children we know, the culture that we got at their age that essentially made us “us.” What I mean is, when our child is nine, we really want them to love the books that we loved when we were nine. That we read over and over again. That we can instantly recall incidents and episodes from; as well as the smell of the couch we would lie on when we read it; the ache of our hearts and taste of our tears from the sorrow of a character dying, experiencing cruelty or even just going through heartbreak. The same goes for movies. Cue me excitedly putting on Grease for my then-nine-year-old daughter in the hospital room TV as she waited to be wheeled down to surgery for her tonsils to be taken out. Wow, bad idea on so many levels. She didn’t enjoy it, not just because she was a nervous wreck about the impending surgery, but also because she didn’t get it. The movie went right over her head—thankfully. (I was mortified to be watching it with her. And felt like the worst parent!) And let’s just say the film has not aged well in terms of values, in terms of feminism, in terms of #metoo, in terms of America as a white world, in terms of anything frankly. But happily, for the most part, many of the books I loved as a child I have been able to read to my children with more confidence in my parenting skills—and with the added bonus that my kids loved these books too.

What is the Common Denominator?

Jonathan Rosen spoke here on the MUF blog about his nostalgia for the books he read as a child which have inspired the spooky books he writes today. And Marjorie Ingall, who reviews children’s books for the New York Times and is a culture columnist at Tablet Magazine, while on the faculty of the TENT writing residency mentioned The Carp in the Bathtub “as a book that holds up for today’s kids and isn’t purely a nostalgia exercise for adults.” I started thinking about this idea of nostalgia when I was planning a tribute to Judith Kerr and the relevancy of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.

A nostalgic-feeling cover of the All-of-a-Kind Family series from 2014

What other middle grade books from my own childhood stand the test of time—both for me and for my own kids? Is there a common denominator? When I first started writing my middle grade novel HONEY AND ME, my eldest daughter was at an age where I had begun to read to her some of my favorites as a child— Ballet Shoes, Anne of Green Gables, tons of Judy Blume, all the Ramona books, and All-of-a-Kind Family. My daughter is now fourteen, but I have been reading these to my sons too—currently ages eight-and-a-half and nearly eleven—and they’ve also loved them. One of the things I think connects these books is writers who deeply understand the magnitude of the smaller dramas of every day life, and are interested in the details of them. (What I particularly loved about the All-of-a-Kind Family books was that they did this about being Jewish, in a way that was both integral and incidental.) I very much try to bring this sensibility to my own writing.

If Not Now When?

Beverly Clearly’s Ramona books (the first one is from 1955), all the Judy Blume books, but especially the Fudge series (first one is from the 1970s) and All-of-a-Kind Family (first one is from 1951) all particularly still feel fresh and relevant. But I do wonder: could these books be published today?

I clearly like the old-fashioned—or lets say the character-driven and safe-feeling. But in my own writing I constantly feel like I come up against (probably rightly) what works for today’s audience. It would seem that with all the above books all still in print, the market generally does keep the books worth keeping. However at the same time, the fashions have changed so when it comes to what is being published today even when something has an old-fashioned feel to it, it’s still done in a modern way. I’m thinking for example of The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser—it’s reminiscent of Elizabeth Enright’s beloved The Saturdays, but when I tried the episodic The Saturdays with my then-eight and ten-year-old sons they were bored—whereas The Vanderbeekers has a modern-feeling plot structure and they were immediately sucked in. (Just to say also, I think of my sons’ reading tastes as a litmus test—if they don’t like something it’s not necessarily conclusive, but when they do like something, especially novels that you wouldn’t automatically think to hand to tween boys, it is telling about the strength of that particular book.)

A range of eras in these covers from my personal evergreen library

 

…. Then again, just because something has gone out of print doesn’t mean that is deserved. I recently tracked down two 1980s favorites to read to my kids: This Can’t be Happening at MacDonald Hall by Gordon Korman, about the antics of a duo called Bruno and Boots at their boarding school—which was still hands-down hilarious to both my sons and me; and Here She is Ms. Teeny Wonderful by Martyn Godfrey about a girl who likes to jump BMX bikes and to her utter dismay becomes a finalist in a national beauty pageant. I haven’t read this last one to my sons yet, it’s next on the list (we’re currently on Rita Garcia Williams’ One Crazy Summer: historical fiction and over their heads that they’re still enjoying)—but when I read it again myself I was delighted to see that notwithstanding the cover, it was still funny, fast-paced and feminist. I should also mention that the Bruno and Boots books (there were several sequels) I was able to find were a 35th anniversary edition, reissued by Scholastic in 2013, and the Kindle editions are still available for purchase.

Some things never change

So perhaps this is all to say: a well-constructed book with sympathetic characters, emotions you can relate to and dramas you feel invested in no matter how similar or foreign they might be to your own life, will always have the power to suck a young reader in so the pages keep turning. And long after they have turned the last page and closed the book, or perhaps even started the whole thing again from the beginning, —the story, the experience of reading it, and the memories of that experience—will become baked into their very being. And one day, many years later, they will wish to impart this multi-faceted cultural experience on to the important young people in their own lives. Just as we did to them.

And Baby Makes…

The age-old adage is, of course, “And Baby makes three.”

But in middle grade fiction, the addition of a baby often makes for more. Much more.

Full disclosure here: I’ve got babies on my brain. And for the first time in decades, I’ve got diapers in my shopping cart and onesies in my closet, and a portable crib in my guestroom. As I write this, I’m days (maybe hours???) away from becoming a first-time grandmamma, and I’m just a little way, way too excited about it.

So, when I saw my next Mixed-Up Files post was due at the same time as our next family member, I knew right away what my topic would be. Babies. Babies. MIDDLE GRADE BABIES!

There are loads of middle-grade characters dealing with the addition of a new sibling. Some handle it better than others, but one common thread weaves throughout: Babies change everything!

Alvin Ho, Allergic to Babies, Burglars, and Other Bumps in the Night by Lenore Look, illustrated by LeUyen Pham

alvin-ho-allergic-to-babies

In this, the fifth installment in the Alvin Ho series, Lenore Look and LeUyen Pham deliver (ha,ha!) with great hilarity a story that many older brothers can relate to – what if that thing in mom’s belly is a …. girl?!  Alvin’s always-entertaining tales are great for younger middle-graders and middle-graders struggling with reading.

Ramona Forever by Beverly Cleary

ramonaforever

By the time this book came out in 1984, Beverly Cleary had already won two Newbery Honors and a National Book Award, and Romona had already faced challenges both big and small. When her mother announces she’s pregnant, Ramona realizes she’ll be taking on a role she’s never played before-BIG sister.

Clementine and the Family Meeting by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Marla Frazee

clementine_family_meeting

Third-grade Clementine is surrounded by changes. When a family meeting is called to announce the pending arrival of a new baby, Clementine isn’t sure what to expect. At school, changes are happening as well. Her best friend is acting differently, and Clementine has to face the fact that nothing stays exactly the same.

The Key that Swallowed Joey Pigza by Jack Gantos

the_key_that_swallowed_joey_pigza_

In a way that only Jack Gantos can, this final book in the Joey Pigza saga blends humor and wackiness with the very serious reality of postpartum depression. When Joey’s mother decides she should enter the hospital, Joey has to step up and care for his newborn baby brother.

Sometimes, babies appear in middle grade tales and they grow up to be the main character. Think of how Harry Potter began. A dark street, streetlights go out, and figure is seen leaving something on a doorstep. Number 4, Privet Drive.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhillgirl-who-drank-the-moon

This new book, from the author of The Witch’s Boy, centers around a community who believes they must sacrifice a baby each year to appease the evil witch who resides in the forest. But the witch isn’t evil at all, and she cares for the babies until she can place them in a deserving home far away. When an unfortunate mishap forces her to keep one of the babies as her own, everything changes. This one is being called a “new classic.”

And sometimes, it’s the middle-grade main character who finds an abandoned baby…

Baby by Patricia MacLachlan

baby-by-patricia-maclachlan

Sophie is a baby left by her mother and found by twelve-year-old Larkin. Larkin’s family has lost a newborn boy and finds healing and hope in the arrival of Sophie. But the note left by Sophie’s mother promises she’ll return someday. How can they love if they know they’ll have to let go? Touching and timeless. True MacLachlan.

And finally, sometimes the middle grade main character is not the finder, but the seeker…

Winterfrost by Michelle Houts

winterfrost-cover-very-small

Yes, this one’s my own, and I hesitated to mention it, because we writers are great at singing others’ praises, but it always feel a little uncomfortable to shout about our own work. But, Winterfrost fits the criteria for this post, so I’ll go ahead and share it. When twelve-year-old Bettina is left home alone to care for her not-quite-one-year-old baby sister, the unthinkable happens. Baby Pia disappears into the white wilderness, and Bettina is forced to  enter a magical world she’d only heard about from her grandfather. Based on Danish folklore.

So, what can you add?  Comment below with a middle-grade story featuring a baby. And stay tuned for more baby news! I promise to update this blog post when my first grandbaby is here!

** UPDATE** Baby Jack arrived promptly on his due date. Mom, Dad, and baby are all doing well. Grandma Michelle has fallen head over heels in love.

img_999510-2-2016

Michelle Houts is the author of five books for young readers. She lives on a farm where babies of the animal kind are a common occurrence. She absolutely cannot wait to hold her first grandbaby in a few days. That’s all she can think to write about, baby. She just signed a book to her first grandchild and is looking forward to sharing books of every kind with him.