Every now and again I do that cheesy book buying thing and totally judge a book by its cover—totally. I love book covers so much (and I'm an avowed fan of Bookslut's monthly feature: "Judging a Book By Its Cover") but more times than I can count I have been horribly, terribly disappointed by the story that follows a sterling cover; either it can't live up to the cover's promise or it's so completely different from what the cover picture claims it will be that I think the designer was reading a different book when he or she did the designing.
You'd really think they'd be a little more careful about that sort of thing.
The Chronicle Books catalog is always full of eye candy and it's physically hard for me sometimes to not rush out and demand one of everything they are selling that season. I was practicing careful restraint a few months ago when I turned the page and saw the cutest picture of a couple of a little girls—little girls that look full of fun and trouble at the same time. With names like "Ivy" and "Bean" they were damn near irresistible. So I got a copy of Annie Barrows' new kids' book and settled down to see if the story of Ivy and Bean's adventures could match up to Sophie Blackall's great illustrations (both inside and out). What a delight I was in for, and what pure reading pleasure is in store for many, many little girls (and boys) who have yet to discover the book.
First I should admit that I loved Betsy and Tacy before there were dozens of online lit clubs extolling their virtues. I've always been a fan of the spunky little girl stories, the bookish little girl stories, the "let's go out and have fun and change the world" kind of kid stories. These books can be done very badly however, and you can't just grab them indiscriminately thinking one is as good as another. That is so not true. It's not easy to write a book for kids that is both exciting and fun while also being the type of story they can identify with. It's all well and good to go off to Hogwarts every now and again but most little kids will never get invites to Diagon Alley. (Darn it!) They live in neighborhoods, they have annoying older siblings, and they want to do something amazing and impressive but they can't seem to figure out how. Those are the lives that Ivy and Bean are having until they end up one day as best friends and all sorts of fun kid stuff starts happening.
Honestly, I can't find a thing about this book that isn't appealing. The girls are a lot of fun; they're smart and creative and determined to be their own individual selves. Blackall's illustrations are outstanding and supplement the story so well that I wish more young adult authors would craft these kinds of stories and for illustrators to work with. Every 6- to 10-year-old girl is going to identify with Ivy and Bean and they are going to love the kind of trouble they get into. I am eagerly awaiting the next installment in this series and I hope it gets the sort of readership it deserves. It's a winner; a spunky, original and thoroughly enjoyable example of everything that is wonderful about being a kid.
In many ways Buttermilk Hill is the quintessential young girl coming-of-age story. It begins with 10-year-old Piper Berry slowly coming to grips with the end of her parents' marriage and all the subsequent confusion that is dumped onto her life. The book follows Piper and her young aunt (and best friend) Lindy over the next few years through changes and revelations that stun and surprise them. The biggest change comes within Piper herself though, as she learns to not only adapt to a whole new set of family rules but also to find her own truth and what matters most to her.
The thing that struck me the most about Buttermilk was the surprising way in which author Ruth White has exposed the many human frailties in Piper's parents. White wrote them as fallible individuals; as two people who are blinded by their own frustrations and petty differences and ignored their child and then continued to exhibit typical selfish behavior for quite some time until Piper would allow herself to be ignored no longer. The thing is, they weren't portrayed as bad parents, there's no reason to hate them or be alarmed by their behavior, but they do make mistakes and those mistakes do cause Piper no small amount of pain. And even though she is a child she sees that they are wrong; she knows they are wrong.
It has been a long time since I have read about a child who is wiser than her parents, who is removed enough from the situation to see the big picture that eludes the adults. It's not that this sort of thing doesn't happen—it happens a lot—but we still seem stuck in a made up world when it comes to family moments in literature. The parents have to be really horrible for the children to seem wiser than them; they can't just be confused or angry or momentarily stupidly selfish. They can't just be people. Piper is not brilliant or spunky or one of those trippy little tweens who get away with sly comments because the story line calls for her to be old beyond her years. She is 10, then 11 then 12 then 13. She plays with Lindy and Bucky and wants a horse and loves her dog and writes poetry. She wants her parents to stay together and then get back together and then, finally, she just wants them to try and understand her for once, instead of insisting that she always try to understand them.
Piper Berry is the child her parents deserve and when they listen to her, finally, she is the one who makes all the difference. The fact that they realize this, that White has crafted adult characters willing to see a child as something more than her age, makes Buttermilk Hill truly a book that will hold up over years to come. It's a beauty, and my only regret is that it was not there in 1977 (or 1982) when I needed it so very much. I survived, but it would have been nice to know I wasn't alone.
I can vaguely recall moments in elementary school when we were sent to the library on a quest to find a suitable biography for a book report. There were always far more books on men than women (this was the 1970s after all) and the women were predictable: Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Marie Curie, etc. Not that any of them weren't deserving, but they did tend to get a bit dull after awhile. I think it's great how many fascinating new biographies there are for kids today (because let's be honest, book reports are not going to go away), especially, because they've been neglected so long, books on women. When I saw Stompin' at the Savoy I was all over it, even though I had, sadly, never heard of Norma Miller. What a treat this book proved to be— and with the fantastic illustrations by Martin French, it's truly a model for other young adult biographers to follow.
Norma Miller grew up in Harlem and lived part of her childhood across from the famous Savoy Ballroom, the only dance hall in America where blacks and whites could dance on the floor together. Miller was not only a great dancer even as a young child, but she had a true gift for the Lindy Hop. When the Lindy took America by storm, she became one of the Savoy Lindy Hoppers, winning contests and putting on shows around the world. It was an incredibly unique life for a young black girl in the 1920s and 30s, and it gave her a perspective on the world that makes her biography that much more interesting to read.
Another thing I liked about Stompin' at the Savoy was that Alan Govenar interviewed Miller several times to write the book, but it is her words that tell the story of her life. This makes the book much more personal and realistic to readers and gives the decisions she made about her career (and life) a stronger sense of urgency. Norma Miller is not telling some ancient dusty story here; it is what she really did and why and how dancing at the Savoy changed her life. All in all, Miller and Govenar (along with French's pitch-perfect illustrations) have crafted a new sort of biography for young readers—one that easily transcends the decades between subject and reader and one they will certainly relate to from the very first page.
Ivy & Bean.
Annie Barrows, illustrated by Sophie Blackall.
Chronicle Books. 2006.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 2006. 168 pp.
Stompin' at the Savoy: The Story of Norma Miller.
Collected by Alan Govenar, illustrated by Martin French.
Candlewick Press. 2006. 54 pp.
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