The Hundred Dresses

Title: The Hundred Dresses
Author: Eleanor Estes
Illustrator: Louis Slobodkin
Pages: 79
Reading Level: 9-12
Star Rating: ★★★★

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Newbery Medalist.

The Story.

It was Peggy who started the game. And, now, Maddie wishes she hadn’t. At first it was fun – Wanda’s claim was so ridiculous – but now it just seems as though they’re torturing Wanda for no good reason. Now, Maddie is beginning to feel sorry for Wanda. But she can’t help but wonder – why does Wanda so forthrightly assert that she has a hundred dresses at home? Surely she knows that we all know how poor her family is? And if she wanted to conflate her importance, why didn’t she pick a realistic number?

But while Maddie reconsiders their relationship with Wanda, Peggy continues to plow ahead, teasing Wanda mercilessly about her hundred dresses.

Will Peggy and Maddie realize their cruelty before they ruin their chance of a friendship with Wanda forever?

Discussion.

As I began this story, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. I just knew that The Hundred Dresses would have a psychological conclusion with which I disagreed. I knew that Maddie and Peggy would be rightly condemned for their cruelty, but on the basis that if Wanda wanted to believe that she had one hundred dresses in her closet, they had no right to dissuade her from that belief. I just knew that there would be an everybody-can-create-their-own-reality-and-how-dare-you-crush-the-delicate-psychology-of-an-imaginative-girl message. Imagine my relief when this did not happen. Imagine my relief when Wanda’s claims turned out to be true (though not in the sense that Maddie and Peggy understood her to be making them) and both Maddie and Peggy realized how cruel they had been.

It is rare, in a modern novel, to find moral growth in a protagonist. Usually the main character grows from being less independent to more independent, less confident to more confident, less assertive to more assertive. When was the last time that you read a story in which the main lesson learned by the protagonist was the importance of kindness? (Not love. Kindness.) I’ll bet it wasn’t recently. (By the way, my question is rhetorical, but if you have recently read such a book, please let me know. I’d love to read it.) But in The Hundred Dresses, Maddie and Peggy realize their failures and seek to make restitution for them by offering their friendship to Wanda. It was so… refreshing.

Cautions.

Most of the story takes place at school – one of the students draws a picture of Santa Claus and the class decorates a Christmas tree.

‘Gee’ is used once.

Conclusion. A good story that presents positive moral growth on the part of the protagonist.

Hamster in a Handbasket

Title: Hamster in a Handbasket
Author: Ben M. Baglio
Pages: 145
Reading Level: 9-12

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Star Rating: ★★★

Animal Ark!

The Story.

Mandy and James are excited that school is about to be let out for the summer, but they are also a little nervous. You see, James (along with many other classmates) has volunteered to take care of Henry the Eighth, the school hamster, during the summer, and there is to be a drawing to decide which of them will take Henry home. Oh, how badly James wants to be chosen!

And he is! Mandy and James are ecstatic and immediately begin planning all of the fun activities they will do with Henry. But their summer will be far from quiet; a trailer park is being set up outside of their small city of Welford. There, children are pouring in from urban cities to enjoy a few weeks time in the country. Many of Welford’s citizens are forming protests against the park and are trying to shut them down.

Will Mandy and James be able to take good care of Henry? And will they be able to convince the angry protesters that the park is a good idea?

Discussion.

Mandy has sweet relationships with her parents and grandparents. Although she often functions independently (dashing around the city on her bike), she also goes to all of them for their help and advice. She and her parents are always on the same page as far as what they believe is right and are almost always in agreement as to what they should do about it.

Mandy and her father have a very fun relationship and tease each other frequently. Mandy sometimes becomes mock irritated with him. For example, in one scene, he squirts her with a hose and she hops around squealing and pretending to be upset. When his plan backfires and he is the one being squirted with the hose, Mandy tells him that it “serves you right”. Because of the playful context, I did not find this statement to be disrespectful.

The main theme of the story is the question of whether groups of children from the city should spend their vacation time at the Welford trailer park. Mandy and her family land whole-heartedly on the ‘pro’ side, while others are equally ‘anti’. While I think that it is a good idea for children to experience new places, I believe that summer camps can be very harmful. Nothing bad actually happens at the camp, although two of the Welford city children are mean to one of the newcomers. (This is resolved.)

One of the leaders of the trailer park opposition team is Mrs. Ponsonby, who is portrayed as snobby and unloving. However, when at the end of the story it is proven that the trailer park children have caused no actual damage, she enters into the spirit of things and actually helps to prepare for a party being thrown in their honor. She also displays marked generosity when she gives a pet to a lonely young girl. I liked this because it showed that just because you may disagree with someone over an issue, it does not make them evil.

While discussing the possibility of being chosen to care after Henry, Mandy and James state several times that it will be up to their ‘luck’.

Conclusion. Sweet but totally un-epic.

The Skippack School

Title: The Skippack School
Author: Marguerite de Angeli
Pages: 92
Recommended Ages: 8-11
Star Rating: ★★★★★

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I did not purchase this book because I recognized the author’s name (although this shall be the case with any other Marguerite de Angeli book I see from now on), but because it was published by Sonlight, a Christian literature-based curriculum.

The Story.

Eli Shrawder and his family have just moved from Germany to the new colony of Pennsylvania. They are happy, excited, and relieved; now they may follow their consciences and worship God as they choose!

For the first week, Eli is kept very busy helping his Pop build the farm and carve the furniture. And a right handy workman he is, too. But soon, his parents decide that he should attend Master Christopher Dock’s school. Eli is nervous. Will he be able to learn how to read and write? Will the other students like him? And will he ever achieve the greatest honor of the school – reading the Scriptures before class starts?

Praises.

The style of the story is very sweet. The Shrawders have recently moved to Pennsylvania from Germany, and Ms. de Angeli reflects this change in their dialogue.

“It wonders me what he is going to do to me!” Eli thought. [pg. 25]

“What makes,” said Pop, “that you stand and wiggle so?” He looked into Eli’s face.

“Ach so!” he said. “I see by your eyes that somesing makes wrong. What iss it?” [pg. 44]

Darling isn’t it?

But what I loved most about this story was the plethora of Scripture verses scattered through its pages. Eli’s schoolteacher, Master Christopher is a very devout and Biblically literate man who often uses Scripture passages to instruct and correct his students. He also prays for his students. One of the greatest honors at school is to be asked to read the Scriptures before the morning classes. The entire story is, in fact, soaked in Biblical principles and references.

On several occasions, Master Christopher was forced to scold Eli. Instead of flying into a rage or declaring that Master Christopher was unfair, Eli received these corrections meekly and felt badly that he had vexed Master Christopher.

Cautions.

The only reference to a particular church denomination occurs in the first chapter.

The Shrawders and many other families had left Germany together to find new homes where they could worship God in their own way. They called themselves Mennonites after their leader, Menno Simons. [pg. 14]

This is the only mention of a particular church denomination in the entire book.

One man declares that now will be a good time to set fence posts because the crescent moon is on its back. Eli recognizes this as a superstition. Later, Eli himself accidentally puts on a stocking inside-out, but leaves it on because it “meant good luck”.

Eli sometimes pulls the little girls’ hair and pinches their necks. He knows that he is being mischievous and is sorry for it.

Conclusion. A very, very sweet story about a principled and skilled young boy. Purchase a copy here.

A Letter to Mrs. Roosevelt

Title: A Letter to Mrs. Roosevelt
Author: C. Coco De Young
Pages: 103
Recommended Ages: 9-12
Star Rating: ★★★

Hi there! As of October 2013, I have upgraded to a new site – The Blithering Bookster – where I have posted all of my old reviews and continue to post new ones. Hoist yourself over to join the fun!

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My first question was – which Mrs. Roosevelt?

The Story.

Eleven year old Margo Bandini has become accustomed to the tightening times of the Great Depression; of no money for candy and of seeing ‘Sheriff Sale’ signs in the front yards of her friends’ houses. She loves to sit and watch the passing trains with her best friend, Rosa, and to exchange bits of news with Mr. Frappa at the grocery market. Even though her little brother, Charlie, gets into all sorts of scrapes, life still goes on happily.

One day at school, Miss Dobson, the lovely teacher, suggests that each class member choose an important person they admire and write a letter to them expressing their thoughts. Margo is excited. But who should she write to?

When Margo learns that a Sheriff’s Sale sign will soon be going up in their yard because her father can’t make payments quickly enough to satisfy the bank, she knows exactly who she will write to – Everywhere Eleanor! President Roosevelt’s eyes and ears; the woman who wants to help the people. But only two weeks remain before their house will be sold. Will Mrs. Roosevelt receive the letter in time? And if she does will she be able to save Margo’s home?

Cautions.

Margo’s neighbor, Mrs. DiLuso is superstitious. She thinks that shooting stars bring bad luck and that il diavolo (the devil) caused The Great Depression. Mama tells Mrs. DiLuso that “il diavolo didn’t arrive on the tail of a shooting star, but in the hearts of those who allowed it.” [pg. 81]

Margo’s friend Rosa declares that “little brothers can be a nuisance.” [pg. 10] Later, after Charlie gets lost, Margo agrees.

When she is at Rosa’s house, Margo can hear Margo’s parents fighting in the background. Strangely enough, the arguments are mostly because the father cannot fully support his family with his income but he refuses to let his wife work because he believes that it is his duty to provide for his family.

On one occasion, after the tension has oppressed Margo for several weeks, she becomes angry. Here is the account,

Enough was enough! I ignored Rosa when she called to me from her front porch. I ignored Mama and Papa when they looked up from the dining room table to say hello. I ignored the fact that Papa was home early and that the table was covered with account books and papers. I didn’t even flinch when I noticed that Mama’s eyes were red again.

I paid no heed to Papa’s “Margo!” as I stomped up the stairs to my room and slammed my door shut as hard as I could. I didn’t pay any attention to my growling stomach when Mama called me to dinner. I simply told her I wasn’t hungry and stayed in my room.

It was bedtime when Charlie knocked on my door and whispered, “Margo, I’m really sorry. Can I come in?” I didn’t answer him; instead I threw my pillow as hard as I could. It landed with a loud thud against the door, then fell to the floor.

I thought I’d feel better. I didn’t. I was hungry. I was tired – tired of being mad at everyone. But there was something far worse than the anger pounding away inside my head. It was the feeling in my heart. I was lonely, very lonely. [pg. 72]

After exhausting her anger in this way, Margo feels much more cheerful the next day.

My only other concern is philosophical rather than with something that is defiling. The problem of the story is that a young girl’s family is about to lose their home. The great wish of the protagonist is to have her home saved. The conclusion *PARDON THE SPOILERS* is that the house is saved – by Eleanor Roosevelt’s intercession and provision for the family with one of FDR’s New Deal loans. Her intervention in the private world of business and loans is Margo’s salvation.

‘Gee’ is used once.

Conclusion. A Letter to Mrs. Roosevelt provides a glimpse into the worries, expectations, interests, and hope of the generation of the 1930s. Through Margo we learn of the insecurities and solutions of this momentous time period. Purchase a copy here.