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Favorite Noel Streatfeild Book and other Randomness April 7, 2013

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Holiday trips clearly make me and Ana nostalgic. Then again, which would you rather discuss when stuck in a miserable Texas airport–depressing current events or childhood books?

The edition we had as kids.

In contrast to Alcott, a favorite we have in common is Noel Streatfeild, who wrote books about theatrical children in England during World War II. She was a very prolific author, and over the years I’ve collected most of her titles from yard sales and on trips to London. Ana and I got sucked down the rabbit hole of various questions about her books, starting with our favorite titles.

Cecilia: Ballet Shoes, without question. Three contrasting main characters, great theatrical details and the most interesting shows were in that book.

Ana: It’s a difficult question for me. I’m going to go with Dancing Shoes, since it’s the one I re-read the most often, and I identified so completely with Rachel as a child. Also, Hilary is funny.

Cecilia: I think my main problem with Dancing Shoes is that Dulcie and Mrs. Winter are caricatures. One of the things that I love about Ballet Shoes is that there is no ‘bad guy’ or ‘mean girl’ that they have to beat. Although as you say, Hilary is funny. And I do like the discussion about different kinds of dancing and whether ballet is the end all and be all. Which do you think is Streatfeild’s worst book?

Ana's favorite title.

Ana’s favorite title.

Ana: I don’t know. I remember being thoroughly uninterested in Party Shoes, although I couldn’t tell you why. When you get right down to it, I only really remember Ballet ShoesDancing ShoesTheatre Shoes, and Skating Shoes. I know there was another one where the kids moved to America and one of them was in a Hollywood movie of The Secret Garden, but I don’t remember its name. I think it was your book and I never really got the chance to re-read it. I honestly don’t think I have a least favorite. All the books have good points and bad points for me.

Cecilia: I’d say it’s a tie between Party Shoes and the third book in the Gemma trilogy where Gemma falls in love with the guy playing Romeo to her Juliet. Party Shoes never had much purpose beyond describing a fancy outfit and Streatfeild just isn’t good at depicting teen crushes. Her theatrical descriptions and backstage details are far more interesting. Are there are any Streatfeild books that you would say are just too similar?

Ana: Ballet Shoes and Theatre Shoes follow pretty much the same storyline, but then again, they take place in the same school. Still, the pattern is essentially the same, with the only exception being the addition of Miranda in Theatre Shoes.

New, illustrated edition that I bought in the UK.

New, illustrated edition that I bought in the UK.

Cecilia: She’s a pretty big addition though. And I’d say the change from being orphans in Ballet Shoes to being part of a distinguished theatrical clan in Theater Shoes is a pretty huge leap. The Fossil girls in some ways have to work way harder than the Warren family. Wouldn’t you agree?

Ana: Not necessarily. The Warren children still feel incredibly isolated, living in their grandmother’s house. They still identify immensely with their father’s side of the family, rather than their mother’s. And in a way, they are orphans. The money worries are still there, and the Fossil girls never worry very much about being liked or included by the other children at the Academy. We get more details of the Fossils’ routine being difficult (mostly because Streatfield describes the dancing in more detail, since none of the Warrens are dancers apart from Miriam) but I don’t think that necessarily means that the Warren children don’t work as hard.

Original illustrated edition that I found at a flea market in the UK.

Original illustrated edition that I found at a flea market in the UK.

Cecilia: I guess after reading the rest of her books, I see Miranda as a prototype for the ‘mean girl’ who only cares about her own success, which we get with Dulcie, Maurice from Movie Shoes and to a certain extent Lalla from Skating Shoes. The real interest in Theater Shoes I think comes from seeing how the school operates in wartime, with rationing, blackouts and effects of bombing.

Ana: I can see your point about Theatre Shoes. I don’t think Lalla fits into the stereotype at all, though. While she does get jealous at one point during the book, she’s basically a good person, and she doesn’t have any other moments where she is mean or cruel to Harriet. Miranda and Dulcie are both proud and vain, and dislike being around other people–they don’t have any friends. By contrast, Lalla desperately wants a friend.

Cecilia: True. I guess I meant more in the aspect of being taken up with her own success. But even there, it’s really Aunt Claudia who wants Lalla to succeed–she doesn’t care as much about her figures as about being entertaining.

Ana: Yeah, that’s true. I suppose in Skating Shoes, Aunt Claudia is the “bad guy”. It is interesting that we don’t get one in Ballet Shoes.


Ana and I Discuss Little Women April 4, 2013

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The frontispiece from the Jessie Wilcox Smith edition that I remember reading as a kid.

The frontispiece from the Jessie Wilcox Smith edition of Little Women that I remember reading as a kid.

Over the holidays, Ana and I had the misfortune to be stuck in an airport on Christmas night and as often happens when we are bored, we began to discuss children’s books. Specifically, we talked about several of the classics that we both loved as children, but now have different reactions towards as grownups. A key example is Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

Cecilia: I’m pretty sure I read Little Women sometime in second grade. I have a memory of taking a paperback abridged copy on a Brownie camping trip and then mom and dad gave me the unabridged Jessie Willcox Smith illustrated version. My sharpest memories are of skipping to the parts where the sisters enjoyed activities that I envied–putting on plays, exploring the mansion next door, creating special clubs like the Pickwick Club.

Ana: I think Mom first read me Little Women. I have a memory of re-reading parts of the books over and over again, but I don’t have a clear memory of reading it for the first time. At some point, she must have stopped, though, because I know for a fact that I’ve never finished the entire book. I got about as far as the girls growing up, and stopped. I was more interested in them as children than as adults.

Cecilia: Why were you more interested in them as children? I think some of my favorite parts were when Jo lives in the boarding house in New York, as well as Amy’s adventures in Europe.

Orchard House, where Alcott lived in Concord, taken during a New England children's book pilgrimage in 2010.

Orchard House, where Alcott lived in Concord, taken during a New England children’s book pilgrimage in 2010.

Ana: At the time, I was a child, and I had no particular interest in reading about adults. I found adults boring. To a certain extent, I think I still do– hence the reason I tend to read and write primarily about children. Childhood, at least in books, is the exciting, magical time when you can do practically anything; you aren’t bound in by rules and proper behaviour. It seemed as though there was so much less possibility for the March sisters once they grew up and moved away, and that they probably weren’t going to be doing anything that I would interested in reading about. So I stopped. In my defense, I was about eleven at the time.

Cecilia: You read adult books now–have you ever gone back and re-read the entire book? If not, why not?

Ana: I read some adult books now, although a lot of that is not necessarily by choice, being an English major. In terms of my personal reading list, a lot of it is still children’s lit or young adult. I also tend to re-read a lot of books, though, so that skews the stats. But I’ve never gone back to Little Women, mostly because as an adult, I find the style and the characters painfully moralistic, and I don’t want to spoil the beautiful memory I have from childhood. I prefer to live in denial.

Cecilia: I guess the difference is that when I read a book from childhood, like Little Women, I find that I’m reading with the mindset of my child-self and so I mostly ignore the moralizing (since I didn’t notice it as a child). Most of the time when I re-read a book from childhood, I’m remembering my reactions and thoughts about it as a kid and so I enjoy it in much the same way.

In spite of all the arguing… September 17, 2012

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Ana and I both agree that the LEAST annoying John Green boy is Pudge, from Looking for Alaska.  Is it because he was the first John Green protagonist we met? Ana will explain:

Ana: Even though Pudge is essentially the same pattern as Colin, Will, and Quentin, he’s in a very different situation. Maybe we don’t find him quite as annoying because, despite him being the narrator, he doesn’t actually say very much. The book, of course, focuses mostly on Alaska, and even though Paper Towns is much the same way in that it focuses on Margo, she’s not actually there for most of the book, whereas Alaska is.

Cecilia: That makes sense!

Who is the most annoying John Green character? September 14, 2012

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Ana recently had the chance to talk to John Green via a call-in to one of our local bookstores. Characteristically, her question was along the lines of “Why did it take you so long to write as a girl when all your boy characters are so annoying?” Green, of course, had a perfectly good answer, but my first thought when she told me this story was “Wow…that’s true…they ARE really annoying!” So,  in the spirit of true sisterly argument, here is our debate over who is the most annoying John Green character.

Cecilia: I say it’s Colin, from An Abundance of Katherines. 

Ana: I vote Will Grayson (either of them, but particularly the straight one) from Will Grayson, Will Grayson.

Cecilia: Well, technically you would have to blame David Levithan for the gay Will Grayson. Green only wrote the straight one. I vote for Colin because of all the self-pity. Plus, the footnotes and anagrams just get annoying after awhile. At least Will Grayson doesn’t show off all the time.

Ana: Well, part of my opinion may be prejudiced, because I like Abundance of Katherines so much. It’s the only one with a happy ending, so to speak. But for some reason, I find Colin hilarious instead of annoying, whereas to me, straight Will Grayson has absolutely nothing going in his favor. He whines essentially all the time, in spite of having pretty much everything he could want.

Cecilia: I don’t think you can say Will has everything he could want. At least at the start of the book, his best friend pretty much ignores him after falling in love (whereas Colin’s friend Hassan is entirely dedicated to their friendship) and while similar to Colin he has major insecurities, he is more reserved and doesn’t complain about them all the time. You could also make the argument that both Abundance of Katherines and Will Grayson, Will Grayson have happy endings, but that’s another debate.

Ana: But Colin does have a reason for being depressed. It’s the reaction you expect from a teenage boy going through that situation–in terms of realism, it’s spot on, in the same way that fifth book Harry Potter was annoying, but a real person. Will doesn’t have much of a reason, it seems. He’s just perpetually morose and cynical.

Cecilia: But isn’t that a pretty typical reaction of a teenager to life in general? I feel like adolescence causes a perpetual feeling of being a fish out of water–which readers accept if it comes from a character who is going through specific stress, like Colin or Harry– but what about the stresses of everyday life, like just walking down the hall at school?

Maybe the best conclusion to this debate would be to acknowledge that whether they are prodigies, ordinary students or have just been dumped, teenage boys are just annoying in general. I guess we won’t be seeing a huge change in Green’s protagonists anytime soon then. Good thing they make us laugh even when we get annoyed!

Which Casson Family Book is the Best? August 9, 2011

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With the UK publication of Caddy’s World, British author Hilary McKay brings her series of books about the Casson family to an end. Now that Ana and I have both read the latest (Thanks, Libby for ordering it and then lending it to us!) we can start the debate about which book is the best. Ana can start.

Ana: Saffy’s Angel is my favorite book, and I think it’s the best because it has the most focused plot, and the best story with quirky little asides that enhance the book rather than being the main focus of the book.It has a couple of really deep themes, like family, belonging, and identity, and I think it manages to say a lot about these issues in an interesting, funny and relatively concise way.

Cecilia: Permanent Rose is definitely the funniest book. The character David is responsible for much of this comedy, as he tries to figure out how to be friends with the Cassons. The moment when he sees Saffy naked, when Saffy and Sarah laugh at Bill’s website and when Rose accidentally ends up in London with Caddy all illuminate character traits while being laugh out loud funny.

Ana: Indigo’s Star is, of the six books, one of the weaker ones. The best part of the book is undoubtedly the introduction of Tom and the way that the reader gets to see the Casson family interact with a stranger. In Saffy’s Angel, we got to see very little of the rest of the Casson family; we knew they were there, and they were all funny and sweet, but the book really dealt with Saffy and Sarah. In  Indigo’s Star, we get to meet the rest of the family and see the way that they take in a stranger. We, as readers, particularly like it because it gives us the feeling that we could be Tom, and that this is the way the Cassons would treat us if we got to meet them. Unfortunately, McKay tries to stuff a little too much into the book. She tries to juggle back-stories, plot, characterization and themes, and she doesn’t quite do it successfully. The book rambles a bit and can be kind confusing.

Cecilia: I think we both agree that Caddy Ever After is not the best of the series. It’s the first time that McKay tries to write in the first person instead of the third person and each section is narrated by a different Casson sibling. While the chance to hear about the same event from different points of view is amusing, it also makes the book difficult to follow and some of the new characters introduced (Oscar and Alex, primarily) are not that engaging. The teacher Miss Farley and Rose’s friend Kiran however, are keepers.

Ana: Caddy’s World is the latest Casson book (although it is a prequel) and I can’t remember everything about it, so please bear with me. I didn’t think it was the best book by any means (although that was partly because it had so little about the other Cassons) but neither was it the worst. Despite my initial disregard for Caddy’s friends, I ended up really liking them. I also loved the tiny pop culture references that she threw into the book. However, it was very difficult to match up Caddy’s twelve-year-old personality in this book with her extremely different personality in the later (earlier) books. The lack of continuity in her character was slightly annoying. In addition, I don’t think the themes of Caddy’s World were as strong as the themes in some of the other Casson books.

Cecilia: Forever Rose  is the book that I think is best at getting inside Rose’s head. McKay again uses the first person, but since it only focuses on Rose, it’s a lot easier to follow. Two years have passed since Caddy Ever After and I think the strength of this book is how you can really see how time passing has affected and changed each member of the family. Rose’s relationship with each of her siblings has changed somewhat and she comments at one point (remembering when they used to ride bikes together and she would shout at them to wait) “They always turned back then, however much of a hurry they were in, but I do not think they can turn back now.” Poignant and so true.

Ana and Cecilia: Regardless, one thing the books all share is fantastic ending lines. So we leave you with the following quotes (since Cecilia at least, has the habit of reading the last page of a book first) and hope that if you made it this far in the post, you will check out this lovely series.

Saffy’s Angel: “Caddy put the box down on the grass and took off the lid. Inside was the little stone figure that had come so far. Caddy lifted it out and stood it carefully in the sunshine. “Look!” she said. “Look at Saffy’s angel!”

 Indigo’s Star: “Rose did not say any more. But she and Indigo stayed out a long, long time, wishing, and watching stars, the steady ones and the ones that passed with red and green lights across the sky.”

Permanent Rose: “Why did you call me that? Why did you? Did you mean it for a joke?” “No” said Eve at once. “No Rosy Pose. Really…I really meant it for…”

“What? Tell me.”

“A promise” said Eve.

 Caddy Ever After: “Appendix Three: What Happened to Caddy. CADDY BURGLED ALL MY POSTCARDS FROM MICHAEL AND DISAPPEARED”

 Forever Rose: “But also there are jokes, friends, adventures, and homes. And these things will help you through the long paragraphs, lonely patches, perils, and even problems with as many heads as dragons. To live Happily Ever After. Which is exactly what I intend to do Forever Rose.”

Caddy’s World: “Don’t worry, he’ll love you” said Rose.

*Many thanks to Libby for getting those last two quotes for us!*

Harry Potter Movie: Nostalgic or Not? July 9, 2011

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Ana: Nostalgic. To me, something feels like it’s ending this summer with the last movie. Oh, Harry Potter is obviously not just going to go away. There will still be YouTube videos and blog posts, Leaky Con and wizard rock concerts, geeky discussions and movie marathons. “What Hogwarts House are you?” will still be the first question I ask when I meet new people and God knows there will still be Potter Puppet Pals. But in a sense, it’s all fanfiction. It’s all things we have made ourselves. And while that’s wonderful and precious, what we are losing this year is The Source. Capital T, Capital S. We will never read another book about Harry, or watch Daniel Radcliffe have blue eyes instead of green. And without new books or movies to look forward to, a lot of the excitement will leave Harry Potter. So while some things will stay the same, a lot will go away, and that makes me nostalgic.

Cecilia: Daniel Radcliffe had blue eyes? Weird. I am not nostalgic. For me, the movie is very much secondary to the book and the books have been finished and done for four years now. At this point, I’m much more interested in seeing what new books (if any) J.K. Rowling will write. One of my favorite things about books, as opposed to other forms of art, is that they are so incredibly long lasting. Kids will continue to read and discover Harry and Co. and I’m sure I will still have students waving stick wands around on the playground years into the future. The magic will always be new for someone.

Ana: That’s true and I agree with you that the books are far more enjoyable than the movies. But given that there aren’t going to be any more Harry Potter books, I’ll take the movies over nothing at all. There is always so much excitement and mystery that builds up around a new book or movie, and that provides topics of discussion with complete strangers and the opportunity to make new friends. Midnight releases are incredibly fun and interesting, and we will never again be excited for Harry Potter in quite the same way. We can be excited for other people as they discover the series, but it’s done for us. And while it’s been wonderful and it’s time to say goodbye, it’s still sad.

Cecilia: There will be other books and other series to read. Why waste time being sad? At a certain point, while the shared experience is fun and exciting, it becomes a bit repetitve to have Harry Potter be the first thing anyone wants to talk about when they hear you like to read. I’m more interested in paying attention to new work being written. Not because I’m looking for some mystical ‘The Next Chosen One’  but because, to quote Tony Kushner “we live past hope.” I’m still hoping that someone out there (maybe you!) will write another series that I love as much as Harry Potter.

Ana: I’m a bit more of a pessimist. I don’t think anyone will write another series as big or with as large a community as Harry Potter. When I go into the bookstore and see the YA section being taken over by trashy chick lit, I have serious doubts for the future of literature. Also, one of the differences between us is that I have far more friends who are deeply involved in the Potter books. I’ve met people through Harry Potter, and am fairly involved with the online Harry Potter community. It’s a big part of my life and while I hope it stays that way, it’s definitely going to take a hit with the last movie coming out.