Monday, February 18, 2008

Eleanor Estes

Ginger Pye
by Eleanor Estes
Recommended Age: 8+

Here is a Newbery award-winning novel for young readers, from a series of books set in the imaginary town of Cranbury, CT (based on Estes' hometown). Most of the books, which include two Newbery Honor Books (the children's book equivalent of getting nominated but not winning an Academy Award), have to do with the Moffat family, but this one and at least one other have to do with the Pye family, consisting of Mom and Dad (Dad's a well-known "bird man"), a boy and a girl (age 10 and 9, respectively), an 11-year-old cat, Gramma and Grampa and a 3-year-old Uncle who live nearby, and the title character: the new puppy, a bright and talented fox-terrier mix named Ginger (who, interestingly, is male).

The boy, Jerry, falls in love with Ginger at first sight and decides to buy him from the farm family in whose barn he was born. But first he has to earn $1 in a day and a half, and in the mid 1950s (the setting of the story) that's doing something. He has only so long before the next person in line to adopt the pup claims him, so he's getting desperate when the town basketball hero hires him to dust pews at the town church for $1. He adopts Ginger just in time, but on the way home it seems someone is following them...the first of several signs that the other person who wanted the dog is still after him, leading up to the dramatic Thanksgiving day when the puppy is stolen out of the family's backyard.

Poor young Jerry spends months searching desperately for his puppy, never giving up except for illness (but even then his sister goes on looking for him), and after a series of adventures and false hopes the kids find out what happened to Ginger. It's a charming, warm family tale with a little bit of sadness and a lot of humor and imagination. The characters are great, and you really do feel bad about the kids losing their dog. But most of all, like all of Estes' books, it is a story touched with sweet nostalgia and youthful adventure.

Pinky Pye
by Eleanor Estes
Recommended Age: 8+

The sequel to the award-winning Ginger Pye follows the Pye family to their summer retreat on Fire Island, off the coast of Long Island. Joining the family of Mom, Dad, son and daughter, the dog Ginger, and 3-year-old Uncle Bennie, is an adorable kitten who gets up to all kinds of amazing tricks, leading to the rescue of a highly treasured bird. Once again, full of nostalgia, family warmth, and cute animal pranks, it's a delightful story.

The Moffats
by Eleanor Estes
Recommended Age: 8+

Here is the first part of a popular series of four books about the Moffat family of Cranbury, CT--a widowed mother and her four children, Sylvie, Joe, Jane, and Rufus. In this first book they are aged 15, 12, 9, and 5, and the main point of view is Jane, though a chapter here and there is told from Joe or Rufus' point of view.

It's a pretty loosely constructed, episodic novel, without a tight plot or anything, but it's full of wit and charm and warmth toward the characters and a kind of nostalgic look at growing up in a small Connecticut town at about the time when the horse and buggy was going out and automobiles were coming in. The economy is bad, so there's a for-sale sign on the house the Moffats are living in, which is a situation I very much sympathized with! Rufus is starting school, Joe is trying to cope with being forced to take dance lessons, and Jane is afraid of the Police Chief who lives down the street. There is also a bit about losing the last $5 to the family's name while going out to buy coal on a cold winter's day, and a bit about scaring the tar out of the neighborhood bully on Halloween, and mayhem on a streetcar, and other fun in the sun.

The only sort of plot the story has is that it takes place in about a year's time and it begins with the house going on sale and ends with the house sold and the family moving out. Nevertheless Estes magically creates an atmosphere where you understand and indeed love her characters, right down to Catherine the Cat.

[EDIT: The other books in this series include The Middle Moffat, Rufus M., and The Moffat Museum. I could swear I have read at least one of them, but I can't find my review of it. The Middle Moffat and Rufus M. were both Newbery Honor Books.]

The Alley
by Eleanor Estes
Recommended Age: 10+

Connie Ives is a gentle, sweet little girl who loves her mom and dad and her spicy, Southern grandmother, and the alley where they live. Nestled on a college campus in Brooklyn, the T-shaped alley is surrounded by brick houses where professors and their families live. The alley provides a sheltered place for children to play, from bossy Katy to rotten brat Anthony, from the two little boys who like to pretend to be Zorro to the future actor who likes to quote lines from Gilbert and Sullivan operas. But with all the things to do in the alley, the thing Connie likes best is to sit on her swing. And of all the boys and girls who could be her best friend, the one who is most special is Billy Maloon.

Billy is small for his age, softspoken, and often afraid. But he is also brave, thoughtful, and loyal. It is worth reading this book simply to experience the puppy love between these two children – but there is more. A gang of burglars targets Connie’s neighborhood, starting with her house. Connie’s mother suspects that a couple of crooked policemen may have stolen treasures that the burglars left behind. And what starts as a children’s game of make-believe becomes a daring mission to catch the crooks before they can strike again.

Eleanor Estes proved, time and again, that she had a special knack for writing lovable stories from the point of view of children. As she did with Cranbury, Connecticut, in her series of books on the Moffat and Pye families, she now does with a charmed and charming little neighborhood in New York City. She makes the alley a special place where everyday things become full of beauty and delight, and where a timeless story about a stage in growing up can combine with a true-to-life picture of an identifiable moment in history.

The Tunnel of Hugsy Goode
by Eleanor Estes
Recommended Age: 10+

Like the characters in The Alley a few years earlier, best friends Nicky “Copin” Carroll and Timmy “Tornid” Fabian live in a gated group of “faculty houses” on the campus of Grandby College in Brooklyn, N.Y. When not at school, they spend most of their time in the T-shaped alley that runs behind the three rows of brick houses, and they play games (such as avoiding the “contamination girls”) and invent folklore (such as drawing maps of the tunnel “alley under the alley”). And of course, though Tornid is a very good boy and Copin isn’t really bad, they get in a lot of trouble, like the time they sneak out of the Alley and take a ride up and down the Myrtle Avenue El. (That’s the last elevated train in New York, if you must know).

It’s 1972. The Beatles are huge. Video games and the internet have not yet staked their claim to the time and imagination of youngsters like Copin and Tornid. Their best games are backyard games. Girls on jump-rope. Boys, like Tornid and Copin, planning to dig their way into the tunnel under the alley. Their happiest moments involve discoveries like the odd raccoon who is first seen looking in at Tornid’s dining room window, and rewards like writing to the mayor and getting a letter back. Their bitterest times are the ones where they are punished by not being allowed to play together, or when they are accused of stealing a toy that belonged to some other child.

But even in this sheltered little neighborhood, there is plenty of mischief for them to get into. That happens more and more as the boys get closer to finding out how true their guesses and “ESP” about the alley under the alley really were...and as they uncover surprising facts they had never guessed at all. Each of their descents into the “Tunnel of Hugsy Goode” – named in honor of an older Alley kid, now a bearded college boy, who prophesied the tunnel’s existence long ago – each descent is spookier and leads to more surprising discoveries.

All this is told by the multiple Newbery Honor author, and Newbery Medal winner, who wrote the Moffat and Pye series about children growing up in the fictional town of Cranbury, Connecticut. Those stories were based on the place where Estes grew up. I wonder whether this book and The Alley are based on a place where Estes lived as a grown-up. Both books are haunted by a kind of magical realism, combining a seemingly timeless setting with a very honest and finely observed depiction of the kids of one particular generation. The narrator – in this case, Copin – narrates, and the characters speak, in a way that seems natural and true-to-life, yet at the same time touched by the whimsical word-magic of Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories.

End result: The story grows on you, poking its roots into your fertile imagination, like the squash vines covering the hidey-hole under Tornid’s dining-room window. And when you’re done reading it, you won’t quickly forget it.

The Hundred Dresses
by Eleanor Estes
Recommended Age: 8+

This thin, 1944 book by the author of The Moffats and Ginger Pye was a Newbery Honor Book, and it glows with the illustrations of award-winning book artist Louis Slobodkin. For a very short chapter book (only 7 brief chapters), it packs an emotional wallop. And the emotions that it mostly conveys are Shame and Regret.

The story starts when Wanda Petronski stops coming to the school where nobody was her friend and the few girls who even talked to her, teased her because of her ridiculous claim to have a hundred dresses and sixty pairs of shoes in her closet. After all, she always wears the same shabby clothing, and she lives on the wrong side of the tracks, and she has a funny last name.

The two girls at the center of the story are Peggy and Maddie. Peggy is the one who started the ongoing game of teasing Wanda about her fabled hundred dresses. Maddie, Peggy's best friend, also comes from a poor family and is too afraid of being the next one picked on, to do anything to stop Peggy. And on the very day that Wanda's 100 dresses turn out to be real--in an unexpected, marvelous way--Classroom 13 finds out that Wanda won't be coming back. Her family has moved away to where they won't be shunned and mistreated because of their funny last name.

The guilt and grief that Maddie feels, and what she and Peggy do about it, and what happens when Wanda answers their letter telling her how lovely they thought her hundred dresses were, form the rest of this deeply sad tale. For Maddie and Peggy, and for every occasionally-thoughtless child who should read this beautiful little book, there is a bittersweet lesson to be learned. Stripped of all melodrama and flowery phrase, this story does not manipulate your feelings--but if you have any feelings, it will touch them.

The Witch Family
by Eleanor Estes
Recommended Age: 6+

From the author of The Moffats and Ginger Pye, here is a very cute little story about two little girls, Amy and Clarissa, best friends, who sit and color stories Amy's mother tells them about the wicked Old Witch who lives on the Glass Hill. Amy has banished Old Witch to this desolate spot as punishment for doing evil things like eating little bunny rabbits, and Old Witch has to "be good" until Halloween if she wants to lead the "hurly burly" at that time. But Amy feels guilty about this and decides to color some company into Old Witch's dull life, thus creating Little Witch Girl and Weeny Witchie Baby, plus a Little Mermaid Girl and a Weeny Mermaid Baby too. But of course, in her imagination at least, Amy herself gets swept into the world of Old Witch on a couple of hair-raising occasions. It's basically a gentle, sweet, funny story about a 7-year-old girl's world of imagination.

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