May 22, 2015

Early Book Reviews

During the investigation of my childhood writing, we've learned that in fourth and fifth grade, I especially enjoyed writing stories with mysterious and spooky elements. None of these efforts contain much in the way of actual mystery, but hey, mysteries are hard. Even after writing seriously for years, I still don't have any idea how to go about constructing a true mystery story.

As you might expect, this focus in my early writing was a result of the books I read. When asked in fifth grade to compose a brief essay about my hero, I turned in an enthusiastic tribute to John Bellairs, a writer of gothic mysteries for kids who I remember best for THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS. While my hero worship didn't extend to spelling his name right, it's clear that his novels influenced my writing:

My hero is author John Belairs. He writes wonderful mysteries that keep me in suspense. His stories are mostly about kids my age. Mr. Belairs writes about magical things like magic rings and curses and stuff like that. His books always have some evil creature who is trying to harm the good people. Mr. Belairs has written seven books that I know about. I have read four and found each one fantastic. The books are the kind that you just absolutely have to find out what happens next. So if you asked me to rate John Belairs on a scale of one to ten, my answer would be, "Eleven!"

My fifth grade folder includes assignments on several mystery and suspense books I admired, and I took a pleasant trip down memory lane recalling the work of some excellent writers. I also found myself rather impressed by the reviewing competence of my young self. These book reviews (okay, fine, book reports) aren't bad for a ten-year-old.

On THE LONG SECRET by Louise Fitzhugh, a sequel to HARRIET THE SPY:

Someone is leaving mysterious notes. Mousy Beth Ellen is being dragged all over by her friend Harriet to find out who. Harriet "The Spy" Welsh is determined to get to the bottom of this mystery. She'll rip apart the little town of Water Mill if that's what it takes. On the other hand, Beth Ellen has her own problem. She lives with her grandmother, but now Beth Ellen's mother is coming home. Beth Ellen doesn't like her mother, or her mother's boyfriend Wallace. Not that her mother particuarlly [sic] likes Beth Ellen. Getting back to the notes, Harriet now has a list of suspects who might be the note leaver. Is it the Preacher? Is it Jessie Mae Jenkins? Whom do you think is leaving the notes?

Sure, the final question seems a misguided attempt to "leave the reader in suspense", as instructed in the accompanying worksheet (and I believe the "whom" is both courtesy of my teacher and incorrect). But that's a pretty good summary of the plot and conflicts, and as the worksheet says, "It's not easy to tell the story of a long book in just a few sentences."


Is the epidemic that's going around really the flu? Alex Darlington, his best friend Mike Tolliver, and his neighbor Mrs. Potter think that the "flu" might be caused by vampires! Now Alex's sister Peggy is sick, and Alex is almost under the power of Radu, a peculiar character that he meets every day at the library. Why does Alex go to the library? To work on his report: a report on vampires! Garlic, crosses, stakes, grain. Vampires, bats, coffins, evil. Who will win?

Once you've begun reading Prisoner of Vampires by Nancy Garden, you won't be able to stop. Or at least that's how I felt about this spooky, suspenseful book. Ms. Garden forms life-like characters (except the vampires, who are not alive but merely undead), particularly when the grown-ups didn't believe Alex and Mike's vampire theory. This book is written well, it is highly descriptive and frightening. I enjoyed the fact that even though this book discussed vampire movies and books such as "Dracula", it wasn't essential to know these stories. And of course, the best part of this story was: it was fun to read.

There are some darn fine review elements in there, if I do say so myself. Plus, the format of a paragraph of summary followed by a paragraph of reaction is the same one I often employ today. Good job, Past Me!

Incidentally, Nancy Garden is better known for ANNIE ON MY MIND, a novel about two girls who fall in love that was groundbreaking when it was published in 1982. I think Garden once visited my high school's Gay-Straight Alliance to talk about the book, but I might be confused about that.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Fiction University, Janice Hardy offers tips to Make the Most of Accidental Foreshadowing: "What almost happens is another potential area to explore for later use. Look at any close calls your protagonist has in the novel. Could they foreshadow another close call? You've already teased readers with it once, so if it happens again, they'll be all the more concerned that this time it'll be real."


laurenhat said...

Good job indeed, Past You! :) Some of those sentences sound blurb-worthy: 'Harriet "The Spy" Welsh is determined to get to the bottom of this mystery. She'll rip apart the little town of Water Mill if that's what it takes.'

I remember reading Harriet the Spy and the sequel, but I don't remember a thing about The Long Secret, even after reading your report. Do you find yourself remembering book details (other than the ones you mention on the page) as you reread your old reports?

Lisa Eckstein said...

I remember the Louise Fitzhugh books in more detail than the others, and probably read them multiple times. What I remember most about The Long Secret has nothing to do with the main plot, it's a scene in which Beth Ellen gets her period for the first time. This came up in the comment thread on Facebook (when oh when will total comment unification be possible?), and it turns out I didn't remember the whole incident:

Sally said...

I totally own Annie On My Mind, but I didn't know who the author was offhand, nor do I think I've read anything else she wrote.

Henri Picciotto said...

I once team-taught 5th grade, and my colleague (who was in charge of English) had kids read Harriet the Spy. The follow-up writing assignment, instead of a book report, was to *be* spies like Harriet and write about someone they spied on. As it turns out, that was super-shocking to some of the parents, who felt we were instilling loose morals.

Lisa Eckstein said...

Sally: I find it interesting that I remembered Annie On My Mind as having an unhappy ending, but when looking up Garden on Wikipedia, I discovered that the book is notable for being the first book about young lesbians with a positive ending. The plot summary reminded me that while some characters face persecution for being gay, the overall ending is a happy one.

Henri: What a ridiculous response! That's the most logical assignment to give for Harriet the Spy, and any kid who reads the book is going to try some spying regardless of whether they're instructed to.

Jed Sabin said...

I totally went and spied on all my neighbors after I read Harriet the Spy. One of them got really, really pissed.

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