The Witch of Blackbird Pond

I picked up this book at our local library actually as a book on CD, to listen to on my rather long commutes. I didn’t realize from the CD case that it was a Newbery winner, but when I looked at the list, there it was.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George is the story of Kit, an English teenager growing up in the late 1600s. She grew up with her grandfather on an estate in Barbados, but as the book opens her grandfather has passed away, and Kit must head to the far off land of Connecticut to live with her only remaining relative, an aunt she has never met. In Connecticut she finds a stark, Puritan world full of grueling daily work (and no servants!), unforgiving New Englanders, cold winters, colonial politics she doesn’t understand, and long Sundays in the Puritan meetinghouse. Kit struggles to fit in with this world unlike anything she has known herself, having been raised in a wealthy home.

At its heart, this is the story of a spirited girl displaced from her home and searching to find a place in the world. Kit is goodheartd but a bit too outgoing, loud, and spunky for Puritan standards, so she has many run-ins once arriving in Connecticut. While teaching school children to read, she decides to have them act out “The Good Samaritan” fable from the Bible, only to have things get  a bit out of control just as the school master walks in the room. She jumps in the river to save a child’s doll, only to discover that the water is quite freezing (compared to her home in Barbados) and that in New England it is believed that only women who are witches can float. Kit’s Uncle Matthew, a respected, devout Connecticut man, is time and again harried by Kit’s enjoyable antics.

The meat of the story (and where it takes it name) happens when Kit befriends an old widow who lives outside of town and is thought to be a witch.

I found this a fine read, though it didn’t make my top ten children’s books. Despite Kit’s warmth and fun, I found the Connecticut Puritan setting a little grey for my taste. However, some people swear by this book, and even cite it as the book that got them into reading as a child. There is also plenty to be loved about Kit’s relations with her rival cousin Judith (Kit mistakenly steals the boy Judith had her eye on!) and disabled but big hearted cousin Mercy. Finally, the rich historical setting really puts some flesh on the whole concept of the Protestant work ethic, which I learned that I very clearly lack!

Second grade, revisited

In an interesting twist I had not expected, this project has transported me not just back to my childhood books but my childhood bad habits. In my second grade class we had the bubble gum book club; it consisted of a big poster of a gumball machine where we put colored circle stickers for each book we read. The problem was you had to fill out a little form before you got to put your gumball sticker. The form consisted of a book’s name, author, when you finished it, and a one to two sentence summary. Not bad, right? Wrong. I loved reading books, but hated filling out those little forms. I would hide books I had read from my mom so I wouldn’t have to fill out those forms. (Sorry, mom!) Probably not the intended impact of the class’s reading club.

Well, fast forward to twenty years later, and I’m reading my kids books and loving it, but now have a stack of books that I have to write blogs for! Silly, right? I’m choosing to do this. And I WANT to remember the books, which is why I decided to document the project. I might have to bring Mrs. Parrack or my mom back to force me to fill out my little blog posting. (It’s kind of like a form, even!)

Ramona Quimby, Age 8

Oh, Ramona! A regular old kid that is so easy to love! I have vague memories of Ramona and sister Beezus from when I was a kid, so I was happy to re-read this classic now, as an adult. And what did I find? A fabulously normal little girl I could relate to, even as an adult .

The best part of this book are what I call “Ramona moments”. These are Ramona’s moments when something classic and unfortunate (and usually somewhat amusing) happens, and I feel I have been in that exact place before.

Ramona moment number 1 comes at lunchtime in the cafeteria. The third grade fad is bringing boiled eggs for lunch, and Ramona insists to her mother on bringing one, even though she does not like boiled eggs. Why boiled eggs? Because they are fun to crack on one’s forehead, of course. Ramona pops out her hard boiled egg and smacks it on her head… only to discover it’s actually a raw egg! Eight year old utter embarrassment follows as she heads to the school office to clean up.

Except, wait, here’s the thing: as far as I can tell, eight year old utter embarrassment feels pretty much the same as eighteen year old utter embarrassment and twenty-eight year old utter embarrassment. The moment last year I sprained my ankle when out to lunch with my office and was writhing in pain on the ground for several minutes while my new (rather well-known) boss and all my new colleagues looked down on me discussing how I should get to the hospital… Yes, I’m pretty sure I felt Ramona’s exact eight-year old embarrassment. My own Ramona moment.

Ramona moment number two… Ramona generally likes her teacher, Mrs. Whaley. That is, until one day she overhears Mrs. Whaley (talking to another teacher) call Ramona a show-off and a nuisance. Ramona is utterly crushed that her teacher thinks these things of her! She spends the next few months trying to be invisible, the opposite of a nuisance. Of course, this ends up in her puking in class due to staying silent when feeling sick. Still, haven’t we all, as adults, experienced that crushing moment when we hear something less-than-flattering about ourselves? I’ve certainly pulled a Ramona, trying with all my might to then act the opposite. Oh, Ramona.

Final Ramona moment that  made me laugh. Ramona is out of school sick. The second day, she’s sick enough to be home, but just well enough to be bored and cranky. (Oh, do I know that feeling!) Her father is late coming home, and Ramona is convinced he is buying her a present, since she’s been home oh-so-sick. In fact, he was discovering their car needed expensive repairs, and not only has no present for Ramona, but seems more concerned over how they will afford a transmission than the fact that his eight-year-old was home sick. Even as an adult, I know I am guilty of the “getting-better crankies” as well as the melodramatic expectation that the world will stop for my own sickness.

In the end, Ramona’s moments make her just so lovable. There is no driving plot to the book, but instead it’s driven by Ramona’s wonderfully written character; it is the story of day-to-day life in an average family, where siblings fight, parents are loving but frazzled, and money is tight (refreshing to read about, given many other contemporary children’s books often ignore this subject). Ramona reminded me that I may grow older, but part of me doesn’t grow up.

The kid lit project begins

I keep a small, running list of my favorite books of all time. Generally, I like to distinguish between “good” books and “favorite” books. There are a great many books that I consider very good, even great. For me, though, my favorite books are ones that I can read over and over, thoroughly enjoying on each new read. It just so happens that quite a few of the books on my all-time favorites list are technically children’s books. I used to chalk this up to those books being comfort reads– they are my favorites because they always have been, and so reading them not just brings the love of the book, but that feeling of comfort.

A few years ago I changed my opinion. There are some really, really great children’s books! Really great writing, captivating plot lines, lovable and full characters. Children’s literature is not the dumbed down equivalent of poorly written chick lit or paperback mysteries. No, it’s a genre of literature that requires truly good writing (as one cannot pretend big words simply mean good writing!) and has a demanding audience: if a kid doesn’t like it, a kid is not going to keep reading!

The book that spurred this was a Newberry Award honoree, and I decided to start a project reading through all those Newberry award books (the most pretigious award for children’s writing). There are quite a few, as the award has been around since 1922. I probably won’t stay exclusive to that list, but it’s the stated purpose here. I figured I’d love a record of my little adventure, and so this blog was born.

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