Category Archives: Juvenile Fiction

WWW: One more from the Melendys

WWW ladydusk

Will you indulge me in just one more shared excerpt from Then There Were Five?  This caused me and my girls to laugh aloud.

Randy said, “What’s your favorite color, Mark?”

“Green is.”

“Well, you know what?  I’m going to knit you a green sweater.  A good warm one.”

“Gee, that would be wonderful.  But I don’t want you to bother.”

“Yes,” said Randy.  “Green.  With a neck and everything.”

This was no mean contribution.  Randy hated to knit and did it badly.  She had never knitted anything except staggering, uncertain scarves, and the prospect of a whole sweater, with a front and back an a neck, seemed as tortuous and difficult an undertaking as a journey through the labyrinth of the Minotaur.

“By Christmas it ought it be ready,” Randy said, and couldn’t help sighing.  “Anyway, sometime before spring.”

“Gee, that would be wonderful.”

“Wait till you see it first,” cautioned Rush.  “It’ll probably have three sleeves.”  (151-52)


I couldn’t help but be reminded of this:

Then There Were Five by Elizabeth Enright

It goes without saying that we love the Melendys here at the House of Hope.  Then There Were Five is the third of the Melendy Quartet, following The Saturdays and The Four-Story Mistake.  This was our bedtime read-aloud for the past month or so, and it really makes a perfect bedtime read, excepting the fact that most chapters are pretty long.  It’s another episodic story, revolving mostly around the things the Melendy children do as they’re left alone without Cuffy or father for several summertime weeks.  The benignly neglectful (overgrown adolescent?)  Willy Sloper is the only adult about the place, so Mona, Rush, Randy, and Oliver do pretty well as they please, which makes for some very entertaining times.   This novel does have more of a cohesive storyline because of the introduction of an extra child–the fifth one indicated by the title–into the story.  Randy and Rush meet Mark Herron when they’re out collecting scrap metal for the war effort one day and immediately strike up a jolly friendship.  Mark’s a stolid, hard-working, yet jovial fellow, and the Melendys can’t help but love him.  His situation in life isn’t good; his guardian is a relative, a mean old cuss named Oren, who works him hard with little to speak of in return, and certainly no warmth or affection.  Due to a surprising turn of events in the story, Mark comes to live with the Melendys and is eventually adopted by Mr. Melendy at the very end of the tale.  Thus, the very, very heart-warming and touching theme of family love is beautifully explored in the story.  Given the light touch Elizabeth Enright employs through most of her stories, this unexpected (yet entirely appropriate, given the children’s ages) revealing of some very important issues in life is lump-in-the-throat inducing.  I can’t say when I’ve enjoyed a story more, and I think my girls would agree.

I’ve shared one quote already, but as usual, I can’t resist sharing a few more:

This, from Mr. Jasper Titus, another friend Rush and Randy make on their scrap metal drive, reminds me of something out of a L.M. Montgomery novel.  (In fact, the whole scrap metal drive reminds me of the episode in Anne of Avonlea (?) when Anne and co. are canvassing newspaper or magazine subscriptions.)  :

Before they left Rush and Randy learned a lot about Mr. Titus.  They learned that he was a bachelor whose only sister had kept house for him until her late marriage nine years before.  Up to that time he had been a farmer, but now he rented his barn, meadows, and pastureland and lived contentedly in his own house, with his pets.

“Always was lazy, always will be,” he said.  “Never did like heavy chores.  Just did ‘em ’cause my conscience drove me.  Yes, sir, drove me.  And then one day it quit, just laid down quiet and gave up the struggle.  Since then no more cows!  No more hosses!  No more blame chickens, only just enough to lay me a soft-boiled egg or two.  No more hawgs!  Nothin’ but small-fry pets to keep me company.  No more long rows to hoe!  No more corn!  Just grow enough garden truck so’s when I want a mess of peas for supper I can pick me a mess of peas.  Same with all the rest.  Always did like fussin’ in a kitchen, too.  Like to bake.  Used to be ashamed of it when I was younger.  But I ain’t ashamed no more.  One of my marble cakes took first prize over to Braxton Fair last year.  Yep.  That’s what I like.  Pets, and fussin’ in a kitchen, and goin’ fishin’.  And by golly that’s what I do!”  (34)

Cuffy gets all in a dither over how things will go to pot while she’s away:

“It’s not anything happening to you that I’m worried about,”  sniffed Cuffy.  “I’m only thinking of the state the house’ll get into with me gone.  Rush will step out of his clothes every night, leave them on the floor, and step into clean ones every morning till they’re all gone and he has to go without any.  Randy will leave paint water around in glasses till they make rings on the furniture, or someone drinks one of ‘em by accident and dies of paint poisoning.  Mona will forget to make her bed day in and day out till I get home.  She’ll get talcum powder into the rug, and her shoes will collect all over the house.  She’s always taking them off and going barefoot nowadays.  Shoes on the mantelpiece, windowsill, piano, everywhere.  I know her.  And nobody will wash the dishes!” (124)

One of Oliver’s passions is moths–catching the caterpillars, raising, them, and releasing them:

When the caterpillars had eaten several hundred times their own weight in greenstuff they began making cocoons.  In each glass jar Oliver had put some earth or a strong twig, depending on whether the creature in question was a burrower or a weaver.  Even Cuffy and Mona found themselves interested in the progress of the cocoons:  they were so ingenious, beautifully knitted, and in some cases lovely to look at.  The monarch caterpillar, for instance, contrived a waxy chrysalis of pale green, flecked with tiny arabesques of gilt.  It hung from the twin on a little black silk thread, like the jade earring of a Manchu princess [. . .]

The nice thing about the monarch chrysalis was that the creature which emerged at the end of two weeks was as beautiful as his case.  Orange-red and cream and black, like the petals of a tiger lily, he clung to the twig till his wings dried and widened, and then Oliver took him to the open window and deposited him gently on a leaf.  Watching the butterfly fluttering away in the sunshine Oliver could not help feeling a little like God releasing a new soul into the world.  (82-83)

Now for just one more, this time one that encapsulates in an exquisite word-picture the theme of home and family that is so beautifully depicted in the Melendy stories:

That night Mark got his wish.  He slept in the cupola.  The rain beat down on the little metal roof.  It spattered against the four windows, and ran down in a long stream from the spout.  The gutters tinkled and hummed.  The thunder sounded as if it had been cut up into squares.  It tumbled down the sky like giant blocks tumbling downstairs.  Mark snarled himself into his favorite sleeping position an felt as if he had come home at last.  [. . .] the violence of the last few hours [. . .] were thoughts too dreadful to contemplate now.  A safety door in his brain locked himself against them, and soon he was asleep.  (142-143)

Come back on Wednesday for our favorite excerpt from the whole book, one that made us laugh out loud.  :-)

So, what are you waiting for?  Get thee to the library or the bookstore and bring the Melendys home with you.  You’ll be glad you did!  Highly, Highly (Highly) Recommended.  (Macmillan, 1944)

“A Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Poetry Friday ButtonFor our first six weeks school term (or more), we are memorizing “A Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  So far as I know, his works have passed into the public domain, so I’ll share it here in its entirety:

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real!    Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,–act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;–

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

I have fond memories of learning about Longfellow as a high school junior.  He was the subject of my first literary research paper.  I recognize the fact that his poetry has really fallen out of fashion these days, but I still like it a lot.  My girls and I were practicing it in the van the other day on the way to Bible study.  This week we’re supposed to know down through the fifth stanza:

In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

What a wonderful four lines!  Of course, our recitation necessitated a discussion of the word bivouac, one of the few words I specifically remember learning the meaning of at some point during my education.  This, then, made me think of the Apostle Paul’s enduring words from 2 Corinthians 5:1:

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.

This passage of scripture has doubly special meaning for me because it is the passage a beloved pastor used at my papaw’s funeral.  Sharing it with my girls–the literary connection between bivouac and tent–and then the connection to the previous stanza–this encapsulates one of the things I love about homeschooling.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

I also love that Louise pointed out, after considering stanzas four and five together, that Randy Melendy from our current bedtime read-aloud, Then There Were Five, has a particular affinity for funeral marches.

How sweet it is when it all comes together.




Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark

Secret of the by Andes by Ann Nolan Clark is a read-aloud that I chose to accompany our history studies.  We are very loosely following Sonlight Core D, but I replaced the first history read-aloud with this selection.  (It’s not a good sign that I made a substitution in the first week of school.  ;-) )  Secret of the Andes is a notable book, besting  Charlotte’s Web, among others,  for the 1953 Newbery Medal.   While it has obviously not have the enduring popularity of Charlotte, it is a good story and well worth the time it takes to read this short novel.

Secret of the Andes is the story of Cusi, a young shepherd boy who lives high in the Andes with the elderly Chuto and his herd of very special llamas.  Cusi is very happy with his home and his job, though there is a longing in his heart for a family.  His past, and even his relationship to Chuto, are mysteries.  However, through a series of events that slowly increase both Cusi’s responsibilities and his awareness of his heritage and birthright as an Inca, Cusi comes of age and has to make the difficult decision of whether to stay in the mountains or go down the mountain to live with a family in the midst of “civilization.”

This is a subtle, gentle, and character-driven story.  Cusi’s real identity is hinted at but never overtly revealed.  This excerpt is very representative of the sort of quiet thoughtfulness that pervades this book:

Cusi sensed that the Sunrise Call was being spoken deep in the heart of the man beside him.  The boy did as the man was doing.  He folded his arms beneath his poncho.  He stood silent and relaxed and turned his eyes to the dawning day.  Within his heart the Sunrise Call came whispering, came soaring on the wings of feeling, lifting heavenward without the need of sound.  (89)

However, the fact that this is a quiet story does not mean that it is devoid of excitement.  Chuto’s and Cusi’s travels over the mountain paths are beautifully described.  Life in the Andes can be dangerous, and this is not glossed over.  Obviously, much of the story has to do with the Incas’ worship of the sun, which definitely opens a door for discussion about religious beliefs, etc.  This is an excellent choice for a read-aloud for all of these reasons, and perhaps most notably, because the chapters are short.  We all enjoyed this short novel and give it a Highly Recommended.  (Puffin, 1952)

Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

Flora and Ulysses:  The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo is the 2014 Newbery Medal winner.  I could finish that sentence with an addendum:  though I don’t know why.  I’m usually pretty mild-mannered, as in I really don’t like to offend people.  However, I’m taking a cue from Carrie’s blog post “On Writing Negative Reviews” and trying to share what it is exactly that I don’t like about this story.  I mean, I’m generally a fan of Kate DiCamillo:  I’ve read and re-read Because of Winn Dixie; I loved (I mean LOVED) The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane; and I even like The Tale of Despereaux pretty well.  I read aloud The Tiger Rising to multiple classes of fifth graders back in my elementary library media specialist days!  Writing this negative review feels sort of like I’m dissing a close friend.  But, I do think negative reviews are helpful, especially when it comes to children’s books.  I like to know whether or not there’s anything potentially objectionable in a book, as well as whether or not my girls are likely to like it.  That’s my motivation for spending time writing a review on this book I really didn’t like–that and the fact that I have this idea that some day I’d like to be able to say I’ve read every Newbery Medalist and honor book.

Flora and Ulysses is fantastical, a story about a girl named Flora, a self-proclaimed cynic who lives with her mother, a divorced writer.  At the beginning of the story, Flora rescues a squirrel, whom she later names Ulysses, after he is sucked up into her neighbor’s vacuum cleaner.  This unfortunate incident gives Ulysses super powers, and Flora quickly grows to love Ulysses.   Flora then decides that Ulysses is hers and she must keep him at all costs.  Unfortunately, her mother doesn’t think so (especially when Ulysses, whose super powers include the writing of poetry, begins using her typewriter).  What unfolds then is just a weird story about Flora’s relationship with her father and a neighbor boy she meets and their attempt to keep Ulysses.  I don’t mind fantasy, but when it’s so enmeshed in a story that in some ways is realistically sad (the relationships in this story are really painful), I can’t figure it out.

Second, this book is a hybrid, with comic strip (graphic novel?) pages interspersed with the actual text.  I found myself reading the illustrated pages and kind of nodding to myself, “Hmmm. . .that’s nice,” and then getting on to the real business of the story–the text.  Then I’d realize I had to actually read the comic panels–they actually do further the story.  This actually helps further the story in more than one way since Flora is a comic book junkie.  I realize this is a personal preference, but I just prefer words, plain and simple.  I just can’t get used to the back-and-forth of this format.

The long and short of it is this:  I just think this story is a little too weird for me to find any redeeming qualities in it.   It seems like a fun, silly story, and I suppose it is, but Kate DiCamillo waxes philosophical, as she is wont to do, just as much in this one as she does in her others.  The neighbor boy, William Spiver, discusses with Flora the randomness of the universe, and Flora has to decide if she believes this or if she believes that love will conquer all.  (He even brings up Pascal’s Wager, for Pete’s sake!)  There’s a bit of over-the-top weirdness when Flora’s mom begins to act strange and zombie-like, and Flora wonders if she’s possessed.  I don’t know.  It’s just weird.  Maybe I have the target audience pegged too young, or maybe I underestimate kids, but it just seems like there’s so much going on in this book that will go over many children’s heads, yet the packaging has kid appeal, so it’s deceptively complex.  I dunno.

My take on this book is definitely colored by the fact that we’re supposed to be reading it for our library’s mother-daughter bookclub, and I’m always much more critical of books I know my girls will be reading right away as opposed to at some unspecified time in the future.  I’m still not sold on this one as a bookclub pick, though I would like to see if others who actually read it feel as I do, too.

I’ve read two of the Newbery honor books for 2014:  Paperboy by Vince Vawter and The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes.  I like them both better than this one.

That’s this curmudgeon’s take on the 2014 Newber Medalist.  If you read Flora and Ulysses, please come back and tell me what you think.  (Candlewick, 2013)