For the last leg of my American Girls kick, I read Kaya’s series and have incredibly mixed feelings.
In the long run, I’m more than glad AG finally stepped up with a Native American girl. Although Kaya lives not too soon before the United States were born, she is dated as the earliest living American Girl (so far).
This series is far darker than I remember any AG series being. Lots of people die, and there’s more peril in each book. I enjoyed learning about a culture completely new to me, and saw how spiritualism and nationalism can go hand in hand.
Accompanying Kaya’s family pride is a respect of nature. Nature, in turn, provides for the nation. The Nimíipuu travel the land per the seasons connecting with extensions of the nation and, at the same time, giving thanks.
She felt the presence of the people who had passed this way before her.
Kaya is in tune with how special the earth is to herself and others. This is much more than I can say for the other American Girls thus far, who are typically concerned with only materialism and family, not so much the state of the land or the spiritual connections around her.
What I have beef with concerns stylistic approaches. Most noticeably, the books seem to be out of order, both at first glance and after reading. Each series, up to Kaya, shared similar titles. (Meet, Lesson, Surprise, Birthday, Saves, Changes) You knew “[character] Learns a Lesson” was a school time story. The second book was always a school time story. With Kaya, the second story is titled “Kaya’s Escape!” and has nothing to do with school-like lessons. The plot is more befitting book 5, in which the main character saves the day.
What did they title the fifth book, then? “Kaya Shows the Way.” This book doesn’t show the typical action scene on the front cover like the others. No. It shows Kaya sitting down with someone. SITTING. Come on, AG, I know after reading the series that Kaya is made of much more than that. I feel gipped.
Another way in which I feel gipped is the writing. Despite all Kaya goes through, there isn’t much character development. At least, it didn’t feel that way. It seemed as if author Janet Shaw was trying so hard to describe the scenery that she forgot about the people and personalities. The secondary characters were more interesting to me than Kaya herself, most times.
I’m sure Shaw wanted to portray Kaya as a hopeful person, but I can honestly say I’ve never seen so many rhetorical characters in 50 pages. Kaya once asks herself, “Could these be Two Hawks’ people?” when it’s obvious they are. In another book, Kaya makes note that a herd of horses had disappeared from sight.
Had the lead mare taken the herd where it was cooler?
It’s obvious they moved, of course! She could have instead thought, “The lead might have taken the herd where it was cooler.” Kaya wonders about everything that’s right before her very eyes, but I know it’s not her fault. It’s the writing.
The frontier-like setting reminded me I haven’t read the Kirsten story in a while. Her books had stuck with me as being more boring than the other American Girls, and I now know why; she shares an author with the Kaya series. I may still read Kirsten in the future, but at the moment I’m AG‘ed out.
(I would like to extend my gratitude to Valerie Tripp, the first writer to make me curious about the person behind the words.)
But lastly, I hope the Pleasant Company can have more Native American series. After all, every tribe has lived in the United States longer than anyone.
I’m still waiting for a Japanese-American girl. Since they’ve gone as recent as the 1970s, maybe they’ll have a Japanese girl for the swingin’ 1960s who has some personal trouble after finding out her parents met in a Japanese Internment camp.
I look forward to future American Girls.
Kit was the first American Girl to be published after I’d left the series for more adult books. To be honest, up until this summer I wasn’t at all interested in her because she’d seemed to overshadow the other American Girls. Oh, me of little faith.
Soon after the first book, I could see why Kit seemed to be more popular; the stories offer sound advice and empathy for girls whose families are trying to survive the Recession that began in 2008.
On a personal note, it is always easy to find something in every AG series that connects you to the main character. For me, it was Kit’s love for writing. The scene in which she loses herself in writing a fictional story (Kit’s Surprise), especially, was when I truly began to appreciate her.
By the end of this series, I noticed something I’d taken for granted: the illustrations. Reading Samantha earlier was a nice step back into my own time when the illustrations reacquainted me with the books’ familiarity. I’d known the characters well enough that I forgot to look deeper at the picture. With the new experience of Kit, I felt the same sense of familiarity. I know the style of the artists AG hire, but there was more. In Kit Saves the Day, Kit performs a dangerous, Harold Lloyd-esque feat that threatens her life. As I turned the page when reading, I found myself captivated by the life and many emotions that were crossing her mind. This image was worth more words than were put on the page. It can be found on the cover of current publications.
On the writing side, I could also appreciate the guests in their boarding house for their artistic occupations.
“Mrs. Bell told a funny story about Mr. Bell trippig over his sword in a play. That reminded Mr. Peck of the time three strings on his bass fiddle popped during a concert. And that reminded Miss Finney of a patient who was an opera singer and sang whenever he called for her.”
I knew an opera singer who used his opera voice to call for people. I wished we could have learned more about the boarders, who always seemed to me more interesting than the Kitterage family.
The “A Peek into the Past” section at the back of every book seemed to be a little more depressing than other series, but the stories of Kit reminded me what else I like about American Girl: their positivity.
“ ‘I think,’ Stirling said slowly, ‘that it’s okay to want something, even if it seems impossible. Isn’t that the same as hoping?’
‘That’s right,’ said Ruthie. ‘And hope is always good. If we jut give up on everything, how will anything ever get better?’ “
While the stories themselves were good, they were still simplified. Even reading as a young person, I knew a lot of events were glossed over. Reading these books as an adult, I don’t mind because I’m still learning from it. As I said in my post on Samantha, one learns historic vocabulary in context. In Kit, one also learns standard vocabulary. Where else in the children’s literature world would one find the word ‘cantankerous’?
I can’t wait for more.
I grew out of the American Girl series right before Kit was introduced. Quite a few things have happened to the company since then. They’ve added more stores to their single location, discontinued a few girls, and changed the titles of each new, six-part series. What hasn’t changed is how I love each individual American Girl. Well, not much.
Let’s get this out of the way: my favorite is Felicity! I love the clothes and customes of that era and always found it excited to see how she fared while her home was unsure of its own future (the Revolutionary War). Molly also has a special place in my heart, and I think I liked her because she was—-was-—the most current. I reread Addy a few years ago and loved her all over again.
For this summer, I reread Samantha. She’d been on my mind as of late, and I wanted to relive one AG series I already knew before delving into the more recent publications. She always seemed to be a bit of a princess for me, but I loved the customes of that era. I loved the frills of the fashions. I loved the wrought iron desks. One year, I begged my mom to make petit fours for my birthday. (They looked terrible but were delicious!)
This series especially introduced me to Dickensian themes with Samantha’s poor friend and multiple accounts of conditions in the city.
A specific line from the Samantha series also got me obsessed with iron fences.
The building looked as if it had been built out of blocks of dirty gray ice. It was surrounded by a fence of sharp black spikes. Samantha couldn’t tell if the spikes were meant to keep visitors out or the orphans in.
And the writing? It surprised me. It’s basic while vocabulary-building. It’s not as lame and pandering like some books I’m reading now. The characters aren’t moping around that they live in an outdated time. American Girl gives a really good perspective on what life was like beyond the drama. Needless to say, AG was my introduction to historical fiction, one of my favorite genres of books/films/music today.
Furthermore, Samantha (and Felicity) introduced me to tea time! My introduction to tea began around fourth grade and went horribly. My best friend Jess, who introduced me to AG, and I concocted some terrible mixtures of milk, sugar, and watered-down tea. We got used to it, though. Since then, one of my dreams has been to have a proper tea time in England.
Another dream has been to visit Williamsburg, Virginia and their live history museum. Or are they called Living History museums. Either/or.
The American Girls I’ll be reading next are Kit and Kaya, library reserves willing. (I’ve been waiting at least a month for one installment of the Kit series to come in. Summer reading programs abound in my city.)
I do have a little rant on AG, but I will save that for another post.
This post contains spoilers!
Nightmare by Willo Davis Roberts
Breath by Donna Jo Napoli
I couldn’t finish this one, but that’s OK. To each her own. I give a book 50 pages to offer me some sense of its world and characters. If I’m on the fence about whether I like it, I give it 50 more pages to convince me to stay on. If I don’t like it, I send the book back to wherever it came from. This is why I love the library; you can get a good sense of your tastes without paying. There are so many books I want to try in my life, and if I don’t like them I don’t bother.
The plot of Nightmare is compelling enough, to its credit. Nick is a teen who has three bad things happen to him in the first two chapters. His girlfriend dumps him, his car collides into a man who had just jumped off a bridge, and his dog is shot by a home intruder. The dog was fine, the man was not, and the ex-girlfriend was probably a bitch anyway.
Teens might like this book for the my-life-sucks-and-anyone-who-cares-about-me-is-annoying tone. We’ve all been there, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I want to read about it. The characters got on my nerves, mostly Nick. He complained about his step-father, Steve, though with good cause. Steve, a cop, was almost completely insensitive to Nick’s experience with the man who died on the hood of Nick’s car merely days after the horrible event. Steve insisted in passive-aggressive ways that Nick should be concerned about cleaning out the garage than a human’s life. Um, OK. Yeah, that’ll cure those night terrors. Aside from constant complaining about Steve, Nick annoyed me at how peeved he was with his neighbour, Daisy. I got the sense that Nick’s only thoughts about her were “My ex-girlfriend once said that Daisy, my neighbour who’s the same age as me, dresses a few years her junior which makes her totally uncool to like as a person. Also, she cares about my well-being and makes the time to stalk me from her window, which ended up saving my life several times. What a little pest.” I wasn’t buying it, so I hope that at some point in the novel Nick realizes Daisy is the best thing about his life. Thankfully, I don’t have to worry about that if I’m no longer invested in the story. I made it to page 78.
I started reading on July 20 after hearing about the shootings in Aurora, CO. I especially wasn’t feeling this book when I read how Nick wanted to go to a movie, “see if anything good was playing at the Tri-Plex there. Preferably something violent and heavy, with no girls in it, just guys slaughtering each other.” Yeah, it didn’t sit well that weekend. It probably wouldn’t sit well if I read it today, either Having published Nightmare in 1989, Roberts certainly didn’t mean any ill will with this passage. It was just bad timing on my part.
If you like murder mysteries, I might recommend this novel. I actually do wish to know whether the suicidal guy jumped or was pushed. More so, I want to know what kind of bug has been living in Steve’s ass. It would be even more satisfying if the guy had been pushed off the bridge, and Steve was somehow involved with it because, according to Nick, he’s kind of a bad person. If anyone has read this book, do tell me!
I’m surprised to have found this in the Juvenile section instead of Teen. Wherever it’s placed on a library shelf, it’s obviously meant for mature readers—not necessarily those over 13—because the first chapter features a lot of imagery of a horrified man hitting the wind shield of the car you’re driving. Not all children’s books feature happy images, something all parents should be aware of. You can’t protect your little one from the terrors of life, especially if they read, but they do need to read so they can have an understanding of life itself. Death happens in fiction as much as real life, and I’ve found this is especially true in mysteries.
I’ll still count this book towards my children’s lit challenge because I put the effort into finding out about this book, and it fits with the theme of this post. I might check out other titles by Ms. Roberts because she has apparently written a lot. Some of her other books might be a success, especially a non-mystery with a female, child protagonist as opposed to what I just read.
Breath was easier to read in terms of writing style and plot consistency. Besides, I always prefer historical fiction over mysteries or general fiction.
Not only does our main character see death, but his family openly speculates his early expiration. Growing up with cystic fibrosis, Salz knows how precious his life is. Gladly, this isn’t all there is to the book. A plague scare is sweeping through the entire town, and the novel becomes somewhat of a historic mystery as Salz’s family tries to find out the cause of the disease.
The story is based on the legend of the pied piper, which one might not realize until the last few chapters. I love this. As a reader, I appreciate being swept up in a story instead of being beaten over the head with a theme. There’s a lot going on in terms of relationships and history and I’m not left wanting—except for a slight desire to know whether Pater Frederick evaporated into thin air.
It’s funny how the more I like a book, the less I have to say about it. This is why I could never be a book critic; I’m only wordy when I’m angry. As fun a job this would be, my health would surely decline by how often I’d have to force my high blood pressure. I loved this book well enough, and am excited to explore Donna Jo Napoli down the road of my reading adventure.
I do have things to say about the cover of Breath. It features The Triumph of Death by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. As much as I love the macabre, the more I looked at this painting the more disturbed I was. I wondered, “Is this suitable for a children’s novel?” Thankfully, the library mislabeled this novel and stuck it in the juvenile section (it’s supposed to be in the teen section). To top that off, when I tried to check it out the book wasn’t in the system. What gives, library? *slow clap*
Take a look at this picture. (Click the image to expand.)
The picture’s bottom half is featured on the cover. The skeletons aren’t just symbols of death. They’re performing murder before our eyes. Animals, who are dying as well, torment the people. Covers are powerful things, and this historic piece of artwork says more about the novel than the blurred image of a child’s mouth on the top half of the cover. It’s a fine representation: vagueness over an expanding death toll brought by possibly supernatural causes.
Still, I prefer that cover to this one:
With these two novels, children learn there’s always more to a death; a murder, a born illness, a spreading disease, and punishment from an invisible force are all part of an investigation. In all investigations, there are lessons and myths. In all lessons and myths, there are stories.
16 titles down, 36 to go.
Days left: 37.