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Archive for the ‘Historical fiction’ Category

Sarah, Plain and Tall

by Patricia MacLachlan

HarperCollins, 1985

58 pages

For most of my childhood, my family attended a church that had a lending library. Among the books were novels about pioneer-era mail-order marriages, which I completely devoured. They were trite and fluffy reads, but through them I caught a glimpse of something serious: the reality of women’s social imprisonment (even in “the land of the free”) and the lengths to which some women would go to escape it.

I never lost my fascination with the interplay between marriage arrangements and women’s social status. As I got older, I sought out novels (Anthony Trollope and Louisa May Alcott were my favorites) and nonfiction on the subject, and I discussed it often with professors, fellow students, and friends from other cultures.

Through all that, however, I never got around to reading one of the most famous – and best – stories on the subject: Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall.

But just last month, I was casting around for something to read for the blog and thought of it. It won the Newbery Medal when published, and several of my bookish friends had recommended it, so I decided to try it. It was perfect.

Sarah is narrated by young Anna (no age given, but probably a preteen), whose widowed pioneer father places a newspaper ad for a wife. It’s answered by the title character, a woman from Maine, who agrees to visit for one month to see if they’re all a good fit for one another.

Anna and her brother Caleb are very hopeful. They are desperate for a mother – someone to make a garden, cut their hair, and make good stew – and they know their father needs someone to make him sing and smile again. But when Sarah comes, they’re not sure she’ll stay. She desperately misses the sea and her extended family, and she’s uncertain that she belongs in this dramatically different environment.

This is a book for fairly young children – a first-grader could probably read it with little help – so I was pleasantly surprised at Sarah as a character and at the way the story resolves.

In her own words, Sarah is “strong” and “not mild-mannered.” She has come West because she wants to marry on her own terms and because she won’t play second fiddle to her brother’s new wife.

As it turns out, she also won’t play second fiddle to Anna’s father. Equality is her default, both in work and in relationship. She wears overalls (something Anna and Caleb have never seen a woman do), helps with plowing and carpentry, and learns to drive the wagon so she can go to town on her own. She never asks permission for something. Instead, she states confidently what she wants.

It’s clear that Anna’s mother never did these things, but it’s also clear that Anna’s father likes Sarah all the more for them. And so Sarah not only discovers that she belongs on the prairie – both she and Anna’s family discover that they all belong together.

That, to me, is what makes this book inspiring.

First and foremost, inspired girls love themselves for who they are. But it’s also good for inspired girls to know that they’re lovable. To hear the message, “There are people out there who value girls and women not in spite of, but because of, their courage, intelligence, independence, and creativity.”

Growing up, I struggled with extremely low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression because I felt rejected for who I was. I was incredibly smart and fiercely independent, and many people in my life – both adults and peers – told me (sometimes explictly, sometimes implicitly) that girls “weren’t supposed to be that way.”

I was saved from alienation, isolation, and perhaps even suicide by the few adults and peers (including the boy I eventually married) who saw my intelligence and independence as assets, who were enthusiastic about who I was and told me those qualities were my birthright.

Sarah, Plain and Tall is the kind of book that whispers to an isolated young girl that those people are out there for her. If she hasn’t met them yet, she will soon. It’s inspiration to hold on, knowing that she’ll find a place to belong without losing who she really is.

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Dead End in Norvelt

by Jack Gantos

Farrar Straus Giroux, 2011

341 pages

I have a thing for dark humor. I’m also a fan of period fiction (sometimes truly historical, sometimes not) and stories with a strong regional flavor. Give me a book, TV show, or movie that combines the two, and I’m in heaven.

So I’ve been itching to read Jack Gantos’ Dead End in Norvelt ever since I read the ALA Newbery committee’s description of the book. I finally got my hands on a copy, and it did not disappoint. Even better, I discovered that (although the main character is male), the book has a handful of terrific female characters that make this story a perfect fit for my Super Secondaries series.

Here’s the story: young Norvelt, PA, resident Jack Gantos is in deep trouble. He got caught playing with his father’s WWII souvenirs, and he cut down his mother’s prized corn. So instead of spending his summer playing baseball, watching movies at the drive-in, and hanging out with his friends, he’s grounded until further notice.

His only escape is Miss Volker, an elderly neighbor who does double duty as the town nurse and obituary writer. Jack’s mother has loaned him out to the old lady, whose severe arthritis is getting in the way of her work.

As Jack works for Miss Volker, he learns something about the fascinating history of his hometown and its residents, how grown-ups cope with harsh economic realities, and what it means to live – and die – well. As more and more of the town’s elderly residents do the latter, he also begins to ask some questions. Is Norvelt’s soaring death rate just a coincidence, or is someone bumping off the old ladies a bit before their time?

As you’ve probably guessed from the main character’s name, Dead End in Norvelt is semi-autobiographical. Norvelt, PA, is the author’s true hometown, one of dozens of New Deal settlements founded during the Depression for the relief of unemployed coal miners and their families. Most of the town history related in the book is real, and Gantos communicates it in an entertaining way.

But it’s not just the history that makes this story a winner (though it won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction as well as the Newbery). Gantos’ wry style and strong voice are deeply engaging, and the macabre humor is side-splitting. And then, of course, there are the ladies: Dead End in Norvelt has three strong female characters to inspire girl readers.

First there’s Jack’s best friend Bunny, who is very small of stature but huge of personality. Her father is the town undertaker, and exposure to his profession has made Bunny the exact opposite of a shrinking violet. While Jack swoons in the autopsy room, Bunny goes in for a closer look. When arsonists plague Norvelt, she organizes a nighttime fire patrol. In short, she is one of the spunkiest, sassiest girls I’ve ever encountered in fiction. For girls who are athletic, fascinated by the weird side of life, dealing with physical limitations, or just loud and proud, she’s an excellent point of contact with the story.

Next there’s Jack’s mom, a big-hearted and capable woman. With Jack’s father frequently out of town on construction jobs, she often holds down the fort alone. And when insufficient income and other setbacks arise, her resourcefulness keeps the family afloat and provides for Norvelt’s elderly residents. She’s not perfect: her desire to protect Jack can make her fearful, but she always summons courage when it’s needed, as when she faces down an armed stranger in the family’s backyard. In a time when girls are still bombarded with messages to fit a mold for the sake of winning love and approval, she shows how to operate as part of a loving family and caring community without sacrificing identity or principles.

And finally there’s Miss Volker, a fiery, sharp-witted old lady who teaches Jack to think both for and outside himself. She is one of Norvelt’s original residents, a deep admirer of Eleanor Roosevelt (for whom the town is named), and dedicated to educating and caring for Norvelt’s citizens. In addition to the town obituaries, which she pens as wider historical lessons, she writes a “This Day in History” column where she encourages readers to question and look beyond the victors’ narratives that make up most textbook versions of history. Politically progressive, outspoken, and tenacious, she teaches Jack and readers that women’s voices are an essential part of the social conversation. She is also a healthy model of single womanhood – encouragement that women needn’t marry or have children to find fulfillment in life, career, and relationships.

Dead End in Norvelt is an excellent read any way you slice it, a hilarious and touching coming-of-age story with plenty to engage both boys and girls. But with these three ladies as part of the story, it becomes inspirational as well.

Read about the further adventures of Jack and Miss Volker in From Norvelt to Nowhere, published in 2013.

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The Help

by Kathryn Stockett

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2009

451 pages

Starting with today’s post, I’ve added a new age category: young women. Books under this heading are appropriate for the age group I like to think of as “grown-up girls.” They’re mature teens and college students, the oldest of the next generation of women. They’re not yet independent adults, but they’re capable of reading, understanding, and processing adult literature.

Growing up, I understood very little of the long-term impact of slavery on our nation’s racial landscape. Raised initially in an integrated community with friends and classmates of many races, I was familiar with the term Jim Crow but thought segregation (both legalized and de facto) and racism were a thing of the past.

Then, in my middle school years, my family moved to an all-white, rural Southern town–and I came face-to-face with de facto segregation and modern-day white paternalism and supremacy. Both offended and curious at the same time, I tried to dig deeper but met with little success. Our school curriculum didn’t address slavery or its legacy in any meaningful way, and neither did the adults in the community. When I asked questions of white adults who had lived through Jim Crow, they usually just stared (sometimes angrily) or gave vague non-responses.

It was a different matter when I got to college, where I loaded up on classes and books about race and the South. When I got out of college, I kept reading on the subject (in fact, it was Freedom’s Daughters, one of those post-college books, that inspired me to start this blog).

And that brings me to Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. I heard about the book soon after it came out; when I had finished it, I was so inspired that I immediately read Susan Tucker’s Telling Memories Among Southern Women, the nonfiction book that had galvanized Stockett.

Set in 1960s Mississippi, this novel is the story of three women. Aibilene is a black maid in her 60s who specializes in caring for young children. Her best friend Minny, also a black maid and the county’s best cook, is roughly a generation younger. And Skeeter is an upper-class white woman, recently returned home after graduating from college.

All three women are in transition. Aibilene, recently hired by Skeeter’s friend Elizabeth, is grieving the recent death of her 24-year-old son. Minny, unable to find normal work because of her reputation for “mouthing off” and a smear campaign conducted by Skeeter’s friend Hilly, is secretly teaching the lower-class Celia how to keep house for a wealthy husband. For her part, Skeeter is struggling to reconcile her own awkwardness and career ambitions with intense social pressure to become a typical Mississippi belle.

The three become more than just passing acquaintances when Skeeter, growing increasingly piqued by racial injustice and social constraints, invites Aibilene to help her compile a no-holds-barred collection of black maids’ stories about their white employers. Aibilene, embittered by white indifference to the accident that killed her son, agrees and pulls in Minny and several other friends.

As they work in secret to create the book, the three women find themselves learning much about themselves, each other, and the true stories–and natures–of their friends, family members, and employers.

What I love most about this book is how real it feels. The first-person narration has something to do with it, but Stockett has also managed to craft a story that transitions smoothly between deep heartbreak, the mundanities of daily life, and laugh-out-loud humor without ever seeming maudlin or melodramatic. I think it also helps that much of the book resonates with my own experiences. I’ve felt or witnessed firsthand the tight corset of Southern social mores, the dismissive stereotypes tossed out by Skeeter’s mother, and Hilly’s special brand of insidious, racist cruelty.

But what makes the book inspiring is how the three women rise above it all. Aibilene’s quiet, steely resolve is amazing, the more so for the heartbreak behind it. Minny’s courage is equally so; despite her initial (and very understandable) reluctance, she ends up not only participating in Skeeter and Aibilene’s project but also leaving her abusive husband. Skeeter, meanwhile, meets the man of her dreams–and he actually proposes. But when maintaining the relationship means hiding her role in the book, Skeeter chooses integrity, single womanhood, and a literary career in New York.

Even the novel’s most problematic aspect inspires me. As Stockett herself admits in an afterword, the book is “too little, too late,” a long-overdue atonement for her wealthy white family’s part in taking advantage of and perpetuating Mississippi’s Jim Crow sytem.

In a sense, Stockett’s right: it’s too late to help her family’s black servants, or any of the other men and women who suffered under Jim Crow. But it’s not too late to educate people like me, to help us see another brick or two in the massive wall the black community has had to surmount in this nation, and to help us understand why we must keep tearing down the wall and make sure never to rebuild it.

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The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

by Alan Bradley

Random House, 2009

373 pages

I think it was in one of my college lit classes that I first heard the term “antihero.” Before that point, I had encountered the character type but had never had a name for it.

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, an antihero is essentially a primary or secondary protagonist who is unsympathetic or deeply flawed. And, like other character types (the savior, the fallen woman, etc.), antiheroes come in various shapes and sizes.

In some cases, the antihero isn’t a hero at all (at least, not in the commonly-used sense of the word)–more a villain who just  happens to be the story’s main character. At other times, the antihero is a figure of ambivalence, one who inspires neither repugnance nor admiration.

And then there are the inspiring antiheros–those whose flaws are very deep, but tremendously redeemed. Or those whose disagreeableness only highlights how much they’ve overcome. Flavia de Luce, 11-year-old narrator and main character of Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, is that kind of antihero. And that’s why I decided to write about her and her book.

Flavia, the youngest daughter of a 1950s English country squire, is also a passionate chemist with a particular interest in poisons. When one of her father’s estranged school friends (who, like Flavia’s dad, is into philately) turns up dying in the manor’s cucumber patch, with Flavia the only witness to his final moments, the girl catches the detective bug. And when the police arrest her father for the murder, she finds that her passion and her father’s dovetail to unlock a fascinating and dangerous mystery.

Now, quite apart from the inspiration factor, I really enjoyed this book. I’ve been a diehard Anglophile since early childhood, and I’m particularly fascinated by books that, like Sweetness, deal with the vagaries of England’s faded but persistent class system. The family’s centuries-old manor house is virtually a character in the novel, and the complicated relationships between the de Luces and “the village,” along with Bradley’s dash at questions of upward mobility and intra-class hierarchies, would warm any lit professor’s heart.

I also love well-crafted mysteries. As a kid, I read them widely until I settled on Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s detectives as my favorites (I know, again with the Brit lit). Sweetness has been likened to Christie, and deservedly so, both in terms of style and background themes. Bradley’s intricate plotting, colorful characters, and esoteric subject give the book just the right combination of craft, quirkiness, and depth.

The mystery is also where much of the inspiration comes in. Flavia is a geek girl’s Miss Marple; like the older sleuth, she’s sly, savvy, and misleadingly unintimidating and innocent–sometimes to the point of being downright manipulative (one of the reasons she qualifies as an antihero). And obstacles and fears that would repulse other people only add fuel to her detective fire.

Unlike Miss Marple, however, Flavia is baldly unconventional. Her craze for chemistry, her contempt for traditionally feminine pursuits like fashion and cookery, and her deliberate flouting of class barriers mark her out from the crowd. Significantly, they also help her solve the mystery. Her boundary-breaking is rewarded, not punished.

Finally, there’s that whole antihero thing. I’ve mentioned that Flavia can be manipulative. She’s also surly, defiant, self-centered, and distinctly unempathic. And she’s often indifferent or even vindictive toward her own family (in the book’s primary subplot, she deliberately contaminates her oldest sister’s lipstick with poison ivy).

Yet, as the book progresses, we see her begin to examine those tendencies, even modulate them somewhat. Without losing her edginess or strength, she becomes a bit more able to think outside herself. She pushes her detective work to the extreme of endangering her own life in order to save her father. And she begins to show genuine attachment to some of the more worthy characters of the book. Book’s end finds her “doing the right thing,” willingly (though I won’t describe what that thing is, since it would be a major spoiler).

Don’t get me wrong–Flavia is still very off-putting in her way. But real people often are. And that’s the point: Flavia feels real, not like a paperboard villain or half-crafted creation. And, like real people often do, she has to push beyond her own failings, possibly even find a way to redeem them, to make her world right again.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the first of a projected six Flavia de Luce mysteries. The first five have been published; book six is due out January 2014. Thanks to my friend S. for pointing me to Flavia!

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Little House in the Big Woods and others

by Laura Ingalls Wilder; ill. by Helen Sewell (first editions) and Garth Williams

HarperCollins, orig. pub. 1932

I was trying to decide what to post today–something I’ve stockpiled? or a freshly written review? what age group or genre?–when I realized that I would be posting right before my birthday. And that immediately pulled my mind to memories of inspiring books I’ve been given, some for my birthday, some for other occasions (and some just because).

So instead of posting a review today, I decided to write about one of those gifts, the one that is probably most closely connected to my passion for stories, reading, and writing.

When I was about a year old, my mom took me to visit my great-grandmother in Texas. I was already in love with words by that point: I had talked early and was now babbling away in long, complete sentences. Mom says my favorite thing to do was talk. And so talk I did, keeping up a steady stream of questions, stories, and observations as I followed Great-Grandma from room to room in her tiny house.

I don’t remember Great-Grandma at all, but Mom often describes her as a heavy-hearted person. She had lived through two world wars as the sister and mother of soldiers, buried an infant daughter, and been left a widow with three children just as the Depression began. I’ve never seen a photo of her smiling.

My flood of words, however, made her laugh.

And so before we left Texas, she handed my mom a boxed set of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. “These are for Kathryn,” she said. “That girl is going to be a reader someday.”

When we got home, Mom set the books aside for a few years. I don’t remember exactly when she brought them out, but I do remember reading them with my dad when I was just six. Every night before bed, my younger sister and I would climb into his lap, and he would read us a chapter. We went through the entire series, and Dad says that I would sometimes read short passages aloud.

Later, I read the books on my own. In fact, by the time I reached junior high, I had read them so many times that I was afraid they would fall apart; I covered them in clear contact paper to hold them together. They had pride of place in my bookcase until just last year, when I took them to my parents’ house so all the grandchildren could enjoy them.

Obviously, I loved those books. I identified with Laura from the start. Like her, I sometimes got into trouble for expressing my mind (there was, for instance, the time I blew a raspberry and gave a thumbs-down to my first-grade teacher because I didn’t want to go to P.E.). I was stubborn and curious like Laura, bookish, and pretty uninterested in domesticity. Young as I was, something resonated in me when she refused to include obedience in her marriage vows. And the fact that these amazing books were written by a woman planted a seed in my mind: maybe I could be a writer, too, one day.

But I didn’t just love the Little House books for what was in them. I also loved them for what they represented in my life.

In handing my mom those books, my great-grandmother performed a very important act of validation. She left me with a constant reminder that she had loved me because, not in spite, of my thirst for stories. That my intelligence had made her proud. It was a good reminder to have, especially on the many days when I felt like a misfit because I liked to learn and read. That thick blue box said to me, “It’s not just OK to be yourself–it’s good.”

So the next time you’re trying to decide what to give a young girl for her birthday or some other occasion (or just because), give her a book. Not just any book–a good one. Because you never know where it will lead her.

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Inside Out and Back Again

by Thanhha Lai

HarperCollins, 2011

272 pages

The Vietnam War is kind of a nebulous area in my historical understanding. I know something about it–but only from an American perspective (how and why the U.S. got involved, our casualties, protests on the homefront). I know virtually nothing about the war from the perspective of the Vietnamese men, women, and children whose homeland was torn apart.

I had that ignorance in mind when I picked up Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again, an autobiographical novel-in-verse based on the author’s experiences as a war refugee. I was also interested in what I had heard was the main focus of the book: Lai’s experience adjusting to life in the U.S., specifically Alabama (I’ve written before about the culture shock I experienced when my family moved from Southern California to the South).

Lai changes some details of her story for the novel–for instance, Lai had eight siblings, whereas main character Ha has only three–but the essentials are the same. Ha, a 10-year-old girl whose father has gone missing in the war, flees South Vietnam with her mother and brothers when her home city of Saigon falls to the North Vietnamese army. After a harrowing few weeks on a defecting Vietnamese Navy ship, Ha’s family ends up in a Miami refugee camp. There, the only immigration sponsor who will take them all is an Alabama man Ha calls “Cowboy.”

But the family finds that their trip to Alabama is only the beginning of their struggle to find a home. Their new neighbors, including Cowboy’s wife, are mostly hateful and afraid: people egg their house, and Ha’s new classmates shout racial slurs and threaten violence. With the help of Cowboy and a couple of other friends, however, Ha and her family slowly win over their neighbors and begin to build a satisfying new life for themselves.

Since Ha is the main character, her personal acclimation is at center stage. After Cowboy connects her with an open-minded neighbor and asks her teacher to counter the bullying, Ha discovers that not all her Southern neighbors want her to go away. Those little rays of light, combined with Cowboy’s ongoing kindness and her mother’s monumental strength, give Ha the courage she needs to make a place for herself in her new country.

There’s a reason Lai won both the National Book Award and a Newbery Honor for Inside Out and Back Again. This is an incredible story, incredibly told. Lai’s poems are mostly short, always spare, but packed to the hilt with emotion.

So many authors who write about war fall into the trap of trying to create an epic. They lean on the imposing drama of big, sweeping vistas and the agony of thousands. But Lai zeroes in on the details: Ha tapping her toe to the floor at midnight to foil a boys-only New Year tradition, her frustration at being unable to solve an American math problem, the family’s first Christmas dinner.

The result is a reality and immediacy that brings home the weight of Ha’s transition from Vietnam to the U.S., the significance of what she accomplishes over the course of the book. On the surface, it’s not a lot: basically, she makes a couple of friends and learns enough English to get by in school. But the intimacy of Lai’s poems reveals the mammoth struggle behind these simple steps.

That’s what’s inspiring about Inside Out and Back Again: the fact that Ha, at just 10 years old, takes on a fight most adults would shrink from. Thrown into a disorienting situation through no choice of her own, she doesn’t just go down fighting–she refuses to go down, period. She gets her bearings, realizes she can still be her confident, somewhat defiant self, and deliberately chooses to survive.

When I got to the end of the book, I wanted a sequel. I wanted to know how this true-grit girl would handle the rest of what life had to offer her. And, for me, that’s the telltale sign of an inspiring story: one I don’t want to end.

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Out of the Dust

by Karen Hesse

Scholastic, 1997

227 pages

I first read Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust several years ago (maybe around 2005?) and remembered it as an inspiring book, good fodder for Read Like a Girl. What I didn’t remember is that it’s also one of the rawest, heaviest books I’ve ever read.

If you have family members who came of age during the Depression, you know that it was the kind of event that induces a sort of national Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The Depression generation is notorious for its reactionary frugality, and many members suffered long-term ill health as a result of Depression-era hardships.

In my family, my grandfather was known for his refusal to throw things away. He fed his hunting dogs off old tin pie plates and used fish heads for fertilizer; when it came to fancy occasions, he wore the same silk trousers and Chelsea boots for more than 60 years.

My grandmother was much the same. She liked to spend money more than my grandfather did, but she never got rid of anything. When she died (of skin cancer caused by her Depression-era work as a fruit-picker), she left behind two sheds full of clothing and household goods dating back to her teen years.

Out of the Dust is a brutally honest book that helps teens and tweens understand why the Depression left such an imprint on survivors. Through the voice of 14-year-old heroine Billie Jo, the book covers this period as a multi-faceted disaster: environmental, familial, economic.

Added to the national suffering is Billie Jo’s private agony. Her family’s Oklahoma wheat farm is on the verge of collapse; a horrifying accident has killed her mother and unborn brother and left Billie Jo badly burned; and her father, who never wanted a daughter in the first place (hence her masculine name), has checked out on her emotionally.

I told you it was raw and heavy. But my memory didn’t fail me completely–it is inspiring, too.

Billie Jo is perceptive, frank, and (most importantly) just hopeful enough. Without succumbing to destructive escapism, she keeps looking over the horizon, telling herself something better is coming, feeding her own hope bit by bit as rain slowly returns to the Dust Bowl.

When her need to find something new becomes unbearable, she has the courage to pursue it–but also to admit that a homecoming is what she really needs. Her initiative (and her absence) jolt her father into really connecting with her for the first time in her life, and through her encouragement he finds a way to heal.

This is a girl who simply won’t be destroyed by one of the most destructive set of circumstances our nation has ever known. She shows today’s girls that really living isn’t about ease, material abundance, or even the love others give you–it’s about being strong, clinging to what matters to you, and loving yourself.

And here’s a little bonus: the text itself is also inspiring. Hesse’s format–a story told through free-verse poems–isn’t just a parlor trick. The language is gritty, spare, and beautiful. Billie Jo’s no-nonsense temperament, tinged by her romantic love of music, comes through in every line.

It’s the perfect introduction to the idea that true art can take unexpected forms, that a writer (or painter, dancer, or actor) doesn’t have to create along the same lines as everyone else. This is the kind of novel that can open girls’ eyes and minds to new creative possibilities.

I’ll leave you with an a little story, to illustrate what I mean. I came into the living room the other day to find my daughter completely absorbed, Out of the Dust open in her lap. Forgetting that she is now a proficient reader who will attempt anything with a cover (especially when there is a child on it), I had left the book within easy reach. When I explained that it’s not appropriate for her now (she’s just six), but will be in a few years, she grudgingly handed it over.

“But, Mummy,” she said, “I love the poems. Can we please find another book with poems like these?”

That, my friends, is an inspired girl.

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