Amy Moves In By Marilyn Sachs

“They’re laughing at me, those stupid girls. I hate them!” Amy decides.

I often point out how a good YA historical never fails to address the disease and death that lurk around every corner in the 19th century… but even books set in the 20th can tend to be unsentimental, taking a casual attitude towards physical violence and emotional cruelty. Lurking behind the innocuous cover (a Scholastic reissue) is another tale from Marilyn Sachs, about a childhood where everyone’s just looking for a fight.

The Plot: At least that was my takeaway, again. Sachs is the author of a number of interconnected novels set in a pre-Robert Moses South Bronx, including Veronica Ganz, in which a 13-year-old bad seed overcomes her psychopathic impulses to become a proper young lady (ok, a slight exaggeration).

This one, Sachs’s debut, introduces the Stern sisters, 10-year-old Amy and 12-year-old Laura, as they move into a new neighborhood and start school, make friends, and suffer through family hardship and schoolyard bloodshed. While I do appreciate young heroines that aren’t total goody-goodies (and Sachs has grown on me as a writer, which I will get to), still: holy cow, there is a lot of punching in these books.

There is a through-plot, but the chapters are more vignettes in six months of the Stern sisters’ lives, as they move into a new neighborhood after their father, who has a long history of impulsively changing jobs, has started work as an insurance agent and can no longer afford their old house. Starting school at P.S. 63 (where Laura will eventually be a classmate of Veronica), Amy zeros in on the tough, popular Cynthia, after she bonks Amy on the head with a baseball and Amy takes her usual tact of crying to older sister to fight her battles. Literally:

“Do you see that girl sitting on the stoop there?” asked Laura quietly, as the girl struggled to free herself. “Well, that’s my sister,” Laura continued, smacking the girl. The girl tried to hit Laura back, but Laura quickly grabbed her arms. From long experience fighting Amy’s battles, Laura had become a skillful fighter, although she scarcely ever became involved in a fight herself.

When Cynthia’s mother sees Laura smacking her daughter around the whole family gets involved in the fight, yet somehow in the middle of it Cynthia and Amy slip away to play ball together.

Amy is both a compulsive people-pleaser, and skilled at using flattery to manipulate people. While Laura and her mother are concerned about Amy’s white lies to adults, her parents are pretty understanding about her doing it to be liked.

But Laura thinks that Cynthia is a bad influence on her sister, and especially disapproves with Amy going along with Cynthia freezing out Rosa Ferrara, an immigrant student who struggles with learning English, but whom Amy secretly admires for her poise and good looks.

Laura also disapproves of Cynthia’s tomboying around, although she is joined by the fashionable, angora-beret wearing Annette De Luca on adventures to Crotona Park. Amy is instantly jealous of Cynthia’s friendship with Annette, whom she decides she hates “even more than Hitler” (a surprisingly casual mention in a book about mainly Jewish characters!) The girls fight with neighborhood boys over squatter’s rights to Indian Rock, and after successfully chasing them off with a hail of stones, Cynthia advises Amy on what to do if the return:

“Don’t worry,” comforted the fearless Cynthia, “They won’t get us off. If they start to throw pebbles, just put your head down between your knees and put your arms over your face. We’ll stick our legs over the edge, and if they try to climb up we can kick them.”

However, the boys return with water guns, soaking the girls (it’s December) and chasing them off, but they catch Amy, who watches helplessly as Cynthia and Annette flee, leaving her to endure the torture of “under the mill”:

The boys lined up, one behind the other with their legs spread apart. One of the boys grabbed Amy and pushed her down between the legs of the first boy in the line. He began paddling her as hard as he could. There was nothing else she could do but crawl under the outstretched legs. She began crying, and one of the boys said uncomfortably, “Aw, let’s go. She’s just a crybaby.”

But trouble worse than a fraternity initiation awaits Amy and Laura when they arrive home and find Aunt Minnie, their father’s humorless unmarried sister waiting for them. While their nervous aunt assures them everything is fine and plies them with hot cocoa and chocolate marshmallow cake, Laura doesn’t buy it. Where is their mother?

They don’t find out until the following morning, when their father arrives home and tells them that their mother was hit by a car while shopping and would be in the hospital for some months. While a paragraph is given over to the girls’ anguish that children aren’t allowed during visiting hours, far more time is given to Amy’s plotting to turn the situation to her advantage:

Aunt Minnie liked hearing nice things about herself. If someone told her that she had pretty legs or fine skin or bright blue eyes, she melted quickly. Amy made sure to tell her. This made Aunt Minnie just a little more partial to Amy than to Laura.

And the main thing Amy is looking to butter up her aunt about is getting a pet. In rapid succession she brings home a stray dog, a kitten, some baby chickens from the dime store and finally a bunch of caterpillars, all of which terrorize Aunt Minnie to no end. While the dog and the chicks are adopted out to their classmates, the kitten (which had been barfing all over Aunt Minnie’s room) “escapes” one day while on Aunt Minnie’s watch, never to be seen again. Things also do not end well for the caterpillars:

Aunt Minnie’s temper did not improve on finding caterpillars lolling along on her pillow, nestling among the silverware, or winding gracefully along under the sink. Martial law was declared, and the house was turned upside down until Aunt Minnie had flushed the last caterpillar down the toilet.

April Fool’s day almost drives Aunt Minnie to a nervous breakdown, as the girls and their father plot with the owner of the local candy store, site of the community telephone, to convince her that there is an emergency, driving her into the streets in a dressing gown with an old stocking on her head in front of the entire neighborhood. At least Amy gets a little bit of comeuppance when later that afternoon she gets her head stuck between the bars of an iron fence and can’t get her family (by now sick of being April Fools) to come rescue her. She ends up with her picture in the paper, and everyone in the neighborhood treating her like a celebrity, so no lessons are learned.

Amy does finally feel the stirrings of a conscience after she angles to get her family to throw her a “surprise” birthday party. When the big days comes and goes with only a token acknowledgement from her family (including 12 birthday smacks from her sister, because literally nobody ever stops hitting each other in this book), Amy’s thoughts turn darkly to revenge, blaming her sister for failing to come through. After considering which of Amy’s most precious belongings she should destroy, she instead settles on showing her Laura’s crush a nude baby picture of her sister.

But! It turns out that Laura had outsmarted Amy, and scheduled the surprise party for the following day, so she would truly be surprised. Greeted by her friends with more birthday smacks (of course!) Amy confesses to her sister:

“I’m so ashamed, Laura,” she said. “I hated you so much yesterday that I was planning all kinds of mean things to get even.”

Laura forgives her, but she is still dubious about her sister’s friendship with Cynthia. Especially after in a mean moment Amy claims a lost ball belonging to Rosa (who after having been cast in an 8th grade play is regard with even more contempt by Cynthia and her friends), and then humiliates Rosa in front of the entire class when Cynthia and her friends back up Amy’s story.

In the end Amy feels bad enough to (sort of) fess up to Rosa in front of the class and try to make friends, much to Laura’s approval.

The book ends with a series of letters to their mother, who has been in the hospital for almost a year as the book ends, including plans to send the girls to summer camp so Aunt Minnie can have a vacation.

Marilyn Sachs (another Hunter College alumna) has a charmingly out-of-date website (she died in 2016), in which she discusses the origins of the books and it is clear that the character of Amy is based on herself as a child. While her books are weird and violent, I was completely won over by her advice to aspiring writers:

So, don’t feel you have to be smart, beautiful, brave and popular to become a writer. Or even to be a good speller. Losers often grow up to be writers, which means we have the final word.

Footnote Department: Early in the novel a footnote defines Matzoh-brei to the reader as “matzohs, or crackerlike, unleavened bread, fried with eggs”

Blog Note: I have added a “Reader Request” tag- keep ‘em coming!

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Dawn Of Love #2: Wild Prairie Sky By Cheri Michaels

How could she fall in love… with a young man as wild as a mountain lion and as free as the prairie wind?

I’m a big fan of Scholastic’s Sunfire series- in which orphaned teenage girls have to choose between two suitors while dealing with historical disasters and occasionally-anachronistic feminist ideals, so I was all-in on this rival series from Archway/Pocketbooks, featuring some of the largest hoop skirts ever imagined on its covers.

And although I did not like this one as much as most of the Sunfires I’ve read, it still has a lot to recommend it.

The Plot: The reader joins the plot in progress, as 15-year-old Betsy Monroe and her older sister, Willa, guide their team of oxen and covered wagon west, three weeks after the death of their parents. Continue reading

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To All My Fans, With Love, From Sylvie By Ellen Conford

For Sylvie, movies weren’t just stories. They were a way out.

A few years ago I reviewed Conford’s And This Is Lauraand recalled it as pleasant, but largely unremarkable. So I was surprised to find Sylvie a much more sophisticated piece of work, with a sympathetic hard-luck heroine (who is infuriating nonetheless), an ambiguous ending (in which maybe she doesn’t learn all the obvious lessons) and a real eye for detail in a specific time and place.

The Plot: It is also pretty blunt about the situation 15 year old Sylvie Krail is in as the novel opens. Practically an orphan (she is rumored to have an alcoholic mother in an asylum near Rochester, NY), she is on her third foster home in the New York City suburbs, and it’s the third one that she’s had to fight off the lecherous advances of various “uncles”. So, in the spring of 1956, she’s been saving her babysitting money for three years, hatching an elaborate plan to escape to Hollywood where she will be “discovered”. Continue reading

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Kiss Me, Creep By Marian Woodruff

Is Richie really a creep- or is he someone Joy can love?

So, this seems as a good a time as any to talk about how this blog got its start: in the summer of 2011, I acquired a large lot of Wildfire romances, and posted the cover of Superflirt on Facebook, because… well, obviously.  That turned into a featured cover-of-the-day, highlighting the best and weirdest Wildfire, First Love and Sweet Dreams had to offer, which eventually turned in to a weekly review, which a year later turned into this blog.

In conclusion, it may take a while, but apparently I do eventually get around to fulfilling all reader requests. Sometimes it just takes, like, seven years.

The Plot: …Is extremely slight. High school seniors Joy Wilder and Richie Brennan have been like oil and water since their first meeting, when Joy and her family moved from Seattle to picturesque Piper’s Point. Continue reading

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Seventeen & In-Between By Barthe DeClements

At seventeen, things aren’t so simple anymore…

I got a number of requests for the final book in DeClements’s series featuring Elsie Edwards, as she evolves from gross 5th grade pariah to a beautiful but emotionally scarred high school student while dealing with a neglectful mother, bratty younger sister, absentee father, and newfound popularity with her male classmates picks up halfway through Elsie’s junior year of high school.

While the middle-reader Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade pretty much solved all of Elsie’s problems by putting her on a starvation diet (and successfully escaping from a kidnapping attempt….), DeClements added more nuance when telling the story from Elsie’s point of view in its YA sequel How Do You Lose Those Ninth Grade Blues? And like its predecessor, this one benefits greatly from Elsie’s point of view, as an imperfect heroine with no easy answers.

The Plot: While Elsie had successfully overcome some of her insecurities and established a relationship with hunky senior football player Craddoc Shaw, the astute reader might have already been thinking that Craddoc wasn’t all he was cracked up to be. Continue reading

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My Darling, My Hamburger By Paul Zindel

Senior year isn’t the end of high school- it’s the beginning of Life!

This week’s reader request comes from literally my oldest friend, who sent me an Instragam  screen shot with the caption HAVE YOU SEEN THIS????

(LOL OF COURSE!!!!)

(Also I am counting that as a “request”)

Background: I have a vague impression of Paul Zindel as an author whose YA work became extremely dated in the 20+ years between its publication and my becoming a YA myself: too aggressively zany, too much casual drinking, too many parents threatening to make you join the Army, too much wrestling with too many vague existential questions. There is also the fact that by the time I had gotten to my freshman year of high school, teachers of a certain age were embracing the fact that standards had relaxed enough that COOL and EDGY novels such as Zindel’s The Pigman were now allowed as part of the curriculum (Catcher in the Rye was another), without considering that anything being taught as part of the curriculum was automatically deeply uncool, and also I already read The Pigman when I was like 11, so I really lacked enthusiasm about Making A Poster To Illustrate The Themes…

Sorry, slipped into Annoying Autobiographical Pause-mode for a second.

(…but are we really cultivating and love and appreciation for literature by making us all pretend to have a TV talk show about Alienation?)

The Plot: Which despite all that, I actually do love Zindel’s work and his disaffected 1970s Staten Island teens- I still think about John and Lorraine every time I’m headed for the Goethals bridge and see the exit for Victory Boulevard. Continue reading

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Give And Take By Tricia Springstubb

New loves… old friends… Does growing up mean choosing between them?

gave and take

This is a recent reader-request, but also a book that I’ve picked up probably 20 times in the past two years, before rejecting it and throwing it back on the pile. Dell’s Young Love imprint doesn’t have the best track record, including both some of the best and worst titles reviewed here…

And this is yet another one where the cover art and jacket-copy doesn’t do justice to the actual content. In fact, this is on my short list for “most misrepresented”.

The Plot: While it does nominally have to do with the changing relationship between long-time friends (one popular, one dowdy) because of BOYS, the changing points of view manages to empathize with every single one of its characters, including douchey boyfriends, Bitter Divorced Moms, and even ex-middle school bullies, all in prose that is constantly colorful and occasionally poetic. Continue reading

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