A Lemon and a Star

There are two big categories of children’s books that I love. First is the kind where a group of children — often siblings, but sometimes just friends or schoolfellows — have magical adventures together. Think of Edward Eager’s books, or Diana Wynne Jones’s, or Five Children and It, or the Chronicles of Narnia, or Harry Potter. Then there’s the kind where a group of children have adventures together, but no magic is involved, just the everyday delights of getting in trouble or living on a farm or negotiating downtown Manhattan or winning a space suit in a contest. Think of Elizabeth Enright’s books, or The Railway Children, or Little House on the Prairie or Carrie’s War or The Hundred Dresses or Anne of Green Gables or Hatchet. And although I love both of those categories of books, the ones I return to most often, especially as an adult, are the second category: no magic wands, no witches, no spells or amulets, just kids, living their kid lives.

E.C. Spykman’s A Lemon and a Star is such a wonderful example of this kind of book that I’m almost speechless about it. I ran across these books over at Pages Turned — I’d never heard of them before — and got this first in the series through interlibrary loan. The book presents the four Cares children, living in Massachusetts around the turn of the century: Theodore, Jane, Hubert, and Edie. The book follows them in and out of their house and the surrounding farmland as they tumble in and out of trouble: Theodore and Hubert nearly kill themselves in a homemade steeplechase; Jane and Hubert take themselves to nearby Charlottesville for the day; Jane walks over the dam, and on and on.

The adventures themselves are ordinary enough. What makes this book so special — and make no mistake, this book is wonderful — is the writing. Spykman is funny, terrifically and dryly funny, but I like a dose of sad with my funny, and she is also pitch-perfect about childhood emotions. She knows the way a child can be overwhelmed by things an adult wouldn’t consider important, and doesn’t consider things an adult would be overwhelmed by. She gets, really gets the way siblings interact, the way they know each other, the way they are fiercely loyal even though sometimes they can’t stand each other another second. She understands the shame and embarrassment of doing something wrong that you thought you were going to get right; the frustration of adult limitations. Her dialogue, spoken and internal, is precise and revealing. For instance, on Jane’s birthday, she receives a gift from her father, an “eye.”

It must be one of Father’s “ancient” presents, she decided, the kind he gave them sometimes to keep them in touch with history and the lore of man. But Father was waiting and would have to be thanked.

“What is it, Jane?” asked Edie impatiently. “Why don’t you show us what it is?”

Jane put her finger under the eye and pulled it out. It dangled cold and frightful from a fat gold chain. It looked as if it might be a bracelet, but it was much too big for her bony wrist, and anyway she didn’t know a time she’d ever wear it.

“That, young lady,” said Father importantly, “came out of a tomb.”

They stared at it silently and hard.

“Was the person dead?” asked Edie in a whisper.

“Thousands of years,” said Father.

“Nothing but bones?” asked Edie.

“Nothing but dust, Edith,” Father said.

“Don’t wear it, Jane,” said Edie hoarsely, “it’ll hant you.”

Edie, who never did anything for anybody when she was asked, sometimes saved them just the same. Jane kissed Father and thanked him while they were all laughing. “It’s a very valuable present,” she said. “I’ll keep it carefully.”

“Perhaps after you’ve looked at it enough,” said Father, “you’ll let me keep it for you.”

Each personality (including the father, as you can see) comes through, strong, individual, unapologetic. There is real love for each one, and real love for the natural world here, too: the brook, the trees, the fields. I am so glad I read this. If ordinary, perfect, everyday adventures appeal to you, this is your next book.

This entry was posted in Children's / YA Lit, Classics, Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to A Lemon and a Star

  1. Susan says:

    Oh, Teresa, this makes my day. I’m thrilled that you went to the trouble of ILLing a Spykman and over the moon that you liked it.

    The three that follow are just as wonderful, and, of course, Terrible, Horrible Edie has been reissued by NYRB, so it, at least, is easy to come by these days.

    :) :) :)

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you so much for reviewing it! It was completely delightful, and I’ll be getting the rest from the library as well. I did find Edie on the Warpath in a bookstore recently, and snapped it up, so that’s waiting for me. I’m so glad you introduced me to these!

  2. Susan says:

    My apologies, Jenny, for being way too excited this morning to note your byline at the top of the post. I assumed Teresa’s tweet led to her own review.

  3. Nicola says:

    This post is really making me regret abandoning my MA in Children’s Literature! Very much enjoyed your review and that extract.

  4. Jenny says:

    I love both those two kinds of children’s book — Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy books were among my favorites when I was small — so this sounds great! Have you read The Penderwicks yet, by the way? It’s a newish example of the second kind of children’s book, and it’s very sweet.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, someone else who loved the Melendys! Mwah! And yes, I’ve read the Penderwicks — when I did, the Melendys were the first books that came to mind. I thought they were lovely.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing a new-to-me voice. I will be adding Spykman to my list for sure. I just love that cover, and the title: Joy!

  6. Dan Wilmes says:

    How marvelous to find that others love this book, I had no idea anyone but me had ever read this book by an unknown. I read it 50 years ago this year, a few years after it came out, and I can demonstrate the importance it has had in my life by noting that it inspired me to write my very first book, which was very derivative of A Lemon and a Star. I dedicated it to E C Spykman, who I thought was a man, for some reason. I was 11, and that was the first of 18 I have written since.
    I really owe my lifelong passion for writing to this amazing lady.

  7. Judy Buck-Glenn, Philadelphia, PA, USA says:

    How wonderful to find people who not only love–or are prepared to love–EC Spykman, but also the Melendy children! I know Terrible, Horrible Edie is back in print. Now if only someone would reissue A Lemon and a Star–I was looking for it on Amazon, but the cheapest copy was about $40.

    By the way, all the Melendy books are back in print, AND available in audio format. I am only lukewarm about the reader–for some reason she gives New Yorker Willy Sloper (and everyone who lives near the Four Story Mistake, which I assume is actually in either Connecticut or New York) annoyingly semi-Southern accents, I suppose in an attempt to be “rural”. But one takes what one can get. It would be HEAVEN to have the Edie books available on CD, if they aren’t going to be reprinted.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m just finishing up reading the Melendy books to my children, with Spiderweb for Two, and to be honest, since I can’t do an upstate New York accent myself, I am doing kind of a semi-Southern accent, too. But they take what they can get. :) You’ve reminded me that I must go on to the next Spykman book soon!

      • Judy Buck-Glenn, Philadelphia, PA, USA says:

        Your children are lucky to be being introduced to the books by you, and don’t look to me, either, for an upstate New York or Connecticut accent–or even a New Yorker one for Willy. Not even Wisconsin for Cuffy. Though I might be able to manage a horrible approximation of an attenuated French one for Mrs. Oliphant. :-)

        However, in all seriousness, I do feel a bit gypped when a professional reader doesn’t use proper accents. It’s like when they first reissued the Melendy books as paperbacks some years back and used absolutely repellent cover art that made the children look nothing like what we not only know they look like from their descriptions, but from the lovely line drawings done by Elizabeth Enright herself. I could not look at those awful covers without wanting to tread very hard on someone’s corns. It spoils a thing a little to take what is perfect and to make it less so by unconsidered choices.

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