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.