Category Archives: top 100 children’s novels

Book #8: The Witch of Blackbird Pond

I read The Witch of Blackbird Pond when I was right around Katie’s age, and I remember I liked it a lot.  But somehow in the past 40 years, I had forgotten pretty much all of it, so it was almost like reading a brand new book.

Okay – I have to admit it – I didn’t technically read this one.  I listened to it on audiobook.  (Katie won’t let me get away with calling that reading.)  I think it counts – especially since I’ve spent so much time playing the part of audiobook for the family.  It’s a good audiobook.  It’s engaging and easy to follow – the story lends itself to the read-aloud format.  Lots of colorful interaction and drama.

The title of this story brings forth all types of interesting imagery – we might wonder if it’s a fantasy story, if the witch is real or imaginary, good or bad, the main character or a lurking menace for our protagonist.  Just by its name,  The Witch of Blackbird Pond does not immediately identify itself as a historical novel – at least not to me.  But then, I’m one who is always on the lookout for witches and spirits and things that go bump in the night, so maybe I’m not a fair judge.

At the beginning of the tale we find ourselves on board a ship in the late 17th century alongside Kit Tyler, a teenage girl who has come from Barbados, bound for the colony of Connecticut.  She is on her way to her mother’s sister and her family – people she has never met, and who don’t know that she is coming.  At her arrival Kit is faced with a whole lot of unknowns and new experiences – something that she finds out quite dramatically when she jumps into the Connecticut River to retrieve a child’s toy.  After growing up on a tropical island, swimming is as natural as walking to Kit – but icy cold water is not.  She is shocked by the sensation, and the locals are appalled by her behavior – what kind of girl is this, who is as comfortable in the water as on land?  Only witches float – everyone knows that.  And what kind of girl has no concern over getting her clothes wet?  Unimportant to a girl with trunks full of dresses; unthinkable among folks who may have no available change of clothes appropriate to the season.

So Kit makes an immediate impression on the folks in Connecticut.  And they make one on her, and she’s not sure that she likes it.  But, she has little choice – her grandfather is dead and she has nowhere else to go, unless she wants to marry a much older man who is willing to pay off her grandfather’s debts.  She’d rather take her chances embarking on a new adventure up north.  I can’t say that I blame her.

Kit learns that she is in for quite a change even before she gets off the boat.  She strikes up a friendship with a pleasant, scholarly young man, John Holbrook, but even though he is kind and does not shun her as a suspicious stranger, his reactions let her know just how deep their differences are.  She is going from a land of sunshine and palms, servants, pretty clothes and lots of leisure time, to a place of frigid winters, few luxuries and year-round hard work.  And there are other differences in store – one evening, Kit takes up a serious theological book that John is reading:

“‘Goodness!’  Kit wrinkled up her nose.  ‘Is this what you read all day long?’  She looked up to find John staring at her.

‘You can read that?’ he questioned, with the same amazement he had shown when she had proved she could swim.  ‘How did you learn to read when you say you just ran wild like a savage and never did any work?’

‘Do you call reading work?  I don’t even remember how I learned.  When it was too hot to play, Grandfather would take me into his library where it was dark and cool, and read to me out loud from his books, and later I would sit beside him and read to myself while he studied.’

‘What sort of books?’  John’s voice was incredulous.

‘Oh, history, and poetry, and plays.’


‘Yes, the plays were the best.  Wonderful ones by Dryden and Shakespeare and Otway.’

‘Your grandfather allowed a girl to read such things?’

‘The were beautiful, those plays!  Have you never read them?’

John’s pale cheeks reddened.  ‘There are no such books in Saybrook.  In Boston, perhaps.  But the proper use of reading is to improve our sinful nature, and to fill our minds with God’s holy word.'”

I’ve a feeling we’re not in Barbados any more, Kit.

Since we’re entering a story set in a Puritan community in 17th century New England, during a time period when folks were actually on the lookout for witches, we can expect a bit of commentary on religious attitudes and practices of the day.  One thing I appreciate about this book, however, is that, while the story does indeed include a witch trial, it does not portray all Puritans as strict, narrow minded and holier-than-thou.  Serious, yes.  Concerned with Godly behavior, yes.  Hard working, yes.  Ignorant, superstitious and uncharitable – a few – just like anywhere else, during any time period.

Speare shows disagreements and misunderstandings from various points of view, but also shows people who are trying hard to be fair and loving to each other, even when they don’t understand.  We see Kit settling into her new lifestyle, learning to help around the house, and even contemplating marriage to a serious young man who seems to have little to say to her, but has clearly decided he wants her as a wife.

After one of those times when others were not being so understanding about things like creative teaching methods (such as using a play to illustrate a Bible story), Kit is befriended by Hannah Tupper – a widow who is shunned by the rest of the town.  Hannah is someone on the outskirts, someone who doesn’t come to meeting on Sunday, someone suspected of being a witch.

Kit finds that Hannah has been persecuted and mistrusted because she is a Quaker, and disliked and suspected of all sorts of misdeeds simply because she keeps to herself, appears to be self-sufficient and seems content to continue as such.  Far from being bitter about her treatment by the townsfolk, Hannah is kind and generous to any who come to her.  Kit discovers that Nat Eaton, first mate on the ship that brought her from Barbados, is also a friend of Hannah’s.  Soon, Prudence, the little girl whose doll Kit saved from the cold river joins them in their visits, as Kit disobeys her Aunt and Uncle and defies Prudence’s parents and secretly teaches the girl to read and write.

As often happens, in stories and in real life, things happen, secrets are found out and explanations do not always convince the powers that be.  Kit finds herself on trial for witchcraft, accused of many impossible and downright ridiculous things, when all she did was befriend an old woman and teach a neglected and abused child how to read.

Is Kit in trouble because she went against popular opinion and the expectations of those around her?  Or is she in trouble because she did it secretly?  She was doing good things, but was also lying about it to people who cared about her.  And to defend herself, she would end up getting someone else in trouble.  And she needs someone to risk getting in trouble to get her out of it all.  It’s the type of dilemma that is not peculiar to the time of the witch trials, and it provides an educational and thought-provoking situation for young readers.

I won’t give it all away and spoil the ending for anyone – but I will assure you that the story wraps up in a positive and satisfying (yet still believable) way.  I recommend The Witch of Blackbird Pond as a novel that strikes a nice balance between history lesson and human-interest, coming-of-age story.


Number of pages: 249

Chapters:  21

Date of publication:  1958

Story time and setting:  1687, a small town in Connecticut Colony

First line:  “On a morning in mid-April, 1687, the rigantine Dolphin left the open sea, sailed briskly across the Sound to the wide mouth of the Connecticut River and into Saybrook Harbor. ”

Main characters: Kit Tyler, 16 years old, come to live with her only family after the death of her grandfather; Aunt Rachel (her mother’s sister) and Uncle Matthew Wood; cousins Mercy and Judith; Nathaniel Eaton, first mate on the Dolphin; Hannah Tupper, neighborhood “witch”

Reading age level:  10 and up – Amazon’s recommendation is 9 and up; I think that’s a bit of a stretch, and for vocabulary and subject matter it would probably be more accessible and interesting to 11 and older.  (Typical examples of “big words” used: apprehension, provocative, unorthodox, decorum.)

Emotional/Maturity level:  While this story doesn’t deal with much that is outright disturbing or inappropriate for young kids to read about, it does dwell on a lot of grown-up issues like suspicion, gossip, courting rituals, treason – enough that even if a kid can handle the vocabulary, they may not quite know what’s going on as the story unfolds.  Part of it is awareness of the historical setting, but it’s more a sense of the day-to-day, real-world concerns of adults.  Our heroine is 16, but in this era, that places her right on the brink of marriage and adult responsibilities.


The author of Blackbird Pond

As we might hope, our current author, Elizabeth George Speare, was an avid reader as a child.  She was born and raised in Melrose, Massachusetts in the early decades of the 20th century (b. 1908).  She spent her summers “devouring books” and spending quality time with the characters she met in those books, and making up her own stories along the way.  She was writing those stories down by the time she was in high school.

Miss George attended Smith College and Boston University and taught high-school English in Massachusetts after she finished graduate school.  She married Alden Speare in 1936 and moved to Connecticut.  Son Alden, Jr.,  was born in 1939, and three years later his new sister Mary came along.

The Speares were the hardy, outdoor types and spent a good deal of time hiking, camping and skiing.    And while her first published work was a magazine article about skiing with her kids, Ms. Speare reported that she didn’t have enough hours in her days for writing her own stories until her children reached their early teens.  Still, before she published any novels, she had articles in Better Homes and Gardens, Woman’s Day and Parents.

She published her first book – Calico Captive – in 1957.  Our current book, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, came next, in 1959.  This tale of a young girl who travels from sunny Barbados to Connecticut in 1687 – when someone with different ways of looking at things might be suspected of witchcraft – won a Newbery Medal.

Just a few years later in 1962, she followed up with a book that was also on Katie’s summer reading list (but not on the top 100 list), The Bronze Bow, set in first-century Judea at the time of Jesus (who makes an appearance in the story).

Speare evidently didn’t lose her touch over the years – in 1984, she won a Newbery Honor and the Chris O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction for The Sign of the Beaver, which features early settlers in Maine and relationships with the Native Americans there.  This story, like The Witch of Blackbird Pond, includes a subplot of teaching someone to read – an irresistible theme for those of us who do things like read through the top 100 children’s novels.

With all of her admirable additions to historic fiction for children, it should be no surprise that Speare received an award named after the author of the first book we read from this list – Laura Ingalls Wilder – awarded for her distinguished and enduring contribution to children’s literature.

Elizabeth George Speare is recognized by literary critics as one of the best writers of historical fiction for children, and in addition to our own top 100 list, she is considered among the top 100 most popular children’s authors overall.  As we could easily have predicted from Katie’s summer reading list, her work is considered mandatory reading in schools throughout the US.  (I remember reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond when I was Katie’s age, come to think of it.)  She died in 1994.

(Information from Children’s Literary Network and Wikipedia.)


Back at it

School has started.  Katie’s summer reading is completed and I need to catch up!

Just a note to let you know that we are working out a blogging schedule so as to be more regular and predictable for all of you who are good enough to follow us.  I’ve learned to adjust my expectations for working our way through this list of 100 books together.  Clearly, I was more than a bit naive/overzealous/just plain silly when I thought we’d be able to read and review all of the books within a couple of years.

So now I realize it will be great if we can get it done by the time Katie graduates from high school – and that’s fine.  It will be a good exercise in writing and discipline and writing discipline for both of us.  We would do the reading anyway – the tricky bit is to think about it and figure out how best to share it with the world – or at least the part of the world that stops by here.

So – this week, I’ll get the author info for The Witch of Blackbird Pond up and Katie will publish her review, and we’ll be back in action.  Stay tuned!

Katie’s Take: Watsons Go to Birmingham (1963)

Watsons Go to Birmingham is a book that is written in a way that you feel like you could be in 1963.  From Kenny’s eyes it is just life, but being a thirteen year old in 2012 it was very interesting to see what things where like back then.

Joetta- Joetta is the youngest Watson’s child and doesn’t like anyone to be hurt or get in trouble.  She often cries for other people even if she doesn’t know whats wrong yet.

Kenny- Kenny is the narrator of this story.  He is an average nine year old that is easy to relate to.  He is smart and a good brother to his little sister.  He believes most things his older brother Byron says.  He doesn’t get into a lot of trouble, but there are some times that his brother has to help him out, even though usually it is the other way around.

Byron- Byron is the oldest child, but at the beginning he was probably the most immature child.  He beat people up, tricked his parents, and bought stuff with out asking his parents.  However, close to the end of the book he starts growing up and taking his responsibilities more seriously.

Momma and Dad- Momma is the regular hard working mom who loves her children and takes no pleasure in punishing them (with Joetta around she never really gets to either).  Dad is a fun dad who loves to spend time with his kids when he isn’t at work, but still works hard to provide for his family.

It a lovely book and I am sure that it will make you laugh and also see a family that loves each other no matter what situation they get into.  I would recommend this book for 8 and up because somethings move at a fast pace and it sometimes uses big words.  It would also be a great read aloud if you have a long car ride and a willing reader (like my mom).

Book #7: The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963

I was five years old in 1963.  I guess that makes me a contemporary of the youngest member of the family in this book – Joetta Watson – the little girl, whose main concern is for the well-being of all of the members of her family.  I kind of wish I had been thinking of that while I was reading.  But, quite naturally, I was drawn in by the narrator – 9-year-old Kenny – a kid who is easy to relate to.    He’s smart, sensible, has lots of reasonable questions about life in general and is a pretty good kid overall.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 was a new book for me.  In it, we have the story of a Midwestern, middle-class African-American family.  Since our narrator is kid, most of the stories focus on kid stuff – sibling battles, fun and frustrations of school, playing, fighting, observations about parents.   I wish I could have read a story like this when I was in elementary school – it would be interesting to know how I would have reacted to it, as I was growing up in my very white community in the 60s and 70s.  The family life depicted is so fun, so normal.  It would have provided a positive educational experience for me.  Of course, the author was growing up at pretty much the same time, so I had to wait for it.

As we hear about the Watson’s daily life from Kenny, we discover that the two brothers – surprise, surprise – get into lots of arguments, with big brother Byron doing his best to throw his weight around.  He strives for “cool.”  He’s well-known as a “tough guy” at school.  For a reader, Byron’s activities are fairly entertaining.  For a parent, however, they would be less so.

But through Kenny’s eyes, we see that Byron is not all bad – he’s a pain, and he can be scary – but he’s also a guy who watches out for his little brother.  He might be tough on Kenny – but nobody else gets to.  This part of his personality – though he tries to play it down – shows up well when Kenny is brought into Byron’s classroom to show the big kids how important it is to learn to read well.  Kenny is less than thrilled about this opportunity to display his talents.

The fifth-grade teacher introduces second-grade Kenny to the class, telling them he is going to read some Langston Hughes poems to them.   He suddenly realizes it’s his brother’s class and he is sure he is doomed:
“Mr. Alums might as well have tied me up to a pole and said, ‘Ready, aim, fire!'”


“I didn’t even get out of the schoolyard before Byron and Buphead caught up to me.  A little crowd bunched up around us, and everyone was real excited because they knew I was about to get jacked up.

Buphead said, ‘Here that little egghead punk is.’

‘Leave the little clown alone,’  Byron said.  ‘It’s a crying shame, takin’ him around like a circus freak.’

He punched me kind of soft in the arm and said, ‘At least you oughta make ’em pay you for doin’ that mess.  If it was me they’d be comin’ out they pockets with some foldin’ money every time they took me around.’

I couldn’t believe it.  I think Byron was proud of me!

When everybody saw that Byron wasn’t going to do anything to me for being smart they all decided that they better not do anything either.  I still got called Egghead or Poindexter or Professor some of the time, but that wasn’t bad compared to what could have happened.”

Even though a tough older brother has some benefits for Kenny in the schoolyard, the Watson parents are determined not to allow Byron to continue down any slippery slope to becoming an all-out hoodlum.  They make the decision to take him to a place where his tough-guy act will not be tolerated and where a slower pace of life may hold fewer temptations –  his grandmother’s house in Alabama.

The book’s title comes from the label Momma gives the notebook she compiles with all of the details of the trip – what food they’ll need, where they’ll stop, how long it will take.  Dad makes sure the car is ready for the trip, and they head south.  Before they leave Dad has a talk with Kenny about their decision, and I love Kenny’s reaction – it is funny and honest and natural and kidlike – it’s what makes him such a good narrator.

“I loved when Dad talked to me like I was grown-up.  I didn’t really understand half the junk he was saying, but it sure did feel good to be talked to like that!

It’s times like this when someone is talking to you like you’re a grown-up that you have to be careful not to pick your nose or dig your drawers out of your butt.”

It’s something we all have to remind ourselves of from time to time, Kenny.

The Watsons know that their children are going to be exposed to many differences, good and bad, when they travel from the North to the South, but for the most part, the story stays focused on family stuff – visiting and trying to get Byron settled in.  And just when I was starting to wonder if this book was going to say anything specific about the racial tension in the South – I got my answer in no uncertain terms.

And this climactic moment had a big impact, I think especially because the author made sure the story just hummed along with normal, relatively small family dramas, making me laugh and nod my head in understanding – until something happened that made no sense to anyone.  It was very effective, because that’s the way terrible things come on us.  It’s why they’re shocking – because they intrude on all of the normal stuff that we expect to happen each day.

The violence that happened during the Civil Rights movement was distant from me growing up, and now it is history.  This book is a novel, but I think taking us along for the ride with the Watsons offers a look into real happenings in a way that should be very thought provoking for kids or parents who read it.


Number of pages: 206

Chapters:  15

Date of publication:  1995

Story time and setting:  Let’s see – what do you suppose the setting is?  1963, Flint, Michigan and – you guessed it – Birmingham, Alabama.

First line:  “It was one of those super-duper-cold Saturdays.”

Main characters: The Watson family:  9-year-old Kenny – our narrator, a nice, smart kid; his older brother Byron, who is doing his best to live up to a 13-year-old’s reputation for being difficult; little sister Joetta (Joey) – maybe about 6 years old; Momma and Dad

Reading age level:  10 and up – Amazon’s recommendation and I think that sounds about right.  The language is ordinary and everyday, but with plenty of interesting situations and thoughts that utilize a rich vocabulary.

Emotional/Maturity level:  In general, I’d say if a kid can read this book, they’re ready for it, but it’s tough to know exactly when a kid is old enough to handle reading about cruelty or hate or senseless violence.  Most of this story is about a good family experiencing pretty normal challenges – a teen who is causing some trouble – but he could be a lot worse.  And then suddenly they have to deal with ugliness that easily could have caused tremendous hurt to their family – and did cause tremendous hurt to people nearby.  Basically, if someone is old enough to read this book, then it’s probably time for them to hear what it has to say.

Vacation stories

We are far behind on our blogging, and we are currently on vacation, but I thought I’d share a few photos from North Carolina.  We had lunch by a lake, and looking out onto the water, Katie kept saying, “That’s just like in Swallows and Amazons!”

So here are some lake photos, from Lake Norman – or maybe they’re from Swallows and Amazons…..











Keeping stories close to home

Image via wikipedia

Sorry for the long absence!  End of school stuff, business trip, blah, blah, blah.  Ready for summer to begin!  So here is a bit about the author of our most recent book.

Christopher Paul Curtis was born and raised in Flint, Michigan – which, probably not so coincidentally – is the setting of our book, The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963.   And interestingly enough, his age just about matches that of our first-person narrator in this book about a pleasant African-American family.

It is satisfying to me to learn that he bears a resemblance to the book’s narrator because though it is a novel, it reads very much like a personal reminiscence.  He does a great job of drawing us into the life of the Watson family – but more on that in the review.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963 was his first novel – a book that he took time off from work to write, and which he wrote out in longhand at the public library.   And with that began a string of awards.   He won the Newbery Medal for Watsons – not a bad start!  He also wrote Bud, Not Buddy, a story that includes characters modeled off of both of his grandfathers – Earl “Lefty” Lewis, a Negro league baseball pitcher, and 1930s bandleader Herman E. Curtis, Sr., of Herman Curtis and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression.  Bud, Not Buddy was the first novel to receive both the Coretta Scott King Award and the Newbery Medal.  His book Elijah of Buxton, about a free Black community in Ontario that was founded in 1849 by runaway slaves, won the Scott O’Dell Historical Fiction Award, the Coretta Scott King Award and  Newbury Honor.   This year, he came out with a Depression-Era story, The Mighty Miss Malone.

Curtis’ father was a chiropodist and factory worker/supervisor, and his mother an educator.  He attended public schools in Flint, and at McKinley Junior High, he was the first African-American student to be elected to student council.  He later graduated from University of Michigan-Flint, and was the speaker at his own commencement.  As in his life, Flint plays an important role in many of his stories.

After high school, Curtis spent time developing artistic talents, performing with a traveling musical theater group  called Suitcase Theatre, and he also put in a lot of time on a factory assembly line hanging doors on big cars.  Since 1998, however, he has been a full-time author and lecturer, and was also able to strut his stuff as a rapper (stage name L-Toe – couldn’t find any more information on that – but I tried!).

Since 2008, each year Curtis returns to the University of Michigan-Flint to host the Christopher Paul Curtis Writing Challenge, a program instituted by Dr. Rose Casement and Dr. Fred Svoboda.  In this program, every fourth-grade student in Flint comes to UM-Flint’s auditorium to hear a presentation by Curtis, are provided with a story starter that he has written, and are given the challenge of finishing the story.  A winner is chosen from each of the city’s elementary schools, and they attend an ceremony at the university where an overall winner is announced.  The stated goal of the challenge is to expose Flint’s youth to the university environment and to encourage writing as a means of expression.  Sounds like a great creative-writing idea to me!

Christopher Curtis and his wife, Habon live in Detroit with their baby daughter.  Curtis also has two grown children from a previous marriage.