11.09.2009

Ginger Pye written and illustrated by Eleanor Estes, 320 , RL 4pp, RL


Written in 1951, Eleanor Estes' Newbery winning Ginger Pye is a marvelous book that, for parents, serves as a reminder of how much children's literature and children's lives have changed in the last 60 years. Jerry and Rachel Pye live in Cranbury, CT where their father is a highly regarded, although not famous, ornithologist, who travels often and their mother, some 17 years his junior, is a homemaker. Living in the same town as their mother's family, Jerry and Rachel spend a lot of time with their mother's young brother, Uncle Bennie, who is famous and "a hero because here he was, only three years old, and yet he was an uncle." The plot of the book centers on how the children acquire their dog Ginger, how he incorporates himself into the family and, at the climax of the book, how the family copes when their beloved dog disappears. This is a simple, gentle story full of amusing and thoughtful digressions that make each chapter feel like a self-contained short story.

Home is the happy base for Jerry and Rachel, who have the freedom to travel almost anywhere they choose within the town of Cranbury. In spite of this, the book opens with a wonderful scene in which the two children are sitting on the little upstairs veranda of their house reading. Rachel is reading The Secret Garden and Jerry is reading "one of the Altsheler* books, and neither one of these was an 'I' book." The "I" book, or book with a first person narrative, does not pass the Pye taste test unless it is really good, like Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island or Swiss Family Robinson. As the light fades the children just sat "quietly, thinking, and watching the bats and bugs hurl themselves against the streetlamp which had suddenly come on and was casting a purple glow." A year apart in age, Jerry and Rachel are true friends. They often have discussions about what is the "most important of anything - the most important, or the prettiest, or the best or the funniest." At night when they went to bed they had one long, continuous story about "Martin Boombernickles, a character who could change himself into a horse, a boy, a man, a dog, anything, whenever he felt like it. They almost never went to sleep without adding an episode." Although the lives of the Pye children were probably typical of middle class children in the 1950s, this book has an almost exotic feel when I think about the lives my children lead today.

Estes enhances the plot with frequent digressions. In the midst of an activity, Rachel or Jerry will recall a past event that is related to their whatever they are currently experiencing. One of my favorites is when Rachel, at Mrs. Speedy's barn with Jerry after they have earned the money to buy one of her puppies, remembers the last time she was at Speedy's farm. It had been "by accident, long ago, when she was about seven." All the children had gone to the Sunday school teacher, Miss Foote's house to sled down her "steep slippery hill" and have hot cocoa. Miss Foote had hung Japanese lanterns in the chestnut trees and they made "lovely colored reflections in the snow and ice." Towards the end of the party, Rachel got so much momentum on a slide that she went out of Miss Foote's yard and into the Speedy's field. In the dark, Rachel walked toward a red light and found Mrs Speedy in the barn with a red lantern, milking the cows. Stepping into the barn felt like "stepping into a painting that was dark, excepting where the red cows were, and Mrs. Speedy's ruddy face, the lantern, and the white milk that looked purple" to Rachel. She quickly realizes where she is and thinks it's "like waking from a dream to find herself this far from the party, like being in a surprising new world." Instead of making her way back to the party, Rachel runs all the way home, her sled trailing behind her. Jerry arrived home shortly after her, but she never told anyone about being in the Speedy's barn because "it was a hard thing to explain. But it was interesting to remember, as she was doing now." The validity that Estes gives to the thoughts and emotions of her child characters is so vividly real and straightforward. And, I think it is hugely important for readers to know that their memories matter, that they play a part in their present lives and that memories can be quiet, personal and wonderous even without sharing them. Rachel and Jerry are constantly making sense of their world and their lives with their memories, memories that reflect instances that shape them and affect their choices in the present. I don't want to keep using the word "simple" to describe Estes's writing or her story - the only thing simple in this book is the age in which it takes place. And that is simple mostly for the lack of gadgetry and distraction that we have in our lives today. Instead, her writing is best described as elegant, which for me is the embodiment beauty and simplicity in one.

The drama of the disappearance of Ginger, which takes up a little over half the book, is very low key. Mrs and Mr Pye, while concerned and wanting to help, are mostly on the sidelines for the whole story. The thoughts and actions that Jerry and Rachel pursue in their attempts to find Ginger are genuine and realistic within the setting of the story. Because the town is so small and everyone knows each other, they feel that Ginger must be somewhere nearby and if they can only visit every corner of town they will find her. Having seen a stranger with a yellow hat at many key moments, the children draw a comic strip every night trying to figure out who this villain is and what he has done with Ginger. They go house to house asking people if they have seen the dog. They get the police chief and the local newspaper editor involved. In the end, though, it isn't enough. The children keep their emotions in check very admirably, and they even refer to this in the book. When, and how, Ginger does return home, the children allow themselves to cry. I deeply admire then sense of propriety, independence and what is acceptable that Jerry and Rachel possess. I am sure that I am romanticizing these children who, after all, are just fictional characters, but I know that Estes used many biographical bits in her writing and, having been a children's librarian, I have no doubt that she had a good perspective on the characters of children during her writing lifetime.

This book is considered to be written at a sixth grade reading level. Despite the seeming simplicity of the story, Estes uses words like "unsavory," "mesmerize," "soliloquize" and "regicides." I have noticed, not scientifically by any means, that children's literature from 50+ years ago tends to have vocabulary words that are much higher than what is found in contemporary young adult novels. I'm not sure why this is. Maybe there are so many new words in our language and culture today that there just isn't enough room in our collective consciousness for words like "unsavory" and "regicide" to end up in print in children's books anymore.

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes: Book CoverEleanor Estes won the Newbery Honor Award for The Hundred Dresses as well as The Middle Moffat and Rufus M. Based on her own family, Estes' Moffats get a brief nod in Ginger Pye. Readers who enjoyed Ginger Pye should not miss Jeanne Birdsall's Penderwicks books of which there are soon to be three or Mary Ann Hoberman's debut novel for young adults set during the Depression, Strawberry Hill. Another wonderful writer who was a contemporary of Estes's and threw a bit of magic into his sibling stories is Edward Eager, who's most well known book is Half-Magic about siblings who find a coin that grants them exactly half of what they wish for. And, an influence of Eager's who is not to be missed is the amazing E Nesbit, a British author writing in the early 1900s.




*Joseph Altsheler was a favorite of my grandfather's when he was a child growing up in Los Angeles in the 1920s and 30s. He tells stories of riding the trolley car downtown (he grew up on a ranch on land that now houses Dodger Stadium) and coming home with an armful of books, one of which he would have finished reading before getting off at his stop. I never was able to track this author down, mostly because I couldn't figure out how to spell his name but also because, as I learned at the blog Rikmenspoel's Ramblings, Altsheler's books have been out of print since the 1960s. He wrote several series of books, all of which were centered around events in American history, such as the French and Indian War and the Civil War.

3 comments:

Karen Dunham said...

We absolutley LOVE, LOVE LOVE the E. Estes books. Ginger Pye and Pinke Pye being our favorites after the The Hundred Dresses which is probably my very favorite children's book. YOu gotta love good children's literature! Karen

Tanya said...

I am so sad I never read Estes as a kid - I know I would have loved her. You should check out Mary Ann Hoberman's new book, "Strawberry Hill." Definitely many similarities, although obvious differences since it was written some 50 years after Estes was writing. You would love Edward Eager and Jeanne Birdsall's "Penderwicks" books if you don't already know them.

claragillowclark said...

Thank you for sharing Eleanor Estes with us. I love her books! Like Karen Dunham, The Hundred Dresses is one of my favorites. It's on my bookshelf, and I go back to read it now and again.