Strawberry Hill by Mary Ann Hoberman, illustrations by Wendy Anderson Halpern, 230 pp RL 3

Strawberry Hill is now in PAPERBACK!
And, it is as beautiful as the hardcover!

After reading Mary Ann Hoberman's picture books and now her first young adult novel, Strawberry Hill, I wish she was my grandmother. Even better, I wish she was my kids' grandmother. If you don't already feel this way about her after reading her many picture and poetry books , including on of my all-time favorites,Seven Silly Eaters, and knowing that she is the current Children's Poet Laureate, you will by the time you finish her impressive, uplifting first novel. And, as always, Hoberman is paired with the perfect illustrator. This time, Wendy Anderson Halperin, illustrator of Cynthia Rylant's Cobble Street Cousins series for early readers, matches her gentle, cozy but intricate artwork with Hoberman's semi-autobiographical story.

I have to admit, when I first read the jacket flap for Strawberry Hill it did not grab me, and, as Elizabeth Deveraux writes in her excellent but brief review of the book for The New York Times Book Review, "The virtues of "Strawberry Hill" may not be immediately apparent from the synopsis of the plot." Set during the Depression, the story follows the narrator, Alice (who goes by Allie) Sherman and her family as they move from New Haven, CT to Stamford when her father gets a new job. Upset at first, Allie warms up to the idea when she learns that their new house is on a street named Strawberry Hill. Like all children, she begins to imagine what a street named Strawberry Hill must look like, from the stone wall and white picket fence to the fields of strawberries that must be on a hill, perfect for rolling down. When they arrive at their new house and Allie's vision does not match reality, she is devastated. At this point, Chapter 5 to be exact, I knew that I was reading a unique book. Allie's experience with imagining one thing and living another recalled vivid memories (and disappointments) from my childhood. This is the first of many incidences in Strawberry Hill in which Hoberman presents childhood experiences, dilemmas and let-downs in a manner that is superbly accurate and genuinely expressed by her characters. I felt like this was one of the few young adult novels I have read in which an authentic child was narrating, not an adult speaking through a child's voice. Similarly, Devereaux notes that "Hoberman maintains an exquisite balance between Allie's perspsective and that of the adults around her, allowing for both a child's way of thinking and a polished narration."

Allie's year continues on in this way, with little bumps, happy moments and a few more upsetting experiences over the course of fourth grade. Allie has two new neighbors, both girls her age, who present very different challenges and rewards. Martha, the next door neighbor, is Catholic and goes to parochial school, not Center School where Allie and their other neighbor, Mimi, will go in the fall. Allie and Mimi are both Jewish and, as Allie thinks to herself after Martha tells her that she prays to our Holy Father and Jesus Christ, "I was really shocked. I had always thought that Jesus and Christ were swear words." Because Hoberman has done such a remarkable job crafting the character and voice of Allie, this thought is so clearly one of genuine candor and not irony or knowingness on the part of the author, that you read it for what it is. Allie and Martha manage not to let their religious differences come between them. What does come between them is the spoiled Cynthia, school friend of Martha's, who accuses Allie of cheating at a game the girls are playing and calls her a "dirty Jew." How this is resolved by the adults and children involved is realistic but the event does not become the center of the book, just as it does not become the center of Allie's life. In fact, Allie is more embarrassed by her mother's response than the insult itself. Despite this, Allie, who left behind a best friend in New Haven, thinks Martha might fill the spot. Even though Allie notices aspects of Martha's character that she dislikes, including lying, she persists in her belief that Martha is a good friend. In addition to going back to being best friends with Cynthia after promising to be Allie's best friend, Martha learns that Cynthia is cheating on her spelling tests at school and does nothing about it. After learning this, Allie begins to see things differently. She thinks about what Martha told her and, "suddenly I knew what else was wrong. It was that she still wanted to be best friends with someone like Cynthia, someone who could be so nasty and who cheated, besides. And then I wondered something else. I wondered why I still wanted to be best friends with someone who still wanted to be best friends with someone like Cynthia."

Mimi Minnick, the sensitive, overweight neighbor who will be repeating third grade because of her low reading skills, is the counterpoint to Martha. Mimi's father has moved out of their run-down house leaving her alone with her Mrs Minnick who is fat and sits at the kitchen table smoking, drinking coffee and listening to her programs on the radio all day. We all know that children notice and comment freely on differences, such as being overweight, having a disability or different skin color. What I have not encountered before is a children's book in which the child narrator notices these differences and makes sense of them in her own way by the end of the novel. At the end of school picnic, Allie notices that there are other "fat [mothers], too, some even as fat as Mrs Minnick," but that, Mrs Minnick, who has had her hair done and put on lipstick, isn't as noticeably overweight in her new dress. Then she remembers the mother of her best friend in New Haven who was overweight as well, but was also "warm and funny and friendly." What I admire most about Hoberman's gift as a storyteller is that she does not tidy up the scene by having Allie think something along the lines of, "Mrs Minnick looks nice today and maybe there is nothing wrong with being fat." In fact, there is nowhere in the book where she even once expresses, through Allie's voice or anyone else's, the idea that there is anything at all wrong with being overweight or compare overweight characters to thin ones. It is nothing more than a difference, in the story and in Allie's observations. Hoberman is letting the reader make her own conclusions.

While I have focused on the relationships and struggles between the characters in the book, the Depression does play a part in the story as well. However, as observed by Allie, its effects of on her family and those around her are subtle ones that she notices in her own quiet way. Hobos who stop at the back door for food, children who's fathers have left home to look for work, children who take jobs to help support the family and families who can't afford to buy packaged cookies are all aspects of Strawberry Hill that give readers a sense of the difficult time period in American history. When Allie empties her piggy bank to buy a copy of Mary Poppins for Mimi, her savings total $1.16, which is almost enough to buy the hardcover book. This is almost 1/15 the cost of Strawberry Hill, but the dynamics of inflation probably isn't something that most kids will be interested in. Nevertheless, the way the children in the book spend their free time - playing paper dolls, hopscotch, jump rope and ball might sound alien to some readers. Another aspect that might be lost on younger readers, although not on those familiar with the Laura Ingalls Wilder saga, is the restraint that the Shermans and other families practice. Allie and Danny are only allowed two cookies after school and they are happily surprised when they get to visit the ice cream parlor while shopping downtown and their mother allows them two scoops instead of the usual one.

As a historical novel, Strawberry Hill is very enjoyable, and, as a young adult novel with an engaging narrator, it is very compelling. Mary Ann Hoberman brings Allie to life and ends her first year in her new home and new town with a truly touching, almost magical surprise that will make you smile.

Readers who liked this book might also enjoy Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes.

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