Thursday, March 24, 2016

Three Generation Review of Maryellen Larkin Books

Maryellen Larkin was brought out in 2015 by American Girl. Her stories are set in Daytona Beach, Florida, around 1954. This blog post is a review of the two Maryellen Classic books, both written by Valerie Tripp:

The One and Only: A Maryellen Classic 1
Maryellen tries to stand out, begins a new year of school, and has a Christmas adventure.
Taking Off: A Maryellen Classic 2
Maryellen plans a special tenth birthday party, her dad has big plans for summer vacation, and what about her sister's wedding?
Written by   Valerie Tripp
Paperback   224 and 200 pages, respectively
Genre   Historical Fiction (America, 1954)
Recommended for   Girls ages 8-12*
Lexile  American Girl does not list a lexile score for any of these books, but it is worth noting that each of these "classics" are three times as thick as their historical books used to be, and don't have any illustrations inside.
*(Since the character turns 10 in the book, 11 and 12 year old girls who aren't already fans of American Girl, might not enjoy her story as much).

For a list of other Maryellen books, please scroll to the bottom.

This is a very special review to me. My husband's mother turned 10 in 1954, which means she experienced the same point in American history at the same age as this fictional character (although she experienced it in the Seattle area, not Florida). At my request, she graciously agreed to read and review these books with us.

Review by M. (Girl, Age 10)

I like the Maryellen books. My favorite character is Maryellen. She's kind of like me. Her name starts with an M, she likes pink, and she likes to hang out with big [older] people.
The books have a lot problems [for Maryellen to solve]. For example, she decides to paint her door red, and then things get out of hand.
I also like her younger brother Mikey. He's adorable. Mikey likes "tick-tocks." "Tick-tock" is what he calls a watch.
Maryellen also likes tv. They watch a lot of tv in the 1950s. Maryellen likes Davy Crockett. Her favorite movie star is Debbie Reynolds.
I would recommend these books to old people because they might have lived during that time. I would also recommend it to 9, 10, and 11 year old girls, because that's close to Maryellen's age. I say girls, because who wants to read a story about the opposite gender?

Review by Stephanie (Mother)

I was really excited when I saw that Valerie Tripp was writing the classic books for this new character. American Girl uses a number of different authors for their books, and Valerie Tripp has been my favorite.
My daughter's maternal grandmother (my mom) gave her the 3 book boxed set with mini doll (purchased at Costco) for her birthday.
My daughter kept looking up from her book to report the funny things that happened in the book, like when her little brother tried to play firefighter with the hose when the brownies were burning.

What I loved about the Maryellen Books:

I loved Maryellen's big family. She has two older sisters, a younger sister, and two younger brothers. A lot of authors don't give their main characters large families, because it can be difficult to develop these extra characters, without having them upstage the main story. Still, it's hard for a historical fiction novel to feel very authentic when presented with a family of only one or two children, unless a medical reason (like death) is given). I'm very impressed with Valerie Tripp here. The siblings feel authentic (with a possible exception of Bethany who can't seem to decide how old she should be).

Also, the side-effects of having a large family in that time period feel very authentic, including:
  • A hand-me down bike
  • A hand-me down dress
  • A hand-me down teacher
  • Sharing a room with multiple siblings
  • Little brothers who tag along when you're playing with your friends
  • Older sisters who don't always enjoy having you tag along
I was impressed with how many big and little bits of historical tidbits made it into the story, like the polio epidemic of 1954, references to the Depression, World War II, and the Korean War. Everyday details of the fifties were there too: a sister staying home to wash her hair and iron a blouse? Only in the fifties. My mother-in-law gives a more detailed discussion of the history, so I won't say anymore.

So, what are the possible weak points?

There is a lot of fifties-style slang and jingles. Some people might find it fun and cute, others might find it annoying. I was unsure the first few times, but ended up deciding I thought it was fun and cute. Your mileage may vary.
Most of the family members feel are great. Younger sister Beverly is a bit annoying, pretending to be a queen all the time. I think it would be more plausible if she was the baby of the family, but she isn't. There are two kids younger than her.
Another reviewer thought that Maryellen was a self-centered. Well, yes, a bit. As a middle child in a large family, she does spend some of her time wanting to stand out, but not all of it. She helps take care of her younger siblings, she befriends a new girl at school at the temporary expense of her old friends, and turns her birthday party into a fundraiser for the new polio vaccine. So, she might not be the most selfless of all the American Girls, but I don't think it's fair to call her self-centered.
A school picture of Toni from the 1950s
Review by Toni 
(Grandmother, who turned 10 in 1954)

The entire first book screams fifties. The large families were very common then.  Family togetherness and standing up for one another -- even if you didn't get along -- was very important.

Sharing a Teacher
My sister, Billie, adored her fourth grade teacher Mrs. Guthery. I was assigned to the same teacher the following year. The first time I entered the classroom, Mrs. Guthery said, "If you're half as good as your sister . . . " I didn't want to be just like my sister to be accepted. I didn't enjoy that year of school at all.

50s Style
Words like switcharoo, scalawag, peddle pushers, skiddaddle, and crinoline were common.
We always wore crinoline skirts under our full cotton skirts and poodle skirts. My poodle skirt was deep grey with a bright pink poodle and I loved it!
Girls did wear their hair in ponytails with silk scarves. Bobby socks were important, too.
Drive-in restaurants with waitresses on roller skates? Yes! I think they must not have had insurance for their employees back then. They would carry large trays of food out to the cars and set them on a stand that attached to the window frame. It was a real treat to go to that type of restaurant.

I don't remember weekly tv shows with water skiing or synchronized swimming. Maybe in Florida, but not in Washington state. Other shows like Rin Tin Tin, Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers we had.
I remember when we got our first tv set. It had an itty bitty screen in a great big box, but it was a big deal to see what was going on. Before that we had a radio that was four feet tall. There were tubes in the back of the tv and if your tv went out, you took the tubes to the grocery store where there were tube testers.
Of course, the picture was strictly black and white, but people wanted color, so plastic sheets were manufactured that you put over your screen. The sheets were blue at the top, yellow in the middle and green at the bottom. A close-up head shot would have blue hair, yellow nose, and blue chin and neck! Rabbit ears were set on top of the tv which were adjusted to try to get a clear picture. It was crazy, but it was also a big deal.

We wanted to have a picture postcard Christmas. I remember my mother taking boxes and books, and covering them with thick, fluffy, glittery cotton to make a "snowy village" on our mantel. She added mirror "ponds," trees, villagers and buildings; it was very special.
If you wanted a flocked Christmas tree you flocked it yourself. We took hours decorating the tree. Wire trees were common in pink, blue, and silver, but we always had a green fresh cut tree that we bought at the hardware store in Seattle. Vern's family had a silver aluminum tree.
Jewelry boxes with a wind up music box and a ballerina or ice skater dancing around was the ideal present. I remember getting one and it was really cool. It was a beautiful blue with blue satin lining.

A train trip for a 9 year old on her own? I can't see that happening. It definitely wouldn't have happened in my family. When we still lived down in the Fremont area, they didn't have school buses. If you didn't live close to the junior high, you had to take a city bus to school. My sister and I had to transfer buses too; that was a big thing: to pay bus fare every day and transfer halfway.
We couldn't go to Seattle shopping until we were in high school and then our Mother went too. We could go outside and play "kick the can" with the local kids, but the bus to school and the neighborhood was our world.

The second book had references to polio and the new vaccine for it. My little brother had polio as a baby and it put him about a year behind when learning to walk and in his studies too. I don't remember people having birthday parties about polio, but they definitely had fundraisers.
The book also talked about the Cold War and bomb shelters. We could never afford one, but every Wednesday at noon a siren went off and you were supposed to get under a table at home or under your desk at school. It got hard when some kids wouldn't fit under their desk.

Grandpa Vern Adds:
One of the things I remember as a little kid living in a project in Seattle was when a Dairy Queen opened up. They had a special: one penny a mound. I remember my brother and I had about eight mounds because we had a dime.
They had Saturday matinees at the theater for a dime. You got two shows, plus a serial and a cartoon. You saw things like Flash Gordon, Roy Rogers, Zorro, those folks.
The skate rink was also a dime, as was the swimming pool. 
We used to ride bikes all over because buses weren't dependable and you didn't know when they were coming.

A Linked List of All American Girl Books Featuring Maryellen Larkin

$ Purchasing Tips:
Both of the classic books are almost guaranteed to be in your local public library, and it would be worth checking for the others.
If you plan to purchase these, each of these books is about $10, purchased separately. Sometimes they are bundled with a third Maryellen book, and sold as Maryellen Larkin 3 Book Set (The Sky's the Limit: My Journey with Maryellen). When I last checked Amazon, the three pack was the same price as buying the two classic books separately (about $20).
My daughter was given the set from Costco, which included the three book set, and the mini-doll, (which American Girl prices on their website for around $25). The set is somewhat expensive (around $40), but is an alright value if you had planned to purchase all three books and the mini doll.

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