Saturday, January 19, 2008

Hurray, it's Saturday! Hurray, it's The Saturdays!

Awesome news via Jen Robinson: the Melendy books are being reprinted again! They've been through a couple of reprints in the last ten years, but I still shiver with the memory of that dreary era when they weren't available. Here's what I wrote when they were reprinted ten years ago:

It's always disconcerting to me, as a children's book reviewer, to be reminded of how often adult reviewers miss what children see so clearly. These aren't the books Elizabeth Enright won Newbery awards for--and if the blurbs on the back of these reprints are anything to judge by, they were well-received without making much of a splash. But I can think of few books--particularly those in the realistic fiction genre, and without "Junior Classic" status--that have had such a hold on the hearts and memories of young readers. The Melendy books are simply the family stories.

Maybe it's partly because there's just so much family in them. There are four young Melendys to start with: Mona, Rush, Randy and Oliver. (They'll acquire another brother in a later book.) There are pets galore, particularly after the second book, in which the family moves from New York City to a big house in the country. And though they're motherless, there's no lack of adult relationships in their lives: in
addition to their father, their loving housekeeper Cuffy, and the good-natured handyman Willy, the Melendys seem to have a knack for making adult friends wherever they go. No Melendy kid ever has to be lonely or bored for too long--there's always some project going on, some exciting plan to cook up, or a story to listen to. Stories told by adults about their childhoods crop up all the time in these books, a fascinating connection of the past with the present which is still effective, even though the "present" of these books is now more than fifty years old.

Though relationships are so important to the books, they wouldn't be nearly as good as family stories if the characters weren't also very individual. (The Nanny McFee books come to mind.) Randy has always been my favorite: she is creative, sensitive and impulsive, the one who falls overboard in a boat in Central Park and almost sets the house on fire. Rush and Oliver tie for second place; I can't decide if it would better to have a smart, funny older brother like Rush or a calm, solid younger brother like Oliver. Only Mona never much appealed to me--she's too much into "girly" stuff like clothes and perfume for my tastes. Naturally the kids do a lot together, but unlike many family books, they are also given quite a bit of time apart--in fact, the entire point of The Saturdays, at least at first, is for them to have adventures on their own. For them, it's a chance to explore their own interests and feel grown-up; for us, it's a chance to see inside each character and get to really know and like them--to see them as real people with real feelings, rather than just parts of an ideal group.

These long-awaited reprints make these wonderful books available for a new generation of readers. Will they be as entranced by the story of how Mrs. Oliphant was once kidnapped by gypsies, as amused by Oliver's nonchalant trip to the circus all alone, as intrigued by the discovery of the secret room in the attic? Will they crawl into these books and live there the way I did? For their own sakes, I sure hope so. * (8 & up)

And what the hell, here's what I wrote when they were reprinted again five years ago:

I remember how astounded I was, years ago, to discover that the Melendy books had fallen out of print. True, they weren't big award winners, but among readers, they're generally much better remembered and better loved than Enright's Newbery winner Thimble Summer. And to me, these stories about a large family and their adventures are the books that define the classic, non-fantasy, family story.

There are lots of reasons to remember these books with affection. They're written with great warmth and humor. They're filled with interesting stories and episodes. Best of all, they have wonderful characters: each of the four Melendy children (they acquire an adopted fifth in the third book) is a unique and likeable person. I always empathized most with the dreamy and impulsive Randy, who's always getting into ridiculous situations--falling out of a boat in the Central Park lake or accidentally leaving the family's mail to freeze under a sheet of ice. Then there's Rush, an essentially kind-hearted older brother with an occasionally wicked sense of humor, Oliver, the stolid and forthright youngest and Mona, who as the eldest is the most interested in "growing-up," yet still enjoys being one of the family. Despite the differences in their ages--Mona is thirteen in the first book, Oliver is six--the four often play and have adventures together, just as you'd expect from an ensemble family story. (The help of kind and imaginative adults is also often involved.) Yet all four are also filled with different creative desires and talents, which make them stand out as memorable individuals.

But I think what makes the Melendys seem like the quintessential literary family is that the books strike a perfect balance between realism and idyll. Fun and exciting things are always happening to the Melendys, but against a background of everyday security and a rather more controlled upbringing than is common today: their loving housekeeper Cuffy may bake cookies a lot, but she also makes them eat their beets and scrubs their hair till their skulls ache. Likewise, the Melendys are all fond of one another and enjoy being together--but that doesn't mean they never squabble or tease each other.

In an introduction originally published in an omnibus edition of the Melendy books, Enright writes: "Wishing has played a large part in these stories too, as you can see. The Melendys have and do all the things I would have liked to have and do as a child." It's the way the Enright puts that element of wish fulfillment into such a believable framework that makes these books so enchanting. In many ways, the Melendys are an archetype of the best possible kind of family having the best possible kind of childhood. Because the characters are so well drawn and human, we can believe in the stories: they represent something that seems both wonderful and real.

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Blogger Jen Robinson bligged...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on these books. I love them so so much! I'm planning to buy a set of these new copies for myself to keep, even though I have old copies, mostly to thank the publisher for putting them out.

1/19/2008 1:11 PM  
Blogger web bligged...

I need to get a second set for my son, of course. ;-) We have almost duplicate bookshelves, at this point.

1/19/2008 2:18 PM  
Blogger Jen Robinson bligged...

He's a lucky kid, Wendy!

1/19/2008 2:37 PM  
Blogger Lady S. bligged...

Brilliant! Both the news and your description of what makes the books so very wonderful.

I was trying to get copies for my BF a couple of years ago, and was NOT allowed give any of ours away, even with the guarantee of immediate replacement. This is a good opportunity to get the girls their own copies, I think!

1/20/2008 1:17 AM  

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