One-Minute Book Reviews

March 26, 2010

Girl With a Gun – Deborah Hopkinson’s Sing-Along Picture Book, ‘Stagecoach Sal,’ Illustrated by Carson Ellis

Stagecoach Sal: Inspired by a True Tale. By Deborah Hopkinson. Pictures by Carson Ellis. Disney/Hyperion, 24 pp., $16.99. Ages 6 and under.

By Janice Harayda
“Based on a true story” often masks weaknesses in a plot. It may mean: “Hey, don’t blame us! It really happened that way.” A case in point is Stagecoach Sal, an attractive picture book “inspired” by the life of the first woman to carry the U.S. mail by stagecoach in California.

Deborah Hopkinson drew on promising historical material for her tale of a rifle-loving girl who thwarts a bandit intent on stealing the mail she carries on her stagecoach. But the plot doesn’t entirely make sense. Young Sal gets a clear warning from her parents before she sets out alone on a stagecoach to deliver mail: “No passengers!” Sal ignores this sensible advice when accosted at a remote spot by a man she recognizes as a famous poetry-spouting bandit. Instead of driving away, she invites the stranger to ride shotgun on her stagecoach. And you’re never sure why, when she has horses and the man seems to have none: Did she have a rebellious streak? Too much faith in her reputation as “a crack shot”? A misplaced desire to help?

Sal distracts the bandit from his desire to rob her by singing songs, Scheherazade-like, as they ride: “Polly Wolly Doodle,” “Sweet Betsy From Pike,” “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” and “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me!” Hopkinson integrates these toe-tappers well into her story. And given the gaps in her plot, the songs – and Carson Ellis’s warm and lively pictures – account for much of the appeal of the book. Stagecoach Sal is no Brave Irene, William Steig’s tale of a girl who plunges into snowstorm to deliver a dress made by her seamstress mother, a book that beautifully evokes its young heroine’s character and struggle. But Hopkinson and Eliis offer an easygoing introduction to several classic folksongs that many children know less well than “Baby Beluga.” And leaky plot ultimately may count for less than the fun of singing at bedtime, “Oh, I went down South / for to see my Sal / singing Polly wolly doodle all the day.”

Best line/picture: Ellis’s fine illustrations include nice touches such as a compass at the bottom of one page, a pig tied to a covered wagon on another.

Worst line/picture: Hopkinson says in an afterword that you can hear “some of Sal’s favorite songs” on the Kids’ Pages of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. True, but frustration awaits anyone who reads that “some” as “all.” I couldn’t find “Sweet Betsy From Pike” after many searches of the recommended site using varied spellings of Betsy, quotations from the lyrics and more. Eventually  the lyrics and part of the music on turned up on Wikipedia.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. She satirizes American literary culture, such as is its, on her Fake Book News page on Twitter (@FakeBookNews).

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 18, 2006

Emily Arnold McCully’s Wild West Thanksgiving Story for Children

A Caldecott Medalist casts Butch Cassidy as a Victorian-era Robin Hood

An Outlaw Thanksgiving. By Emily Arnold McCully. Dial, 32 pp., $15.99. Ages 4–8.

A few days ago, I stopped by a good suburban library to see which children’s books the staff was recommending this week besides Squanto, Friend of the Pilgrims, that perennial dish of cranberry sauce on school reading lists. A librarian handed me An Outlaw Thanksgiving by Emily Arnold McCully, who won the Caldecott Medal for Mirette on the High Wire. No surprises there. Librarians are always promoting books by American Library Association award-winners.

The surprise came when I went to www.amazon.com to see if there was a paperback edition and found, along with the expected rave from a librarian, a couple of attacks by parents on the poor moral “value systems” of the book. Let’s try to sort out the clashing views of this tale, which was inspired by a real holiday meal in Brown’s Hole, Utah, in the 1890s.

McCully casts bank robber Robert LeRoy Parker — alias Butch Cassidy — as a Victorian Robin Hood in this story of a young girl’s cross-country trip by rail. When a blizzard stops their train, Clara and her mother must have Thanksgiving dinner with strangers, including the man played by Paul Newman in the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Clara recognizes Butch from a “Wanted” poster she has seen. But she doesn’t turn him in, despite several opportunities, because she’s heard that he is good-hearted: “Gives some of what he steals to needy folks.” Clara also thinks her mother would “faint dead away” if she did. It doesn’t increase her motivation to turn informer when Butch, realizing that she recognizes him, gives her a silver dollar that could be construed as hush money.

You can see why some parents are furious. They’ve warned their children not to take candy or other bribes from “bad people” and to “tell an adult” right away if this happens. Then a Caldecott Medalist comes along and portrays sympathetically a girl who looks the other way when face-to-face with criminal. And another aspect of McCully’s tale might irk some parents: This is one of those books in which the child is smarter — or at least braver — than her parent. Clara isn’t intimidated by Butch, but believes her mother would be.

But the librarians who like this book have a point, too. As usual, McCully uses lush watercolors to tell a dramatic story. Something is always rushing forward – a train, a horse-drawn wagon, travelers at a railway station. Many people see watercolors, the neglected stepchild of painting, as a relatively static medium best suited landscapes or still lifes. McCully shows how dynamic the form can be in the right hands.

So this book is a judgment call for parents. It may give children at the younger end of its age range ideas that conflict with what they have learned at home. But it could give parents of older ones a way to test whether their children been paying attention to all those lessons about “bad people.” What should Clara have done when she recognized Butch? The question could launch a fascinating intergenerational conversation after Thanksgiving Dinner.

Best line: McCully includes an afterword about Butch Cassidy and the Old West that has colorful facts such as this one: “Snow was a problem for six or seven months of the year on the prairie. Passengers could perish in a blizzard. ‘Snowbucker’ plows rammed into drifts at 65 miles per hour.”

Worst line: After Clara arrives in Omaha: “Her mother hurried into the station to freshen up.” The euphemism “freshen up” sounds odd in context, if not anachronistic. And why did only the mother and not Clara need to use the bathroom after a long trip?

Recommended if … your children are old enough not to take the heroine’s behavior as a model for how to act when a stranger offers a bribe.

Published: 1998 (Dial hardcover), 2000 (Picture Puffins edition. For information on McCully en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emily_Arnold_McCully/.

Posted by Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com
© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary blog created by Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor and critic for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. Please visit www.janiceharayda.com to learn more about her comic novels, The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999) and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004).

 

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