Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Retro Review of Daphne’s Book by Mary Downing Hahn

My inlaws have been in town for the past week, and I haven't finished a single book. All those goals I had last week? Unfulfilled. Next week I will be back to my regularly scheduled reading programming. Until then, here's the start of a new feature: a review of a "retro" title. 

In this case, Daphne's Book is a retro young adult title -- the kind of young adult book I would have picked up at the Walden Books in the mall in the 1980s. It was "young adult" for young teens, and we'd probably call it "middle grade fiction" today. If you're a "vintage" book enthusiast, there's a great site featuring vintage YA called "Lost Classics of Teen Lit, 1939-1989.

Daphne’s Book book was written in 1983. Look at the cover! There’s no way that a kid today would pick up a book like this one – there’s no sexy teen on the front, no faceless girl, no apocalyptic rising sun. And inside the covers, there are no wizards, no dragons, no factions or violence or sex.

As a side note, check out how the cover has changed over the years. The original is at the top of this post. Here's the one from 1995: 

And here's the one from 2008:

You can read through this article to imagine what today's version would look like.

Daphne's Book is the story of a seventh grader who is forced to be a project partner with an outcast. There is a complicated social landscape, and she has to deal with her feelings about the consequences of befriending someone that is desperately unpopular. In many ways, this storyline is reminiscent of Judy Blume’s Blubber, which was my favorite book by that author.

The second aspect of this story concerns the family life of the outcast. She lives in a rickety old house on the outskirts of town. She has a mean grandmother, and she's hungry. The main character needs to make decisions about how much of the situation to keep secret.

There are all sorts of era-specific aspects of this book: the legacy of the Vietnam War, references to “Women’s Lib,” payphones, dittoed papers at school, and combs in the back pockets of the popular girls. There is also a dated feeling of kids playing alone in the woods, wandering around town by themselves, a general freedom and lack of supervision that might not resonate with modern kids.

However, the author did capture a timeless part of being twelve years old – that sense of being in-between childhood and adolescence. The main character loves her dollhouse but hides it. She envies but shies away from the popular girls and their interest in boys. There is something so painful and poignant about the limbo of being neither a little kid nor a teenager.

I don't know if there's an audience for this kind of fiction anymore. It would be interesting to read more about the fantastical turn in kids' literature these days. It makes me wonder if the real world is not dramatic enough for today's kids, or if, perhaps, it's TOO dramatic, requiring escape. 

You can find an interesting interview with the author here. The interview is in three parts, and you can follow the links at the end to read the whole thing.


Gabrielle said...

Oh my gosh! No one would read that book with that cover!

Are those girls sitting in the DIRT? Where are the blankets sherpa-ed in by the moms? And no snacks? And is that girls wearing leg warmers?!?

No wonder they are outcasts! So sad.

But seriously, I think I just missed reading some of this stuff, as my high school library was not the most up to date. But I read some other odd titles, I already saw one on the Classics of Teen Lit list you linked to, "Please don't eat the daisies." I guess I had an early interest in "Mommy Snark" as they called it on the list. I should have taken that as a warning I guess...

The three covers are interesting, in the first they are back to back looking away from each other, in the second they are side by side and one is sort of looking at the other while the first one looks away and on the third cover they are not exactly turned toward each other but sort of and looking at each other in a way where they are sort of acknowledging each other. Very different covers, even though the scarf makes a return in cover three.

I always appreciate these reviews. Thoughtful as usual!

jennifer said...

Thank you!

I think cover art trends are really interesting -- as are my own choices, which are sometimes, if I'm honest, guided by cover art.