Friday, July 30, 2010

What Worked?--Revisiting Childhood Favorites: Katie John

Katie John by Mary Calhoun is a realistic middle grade novel published in 1960. Mary Calhoun is the author of many other books for children, including picture books Cross-Country Cat and Hot-Air Henry (a Reading Rainbow book), as well as sequels to Katie John (Depend on Katie John, Honestly, Katie John, and Katie John and Heathcliff).

Katie John takes place in my home state, Missouri, but as a child I couldn’t have been less interested in that. I loved this book because of the interaction between tomboy Katie and her prim friend, Sue … because of the awesome setting--an old “haunted” house with speaking tubes and dumbwaiters … and because of Katie’s habit of impulsively rushing into things without thinking, which landed her in some wonderfully sticky situations.

Each chapter of Katie John is a story in itself, and in each, Katie gets involved in a different adventure. However, the book is not entirely episodic; the common thread through the book is that Katie and her parents are growing to love the old house they inherited, and are trying to find a way to keep it instead of having to sell it. In the end, Katie helps to find a solution that will allow her family to remain in Barton's Bluff.

What works:
  • The main character: Katie is feisty and impatient--"headstrong", as their stuffy neighbor, Miss Crackenberry, says--but she is good-hearted and means well.
  • The setting provides the opportunity for wonderful activities:  Imagine riding in a dumbwaiter ... finding a (possibly human!) bone ... getting stuck in a covered bridge ... playing on a raft with the wild kids from the shacks down by the river ... and starting a secret, mysterious club called The Sign of the Black Hand.
  • Humor: Whether she's throwing rotten eggs all over the yard, tricking crabby Miss Crankenberry, accidentally substituting soap flakes for sugar when making lemonade, or nearly setting the house on fire, Katie's misadventures are hilarious.
  • Mood: Although Katie is usually dreaming up mischief, getting into trouble, or apologizing for her misdeeds, there is an honesty and warmth that runs through the book. For example, Katie is a royal pain to Sue's older sister, Janet ... but when Janet panics while getting ready for a dance, Katie is the one who reassures her that she looks beautiful.
Did it stand the test of time? In my opinion, yes. I can imagine reading this aloud to a class of third-graders--and I think they'd enjoy Katie John's hijinks as much as I did.


Ann Best said...

I love these "older" middle grade novels. I'll pick one up in the library if I see a title that interests me. This one sounds fun. I'm making a note of it. I'm glad I dropped by to find it, and to see you again.


Jess said...

Oh my goodness, I loved KATIE just gave me a beautiful moment of nostalgia. My favorite chapter was when she put laundry detergent in the lemonade by mistake. CADDIE WOODLAWN is a great one too!

Ruth Donnelly said...

Ann, I'm glad you stopped by too!

Jess, I'd forgotten about Caddie Woodlawn--thanks for reminding me!

Marcia said...

Oh, I LOVED Katie John! I just loved all the hilarious situations (I remember that frothy lemonade, and throwing rotten eggs at the hen); the fun transcended the fact that I wasn't a tomboy at all and not particularly drawn to that type of child. The only think that ticked me off was her parents giving her the middle name John because they might not have a boy.

Ruth Donnelly said...

Me too, Marcia! Truth be told, I was more like Sue. I would have been saying, "Wait, Katie, do you really think that's a good idea...?" And yet, for some reason, I loved the book. About the name, I wonder if the author just liked the sound and had to figure out some way to justify it!