Apple pie and saltwater taffy … yum. And to have stories that weave these tasty examples of Americana … double yum. I have been waiting since last fall to write about these books! Now they’re finally available.
Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream by Jenny Han and Saltwater Taffy by Eric de la Barre are illustrated short-chapter books that instantly grab readers and propel them forward. They are action-oriented stories that are excellent for reading aloud or reading independenty; and they will appeal to dormant readers and underground readers alike. A couple of one-liners (from our website reviews):
Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream by Jenny Han; illustrated by Julia Kuo
Little, Brown & Company, 2011
This is a lovely story that will call to young girls to read again and again – especially when they want to hold a little good luck in their hands.
Audience: 7 and up; reading level 2.1 (Flesch-Kincaid)
Saltwater Taffy by Eric DelaBarre; illustrated by R.C. Nason
Seven Publishing, 2011
There is nothing lacking in this story of baseball, summer vacation, pirate treasure, and adventure. Although this is largely a cast of boys, girls will enjoy it, too. This is an exceptional choice for high interest/low readability audiences.
Audience: 8 and up; reading level 3.4 (Flesch-Kincaid)
Readers of all ages will find them to be wonderful, (dare I say) wholesome tales. Both have a timeless quality about them, even though Saltwater Taffy is set in the late 1960s and Clara Lee lives in 2011. For those of us of a certain age, we will see our teenage selves in Clara Lee, Scott “Scooter” Martin, and their friends. Ditto our kids. They will find connections to the characters and the situations they face. Although they take different paths, both of these books celebrate family, friendship, and community.
The Bramley Apple Blossom Festival is coming up, and third grader Clara Lee really wants to be voted Little Miss Apple Pie Festival. When Clara Lee’s classmate (and main competitor) Dionne Gregory explains that her family is as American as apple pie, Clara figures all is lost. She can’t be as American as apple pie because even though she was born in America, her family is Korean. It is why she wants to be called Clara Lee, not just Clara. Unlike her friends, her grandfather who was born in Korea, lives with her family and they celebrate Korean traditions at home.
Meanwhile … in Port Townsend, Washington, it is July 2, the start of Pirate Week. Ms. Benson, the librarian, will host a reading of The Keys of Lafitte, in honor of Jacques Pierre Lafitte, the town’s founding father (and great-grandson of notorious pirate Jean Lafitte). This year, Ms. Benson asked Scott Martin to read to the assembled group.
My name is Scott Martin and I’m thirteen years old. I never much liked to read unless I had to for school, but this was different. Reading The Keys of Lafitte taught me that in the pages of a book you could find adventure. I know it’s not the coolest thing to say around other kids, but I did not care. I was now a fan of reading, and that was pretty cool.
According to town legend, Jacques Pierre Lafitte buried his great-great grandfather’s treasure and created sets of ciphers for a treasure hunt known as The Keys of Lafitte. The Port Townsend Gazette is publishing the third key, and this year, Scott, his older brother Gary, and their friends John “Zippy” White, Jimmy Finn, and Jacqueline “Jaq” Nagle are determined that THEY will break the code and find the treasure.
The path to honor is never smooth, and both sets of friends learn this the hard way. In Saltwater Taffy, the characters play a pivotal role in how the adventure unfolds. The friendship among Scooter, Gary, Zippy, Jimmy, and Jaq is as real as it gets. There is the peacemaker, the prankster, the brain, the follower, and the snitch. Throughout the story the roles shift, and a few explode. Example: For most of the story, the tension between Zippy (the brain) and Jimmy (the prankster) is palpable. Then, at a critical time when the team needs to work together, Jimmy steps over the line. As a reader, I knew it was coming, but I kept asking did it really have to happen now? This isn’t good!
There are two people at school who mean the world to Clara Lee: Shayna and Max. When Clara Lee started receiving secret gifts in her desk – gingersnaps and a candy necklace, she thought it was good luck shining on her. Her grandfather had interpreted her dream about his dying and told her that those kinds of dreams brought good luck! When Max confesses that he gave her the gifts because he wants to be her valentine all year ’round, Clara Lee got angry. She not only made Max mad, but took out her anger about losing a friend on her sister Emmaline and her parents … which made her Grandfather sad.
Which leads me to another element of these stories: the kids’ relationships with adults. When she takes out her anger about Max on her sister, the dialog with her parents is a “textbook” example of being sent to your room. Clara Lee obviously adores her grandfather and solicits his advice (like how to heal the friendship with Max). Her grandfather, in turn, is learning English and Clara Lee is eager to help him.
I am Korean American, which means I was born in America but my blood is Korean so those secrets are inside me too. They’re just hidden real deep so I can’t always get to them. But Grandpa can, and he’s teaching me how. One day, I’ll be as good as him. Better, even.
In Saltwater Taffy, the parental Martins play a very marginal role. Instead, the librarian, the ice cream store owner, and a neighbor take center stage. These were not the shiniest examples of teen-adult interaction: Gary and Scooter wrote a note for their parents so they could go steal the treasure map from someone; the ice cream store owner let the kids use the roof of his store to counter-attack the bullies; and the neighbor who desperately wanted the final clue to the treasure trapped the kids in a cave.
In addition to just enjoying the books for the fun stories they are, each lends itself to additional discussions. With both books you have themes of family, friendship, choices and consequences, adult-child relationships. With Saltwater Taffy you have additional themes of sportsmanship, bullying, and the loss of a parent/grief; in Clara Lee, you have sibling rivalry, superstitions, friendship (and apologies), and (though subtly) bigotry.
The Happy Endings
As you would hope for readers in this audience, the stories end on positive notes. And I will as well.
For Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream: Clara Lee is as girl-next-door as they come, and the author does a beautiful job illustrating how multicultural families are American. The writing is crisp, descriptive, and totally accessible to transitional readers. Clara uses words like “un-cheer-up-able” which is as kid-friendly as it gets.
For Saltwater Taffy: I stayed up way too late reading this book a couple of nights! It is fast-paced, filled with great characters, and crammed with lots of action. The author has a number of parallel themes going that are woven together flawlessly.
Highly recommended, ages 7 and up.
YouTube video of the author reading Chapter 18: Dripping with Blood
Interview with author Jenny Han (publisher website)
Interior images from Saltwater Taffy used with permission of the Author.
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