Rebecca Ripperton

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Elizabeth Enright’s “The Melendy Family Quartet”

by Rebecca Ripperton

July 30, 2019

If you’ve ever read any of J.D. Salinger’s books or stories about the Glass family, you’ll no doubt find many similarities between those characters and the four Melendy children. (One notable distinction, however, is that the Glass children are all older than the Melendys, and are more fully developed and intellectually independent characters as a result.) The Melendy offspring range in age from 6 to 13 and appropriately, these books are ideal for readers 8 through 12. And for anyone looking for their next book to enjoy as a family, this series makes for an especially lively read aloud experience!

About the Melendy Family

The Melendy gang is full of character and charm. The family is composed of four children – Rush, Mona, Randy (short for Miranda), Oliver, and father. Joining them are Cuffy, the Melendy’s housekeeper and surrogate mother, and Willy, the family’s handyman. Mr. Melendy is a professor, who travels regularly to give lectures, and later becomes employed by the government to do confidential work during WWII. Sadly, the children’s mother is deceased and not often referred to.

Mona, age 13, aspires to be an actress, and is known by her family for reciting relevant passages from Shakespeare whenever an opportunity arises. Rush, age 12, is a pianist and zealous composer, and although not formally sanctioned, serves as leader to his three siblings. 10-year old Randy is perhaps the character into whom the reader is offered the most insight, as she is modeled upon author Elizabeth Enright herself. Randy is a dancer, and also loves to paint; of all the children she is perhaps the most imaginative and romantic. Lastly, Oliver, the youngest, is a mere 6 years old, but has a mind and interests of his own. Oliver is fascinated with nature in all its forms, and delights in erasing the distinction between the outside world and the inside of his bedroom (much to Cuffy’s horror and chagrin).

About Elizabeth Enright

Although born in the Midwest, Elizabeth Enright spent her formative years living in New York City. Like Randy, Elizabeth Enright was once an aspiring dancer and is even said to have studied under Martha Graham for a period of time, though dancing never became her career. She received further education from studying at Parsons School of Design and The Art Students League of New York. Both of Elizabeth’s parents were professional illustrators, and she soon followed suit, working both as a children’s book illustrator and author early on. Her focus quickly shifted toward writing, however.

Among the books Enright is most famous for are Gone Away Lake and Thimble Summer. She received the Newbery Medal in 1939 for Thimble Summer, and the distinction of being named author of a Newbery Honor book for Gone Away Lake in 1958. Enright even reviewed children’s books for the New York Times throughout her career! In addition to penning books for younger readers, she is also a noted author of short stories for adults, with numerous stories published in magazines such as The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and the Saturday Evening Post, as well as stories included in six different O. Henry award collections.

Lastly, readers may be interested to learn that Elizabeth Enright is the niece of famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Elizabeth’s mother, originally named Maginel Wright, became Maginel Wright Enright after her marriage to Elizabeth’s father, Walter J. Enright. Accordingly, Elizabeth’s full name at birth was Elizabeth Wright Enright. (Not nearly as bad as William Carlos Williams, or Holling Clancy Holling, but close!)

“The Saturdays”

While living in New York City, the premise for “The Saturdays” is born one unusually dull weekend. The children collectively decide to each turn all of their allowance over to one sibling each week, so that instead of having 50 cents (or 10 cents, in Oliver’s case) for the week, each has a whopping $1.60 to spend once a month on a grand adventure. Rush, for example, as an avid pianist and composer, uses his money to go to the opera. Randy spends the afternoon at an art museum, and forms a lifelong friendship with the wonderful Mrs. Oliphant. Even Oliver participates, although on his Saturday, he surreptitiously escapes to the circus by himself and nearly frightens the whole family out of their wits.

This first book serves as a delightful reminder of the magic that Saturdays can bring, especially to schoolchildren. The emphasis here is on engagement with the arts, as well as independent adventure. This book is also interesting in that the Melendy children must each choose their special Saturday activity for themselves, with the understanding that their adventure will be both extraordinary and enriching. In addition to choosing the activity, each is required to undertake the responsibility of figuring out all of the logistics of organizing their adventure like purchasing a ticket or finding transportation. (6-year-old Oliver is the exception here – he was supposed to take Cuffy, but opted instead to go rogue.) Of the three, Mona is the only one who doesn’t spend her money in a satisfactory manner, but that experience was educational for the whole family and no doubt beneficial for Mona.

“The Four-Story Mistake”

In the second book of the series, the Melendy family moves to an unusual home in the countryside near New York, so called “The Four-Story Mistake” because its builders astonishingly forgot to include a fourth floor! The house is an unusual piece of architecture, and although the children are at first sad to leave the city, they soon become enchanted with their new home. The Four-Story Mistake itself has plenty of character, as well as plenty of nooks and crannies for the children to explore. The surrounding land is similarly full of hidden treasures, complete with forests, flowered meadows, rivers, caves, etc., affording the children ample opportunity to play out of doors. In this book, Oliver discovers a secret basement room full of musty marvels, Randy discovers a precious prize of her own, and all of the children together uncover an astonishing mystery about their home, as well as its former occupants. Somehow the Melendys even find themselves the new owners of a pet alligator!

“Then There Were Five”

By this time, the second World War has broken out, and the children are going around from house to house to harvest whatever scrap metal their neighbors might be willing to donate. This exercise introduces the four Melendys to a wide variety of neighbors – some delightful, like the charming old bachelor Mr. Titus whose twin loves are fishing and baking. (Naturally, these interests greatly endear Mr. Titus to Oliver, who soon becomes Mr. Titus’ loyal disciple, and single greatest source of assistance in disposing of the countless cakes that Mr. Titus bakes each week.) The children are also introduced to much more ominous neighbors like the dreadful Oren Meeker, whose young relative Mark bears the brunt of his ire.

By this point, both Mona and Rush, the two eldest children, are working part-time outside of the home, in addition to going to school. Mona plays a recurring character on a radio drama, and Rush gives piano lessons to district schoolchildren. But, the best thing that the children bring home in this book is not the money they gladly contribute to the family coffer, nor the scrap metal for the war, but a wonderful new addition to the family.

“Spiderweb for Two”

The last book, “Spiderweb for Two: A Melendy Maze,” takes place when Rush, Mona, and their adopted brother have all gone away to school. Randy and Oliver are more or less left alone with Cuffy and Willy, as father has been traveling for work more and more frequently. The older children’s absence is sorely felt, and both Oliver and Randy begin to slip into a state of ennui.

But something strange soon begins to happen. An unknown person writing in an unknown hand leaves riddles for Randy and Oliver, leading them on an epic treasure hunt that takes place throughout the remainder of the school year. Each clue leads them to another riddle, and the children work frantically to crack each one as quickly as they can, without giving Cuffy or Willy cause for suspicion. At the end of their journey, Randy and Oliver are greeted with a surprise that neither expected, but that both are overjoyed by.

The Takeaway

In all, this is a light-hearted and whimsical series that young readers have adored for decades. The books are incredibly well penned, with exquisite descriptions of the children’s sensory experiences and stories that are chock-full of adventure and excitement. Even though the Melendy children have lost their mother and several of the books take place with World War II as a backdrop, Enright maintains a sense of levity throughout the series. Although the children volunteer in war relief efforts, Enright’s tone never becomes somber in the way that many other children’s books from that time do. However, because these books are so whimsical and idyllic, the series can be a good one to interleave with more somber or emotionally weighty reads like the Mildred Taylor books.

Share Your Experience!

Did you ever read The Saturdays or any of Elizabeth Enright's other books as a child? What about to your children? If so, what do you remember? Did the Melendy family ever inspire you to go on an independent weekend adventure of your own? 

Please let us know in a comment below!

Purchase “The Melendy Family Quartet Books” at Amazon

The Saturdays
by Elizabeth Enright

The Four-Story Mistake
by Elizabeth Enright

Then There Were Five
by Elizabeth Enright

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4

“The Land” by Mildred D. Taylor

by Rebecca Ripperton
July 8, 2019

The Land, first published in 2001, is the powerful prequel to the other Logan family books (Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; Let the Circle Be Unbroken; The Road to Memphis; and four other short novellas). The book is set shortly after the end of the Civil War, and it follows Cassie’s grandfather, Paul-Edward (or sometimes simply Paul), from childhood through the early years of his manhood. Like Mildred Taylor’s other books, The Land, has been received with critical acclaim, and rightfully so. Taylor was the 2002 Coretta Scott King Awards Author Winner in 2002, making Taylor a four-time Author Winner, as well as a two-time Author Honor recipient. Taylor also received the Newbery Medal for “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” in 1977. While book awards are not necessarily an indication of literary merit, we did want to note these awards because perhaps no living children’s book author deserves more recognition and admiration than Mildred Taylor.

Taylor’s writing marries historical fiction with autobiographical stories passed down to her by her father, uncles, and other family members. The Land begins with a “Note to the Reader” that speaks both to the part that Mildred Taylor’s own family played in writing these stories, and to the difficulty of the subject matter and the language used in describing it.  

“All of my books are based on stories told by my family, and on the history of the United States. In my writing I have attempted to be true to those stories and the history. I have included characters, incidents, and language that present life as it was in many parts of the United States before the Civil Rights Movement. Although there are those who wish to ban my books because I have used language that is painful, I have chosen to use the language that was spoken during the period, for I refuse to whitewash history. The language was painful and life was painful for many African Americans, including my family.

I remember the pain.

Since writing my first book, Song of the Trees, it has been my wish to have readers walk in the shoes of the Logan family, who are based on my family, and to feel what they felt. It has been my wish that by understanding this family and what they endured, there would be a further understanding of what millions of families endured, and there would also be a further understanding of why there was a Civil Rights Movement, a movement that changed our nation.”

The language of this book is indeed painful, as is the experience of reading Mildred Taylor’s other novels. However that pain was one that so many African American children – those born into slavery and those born almost a hundred years after slavery’s abolition – did not have the privilege of avoiding. We agree with Taylor that it is our collective duty as human beings to learn about and acknowledge the physical and psychological harm done to those children and their families, no matter how much discomfort we may experience during the process.

As a result, we highly recommend reading Mildred Taylor's books in a group setting, whether that be at home as a family or in a classroom where they may be discussed. These are hard books to read, and being able to talk about them with others is essential to processing their contents.

The Land is appropriate for children ages 12 and up, but should by no means be limited to adolescents. Adults stand to gain just as much, if not more, from this book as younger readers do.

Paul-Edward’s family

As is true for most children, Paul-Edward’s family life shapes his character, as well as his understanding of his place in the world. However, Paul’s family is not like other African American families that live nearby. He is the son of a black woman, and a white man and former slave owner. More remarkable still is the fact that his white father, Mister Edward Logan, not only recognizes his paternity, but also takes care of Paul as he does his other sons.

Before the Civil War, Edward Logan had taken Paul’s mother as his “colored woman” when she was still enslaved to him and she bore two of his children: Paul and his older sister Cassie. Edward Logan also had a white wife who died shortly after giving birth to a son around the same time that Paul’s mother gave birth to him. As a result, Paul has three white brothers and one biracial sister as siblings.

Like their father, Paul-Edward’s brothers recognize Paul and Cassie as their siblings and call them their own blood. As children, their activities and upbringings are all similar, although never truly the same. Paul’s father teaches him to read and write and requires that his brothers share their school lessons with Paul in Georgia, a place that had, like most southern states, previously passed anti-literacy laws for slaves during the decades leading up to the Civil War.

But as Paul begins to approach adolescence, his vision of his family as a single unit begins to disintegrate. His father sends him to school in Macon to learn woodworking so that he has a trade to sustain him throughout his life; Paul’s brother Robert, however, is sent to a different kind of school, much to the sorrow of both boys. But the boys grow apart, and it is clear that Robert and Paul can no longer enjoy the same relationship they once did.

Paul also struggles to accept that he is not welcome in his father’s house when other white families come to dinner, and to come to terms with the fact that his mother originally had no choice in her relationship with his father. After experiencing what feels like a betrayal at the hands of one of his brothers, Paul has a difficult conversation with his mother about all of these topics, where she tells him of her love for his father and makes it clear that she has had the choice to leave since slaves were emancipated but has elected to stay. 

Eventually, after realizing the difference between his brothers and himself in a humiliating manner, Paul runs away. He is accompanied by another African American boy — Mitchell — with whom he has been allied since childhood, and after traveling about for work, they finally end up in the area of Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Paul’s loneliness

As it is evident that he is of biracial heritage, white and black people alike shun Paul-Edward. Other African American boys persecute him up for looking and “acting” too white, and white people reject him for looking too black. He is disparagingly called a “white n-----” by both parties. Besides his brothers and sister, Paul really doesn’t have friends as a child. He is quiet and introspective by nature, and spends a good deal of time reading — a pastime that does nothing to ingratiate him with neighboring black children, who take this as a sign that he believes himself to be superior to them. Eventually Paul forms an unlikely alliance with the most menacing of these boys, Mitchell, with Mitchell agreeing to stop hurting Paul in exchange for Paul teaching him to read and write. Gradually, over many years of this alliance, the two become best friends, not so much because of desire, but out of circumstance and necessity.

Still, even into his adulthood with Mitchell as an increasingly close friend, Paul is alone. He is unlike the men he works with in the turpentine or logging camps after he runs away, and he continues to be despised and mistrusted by people of both races. Paul-Edward is also set apart from others in his desire to someday own his own land. As an adult, Paul is alienated from his entire family except for his sister Cassie, to whom he writes regularly and his friend, Mitchell. As a result, he throws himself completely into his work and vision for the future.

The desire to own land

Paul grew up cherishing his father’s land and as a child, he expected to stay there always. But once he begins to better understand the reality of his relationship with white men, he becomes determined to find land of his own. Throughout all of his years of woodworking, working in various camps, and horse-racing, Paul saves his money carefully in a bank in New Orleans so that when the time comes, he will be able to put it to good use. When he and Mitchell first arrive in Mississippi, Paul finds an area of land that he falls in love with and asks about purchasing. The land isn’t for sale at that point in time, but the owner promises to let him know if he ever decides to sell.

In the meantime, Paul-Edward strikes a bargain with a white man by the name of Filmore Granger to log forty acres of his land in exchange for the property rights. This work is grueling, and it is all Mitchell and Paul can do to keep up, even with the help of some additional hired hands. But it quickly becomes essential for Paul to earn the rights to the Granger land, as Paul uses it in bargaining for several hundred acres of the land that he originally wanted. Paul is required to make steep monthly payments and a sizable down payment that he risks forfeiting if he cannot come up with the full sum of money in time. Paul gambles with everything he has to purchase The Land, but faces one cruel obstacle after another in his quest to gain its title.

Caroline

A girl named Caroline comes into Paul’s life unexpectedly, and the part she ultimately plays in his life is unexpected, as well. Paul admires her boldness, the way she carries herself, and her determination to do what’s right. He eventually develops a close relationship with her family and even takes on her younger brother, Nathan, as a woodworking apprentice and helper on the 40-acre project. Paul feels at home among her parents and siblings in a way that he has not since he was with his own mother and sister back in Georgia. Although Paul plans to ask her father to court her, her heart has already been spoken for and he must resign himself to that fact.

There are many “plot twists” within the story, but those involving Caroline are worth saving, so we won’t say much more other than the fact that her character is a shining light both within the book, and within Paul’s life. Her portions are definitely something to look forward to!

Discussion questions

  • What drives Paul-Edward’s desire to own land? How do Paul-Edward’s parents each prepare him for land ownership in their own way?
  • Remembering that both Paul-Edward and Caroline’s mother Rachel are at some point forbidden to use their given names, what significance do names have to their owners? What do you take away from someone when you take away their name?
  • What does it mean to be a brother? In what ways do Paul-Edward’s biological brothers and friend Mitchell meet, or fail to meet, those criteria?
  • What lesson(s) does Paul learn from each of his parents? What lesson(s) does he take from their shared relationship, and how do his reflections on their relationship influence his decision-making as a young man and adult?
  • How and why does Mitchell change after meeting Caroline? 
  • Is the lesson that Paul-Edward’s father tries to beat into him after his encounter with the Waverly brothers and the lesson that Paul-Edward actually learns the same? If not, how do they differ?

Share your experience

Have you ever read The Land or any other book by Mildred Taylor? What was your experience of reading it?

We’ll also be writing about the Roll of Thunder trilogy soon, so be on the look out for more about the Logan family in the upcoming weeks!

Purchase Books at Amazon

The Land
 by Mildred D. Taylor

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