Monday, July 11, 2016

Book Review: Daphne's Book

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Daphne’s Book

Author: Mary Downing Hahn

Date: 1983

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin / Avon

ISBN: 0-380-72355-7

Length: 166 pages

Quote: “Have you found Sir Benjamin in real life? Well, then, I don’t think Princess Heatherfern should find him in the story.”

Apart from having a name like “Daphne,” good for an endless series of cheap shots in middle school, Daphne is different from the other kids in her class.Daphne has skipped over the boys-and-clothes-and-popularity obsession; Jessica, the narrator, hasn’t reached it yet. Jessica’s best friend, Tracy, is drawn to the class mean girls, Michelle and Sherry, as the three of them reach that stage of adolescence. Jessica’s English teacher has ordered Jessica to work with Daphne on a writing project. Jessica thinks this is going to cost her Tracy’s friendship and bring her a lot of snide remarks from Michelle and Sherry…but that’s only the tip of the iceberg; this first novel meant a lot to Mary Downing Hahn, who put a lot of life experience into it.

The assignment is to write a picture book for younger children. Daphne’s assets—the extra maturity she’s gained from life and loss and having a younger child to test her story on—immediately reveal themselves. Jessica has the idea of writing about collectible dressed-up toy mice, which were a feature attraction at Lowens’ toy store in Bethesda at the time; the mice came with all sorts of doll-sized furniture and lived in pre-Barbie, one-inch-to-one-foot dollhouses. One of Jessica’s mice has been lost, possibly destroyed by her cat, so for the story they draw pictures of the other mice searching for him in the Adelphi Mills Park. (Yes, although identifying details have been airbrushed and Lowens’ went out of business, it was possible for a long time to organize a tour of suburban Maryland around Daphne’s Book.) Jessica thinks the missing mouse should be found at the end of the story. Daphne persuades her that it’s a stronger story if he’s not.

It turns out that Daphne knows the importance of recognizing that someone is lost forever because her parents are dead, and her increasingly senile grandmother, with whom she and her mouthy little sister Hope live, refuses to accept that the girls’ father isn’t coming back to fix their shabby house and eke out the grandmother’s inadequate pension money.

Deep down, Hahn knew how this story would end if Jessica’s family were really good neighbors, rather than merely nice: Jessica’s family would adopt Daphne’s family. They all like each other; they’d be less affluent, but not destitute, if they shared their resources; the grandmother might not have to go into a nursing home before her time, and the girls could stay in the same school at least until they get to know the cousins who might have more to offer them. Good neighbors are willing to adapt to the short-term discomfort that sort of thing entails. Merely nice neighbors, however, are not, and although Jessica might be a good neighbor at heart, her mother, older brother, and prospective stepfather are determined to bring her up to be a merely nice neighbor like them.

Daphne and Hope and their grandmother go into separate “homes” as wards of the state. There’s a lot of blather about how this is the way things “have to” be. Deep down, you know that Hahn knew it wasn’t, really. No one-size-fails-to-fit-all program managed by social workers can ever be an adequate substitute for what individual neighbors can and should do for one another.

However, for the sake of readers who are still on Jessica’s level of maturity rather than Daphne’s, the story gets a halfway happy ending.

I wrote a review of this book long ago, on Associated Content; the review has been lost in cyberspace and and I've sold the copy I owned then. I now physically own another copy--the second edition with the picture shown above. A newer edition is available from Mary Downing Hahn's web site, and although I won't get a commission if you buy the new paperback here, Mary Downing Hahn will get a better commission. Buy an old book from me (either address at the very bottom of the screen) for $5 per book + $5 per package for shipping, and Hahn or a charity or her choice will get $1 per book sold. Buy a shiny new book directly from Houghton Mifflin for $6.99 + current minimum postal rate for shipping, and Hahn will probably get more than 69 cents, so that may actually be a better way to show respect for her work.