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I like to sort books into categories in my mind, made-up groups you won’t find on the aisles of Powell’s, but nonetheless very real categories in Meg’s Brain. One favorite dichotomy of mine is “books that inspire reflection” and “books that inspire action.” Inactivity vs. Implementation. Ease vs. Execution. Jane Eyre makes me want to sit in a hammock, and Pride and Prejudice makes me want to walk.
During a masked jaunt through the woods near our home, a neighbor of mine recommend The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright. She thought of me, because in the story four siblings basically orchestrate their own Yes Days by pooling their allowance and giving it to one sibling each week: a perfect Saturday for each kid, every fourth week. She offered to lend it to us, but – because borrowing is stressful – we waited on a library copy.
How had I not heard of this series? Because, oh yes, there are four – The Melendy Quartet, and each one is lovely in its own right. My son asked if there were, “Any battles? Any magic? Not interested, then,” so I read it aloud to my daughter. As soon as we finished the series, she begged her brother to read it, too, but they wanted it to be a family affair, so we literally put down book four and picked up book one and began again.
The Saturdays is empowering and shocking (each kid successfully navigates New York City alone and has a mildly dazzling adventure). The next three books take place after the family leaves the city for country life in a home called The Four-Story Mistake. Then There Were Five is the heaviest of the books and the only one with a truly scary part, but Enright handles it with a fairly light touch. The title sort of gives away the ending, but these books are more cozy than stressful, so I didn’t mind. Spiderweb for Two takes place after the eldest children go off to high school in the city and – to my delight – features the two youngest Melendys. Practical, reasonable little Oliver is my favorite, and he finally gets the spotlight in book four, which chronicles a mysterious, year-long scavenger hunt navigated by Oliver and his big sister Randy.
All four books have a backdrop of WWII, but it’s never at the center of the story. You’ll read about weeding the victory garden, but that’s about as close as you get. Like Little House on the Prairie or Huckleberry Finn, The Melendy Quartet is problematic. It shouldn’t be the only thing your kids are reading, and I recommend reading it with your children, so you can remind them why it’s never okay to call a human being a savage, for example, or make sure they understand the terrible racism that Japanese Americans endured during and after the war. We were simultaneously reading Brown Girl Dreaming, but I wish I’d thought to pair our reading with a book about the internment. It’s important to know what young Japanese American kids were doing while the Melendys were building a dam in their brook or putting on a play in their dining room. You could always pick up the picture book Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind, to read alongside.
The Melendy Quartet falls firmly in the inspire-to-action category, so what did the Melendys inspire the Asbys to do? My kids put on a play in our basement, complete with backdrop, lighting (see photo above) and costumes. They wanted to can fruits and vegetables but settled for baking (it was winter, after all, and we have no victory garden anyway). They memorized poetry like Mona, practiced piano like Rush, begged to go fishing like Oliver, painted and danced like Randy, and even got their first job collecting mail for a neighbor (the money went to their college funds, rather than war bonds). I suppose I’ll have to improve our annual birthday scavenger hunts, now that the Melendys have discovered a clue in an abandoned oriole’s nest. And if we hadn’t already adopted our pup Quimby, I think the Melendy family dog and hero Isaac would have pushed us over the edge. My kids are currently lobbying for a treehouse like Rush’s. So you’ve been warned. Picking up this series means committing to at least a project or two, possibly an animal or two: the Melendys go from city life with no animals to housing dogs, goats, horses, cows, snakes, caterpillars, chickens, and even – briefly – an alligator. Proceed with caution.
Elizabeth Enright wrote stories for both children and adults, and if you’ve been trudging through some kid favorites with awkward writing and are on the verge of giving up reading to your children forever, fear not! Enright’s prose is clever and clean, and she has the gift of remembering how children think, in the spirit of Beverly Cleary. Each Melendy child has a unique soul, and I feel as if they are real people in the world I share with my children. You will love these books as much as your children do, if not more. Put it on the shelf next to Little Women, and enjoy.
Happy Melendy-inspired adventuring!