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July 9, 2010

New Books: Terrible, Horrible Edie

I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to sing the praises of the New York Review Children’s Collection, which continues to find and reissue great but out-of-print children’s literature from decades past, by authors well-known (e.g., James Thurber) and forgotten alike. Anyone in search of the little-known classics of the genre should look no further than its catalog; I pretty much covet every single book in it. (The website even lets you suggest titles of out-of-print classics you think NYRCC should consider!)

Among the more recent releases is Terrible, Horrible Edie, by E. C. Spykman, a book I’d never heard of, by an author I’d never heard of, that’s part of a series I’d never heard of. It’s actually Spykman’s third book about the Cares family—mainly the six children of the family, four from a previous marriage and two toddlers from the current one; they are modeled closely after the author’s own Massachusetts upbringing in the first decade of the 20th century.

In this one, the Cares kids head off to their aunt’s beachhouse on the Atlantic coast, where they’re to spend the summer under the observation of a caretaker, housekeeper, and cook (if it wasn’t already clear that Mr. Cares was well off from the menagerie of family pets along for the trip, which includes a monkey) while their parents tour Europe. The title character could not be more a middle child—her three older siblings are 18, 17, and 16; Edie herself is 10, and her two younger stepsisters, Chris and Lou, are 5 and 3. Which gets to the heart of the adjectives in the title, too: Edie longs for the independence her older siblings are now enjoying, to command sailboats and drive cars and such, but those charged with looking after her are always getting in the way, and she is forced to find creative ways around the restrictions on her summer plans. Since she is about the most determined 10-year-old you’re likely to meet, she usually succeeds.

Spykman presents the family (sans parents) summer at the beach through the eyes of this no-nonsense child, complete with adventures both typical (a rebellious solo sailing adventure) and extraordinary (a massive hurricane, seemingly based on the real one of 1938 but moved back a few decade for fiction’s sake). Through it all, the Cares children react with a resolute sangfroid reminiscent of characters books about English families—it’s not unlike the tone of the Pevensie kids in the Narnia books, except that this is all happening in real-life Massachusetts. Nothing can faze these children for long.

But the real draw, as it should be, is specifically Edie. She’s fiercely self-reliant, endlessly frustrated at the general uselessness of many adults and almost the entire male gender (“In all her life, Edie thought, she had never met so many stupid, nutty men at one time.”), and remarkably adept at solving problems, even the ones she has created in the first place. She’s also completely irresistible, and not at all terrible or horrible, unless you happen to be one of her caretakers. Spykman, a fourth child in a large family herself, brilliantly transcribes Edie’s 10-year-old logic as she convinces herself that, say, it’s okay for her to take the two young children with her out in the sailboat without telling anyone.

Sypkman’s writing in general is outstanding, maintaining funny deadpan humor throughout with moments of beautiful child-POV lyricism sprinkled in. (“Lou gave her one of her hugs and kisses. It was just like eating a new doughnut while you put your face in sweet peas.”) The portrait she paints of the family is vivid and true-to-life, every single sibling relationship with a color and tone all its own, and despite the chaos—and the shock at how very different parenting was in this country a hundred years ago—you come to like them all very much. But especially Edie.

Now, the subject matter and writing style of Terrible, Horrible Edie were a little advanced for my five-year-old at present—he could follow it, but the story wasn’t immediately grabbing him the way it did me, and I ended up finishing the book on my own. But I think he’ll be ready for it—and love it—within a few years. And for those of you with kids, especially daughters, around Edie’s age, say 7 to 12...well, this is the perfect book to read with them this summer. On vacation, of course!

[Image courtesy of New York Review Children’s Collection.]


  1. I am one-clicking it right now!!!

  2. Myles, this was one of my all-time favorite books as a child! I'm so glad to see it again! Thank you!

  3. Wonderful recommendation. I love these NYRB books and this one sounds awesome.