E. L. Konigsburg writes hard books. It’s too bad in a way, because they really are exceptional, but I believe grown-ups are often guilty of pushing them on children before they are ready. If a child is faced with a book that is too difficult, you’ll often hear the following complaints: “It’s boring.” “I don’t like it.” Also, with a too challenging book a child may report that she has trouble paying attention to the story. Currently, there’s a lot of focus in schools on helping children identify books that are “just right” and to hold off on more challenging books. One trick is called the “five finger rule” where a child reads a page and if she encounters five words she doesn’t know, she can assume the book is too difficult. We also teach them to be aware of whether or not they’re understanding the story. You can check if your child is understanding by asking her to retell what she’s read in her own words. A reader who really understands will be able to give you a decent synopsis. Be wary if your child is quoting too much directly from the book (even if the book is not open). Some readers have excellent memories, and can give you sections verbatim without knowing what those sentences meant.
When I was little I didn’t particularly like this book, nor did I particularly like Konigsburg’s more famous From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I really think it’s because they were too hard for me when I tried them, and I was a strong reader (if I do say so myself). The vocabulary is challenging (I’ll help you out with the hardest word in the book – Here you go – Asafetida.) I would suggest this for fifth through seventh or eighth grade strong readers.
Jennifer, Hecate, MacBeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth is a story about loneliness and friendship, and exactly what children are willing to do to have friends. Elizabeth is no pushover, she has some lovely moments of exacting vengeance on Cynthia (one of those awful children who is perfect before grown-ups but is just terrible to girls who aren’t her friends). Nonetheless, when she meets Jennifer, she is so starved for friendship (and Jennifer is so mysterious) that she is completely in her thrall. You’ll wince and laugh at the tasks Elizabeth performs during her witch apprenticeship. Okay, fine, by modern standards, some of the things really are cringe-worthy – like eating raw eggs (Think of the salmonella!!) and pricking their fingers and pressing them together (No more blood bonds!) Ultimately though, Jennifer is a real friend.
Published in 1967, this book does show its age a bit, but it also must have been fairly cutting edge for its time. Elizabeth is white and Jennifer is black. At no point in the novel is this ever made an issue. In fact, aside from the drawings, and one reference to Jennifer’s mother as a Negro (I told you it was a bit dated), the race issue was not raised at all. I did notice towards the middle that Jennifer and Elizabeth never played at each other’s houses, but by the end, Jennifer is a guest at Elizabeth’s house and Elizabeth’s mother doesn’t bat an eye. It’s lovely to have a book depicting interracial friendship where the girls’ personalities are at the forefront rather than racial implications. It sends a strong message without needing to say anything at all. The other questionable part is that there is a character named Tony who is the janitor of the apartment building who speaks English in a cartoonish Italian immigrant way. Personally, I don’t think the use of Negro, or Tony’s speech is enough to detract from the overall value of this book.
Sex, Nudity, Dating – When Elizabeth meets Jennifer, Jennifer is up a tree. As Jennifer swings down Elizabeth catches a glimpse of Jennifer’s underwear which is very old fashioned. Elizabeth hides things in her underwear drawer.
Profanity – None.
Death, Violence and Gore – There are several references to witches being hanged in the olden days. There is a reference to Van Gogh and how he cut off his ear. Jennifer tells Elizabeth that there is an ointment to kill people, but agrees quickly when Elizabeth says “Let’s not kill anyone.” Elizabeth’s mother hits her for being fresh.
Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking – Some children dress as cigarette cartons for Halloween. A local candy factory makes mint candy and Elizabeth loves it best because she can pretend she’s smoking menthol cigarettes.
Frightening or Intense Things – None.