Jumping out of bed, I ran into her room, hugged the long shape wrapped in a sheath of blankets, and said, "Happy birthday, Patty! If you could have your heart's desire, what would it be?" Patty moaned sleepily and answered, "A quart of milk and The Washington Post."
Anne Morrow Lindbergh, The Hunky-Dory Dairy
THE WASHINGTON NOVEL: Spys and intrigue, power and corruption, diplomats and politicians. The Washington juvenile novel: Cats and ghosts, girl's track teams and the problems of being a foster child or living with a single parent.
More than a dozen modern juvenile novels are set in the Washington area, full of the sorts of things all good kid lit embraces -- sports, unreasonable adults, mystery and real kids. Authors such as Anne Lindbergh, R.R. Knudson and Katherine Paterson -- who's taken two Newbery Awards for her poignant, contemporary novels -- plop their characters down in suburbs and cities familiar to the Washington eye.
There they view the setting with the same So This Is Home outlook as their characters. Kids in these books value their schools and their friends, but treat the fact that they're in Washington as one of those random bits of fate with which young lives seem overfull.
Take Quentin Roosevelt in The One Bad Thing About Father, for instance. His father, Theodore, happens to be President of the United States, which sticks Quentin and his five siblings at the White House -- a museum-like prison full of stuffy adults who don't appreciate the young Roosevelts' sledding down the stairs on cookie sheets or sneaking a horse onto the freight elevator to visit a sick sibling.
"Suppose you are riding your express wagon in the hall, having a race with your dog, Skip," Quentin theorizes. "Suppose the wagon turns over and your hand goes through a picture. It's Mrs. Benjamin Harrison, wife of the 23rd President. And that picture is government property!"
The fictional heroine of President's Daughter has the same problem as Quentin -- except the president happens to be a Mom. The sequel to this daughter's-eye-view of our first female prez is called White House Autumn.
The resident of another public monument is featured in Beppie Noyes' Mosby, The Kennedy Center Cat. This is the true story of a stage cat who lived, prowled and critiqued at the Kennedy Center, wailing through Eugene O'Neil's tragic "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and crying like a baby through Jean Kerr's family comedy, "Finishing Touches."
The presence of such a discerning cat would have wrecked the plot of another Washington novel: Robert O'Brien's Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of N.I.M.H. The acronym stands for National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda where, the novel tells us, experiments were conducted to increase the rats' brain capacity -- until the rats got smart enough to escape. The story, made into a popular motion picture in 1983 ("The Secret of N.I.M.H."), centers on the renegade rats and the family of a mouse who helped them, and is heavy on Washington novel grist -- politics, power and high-tech military might.
The rats establish their headquarters in the countryside beyond the District, also the setting for two very different Washington kidlit novels. Mary Downing Hahn's Wait Till Helen Comes involves a Baltimore stepfamily, fed up with life in the city, who move 45 miles south to mythical Holwell, Md. One of the children, who watched her mother die in a fire years previously, makes contact with the ghost of another burn victim -- with nasty results.
Katherine Paterson's country couple in Bridge to Terabithia start out in Arlington, dropping out to live in Lark Creek (read: Lovettsville, where Paterson once taught school). There, the local residents scrabble for a living and long for the advantages the couple just left. The story is a delicate, poignant and powerful one of the friendship between their daughter and a local boy, a friendship blown apart by death.
Paterson also wrote The Great Gilly Hopkins, set in thinly disguised Takoma Park, about one of literature's sorriest, scruffiest, most obnoxious and ultimately redeemable foster children. The story of a girl's growth from a bubble-gum-bedecked manipulator to a child coming to grips with her mother's desertion is sad and funny -- and one of the library's most popular books.
R.R. Knudson, a native Arlingtonian, writes stories of real kids in the Virginia suburbs. Her characters are usually young girls devoted to sports, making their way in a traditionally male world and learning to cope with themselves as athletes who are female, and females who are athletes.
The first characters you meet in Anne Morrow Lindbergh's books are also Washington kids with homework assignments and parents who ring familiar. But Lindbergh -- daughter of the aviator -- plunges quickly into fantasy in The Hunky-Dory Dairy and The People of Pineapple Place. Both work out of Northwest D.C. as it appears in two time zones -- today, and roughly a century ago, with characters from Georgetown's past appearing to help their modern peers.
Kids today need all the help they can get -- whether it's characters from the past, or just characters from books set in hauntingly familiar surroundings. The Washington juvenile novel: Read it. WASHINGTON'S NOVEL APPROACH
WAIT TILL HELEN COMES --
by Mary Downing Hahn, Clarion Books, 1986.
TALLAHASSEE HIGGINS --
by Mary Downing Hahn, Clarion Books, 1987.
RINEHART LIFTS --
by R. R. Knudson, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1980.
R. R. Knudson, Delacorte Press, 1972.
by R. R. Knudson, Harper & Row, 1977.
by R. R. Knudson, Harper & Row, 1978.
ZAN HAGEN'S MARATHON --
by R.R. Knudson, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984.
THE HUNKY-DORY DAIRY --
by Anne Lindbergh, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986.
THE PEOPLE IN PINEAPPLE PLACE --
by Anne Lindbergh, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.
THE ONE BAD THING ABOUT FATHER --
F. N. Monjo, An I Can Read Book, Harper & Row, 1970.
MOSBY, THE KENNEDY CENTER CAT --
by Beppie Noyes, Acropolis Books, 1978.
MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF N.I.M.H. --
by Robert C. O'Brien, Atheneum, 1971.
BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA --
by Katherine Paterson, Thomas Y. Crowell, 1977.
THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS --
by Katherine Paterson, Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1978.
PRESIDENT'S DAUGHTER --
by Ellen E. White, Avon. 1984.
WHITE HOUSE AUTUMN --
by Ellen E. White, Avon, 1985.
THE TOAD ON CAPITOL HILL --
by Esther Brady, Crown Books, 1978.
THE CHERRY BLOSSOM PRINCESS --
by Marjorie Holmes, Dell Paperbacks, 1982.
by Elizabeth Isele, Lippincott, 1983.