The Stories Julian Tells by Ann Cameron, illustrated by Ann Strugnell.
Random House, New York, my edition 2006 (originally published 1981).
Realistic fiction, 71 pages.
Lexile: 520L .
AR Level: 3.4 (worth 1.0 points) .
NOTE: This is the first book in the Julian series.
Six first-person short stories revolving around Julian Bates.
I’ve already reviewed two later books in this series, Gloria Rising and Gloria’s Way. Series order isn’t strictly necessary, although a few things change as the series progresses (new characters are introduced, the boys get a dog). At this point, the main characters are just Julian, younger brother Huey, and their parents. Gloria is introduced in the final story of this book.
First, I’d like to give some credit to Ann Cameron. It was unusual in 1980 for a white woman to chose to write a book about middle class black children. (Keep in mind this was less than 20 years since The Snowy Day.) And generally speaking, her books still hold relevance today and I haven’t spotted any major issues in the ones I’ve read.
However, she has grown so much as a writer. This book is sweet, but a bit dated. In particular, the illustrations could use a redo to fit modern tastes. There’s nothing wrong with Strugnell’s art, but styles in clothing and children’s book art have changed drastically. Random House updated the cover, but left the interior art the same, which turns many kids off.
The Pudding Like a Night on the Sea
Mr. Bates is making a special treat for his wife. The boys wait in the kitchen with strict instructions not to touch the finished product. But the pudding looks so good… and tastes so good… What will happen when their parents go to eat their sweet treat and find an empty bowl?
Spoilers This could be very cute, but I wouldn’t recommend it for general classroom read-aloud. The reason is that traumatized kids could have a very strong reaction to the father’s anger and the talk about beating and whipping (referring to the kids remaking the pudding by beating and whipping the eggs). Mr. Bates pulling the kids out from under the bed by their ankles could also be triggering for some children. This is the first point where the text is really dated – physical punishments are not so common in America anymore, and to read about them here (even if no actual abuse occurs) is jarring.
The boys are going to make a garden so Mr. Bates sends away for a catalog (another dated reference). Huey asks Julian what a catalog is, and Julian tells him all about the magical gardening cats that they can order. Then the catalog actually arrives.
This was a cute story. Though the catalog aspect of it might not jive with modern kids, tricking a younger sibling is a perennial topic. I appreciated the deft but realistic way their father handled the issue. Plus, students might learn how catalogs worked.
Following on the previous theme, this very short story tells what the boys planted. They each choose a unique specialty item – Julian wants corn that’ll grow as tall as the house and Huey wants the house made of flowers. Neither work out quite as they expected, but they are happy with the results.
Because of Figs
Julian got an unusual present on his fourth birthday – a fig tree. For two whole years, Julian grows but the tree doesn’t, and his father can’t figure out why.
This is one of those weird stories that probably happened with a kid the author knew, because with kids sometimes things happen that are so unusual they feel like they must be fiction. God and prayer do come into this story. It’s a case where Julian figures things out without guidance from his friends or family.
My Very Strange Teeth
Julian has a loose tooth and a problem. His new tooth is already growing in, but the old one hasn’t come out. His father remembers some ways to pull a tooth, but Julian doesn’t like any of those.
I cringed a little at this one. I know some people still remove baby teeth this way but my family always had the dentist take them out, and the methods from Julian’s father’s time seem dated now. The ending is okay though, and this is an issue many children will have, so it’s relatable.
Gloria Who Might Be My Best Friend
Julian would like a best friend, but not a girl – until Gloria moves to his street. She can do cartwheels and doesn’t mind that he can’t, and she knows the best way to make wishes come true. So he wishes that they become best friends.
This was my favorite story in this book, probably because Gloria is my favorite character in this series. Their first meeting is sweet and so well done I didn’t mind the anachronism of the kids making their own kite. Although the impractical dress Gloria was wearing bugged me, Cameron can’t help the illustrations.
I do read selections from this fairly often when a class gets done with checkout early or we plow through another book faster than I expected. Ann Cameron has written better, and more relevant books. However, I would still recommend this to most families, if none of the kids have suffered trauma or abuse. And for teachers I’d suggest using some of the short stories.