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The Julie Books by Megan McDonald

May 11th, 2008 (12:07 pm)
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Current Mood: thirsty
Current Song: Moonshadow cover by Mandy Moore

Author Megan McDonald and illustrator Robert Hunt have created a memorable character in Julie Albright, a smart, passionate young girl who is ready to make changes and take changes as they come. Julie reminds me a bit of Dawn from The Baby-Sisters Club by Ann M. Martin, with her California cool, her compassion, and the way she is illustrated by Hunt.

Julie Albright is one of the American Girls, books which offer realistic glimpses into America's past through the eyes of young girls. The Julie books begin in 1974, when Julie is nine years old, and end in 1976. There are six Julie books in all.

Meet Julie: After her parents get divorced, Julie moves to another part of San Francisco with her older sister Tracy and her artsy mom, who opens up a shop called Gladrags below their apartment. Although Julie gets to see her father (and her rabbit Nutmeg, and her best friend Ivy) every other weekend at her old house, things just aren't the same.

Shortly after Julie starts fourth grade at Jack London Elementary School, she learns that they don't have a basketball team for girls so she asks if she can join the boys' team. The coach initially refuses her request, but Julie sticks to her guns. She learns about Title IX and turns in a petition with 150 signatures on it. The coach still refuses to hear her out, so she works up the nerve to talk to her principal about the situation and earns a spot on the team.

By the end of the book, Julie is a little more confident and a little more content. Though still sad about the divorce, she settles nicely into a pattern with her parents, and she enjoys her new home and her school.

Julie Tells Her Story: At Jack London Elementary School, Julie loves being part of the basketball team (in fact, she's the only girl on it!) and she likes her fourth grade teacher. If only she didn't have this "Story of My Life" project looming over her head!

After her father surprises her with a tape recorder, Julie conducts mini-interviews with her father and her mother, records silly songs and sound effects with her best friend Ivy, and eavesdrops on her older sister Tracy. Julie has a little accident while plant-sitting Tracy's science project, and an even bigger accident on the basketball court. Her melancholy passes when she confesses the truth and realizes that she rather likes the story of her life.

Happy New Year, Julie: Christmas is here, but it's different this year. For the first time, Julie and her older sister Tracy will be celebrating Christmas twice: once with their mother and once with their father. The girls are still getting used to their parents' divorce, but it's proving especially hard for Tracy. She initially doesn't want to go to their dad's house - their old house, which now looks and feels empty and strange - and even though she eventually goes along, she ends up leaving early. Shortly thereafter, Julie gets involved in preparations for Chinese New Year with her best friend Ivy and her family.

Throughout the series, Julie has grown more optimistic and thoughtful. This book shows how she always finds things to celebrate and appreciate, including her family.

Julie and the Eagles: After finding a baby owl in the park, Julie and Ivy give it to a local wildlife rescue center. There, Julie meets Robin Young, a graduate student at Berkeley, and four beautiful eagles: Shasta, Sierra, and their two eaglets. Shasta has an injured wing and cannot be released back into the wild until he recuperates, but if the center doesn't raise enough money soon, the eagles will become too dependent upon their human caretakers to ever be released.

Though Julie enjoys hanging out with Robin and helping feed the baby eagles, she wants to do something more. After her teacher brings up Earth Day, Julie eagerly tells her class all about her feathered friends. Before she knows it, Project SAVE - Save All Vanishing Eagles - has taken flight. On Earth Day, she and her classmates set up booths at Golden Gate Park to help raise awareness and money for the center and for the eagles. The event is a huge success, but they still don't make enough money to create a new habitat for the eagles. Some more quick thinking and unexpected visitors help them make their goal - just in time for Julie's tenth birthday.

In the fourth Julie book, readers will learn about eagles, Earth Day, conservation, and endangered species. This book will definitely inspire readers to take a look at the world around them and get active in their schools and communities. Let's celebrate Earth Day every day!

Julie's Journey: The summer after fourth grade, Julie gets packing. She makes sure to include all of her Little House books alongside a pioneer dress and other stuff. It's 1974, and Julie and her older sister Tracy are getting together with their cousins, aunt, and uncle to take part in the wagon train that's celebrating America's bicentennial. Julie doesn't mind roughing it on the trail. In fact, she's fairly wide-eyed and happy on the journey, writing in her journal and bonding with her sister and her cousin April - that is, until she is thrown from a horse. She's pretty much unharmed, but pretty shaken up. She must build up the courage to literally get back on the horse in order to retrieve a vital piece of history in the making.

This book acts as a nice bridge between Julie and an earlier American Girl, Felicity, whose stories are set in 1774. Readers can easily compare the two series and discuss the differences between the two time periods.

Changes for Julie: The sixth and final book in the Julie series considers communication and politics. Now in fifth grade, Julie befriends a hearing-impaired classmate named Joy who loves dogs and has a lot of good ideas. Unfortunately, not all of their peers understand Joy, and Joy can't always lip read fast enough to understand them or their teacher. Some of the other kids make fun of Joy's voice, and both Joy and Julie get in trouble for passing notes when Joy's confused by what the teacher's saying. Though Julie tries to tell her teacher that she was just trying to explain the lesson to Joy, both of the girls get detention.

After having to write "I will not pass notes in class" and "I will not talk back to the teacher" one hundred times each, Julie gets a hand cramp - and an idea. Why not get kids to do something more active or beneficial to the school, like picking up litter, instead of writing and rewriting such things? Then it's time for the school election for student body president, and Julie decides to run, even though the position typically goes to a sixth-grader. Joy plans to run alongside Julie for vice president, and they create some groovy posters with the help of Julie's best friend Ivy. Julie's classmate T.J. decides to be their campaign manager, and he has no problem supporting the girls, unlike some intolerant kids who scribble on the posters and say mean things about Joy. Julie almost backs out of the election, but after realizing what - and who - she's really campaigning for, she sticks it out and makes her friends and family proud.

Now I'm happily picturing a grown-up Julie working in politics or education, and wishing there were more books in this delightful series.

Julie's best friend Ivy has her own book, which I also recommend: Good Luck, Ivy by Lisa Yee.

I have included the Julie and Ivy books on the Hey There, Sports Fan! booklist.

Like the other American Girl books, each of the Julie books includes vignettes explaining and depicting real-life events that happened in that girl's time period. The vignettes in the Julie books were written and compiled by historians and writers such as Susan McAliley and Nika Korniyenko.

Author Megan McDonald also writes about contemporary girls. Check out The Sisters Club, which is also an American Girls book, and the Judy Moody series, which is illustrated by Peter Reynolds.

Read my interview with Megan McDonald.