Round 1, Match 5: Listen, Slowly vs. Mine for Keeps


Judged by Andrée • Find her on Goodreads

For Battle, part the third, I have been asked to choose between Listen, Slowly by Thanhhà Lại and Mine for Keeps by Jean Little. Unlike most of the other battle pairings I’ve judged in the past, these books are actually quite similar, not in terms of details or writing style, but in essentials.

Both are rather charming coming of age stories featuring young female protagonists.  The protagonists, Mai in Listen, Slowly and Sally in Mine for Keeps, are thrust into whole new worlds at the start of their respective books.  Mai is being forced to accompany her grandmother on a trip back to Vietnam so her grandmother can finally get some closure on her grandfather’s death (a trip that Mai Does. Not. Want. To. Go. On.).  Sally is going home to live with her family permanently after spending most of her life living at a special school for the disabled because of her cerebral palsy.

One girl is terrified – that no one will like her, that she won’t be able to cope outside of her special school, that she’ll never fit in. The other is frustrated – she’s a good kid, so why does she have to spend her entire summer in Vietnam instead of with her friends (and the boy she might like) at the beach?  Both books are grounded in family and friends. I was struck by the realism of the sibling relationships in Mine for Keeps, squabbling and supportive almost at the same time. In Listen Slowly I was touched by Mai’s relationship with her grandmother (and amused by her blatant attempts to manipulate her parents). The Vietnamese village with all of Mai’s maybe-aunts and cousins forms the same kind of supportive circle that Sally’s family (and eventually her classmates) form for her. Though admittedly, being older and approaching her teenage years, Mai seems to appreciate this support (and interference) less.

While I enjoy the family dynamics, I really love the friendships that develop over the course of both novels: Sally with her adorable little dog Suzie, and with her classmates Libby and ever-practical Elsje, and Mai with Ùt. Both authors do a really good job of building genuine friendships, and showing the effects they have on the girls. I also found it interesting that both novels used the friendships as a way of commenting on the immigrant experience. Mai is the daughter of immigrants returning to her parents’ country of birth, and trying to understand the people there. Sally’s struggle dealing with her physical disability in a new environment is compared with the struggles of Elsje and her family as they adjust to living in Canada, having recently immigrated from Holland.

Full disclosure: Beth, you assigned Jean Little to a Canadian, and a Canadian from southern Ontario at that. Jean Little is a celebrated Canadian children’s author, and one we proudly claim. I knew all about Jean Little as a kid. My sense was that she was a Big Deal, and wrote Good Books. Before this battle, I had never read Mine for Keeps (though I read at least one of her other books when I was younger). I do remember seeing Mine for Keeps at the school library, and immediately thinking that it was exactly the type of book my parents would love for me to read, the kind with Lessons to make me a Better Person. Obviously, I instinctively rebelled (most of my childhood “rebellions” were similar in nature). I very deliberately never read it, though I was the only person aware of my stubborn stance on the subject. (I’d forgotten about it myself until I picked the book up from the library a few weeks ago and recognized the cover – it’s the same edition. Seriously Beth, my eight year old self was not impressed.)

One of the reasons I bring it up is that if both of these books have a flaw, that’s essentially it. They are very clearly discussing important issues; lessons are being conveyed, often none too subtly. But, while it’s not subtle, the lessons aren’t really being shoved down your throat either, because the stories are both so incredibly genuine. Any lessons a reader might find emerge naturally from the lives of these two lovely little girls. Both are just good stories; one happens to feature a disabled girl, and the other a girl who’s learning more about her family’s history. Both gave me that warm happy feeling in the pit of my stomach that I get when I’m reading a book that I really love, and can really empathize with. Multiple times. The books manage to generate the kind of connection with the characters that you want when you’re reading (at least I do). And both do it with and a lot of fun and humour; while the subjects are serious, the books don’t take themselves so. Seriously, didn’t matter if it was Elsje or one of the never ending Vietnamese aunts ordering people around, I giggled a lot.

Whether discussing disability, cultural differences, or the importance of family and true friends, both books manage not to descend into preachiness.  Read both. They’re worth it.

Unfortunately, I can’t send both forward. I can only choose the one I like better.

Listen, Slowly, while fantastic at conveying setting and cultural differences, sometimes felt like a bit… much. Mai’s parents were almost too perfectly good (human rights lawyer, doctor who travels to Vietnam every summer to help kids there). Her North American best friend in contrast felt too superficial. I understand the point of it (and I’m not saying it’s unrealistic), but it may have been a bit on the nose. Plus, I’ve never been much of a fan of “kid is forced to spend a summer doing something they expect to hate and so spend the first 100 or so pages sulking” (regardless of how understandable such a reaction is).

Which is why, overcoming the (still-stubborn) echoes of my eight-year old self’s irrational grudge, I choose Mine for Keeps. Because even though it was written 50 years ago, it doesn’t feel dated. Because while it has its own moments of “worthiness,” the story worked better for me thanks to a slightly younger protagonist (and intended audience). Because Sally and her little dog Suzie were adorable. Because all the kids made me laugh. And because it honestly felt like it could have taken place just around the corner from home.

Congratulations to Mine for Keeps, which moves on to round 2!


21 thoughts on “Round 1, Match 5: Listen, Slowly vs. Mine for Keeps

  1. Haha, how dare Beth make you betray such long held ideals! (My rebellions were similar, right down to no one else actually knowing about them!)

    I think I would’ve made the same choice, for the same reason. Frankly, my 32-year old self rebelled a bit against reading Listen, Slowly, for the same reason as your 8 year old self (well, my parents probably don’t care if I read it or not). Even the description feels so on the nose, like I knew exactly what the book was going to be. (And I suppose I more or less did. It was good, but was also basically what I thought it would be.)

    Mine for Keeps wasn’t entirely immune from that reaction, but maybe I’m inclined to go a little easier on the older books. They’ve stood the test of time, after all. (And I think you might be right about the slightly younger audience.)

    And, obviously, it has Suzie!

    1. I went into Listen, Slowly blind (besides for knowing there was early Newbery hype for it) (crickets on that) and maybe that was the best way to approach this, wow.

      Can we say Mine for Keeps stood the test of time if it’s out of print? At least in the US? Andree, is it still in print in Canada, or just in library circulation? (“Just.”)


      1. I was so surprised that you even knew about it. After all, it’s more than 50 years old. I guess we can say it’s stood the test of time if it was reprinted in 2008 (there’s a copy on with a lovely photo of a westie on the cover). I was dipping into my copy in preparation for the battle, and was impressed by how well it stands up. Obviously no computers or cell phones, but otherwise I guess the life of a child is not all that different. I always think that about the Penderwicks, that they have a kind of timelessness about them.

        1. That’s all my mom! I grew up reading a lot of the books she grew up reading, and we’re all big used-bookstore shoppers in my family.

          Yeah, I totally agree re: this being timeless, and the Penderwicks, too. It’s like – the difficulties children face aren’t really different now than they were 50 years ago, which is partly sad (no cure for CP) and partly the universal human experience (being different).

      2. I can tell you that “Mine for Keeps” seems to be mentioned in pretty much every bio of Jean Little when she’s going to speak somewhere. I do have this sense that it is generally well known (even if tons of kids aren’t reading it anymore). Although, I may have a disproportionate sense of what books are known.

    2. I genuinely felt a shadow of old annoyance rise up in me when I picked the book up from the library before battle. The title had twigged something in my brain, but I didn’t realize what until I saw the cover. I genuinely thought, “I don’t want to read this” for no apparent logical reason. Then I realized why and I laughed pretty hard.

      Listen, Slowly was funnier than I thought it would be. The other reason I think Mine for Keeps is less immune to the reaction is that Sally has the earnestness of a child while Mai has the snark of a pre-teen, and it makes a difference.

      1. Sally has the earnestness of a child while Mai has the snark of a pre-teen, and it makes a difference.

        Oooooh. This is a great point. I need to think about this.

        1. Yeah, I didn’t put it in my review, but I did feel a bit that stylistically Mai’s voice jarred with the “message” which made it all the more obvious, whereas the dynamics of Sally’s family and friends fit better.

  2. Jean Little is a celebrated Canadian children’s author, and one we proudly claim.

    Ha! This reminds me of you and Rachel proudly claiming every single Canadian celebrity you guys could think of off the top of your head, and me not realising half of those were Canadian. Good times. I think you rightfully claim every single famous citizen as a nation, and rightfully so.

    That entire paragraph on the grudge your 8-year-old self held against the book is the best.

    1. I totally thought of that too Cathy! But I swear, we do claim people.

      My 8 year old self could hold a grudge! I couldn’t believe Beth assigned me this book, to be honest.

  3. Yay! Yay! Yay! I was so afraid that Mine For Keeps would get knocked out in the first round because it’s old and for a younger audience and just kind of sweet and simple. I’m another proud Canadian, and I read MfK waaaay back when I was only about 10. You should see my copy, with Sally on the cover wearing a very sixties looking frock and hat with a ribbon on it 🙂 I loved it because we had a Westie when I was a very small child and at the time I was reading it was longing for a dog of my own. I never liked any of Jean Little’s books as much as this one. The aspect that Andree discusses about it being a “message” book was all the more true in Little’s other books. Did you know there was a sequel, by the way? It focusses on Meg. But I never liked it as much as the first one – there’s something so perfect about it – the comforting family relationships, the dilemmas that are never insoluble.

    1. I’ve never seen that cover (though I did find the 2008 cover! I like). I basically used all my book covers for this battle 😀

      The other Little I remember really liking was From Anna, and that’s definitely a message book. A well-done one, though, and not what I typically think of when I think message book.

      1. From Anna has elements from JL’s own life (the Sight Savers class, for example). I read it and Listen for/to the Singing, which is the sequel. JL does issue books well. I think partly because she’s coming at it from the perspective of she taught (or worked with, can’t remember) kids with disabilities and realized there were no stories about them, where they were just kids dealing with growing up.

    2. Listen, Slowly didn’t sit for me as well. And for whatever reason, I do tend to gravitate towards Can-Lit (not all of it, obviously).

      My cover is the blueish one where she’s wearing a pink blouse. Not sure how effective a cover it is, given that I took an immediate dislike to the book.

  4. I haven’t read either of these books, but I love the way you’ve negotiated with your 8 year-old’s self feelings about the book! Interesting point about ‘message’ books: I certainly have a complicated relationship with these. I guess it all depends on not how much of the message the reader personally agrees with but it especially depends on the execution of the message – how well it is integrated into the story, and whether the whole plot is articfially manufactured around the message or if it emerges organically from the characters.

    The comments about Canadian writers made me wonder why I didn’t hold up Jellicoe Road as an example of the best of Australian writing in my writeup. I think now that this was an omission on my part. But although I have a high regard fpr Austrailan SF/F and YA books (and perhaps especially books that are Australian SF/F as well as YA), there’s a particular type of realist Australian writing I’m not particularly fond of. Jellicoe doesn’t fall into the latter cagegory for me, but maybe that might explain why it didn’t immediately occur to me to emphasise the Australian feel of Jellicoe and how much it’s a part of its charm.

    1. Now I’m interested to know what the “particular type of realist Australian writing” it is that you’re not fond of. I think of Ivan Southall, and his kind of “throw kids out into the bush and see if they survive” stories. For me, Marchetta is very specifically Australian – and I agree that it’s part of the appeal of her work.

    2. Integration of the message into the story is the big one for me.

      The main reason I pointed out the Canadian thing, is because it really figured into my choice. The book felt like home. It reminded me of my own childhood, in a weird way. Not all Can-lit makes me feel that way. This did. It added to making the story feel real to me, as opposed to just a message.

  5. Ivan Southall is great, and there’s lots of other terrific children’s/YA Australian lit. In particular, there’s some fantastic Aussie SF and F stuff being written today, marketed at all levels. What I’m referring to is a particular contemporary style that’s more prevalent in Aussie adult mainstream fiction than genre fiction. I guess it’s a particular style of ‘lit fic’, really that irritates me – a sort of determinedly, doggedly ‘realist’ and relentlessly mundane style that I personally just find kind of dreary. Sometimes it’s written in an exaggerated ‘Australian’ style, as if that alone would justify its being great Australian lit. It’s almost the opposite of what we call the ‘Australian cringe’ – the former lack of confidence in authentic Australian culture that was once so prevalent here – so that I almost think the trend I’m referring to is a kind of backlash to that.

    In general I prefer Aussie genre lit than Aussie adult mainstream lit. And that’s possibly a bit unfair of me, because I don’t read enough of it to really be able to judge! It may in fact really be confined to lit fic. So maybe I should really read more contemporary mainstream Aussie lit to get a more rounded view.

    1. It’s funny, because most imported-to-the-US Australian YA writing really feels distinctly, uniquely Australian to me, and I’m not familiar with Aussie mainstream lit at all! I will avoid it 🙂

      I still want to know what, exactly, is in the water in Australian universities, if this is the caliber of YA writing they produce. It’s pretty fabulous.

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