Weil, Ann (1952). Red Sails to Capri. New York: Viking.
It isn’t surprising that contemporary middle grade fiction would contrast starkly with books written for this age group sixty-five years ago. Today’s books for ten to twelve year olds reflect themes formerly only seen in young adult fiction. Most reflect our culture in ways that we, as homeschooling parents, would prefer to shield our kids from- if only until they are old enough to be firmly rooted in the truth, and capable of deciding for themselves what is “true, noble, right, and pure” (Philippians 4:8). Finding chapter books that capitalize on a fourth grader’s newly acquired fluency in reading, and which will develop their understanding of characterization, plot, and dialogue, can be challenging. Red Sails to Capri does a beautiful job with all of these, free of the concerns of adolescence. It is usually the first book I recommend to those looking for literature for fourth grade boys.
Fourteen year old Michele helps his parents run an inn on the island of Capri. It is 1826, and they are eking out an existence on this “mountain island” when three visitors arrive in search of beauty, truth, and adventure respectively. Michele takes on the role of valet and guide to these gentlemen and in this fictional rediscovery of “The Blue Grotto of Capri”, experiences the adventure of a life time.
The entire book will bring smiles, but my favorite scenes are those where Signora Pagano is in the kitchen:
“There, there!” The words came from the kitchen along with a wonderful odor. “There, there! Cook slowly now. Do not hurry yourselves. The men have not arrived.”
Signor Pagano looked at Michele and smiled. “Your mother,” he said, “is a remarkable person. Does she cook by recipe? No. Does she cook by taste? No. Does she cook by smell? No. Your mother, Michele, takes a few fish, and she talks to them, and argues with them, and scolds them, and flatters them, until finally she talks them into cooking the way she wants them.” (p.21)
With a cast of eight unforgettable characters and in ten simple chapters, Weil’s book humorously depicts the quests of Lord Derby, Herre Nordstrom, and Monsieur Jacques. Superstition is overcome, reason and courage prevail. And Michele learns to appreciate beauty, the value of friendship, and to let his mother continue to sing the soft boiled egg song. This is one of my favorites to take turns reading with my eight and nine year olds, and a truly well-crafted novel. It’s no wonder it shared the accolade of being a Newbery honor in 1953 alongside Moccasin Trail, The Bears on Hemlock Mountain, and Charlotte’s Web. (Secret of the Andes took the Newbery itself).