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In the early 1900s, nine-year-old Janet Laidlaw lives in “the House on the Hill” on the West Indian island of Trinidad with her father, who owns a dry goods store, her mother, who is often ill, and their servants. Her brother Lawrence, who is ten years older, was away at school in Scotland when she was born and then went to sea, so she has never seen him, but he comes home to help in the family business. Janet learns stories of Scotland from her father, stories of England from her mother, and stories of America from reading Little Women. Seeing America is her ultimate dream. And she loves to write. That Christmas, Janet’s father gives her a silver pencil for her stories, and she writes about her life in Trinidad. However, shortly after that, Father unexpectedly dies.
The rest of the book follows Janet as she and her mother move to England for Janet’s schooling, through a visit with relatives in Scotland, then a return to Trinidad for mother’s health, to Janet’s decision to go to America for teacher training. All during these experiences, she continues to write with the silver pencil. But what will happen when she comes down with a serious illness? Will she ever achieve her goal of being a teacher? The book, which won a Newbery Honor Award in 1945, is somewhat semi-autobiographical. Alice Dalgliesh, who authored The Courage of Sarah Noble and The Bears on Hemlock Mountain, both of which also won Newbery Honor Awards, wrote, “This book is fiction and the characters are fictitious, with the exception of certain public figures and Professor Patty Smith Hill, whose name is used by permission. Many of the experiences of Janet Laidlaw are similar to my own; all the episodes in which children appear are true to life.” I generally liked The Silver Pencil, though it is not what I expected. It is an interesting story of one individual’s doing everything possible to accomplish a passionate aim, but the slow-moving plot with its lack of exciting action and adventure may not appeal to everyone.
There are a few common euphemisms (darned, gosh, gee), even one “Lord, no,” and once a parrot is said to have had “a red-hot collection of swear words,” though none are actually used. As she grows up, Janet experiences various romantic problems in her relationships with men, so some parents may not think the book appropriate for preteen girls, although there is nothing objectionable and teenage girls will undoubtedly like it. However, there are references to important historical events such as the eruptions of Soufrière and Mount Pelée, the coronation of George V of England, and the war on Germany (World War I).