For the past few Throwback Thursdays I’ve been reviewing a series of books put out by American Girl (yes, that’s the doll company) about a girl growing up in the 1970’s named Julie Albright. Since I was a young girl back in the 1970’s, I thought it would be fun to compare the books to my own memories of growing up in the 1970’s. I also figured that it could provide an idea for some light summer reading.
Having gone through all of the other Julie books, I’m now currently going through the Julie Mystery books. The Silver Guitar, originally published in 2011, was written by Kathryn Reiss, who also wrote the previous two Julie Mysteries and who has written a number of stories for children and young adults. The illustrations for this book were done by Sergio Giovine, who has illustrated a number of other book covers for a variety of publishers (in addition to American Girl).
All of the Julie Mysteries follow the events in both the Central Series and the Best Friend book. The Silver Guitar is the third Julie Mystery and it follows the events in both The Tangled Web and The Puzzle of the Paper Daughter.
The one thing to keep in mind about the Julie books is that they were written for a target audience of girls between the ages 8-12. As a result there won’t be an in-depth look at certain controversial issues of the day.
Synopsis: Julie Albright is a 10-year-old white girl with long blonde hair and brown eyes growing up in 1977 San Francisco. Her parents are divorced so she spends most of her time living with her mother, who operates her store full of handcrafted items (some of which are made from repurposed and recycled clothes) called Gladrags, and her teenaged sister, Tracy, in a small apartment that’s located above her mother’s store. On most weekends she stays with her father, a commercial airline pilot, in the same home that the entire family lived in before the divorce. But this book must have taken place during a time when her father is on one of his long flights because her father doesn’t appear in this book at all (nor does her best friend Ivy Ling, for that matter) and most of the action takes place in Julie’s mother’s apartment building.
Sometime between the last book and this one Tracy must have celebrated a birthday because the first page of this book describes Tracy as being 17. As for Olivia Kaminsky, the old childhood friend of Julie’s mother who moved into their apartment at the end of the last book, she’s not mentioned at all in this book. (Apparently Olivia found herself a new job and a new place to live much faster than originally expected.)
The book begins on the first Sunday in March, 1977. Julie, Tracy and their mother are attending a charity auction that’s being held in a mansion that belongs to their mother’s old school friend, Eleanor Vernon, and her husband, Reginald. Julie and Tracy’s mother had donated a hand-beaded dress from Gladrags to the auction, which was later purchased by a celebrity who happens to be Tracy’s current favorite singer. Members of Julie’s basketball team also attends the auction because the money raised would go towards saving Julie’s school’s faltering sports program.
The book mentions that the next charity auction will also be held in the Vernons’ mansion in two weeks and it will benefit the ongoing effort to rescue seabirds that were injured in the recent oil spill in San Francisco Bay (an event that I don’t even remember and there’s a reason for that, which I’ll write about later in this post). During the reception, Julie and her classmate/basketball teammate/friend T.J. hang out together until Julie’s mom calls them over because the Vernons have offered to provide a private tour of Mr. Vernon’s personal collection.
It turns out that Reginald Vernon is a wealthy man due to his many real estate holdings. He owns a lot of buildings in the San Francisco area, including the apartment building where Julie and Tracy live with their mother right above the Gladrags shop. In other words, Reginald Vernon is both the husband of Julie’s mother’s old friend and the landlord whose no pets rule have prevented Julie from bringing her pet rabbit Nutmeg to live with her after her parents’ divorce.
During the tour Mr. Vernon shows off various items, such as a hat that once belonged to Abraham Lincoln and Babe Ruth’s baseball bat. When Mr. Vernon shows his guitar collection, he picks up a silver Fender Stratocaster guitar that he considers to be his pride and joy because it once belonged to a famous guitarist named Danny Kendricks, who died the previous year in a motorcycle crash. T.J. looks longingly at the silver guitar because he admires the late guitarist and he wants to follow in his footsteps by learning how to play the guitar. Mr. Vernon decides to sell the silver guitar at the next auction since both he and his wife are convinced that it’s more important to raise money that would be used to help rescue those poor oil-soaked seabirds.
The tour is briefly interrupted when the Ms. Knight the housekeeper tells the Vernons that she has just learned about her mother being sent to the hospital and she has to go out of town because of it. The housekeeper usually takes care of the Vernons’ cat. When Mrs. Vernon notices that the usually unfriendly cat is especially smitten with T.J., she offers T.J. the job of temporarily taking care of the cat because, it turns out, the Vernons are planning to go out of town for a week and they will return just in time for the next charity auction that will be held in their mansion. T.J. accepts the job willingly.
Julie becomes very interested in helping to clean up the seabirds who are affected by that recent oil spill in San Francisco Bay. She uses her position as school student body president to organize a special school-wide quilt project that would be sold at the next auction to benefit the rescue of those oil-soaked seabirds that will take place in the Vernons’ mansion.
In the meantime Tracy is excited to learn that her best friend, Maggie, is moving into the empty apartment above her with her family next month and Julie is envious because she wishes that her best friend Ivy would also move in the same apartment building so she can see her more often than the select weekends when she visits her father. It turns out that the previous occupants, the Ogilvies, were artists who felt the need to move because the apartment didn’t have the right vibes for them.
Julie starts to hear noises in the empty upstairs apartment that the Ogilvies had just vacated and the noises are loud enough to wake her up in the middle of the night when she’s in bed. One day, after she gets home from school and starts to work on her piece of the school-wide quilt project, she hears the noises again coming from upstairs. Julie goes upstairs to investigate and finds that the door is unlocked. She briefly looks inside and finds that the apartment is completely empty. She briefly returns to her mom’s apartment only to find that the noises have returned. So Julie decides to open the apartment door just a crack and wait near the door so she can see anyone going downstairs.
Eventually Julie hits pay dirt when the noisemaker from upstairs comes down and finds that the person is none other than T.J. After Julie briefly confronts him, T.J. begins to explain the reason for his actions. While he was tending to his new temporary job of taking care of the Vernons’ cat while the couple is out of town, T.J. decided to look at that silver guitar a little bit closer then subsequently decided that he just had to hold the same guitar that once belonged to his personal guitar hero Danny Kendricks. So he grabbed a chair to stand on while he reached for that guitar. Once he had the guitar in his hands, the cat, who was standing on a nearby mantle, decided to leap on to T.J.’s shoulders while sinking his claws into T.J. At that point T.J. dropped the guitar and it resulted in the guitar being cracked at the neck. T.J. attempted to hide his crime by sneaking the silver guitar out of the Vernons’ home while taking the keys to Reginald Vernon’s various real estate properties. He decided to hide the guitar in the empty apartment above Julie’s mother’s because he learned from Julie that the previous neighbors had already moved out, the new neighbors won’t be moving in until next month, and Reginald Vernon owned the apartment building. While Julie urges T.J. to come clean with his parents and, by extension, the Vernons once they return home, T.J. is determined to fix the guitar himself and return it to its original location so no one will ever know what happened.
Julie finally convinces T.J. to take the guitar to a local music shop instead and have someone repair it professionally while T.J. scrapes together the money he has saved from his job delivering newspapers to pay for it. So the two of them take the guitar to the music shop only to learn this shocking truth: The silver guitar they brought is a fake Fender Stratocaster. The store manager cites the way that the guitar is strung for a right-handed player (while Kendricks was left-handed), the paint is flaking off and the “Fender Stratocaseter” label on the guitar head is just a sticker instead of something that’s usually engraved right into the wood.
T.J. is initially relieved that he didn’t ruin a valuable piece of rock history until Julie reminds him that he could be accused of being the person who stole the actual guitar while replacing it with a cheap knock-off since he had access to the Vernons’ mansion while the couple is out of town. So Julie and T.J. are in a race against time to find the real culprit behind that theft before the Vernons return from their trip in time for the charity auction to benefit the rescue of those oil-soaked seabirds. There are a few suspects: Ms. Knight the housekeeper who had to suddenly take a leave of absence from her job because she said that her mother was sent to the hospital, Mrs. Buzbee the Vernons’ nosy neighbor who spends much of her time looking through the windows of other people’s houses, Jasper the Vernons’ 18-year-old nephew who has graduated from high school and is living with his aunt and uncle while trying to decide what to do with his life, and even Mr. Vernon himself because his wife is more enthusiastic about him selling that silver guitar to help rescue the poor seabirds than he is. Then there is this 12-year-old skateboarder and guitar enthusiast named Matt whom T.J. and Julie keep on running into while they are trying to figure out this mystery—could he be involved in this as well?
The last chapter, Looking Back, starts off with a discussion on how the buying and selling of musical instruments once played by rock stars and rock memorabilia became a big business. It also took a look at the rise in benefit concerts such as promoter Bill Graham’s 1975 SNACK concert (which benefitted the culture and athletic programs in the San Francisco public schools) and the 1970 Amchitka concert (which financed a boat to protest nuclear testing on the islands of southwestern Alaska and it later led to the creation of an environmental organization called Greenpeace). The chapter ended with a discussion of the environmental movement, which began in the 1970’s with the first Earth Day celebration in 1970. In 1971 there was a major oil spill in the San Francisco Bay when two oil tankers collided and it led to numerous people volunteering to help with the cleanup and to rescue oil-soaked seabirds. The legacy of this environmental movement continues to this day while showing a photo of a girl raising money for the National Wildlife Federation’s efforts to help animals injured by the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Real-Life People Mentioned
News and Other Stuff From the Era Mentioned
1971 San Francisco Bay Oil Spill
2010 Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill
Alfa Romeo Car
National Wildlife Federation
SNACK (Students Need Activities, Culture, and Kicks) Benefit Concert
My Own Impressions Based on My Own Experience With the 1970’s:
The book harps about a major oil spill in San Francisco Bay that leaves readers with the impression that it happened in 1977 (which is when the book takes place). I don’t even remember that oil spill. After going a few Google searches, I found out why. The oil spill in question happened in 1971, not 1977. Even the Looking Back chapter admitted that the San Francisco oil spill happened in 1971. Furthermore, this article says that it took five years for tidal life to recover. Assuming that this article is correct, this means that tidal life recovered in 1976 while this book takes place in early 1977. So it seems kind of jarring for Julie to fret about an oil spill in an area where, in real life, the wildlife is starting to recover and it also seems kind of odd for Julie to fret about something that happened in 1971 when she was just 5 years old.
I guess the book wanted to provide a lesson in the 1970’s environmental movement but that topic was already explored in Julie and the Eagles. I also noticed that the book was published in 2011 and the Looking Back chapter mentioned the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It sounds like the writer decided to dream up a fake oil spill in 1977 San Francisco (or exaggerate the real-life 1971 oil spill) to tie in with that more recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
I know it sounds like nit-picking but in historical fiction, the basic rule of thumb is that while it’s okay to have fictional characters, they usually interact with a real life event. If you have fictional characters interacting with a fictional event, it’s not really historical fiction at all. It’s just plain fiction. There’s nothing wrong with writing just plain fiction (J.K. Rowling did a spectacular job with writing just plain fiction about a boy with magical powers named Harry Potter) but it’s pretty jarring when all of the other Julie books tied-in with real-life events (like the American Bicentennial and the 1976 U.S. presidential election) and they are supposed to educate young children on what it was like to grow up in the 1970’s compared with growing up today while providing a description of the real events these characters had to face either directly or indirectly.
On top of it, the book begins with an auction that’s supposed to benefit the faltering sports program at Julie’s school. Yet there were no details about how Julie’s school was affected by the lack of money to fund the sports program. Was the team’s basketball season shortened? Was the basketball team being forced to practice with inferior equipment as a part of a cost-saving measure (such as using cheap dime-store balls instead of a real basketball)? Was the basketball program eliminated altogether? Was Coach Manley laid off from his job as part of a cost-cutting measure? Have physical education classes been cut from once a week to once or twice a month? You wouldn’t know from reading this book because it only provided a brief one-sentence mention of Julie’s school faltering sports program with no details while providing graphic description after graphic description of those oil-soaked seabirds from a fictional 1977 oil spill. Ironically it was only in the Looking Back chapter where you get to read a little bit more about how legendary concert promoter Bill Graham had put together a benefit concert to help fund the sports programs in the San Francisco public schools.
I will have to admit that the book does a good job at explaining to kids about how oil had become an important source of energy in the United States while getting them to ponder about possible alternatives to fossil fuels and should they be used at all. But I wished the book had elaborated a little more about the budget cuts to the San Francisco public school system and how it directly affected kids like Julie.
As for the rest of this book, I have to admit that the scene where Julie’s classmate Carla pulls a transistor radio out of her pocket during recess brought back memories of the cheap transistor radios I once owned. The ones I had were very portable and I used to listen with mono earphones that only stuck in one ear. (The stereo headphones in the 1970’s were way bigger and bulkier so it just wasn’t very portable at all.) I also remember that the transistor radios I had tended not to last very long. Sometimes one could accidentally drop it and it would break beyond all repair. Other times it would just stop working and even changing the batteries didn’t help.
I laughed at the comical way that T.J. attempted to cover up the fact that he broke that silver guitar by sneaking it out of the Vernons’ mansion and hiding it in the empty apartment above the one where Julie lives with her mother. The rationale was even funnier when T.J. denies that he stole the guitar because the guitar is still on the Vernons’ property since the Vernons own the apartment building—it just wasn’t in its original place (the Vernons’ mansion). It sounds like the kind of excuse that a typical fifth grader would come up with.
The scene where Julie and T.J. visit that music shop where they discovered that the silver guitar T.J. broke is a fake also brought back memories for me. There was a local place called The Music House that I loved to go to as a kid. It was located in Glen Burnie, Maryland in the old Harundale Mall (which is notable for being the first enclosed shopping mall on the East Coast of the United States). The Music House sold all kinds of musical instruments and sheet music. There was also a recorded music section for those who wanted to just purchase vinyl albums, 8-track tapes, or cassette tapes (which were the the main music formats in the 1970’s). It was a really great store. In fact, my parents bought me my first real guitar (a Yamaha acoustic guitar) at The Music House. I remember people used to hang out to try various instruments they were thinking about purchasing just like the kids in that music store in the book. I used to love it whenever the store had sheet music clearance sales and I would buy some sheet music for as low as $1. I remember The Music House finally closed when the Harundale Mall started to decline. (The Harundale Mall has since been converted to an open-air shopping center called Harundale Plaza.) Today I live near another music store called Atomic Music that is similar in atmosphere to the music store in the book. The only difference between Atomic Music and the old Music House is that Atomic Music doesn’t sell vinyl records (or CD’s for that matter).
I’ll admit that solving the mystery is a little bit more of a challenge with this book than the previous two. While I figured out the mystery halfway through the previous two books, I didn’t figure out this mystery until the very end when Julie correctly figured out what is really going on. I liked the fact that this mystery was more of a challenge and it was full of twists and turns until the very end.
Where to Buy The Silver Guitar
The American Girl Julie Albright Books List
The Original Central Series
The Best Friend Book
The Julie Mysteries
The BeForever Books
Other Media Featuring Julie
And the Tiara Goes to…—A film short based on the Julie books.