Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L'Engle

I first read this book in the fourth grade and can't believe I've waited this long to read it again. What a book! It's definitely one of my new favorites.

"It was a dark and stormy night," begins the story of Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin, three children who learn to travel through space and time via a wrinkle, a tesseract, in order to rescue Meg's father, a scientist who disappeared while on a top secret mission.

In rescuing Mr. Murry, the children come face to face with evil and must stand up against it with the one thing they possess that evil does not--love.

What an incredible story! I particularly enjoyed reading it because Madeline L'Engle's book, Walking on Water, is one of my favorite non-fiction books. In it she talks about the relationship between faith and art and shares so much insight into her own writing process as well as a lot of other wisdom for life in general. If you've not read it yet, do!

L'Engle's own faith shines through this book and it asks some big questions about love, evil, and free will. As she says in the introduction, "Some of these questions don't have finite answers, but the questions themselves are important. Don't stop asking, and don't let anybody tell you the questions aren't worth it. They are."

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book:

"One thing I've learned is that you don't have to understand things for them to be."

"You don't know how lucky you are to be loved."

"I think with our human limitations we're not always able to understand the explanations. But you see, Meg, just because we don't understand doesn't mean that the explanation doesn't exist."

"But of course we can't take any credit for our talents. It's how we use them that counts."

"Don't be afraid to be afraid."

I can't wait to read the rest of this series and think I'll start reading this book out loud to my girls tonight!

King of the Wind

King of the Wind: The Story of the Godolphin Arabian, written by Marguerite Henry, and illustrated by Wesley Dennis.

Reading this brought back so many memories that it's hard to review it objectively, though I don't remember it as a particular favorite amongst my collection of Marguerite Henry's books. The story is perfectly (and inextricably) linked with Dennis's illustrations in my mind, and I suspect this is true for many readers -- how many of you read Misty of Chincoteague and now see the pony on the cover in your head?

Dennis and Henry collaborated on over a dozen books over the twenty years that they were friends, and it's clear they really worked together closely. Supposedly, Dennis suggested the story of King of the Wind to Henry after he was commissioned to draw a portrait of the Godolphin Arabian.

Anyway, King of the Wind is many things. First and probably most importantly, it's the story of a boy and his horse, loyal and caring companions for decades. It's a story of fate, symbolized by the omens seen in Sham the horse's markings: the white spot, the symbol of speed, and the wheat ear, a whorl of hair that foretells misfortune. It's a rich look at some exotic cultures (in England as well as Morocco!) and different social classes in the mid-1700's. King of the Wind was the first time I read anything about (or indeed, even heard of) Islam - the story starts out with the fast of Ramadan, and it was amazing how familiar the opening lines of the book were, though it's been over thirty years since I read them:
In the northwestern slice of Africa known as Morocco, a horseboy stood, with broom in hand, in the vast courtyard of the royal stables of the Sultan. He was waiting for dusk to fall.

All day long he had eaten nothing. He had not even tasted the jujubes tucked in his turban nor the enormous purple grapes that spilled over the palace wall into the stable yard. He had tried not to sniff the rich, warm fragrance of ripening pomegranates. For this was the sacred month of Ramadan when, day after day, all faithful Mohammedans neither eat nor drink from the dawn before sunrise until the moment after sunset.
Fasting all day for a month! Royal stables! Jujubes! Obviously this made a lasting impression on me.

The story of Agba (the groom) and Sham (the Godolphin Arabian) ranges from the royal stables of an all-powerful Sultan, to pre-revolutionary France and the streets of Paris, to the English countryside, from London's Newgate jail to the lonely fens near the estate of an English earl - the Earl of Godolphin, who ends up providing a home for Agba & Sham. KotW also touches on the many races won by Sham's offspring, with a prologue that starts with Man-o-War at his final race (Seabiscuit is also a descendant, by the way).

A bit of googling reveals that Grimalkin the cat actually existed, but how much of the rest of Henry's story is true is debatable. There may or may not have been a faithful groom that accompanied Sham to France, and many question whether Sham actually served as a carthorse in Paris before being brought to England. There are a lot of legends about the Godolphin Arabian, however, and I think Henry's book capitalizes on this brilliantly.

I think Henry's story of loyalty and redemption really holds up well sixty years after it was written. But I'm a sucker for good horse and dog stories. I suspect my daughter will enjoy this book in a few years (she already is begging for riding lessons), and I will definitely be getting the hardcover with Dennis's original cover - I was aghast to see other covers out there. My son, who is just the right age for KotW, is sadly uninterested, but I may see if I can tweak his interest by reading him a few passages.

Out of the Dust

I was drawn to this book by the cover which is a photo by Walker Evans. I am a big fan of his work which is an integral part of one of my favorite books, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, dealing with the poor farmers of the New South. I actually read this book about two months ago and then again this week. It is written in free verse and a very quick, but moving, read.

14 year old Billie Jo narrates this fictional account of one family's experiences during the 1930s in the Oklahoma dust bowl. The sorrows and hopes of the family come to life as Billie Jo attempts to escape from her harsh reality. The free verse used by author Karen Hesse almost makes you taste and feel the grit in your mouth. The book was also awarded the Soctt O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction.

Interestingly enough, the day I brought this book home, my husband brought home Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. I have read only the first few chapters of this work and it validates the narrative presented by Hesse. One interesting fact that I remember from Egan is that more dirt was moved in the dust bowl than in the creation of the Panama Canal. Amazing (and forgive me if I have the wrong canal, but the dirt moved in digging any canal is more than I want to breathe)!

Billie Jo has the same thoughts and dreams as any young female. Her verses are named and one of my favorites ends like this:

I do as she says. I go to school,
and in the afternoons I come home,
run through my chores,
do my reading and my math work at the
kitchen table
and all the while I glare at Ma's back with a scowl
foul as maggoty stew. (29)

I remember this look both as a child and as a mother! Just one more thing - Hesse provides a wonderfully simple portrayal of birthing in the school house which should remind us all how natural birth is as a process. This book seems to touch all emotions and I think shows perseverance over hardship and sadness. Very quick and informative read.


Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Sarah, Plain and Tall

I have to say that I love this book. One of the things that I love best about it is that the tone of the writing matches the setting so well--it's sparse and lonely and matches the desolate prairie in which they live. And yet there's stark beauty in it too.

I had a conversation with a friend the other day about this, about authors who can write in such a way that the tone reflects the setting. (Tracy Chevalier does this in The Girl with a Pearl Earring and also with The Lady and the Unicorn, I think. Girl is austere like a Vermeer painting and Lady has a richer texture that matches the texture of a tapestry.)

Anyway, Sarah, Plain and Tall is told from the perspective of a young girl and because it's written in her voice, it's really accessible to children. This is something that my third grader would have no trouble reading on her own. The story is simple and plain--just like Sarah. Yet it's one that's also so lovely and real and romantic too.

This is a really short book--much shorter than any of the other Newbery books I've read thus far. You could easily read it in an evening or in an afternoon or two of sitting in the carpool line at school!

My youngest daughter and I also listened to this on CD last summer as we drove across the country. Glenn Close narrated it--a great "listen" if you've got a road trip coming up.

--Joanne (The Simple Wife)

Monday, February 26, 2007

Higher Power of Lucky

I thought you all might be interested in the American Library Association response to the commotion over the book Higher Power of Lucky.

Here is the link:
Statement regarding the true value of "Higher Power of Lucky"


Sunday, February 25, 2007

Sad Books

There's an interesting post over at LiteraryMama today: Sad Stories and Why We Read Them. It talks about Bridge to Terebithia specifically, but also quotes author and blogger J.L. Bell, "who noted that the recent Newbery Award-winners are most often (in his words) 'serious books,' especially books about 'overcoming hardship'." It'll be interesting to see how much that holds true as we read all of them.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Story of Mankind

I had high hopes for this book - my undergraduate and graduate degrees before my MLS were in European History, so this seemed like a natural to me. And overall I enjoyed the book and learned a few tidbits from history which were presented in a way that children might enjoy and understand. IF they could get through the whole, long, long litany of facts. The lighthearted, cautionary, teaching style that I liked in the book were often abandoned for lengthy litanies of dates and names - the very things that turn most children off in History class.

But like earlier posts, I had a great time finding my favorite quotes and I hope you will indulge me in my own list:

Nile Valley: The history of man is the record of a hungry creature in search of food. (22). And I thought that was only my history!

Moses: no quote - just one word - peregrinations (38) - I must admit I need to look this one up.

Greek Life: The Greeks, before everything else, wanted to be "free," both in mind and in body. That they might maintain their librerty, and be truly free in spirit, they reduced their daily needs to the lowest possible point. (70)

The Medieval World: Dates are a very useful invention. We could not do without them but unless we are very careful, they will play tricks with us. They are apt to make history too precise. And later: On the other hand, when you grow up you will discover that some of the people in this world have never passed beyond the stage of the cave-man. (191)

The Renaissance: The Renaissance was not a political or religious movement. It was a state of mind. (206)

The Renaissance: Let us be happy and cheerful for the mere joy of existence. (215)

The Age of Expression: I loved the discussion of Brother Thomas and his work "Imitation of Christ" and while I think I have read parts of this work before, I asked my husband to check it out for me at our main library. The quote from the book is: And it was the work of a man whose highest ideal of existence was expressed in the simple wish that "he might quietly spend his days sitting in a little corner with a little book." (221)

Religious Warfare: For tolerance (and please remember this when you grow older), is of very recent origin and even the people of our own so-called "modern world" are apt to be tolerant only upon such matters as do not interest them very much. (264) And ain't that the truth?!

The Holy Alliance: (my favorite) I want you to learn something more from this history than a mere succession of facts. I want you to approach all historical events in a frame of mind that will take nothing for granted. Don't be satisfied with the mere statement that "such and such a thing happened then and there." Try to discover the hidden motives behind every action and then you will understand the world around you much better and you will have a greater chance to help others, which (when all is said and done) is the only truly satisfactory way of living. (370)

The Age of the Engine: Indeed one of the most interesting chapters of history is the effort of man to let some one else do his work for him ... (403)

The Age of Science: Indeed it has come to pass that many of the ills of this world, which out ancestors regarded as inevitable "acts of God," have been exposed as manifestations of our own ignorance and neglect. (431) Will we never learn this??

Art: People begin to understand that Rembrandt and Beethoven and Rodin are the true prophets and leaders of their race and that a world without art and happiness resembles a nursery without laughter. (445)

A New World: But it is very difficult to give a true account of contemporary events. The problems that fill the minds of the people with whom we pass through life, are our own problems, and they hurt us too much or they please us too well to be described with that fairness which is necessary when we are writing history and not blowing the trumpet of propaganda. (458) This brings me to another question - in a graduate history class on the Old South, we argued whether or not it was possible to write history about another race and have it be valid and true??? If not, then is van Loon correct about current history?

The United States Comes of Age: No history of America's role in world affairs can overlook the Judas kiss given this country by our motion pictures. By portraying and glorifying our riches and our free-and-easy ways these pictures built in the minds of the common people everywhere an exaggerated concept of America that was to come home to roost. (485) I am not sure we can blame this kiss solely on the movie industry - maybe our own arrogance is more the problem.

Isolationism and Appeasement: Speaking of the Munich agreement which allowed Germany to invade Czechoslovakia in 1938. One of the most shameful betrayals in history was cheered at the time by millions with sighs of relief. (503) (truest statement in the book! - or the closest to my heart)

Now for just one or two final comments in closing. I must admit that the final chapters not written by van Loon were disappointing. I mean how do you discuss World War II without a full discussion of the Holocaust - I do not remember seeing anything about it in this book. Even so, I loved the grandfatherly tone of the book and thought individual chapters might be useful - even today - to present historical events in a different light. All in all, an interesting week's read.


Jacob Have I Loved

There are a few books that I really remember reading and enjoying as a young teen. Mrs. Mike. On Fortune's Wheel. But the one book that stands out most in my mind is Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson.

I have been mulling over why it is that this book appealed to me so much when I was young. I was so unsure of myself as a preteen/young teen. I was too tall, self-conscious, acne-ridden, you name it. I was so unhappy so much of the time. I lost myself in books and I luckily always counted my mother as a friend. The main character of this book, Louise, I think reminds me just so much of myself. Granted, I wasn't a twin, but I always felt like the world was against me and that I had nothing special to offer. Her feelings, even reading them now, are so familiar and comforting in the sense that I recognized that I was not alone. Her crabbiness was a bit damping when I read it this time - but it's probably that same crabbiness that made her such a relatable character to me when I was young. Strange that this book made me feel like I was not alone in my sorrow and loneliness.

Reading it through this time, probably for the first time in 12 or 13 years, I have a whole new appreciation for the work of art that it is. Paterson does a fine job of making the shore a tangible and real place. I enjoyed learning about crabbing and oystering, she mentions terrapins (go TERPS!!) and Louise even ends up at the University of Maryland, my alma mater. I feel even more connected to this book now as I did then. The final chapter is heartbreakingly beautiful to me - I would even sometimes just pull out the book and read just that chapter a couple of times. It gave me such hope to see Louise happy, having finally found the courage to take a chance, and find herself and a place where she belongs. Reading it again was comfort food.

I will say, however, that the book feels a bit mature to me for the Newberry Award. I always felt like that award was for older children, but this definitely feels like a book for teens. I can't see it being read out loud at all in an elementary school classroom, or even studied in elementary school. The themes of love (she falls in love with an OLD man) and the harshness of her grandmother's criticism are fairly adult (her grandmother is a bit senile and accuses Louise's mother of being a whore). I think I may have just misunderstood the age of the audience that the award is geared towards - or, possibly, the age of the audience is just not really a deciding factor in deciding who wins the award. At any rate, a great read for me, then and now.

Friday, February 23, 2007

More about The Story of Mankind

First, I've got a load of information about Hendrik Van Loon from that Newbery and Caldecott Trivia book by Claudette Hegel, so you're all going to get some of it.

According to Hegel, The Story of Mankind won the Newbery in 1922 by a popular vote. It "was the landslide winner with 163 votes while 14 other books received a combined total of 49 votes" (p. 48). However, "Libraries in at least half of the states refused to stock The Story of Mankind because of author Hendrik Van Loon's discussion of evolution" (p. 53). Ha ha, that gives it something in common with this year's winner, what with the great scrotum brouhaha.

Hendrik Van Loon made friends with Franklin Delano Roosevelt while both were at Harvard (Van Loon was later a guest at the White House), and he became an American citizen the same year that The Story of Mankind was published. TSoM was a huge success for Van Loon - it was apparently the second best-selling nonfiction book of 1922, and 9th in the list for 1923. Hegel also mentions that it probably made about half a million dollars for Van Loon, or the equivalent of several million today. My "new and enlarged edition", published in 1962, includes six chapters written by Willem Van Loon (Hendrik's son) in 1951, covering the years from 1923-1950.

Anyway, I think I liked this book more than most of the other reviewers. Partially because I only skimmed many of the chapters in the middle, and partially because I have a fairly high tolerance for outdated history (as befits someone who used to work as an archaeologist?).

TSoM was terribly sexist and Eurocentric. It was all about 'man'; even famous women (like Elizabeth I of England) were rarely mentioned, although there was a passage about mothers passing on culture to their children. I guess that isn't too surprising for 1922, though. Van Loon's view of history was largely an account of 'man discovers this and that', which always reminds me of Clan of the Cave Bear (Ayla discovers riding and agriculture and penicillin and I can't remember what else). My favorite description of this in TSoM is the description of the origin of cooking:
"And then one evening a dead chicken fell into the fire. It was not rescued until it had been well roasted. Man discovered that meat tasted better when cooked and he then and there discarded one of the old habits which he had shared with the other animals and began to prepare his food" (p. 16...and wouldn't you think that women might have had something to do with the evolution of cooking? A dead chicken fell into the fire??).
The rest of Van Loon's history is diffusion - of people and ideas and tools. From archaeology, I know this idea was big in the 20's. I did think it was curious that he put Egypt earlier than Mesopotamia - not what is known today, but maybe the dating was off back then. Neither the Americas nor Asia nor Africa get any credit for any social, political, or economic evolution of their own (i.e., "civilization"), though historians and archaeologists in these areas today concentrate much of their efforts on understanding the independent processes of such things. In fact, in the chapter on the American Revolution (which summarizes the European colonization of North America), Van Loon actually says that "Only a very small part of this vast domain was inhabited" (p. 329). Well, except for all those Indians who don't bear mention.

But again, I think this shows how differently people thought about these things in the 20's. One of the passages I really liked describes this very issue:
It is very difficult to understand the people of by-gone ages. Your own grandfather, whom you see every day [note this major difference from today! SD], is a mysterious being who lives in a different world of ideas and clothes and manners. I am now telling you the story of some of your grandfathers who are twenty-five generations removed, and I do not expect you to catch the meaning of what I write without re-reading this chapter a number of times (p. 162).
No one has really described the drawings - also by Van Loon - which were as quirky and sometimes charming as the rest of the book. I think Van Loon liked the pictures himself, since he includes a quote from Alice in Wonderland on the page after the title page (with a picture!):
"What is the use of a book without pictures?" said Alice.
Some of the his cartoonish illustrations were quite modern, if a bit dark - I particularly liked "Propaganda", in the chapter on WWI.

The index was rather disappointing - for instance, there was no entry for slavery or slaves, but there was one for emancipation. But at least it had an index, which I think is important in a 500+ page non-fiction book.

I liked the short chapters. Although (like both Bekah and Catherine) I simply cannot imagine either of my children reading this, at least without major coercion or bribery, I can imagine my grandfather reading this to my father in the 1930's - maybe a chapter every evening. I'm not sorry that I took a look at it, although I was a bit taken aback by Van Loon's conclusion - rather surprising for a history book:
This does not mean that we are absolutely certain about the road that now lies before us. Most likely we will follow a dozen wrong tracks before we find the right direction. And in the meantime we are fast learning one very important lesson - that the future belongs to the living and that the dead ought to mind their own business.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Some Newbery Trivia

I'm working (slowly!) on a post about The Story of Mankind, but meanwhile I thought I'd post about a related book that I got from inter-library loan today: Newbery and Caldecott Trivia and More for Every Day of the Year, by Claudette Hegel (2000). I've been busy sticking post-its in all the spots where there is something interesting about Hendrik Van Loon, like the entry for October 23:
Hendrik Van Loon (The Story of Mankind, 1922 Newbery Medal) was once seriously injured in a boat explosion.
In addition to the daily trivia (three facts for every day of the year: one about a Caldecott winner, one about a Newbery winner, and one on some other famous piece of children's literature , and a "born on this day" author if there is one), the book has a very detailed name index, title index, references for all of the facts provided, and two appendices: one listing all the Newbery winners and Honor books (formerly known as "runners up"), and one listing all the Caldecott winners and Honor books. I just wish that the book was more recent and covered the books and authors from the last seven years. And that it was more widely available - my copy came from a university library on the other side of the state.

Here's the entry for today, February 22:
Illustrator Wesley Dennis was asked to alter his illustration of the Newgate Jail in King of the Wind (1949 Newbery Medal) because it looked too nice, "like a library." Dennis cheerfully revised the illustrations that he previously had been afraid to make too scary.

Author Arthur Yorinks used his profits from Hey, Al! (1987 Caldecott Medal) to buy property in rural Nova Scotia. Many birds inhabit the area.

J.M. Barrie sent the manuscript for Peter Pan to his publisher in an untidy brown-paper parcel without even a cover letter saying the work was for publication.
I'll try and post some trivia in the comments for each book as long as I'm allowed to keep Hegel's book. Heck, I might have to buy it - I've been fascinated by the bits and pieces that I've just read today. And Wesley Dennis is one of my favorite illustrators ever - here's a post I did last year, gushing about him, with examples of his work. I actually remember reading King of the Wind (and most of the other Marguerite Henry books) as a child. I think I might pick that for my next read.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Site Suggestions

I love the look of the site! I was wondering if it's possible to add a section on the sidebar for recent comments so it's easier to see where active conversations are taking place? I'm having a ball getting to know our little group here, but I keep forgetting which posts to check for new replies, especially as the comment count gets over 2 or 3.

Strawberry Girl

I was very excited about this online reading project and spent days trying to decide which book to begin reading first. As the mother of four children, I have read bits and pieces and chapters of many of these award-winning books. Working in a Curriculum Materials Library at a University, I have easy access to all of them. So I remained undecided for weeks.

Then one of my daily patrons returned Strawberry Girl because she just did not think she could complete it for her Elementary Education class project because of the dialect used by the characters. I was intrigued. So the decision was made and I began to read. Unlike other librarians, I love to write notes in my personal books, but I was using the library copy and got my paper and pencil ready to jot down notes about my favorite lines or passages. The dialect did not bother me at all, but I must admit that no one passage struck me as note worthy. This disappointed me a bit.

Ever optimistc, I tried to think of the time when the book was written and find some connection to my own life. I was raised in Florida, but my family's roots are in rural Tennessee. My mother was a sharecropper during the 1930s and in many ways, this was the lens through which I read this book. My mother's family was very poor, but they found joy in many aspects of their lives. The children only went to school when all of the work was done and never went when there was cotton to be picked. Even so, they all graduated from high school and some graduated from college. Family and friends meant everything to these Tennessee rural folk, but feuds ran deep.

Published in 1945, I think this book might have resonated with some children. But in today's world, I am not so sure. I did not dislike this book, and was rather charmed by the dialect, but did not find it remarkable.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Newbery Controversy

Have you gals heard about this controversy surrounding The Higher Power of Lucky? Thoughts?

The Story of Mankind (Another Post)

I trudged through TSOM because that is just the kind of nerd that I am. Mostly I found the book painfully anachronistic. But some parts do parlay onto today's events in a sort of semi-humorous way. I doubt either of my kids will ever read it (unless participating in a NP of his or her own). The book is so inundated with van Loon's personality -- I bet he was really something. I wonder if he strove to be a hero* or if he was just happy to memorialize historical "heroes".

Bits I Found Post-It Worthy (Inane/Amusing, Library Copy, No Marks)

"For history is like life. The more things change, the more they remain the same." (Chapter, Charlemagne)

"After more than two thousand years, the mothers of India still frighten their naughty children by telling them that 'Iskander will get them,' and Iskander is none other than Alexander the Great, who visited India in the year 330 before the birth of Christ, but whose story lived through all these ages." (Chapter, Pope vs. Emperor)

"But there were other smells of the barnyard variety--odors of decaying refuse which had been thrown into the street--of pig-sties surrounding the Bishop's palace--of unwashed people who had inherited their coats and hats from their grandfathers and who never learned the blessing of soap." (Chapter, The Medieval City)

Savonarola's Tale (Chapter, The Renaissance)

"Again I wish that I could make this book a thousand pages long." (Chapter, The Great Discoveries)

"And the sea once more shall be the undisturbed home of the little fishes, who once upon a time shared their deep residence with the earliest ancestors of the human race." (Chapter, The Great Discoveries)

"People began to ask questions. And questions, when they cannot be answered, often cause a great deal of trouble." (Chapter, The Reformation)

"Philip was the son of Charles and a Portuguese princess who had been first cousin to her own husband. The children that are born of such a union are apt to be rather queer." (Chapter, Religious Warfare)

"If you can export more to your neighbor than he exports to your own country, he will owe you money and will be obliged to send you some of his gold." (Chapter, The Mercantile System)

"[W]e begin to understand those anxious British mothers who used to drive their children to bed with the threat that 'Bonaparte, who ate little girls and boys for breakfast, would come and get them if they were not very good.'" (Chapter, Napoleon)

Illustration of "The Monroe Doctrine" (Chapter, National Independence). Best considered with: "The Prophet promised that those who fell, facing the enemy, would go directly to Heaven . . . it explains why even to-day Moslem soldiers will charge into the fire of European machine guns quite indifferent to the fate that awaits them and why they are such dangerous and persistent enemies." (Chapter, Mohammed)

"[R]evolutionary weather-cock of Europe . . ." (Chapter, National Independence)

"[A] new coat of glory-paint." (Chapter, National Independence)

"Oscar Wilde once quipped, 'As long as war is regarded as wicked it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular.' If he had substituted the word 'unprofitable' for 'vulgar' he would have come even closer to the truth." (Chapter, The United Nations)

*"And the moral of the story is a simple one. The world is in dreadful need of men who will assume the new leadership . . . Some day, a man will arise who will bring the vessel safely to port, and he shall be the hero of the ages." (Chapter, A New World)

The Story of Mankind

The author states that it is important for children to know what came before in order that they can understand what they read in the newspapers today. This is as true now as at any time, and I find van Loon's goals commendable in other ways. Seeing history as a story is valuable for children; knowing that history is the story of ourselves should cause us to relate to the characters as living players rather than vague and strange names written on a page. In some of the early chapters, this is done more or less succesfully. As history progresses, though, man becomes more competent at keeping records, leaving us more names, and more confusion.

I think what this book suffers from, is that it tries to do too much. The span is too great, or it tries to tell about too many people in a particular era, or tries to simplify the context too greatly. For my children, I would choose a book with this sort of purpose (to create a fluid referential timeline in story form) for pretty young elementary children. But this book strangely drops names that that age would not identify, with little background with which to incorporate them into the story. Perhaps children in the 20's would have already known these names. But I rather doubt it. So, instead the age appropriateness of the book shifts into a range in which I would desire a deeper analysis of either particular periods of history, or particular individuals.

There is also a general feeling of disdain for religion that I don't find appealing for children, as well as editorializing interjected into the flow of events that end up convoluting the story by placing the end into the middle.

However, if as an adult, you received a sort of peicemeal approach to history, instead of flowing from early events into the modern, you may indeed find some value in this book, if only read in a cursory way. It does give you a world-wide scope of what is going on in many places at the same time.

If this had been the first Newbery book I'd read, I think I would have formed the opinion that the award was purposed to lead children to the books adults believe they should be reading, rather than books that are of outstanding quality that children desire to read. For my children, my goal is to encourage them to enjoy reading, while giving them quality and enjoyable literature. This book may be quality, but if I gave it to my kids (the nearly 10 and 7yos), I fear they'd cry!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle

I really wanted to like this book by Hugh Lofting. It sounded like such a fun premise -- man talks to animals and all -- that I was hoping for a fun, whimsical book, something like Alice in Wonderland or Winnie the Pooh.

But I was highly disappointed.

It started out all right: Tommy Stubbins, son of a Puddleby's cobbler meets Dr. Dolittle, highly regarded naturalist and animal doctor. He's not a veterinarian -- there was a great aside by Polynesia, the parrot:
"Oh, of course there are those vet persons, to be sure. But, bless you, they're no good. You see, they can't understand the animals' language, so how can you expect them to be any use? Imagine yourself, or your father, going to a doctor who could not understand a word you say -- nor even tell you in your own language what you must do to get well! Poof! -- those vets! They're that stupid, you've no idea!"
Anyway. Tommy meets Dr. Dolittle and decides he wants to become a naturalist and talk to animals, too. They arrange it with Tommy's parents, and Tommy becomes Dr. Dolittle's apprentice. And then the adventures (and the problems with the book) start.

Dr. Dolittle is your quintessential uber-Englishman. He manages to keep a man from being hung, sail a ship with only two other crewman (Tommy and an African prince named -- cringe -- Bumpo), beat a Spanish matador at his own sport (bullfighting is cruel and vicious and wrong), find a floating island, find and free Long Arrow (yes, an Indian), practically single-handedly win a war, and become king of the island natives (the Popsipetels) and "educate them" before the book is through. By the end I'd had enough of Dr. John Dolittle.

Then there's the completely racist tone. Yes, I know, it was written in 1921. But still. Bumpo (aside from the name) is a complete doofus, mangling the English language at every turn. Which, while quaint at first soon became highly annoying. (One quote: "How stratagenious!" Bumpo chuckled. "As Cicero said, Parrots cum parishoioners facilime congregation.") I know it's meant to be funny -- and often it was -- but it was at the expense of Bumpo's dignity. Even Long Arrow (the greatest naturalist around) was often at the mercy of O Kindly One (as he took to calling Dr. Dolittle). The island natives were completely helpless, in the dark (both literally and figuratively) until the Great White Englishman came and brought them light. Only Tommy and the animals managed to avoid the complete domination of the white man (ah, but then Tommy was white, too).

In fact, the only character I liked was Polynesia. She was sensible enough, always complaining about the animals bugging the doctor during mealtime. She even had the sense to put a side bet on the doctor during the bull fight thereby getting enough money to fund the rest of their voyage. And after two years on the island, she decided that she wanted to go home, so she got everyone (meaning Tommy, Bumpo and the animals) together and came up with a plan to trick the doctor into leaving his job as king. Here she is, trying to convince the doctor to take a holiday:
"Oh bother the theater -- and the babies, too," snapped Polynesia. "The theater can wait a week. And as for the babies, they never have anything more than colic. How do you suppose babies got along before you came here, for Heaven's sake? Take a holiday... You need it."
But it's biggest fault is that it wasn't silly enough. Lofting was alternately too serious -- launching into lectures about zoos or bull fighting or Indians or something or other -- and just plain dull. It always felt like he was forcing the silliness, trying too hard to come up with something odd or original. The best whimsical books are much less heavy-handed in their, um, whimsy, allowing the books to soar. And in the end, Dr. Dolittle fell flat.

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Movie

I just returned from the Bridge to Terabithia movie. I must say, I loved it. All the mythical creatures in the previews are a miniscule part of the movie and only occur in spurts to show that they are imagining the terabithian world.

And yes, I cried a lot.

The movie is very well cast and sticks pretty close to the book! I think you'll love it!! Anybody else seen it??

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Bridge to Terabithia

I hesitate to even write this post about "Bridge to Terabithia" by Katherine Paterson because the tears aren't completely dried and I know I'll be thinking more clearly later! I was so excited to read this book again. The movie comes out Friday and it looks a little different, but the author's son wrote the screenplay so I'm hoping that any additions will only make it better, if that's possible!

My 4th grade teacher read this book to my class but I clearly remember her crying when she read it and all of the class joining right in! I am not sure what I shouldn't say about the book because I assume that most of us have read it and know what happens, but just in case:

*Spoiler Alert*
This book deals with a lot of themes that I continue to deal with and work out in my adult life. The main character, Jess Aarons, deals with handling fear, peer pressure, family strife, social awkwardness and death of a loved one. We see his stages of grieving and how he ultimately learns to use the gift that was his time with Leslie to become more of a man and face life's challenges head on. It is a truly touching story.

There are also some themes that I didn't remember from when my teacher read the book to us. There was definitely some language in the book that you'd want to know about before reading it out loud. It was minor, but still something I know some parents don't want their kids exposed to. Also, there are some spiritual aspects that would deserve a separate discussion with kids.

I'd just finished reading "The View from Saturday" and both Terabithia and it used other classic authors in their books. Konigsburg uses some elements from Lewis Carroll and Paterson uses C.S. Lewis' Narnia as an inspiration for Leslie creating the world of Terebithia. I wonder if more of the authors we'll be reading do this. It's definitely made me want to keep reading beyond the Newbery list and I appreciate that and hope the younger readers are inspired to do the same!

Did my mom ruin it for me, or was it really that tedious...

I’ve always been a voracious reader, and a competitive/compulsive list-checker, so when Alicia invited me to participate in this project, I thought I’d recognize a majority of the titles. After scanning the list, however, I’m humbled. I have read only 16 of the titles, and absolutely none of the early winners.

Before getting too specific on any one book, I just wanted to share a few quick and disjointed thoughts.

First, my favorites on the list: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, The Westing Game, Bridge to Terabithia, Summer of the Swans and The Witch of Blackbird Pond.

Second, the books I didn’t like at the time, but would be interested in re-reading to see if I appreciate them more now: Julie of the Wolves, Island of the Dolphins, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry.

And finally, a quick memory... I remember reading “Island of the Blue Dolphins” in second grade as part of an advanced reading group. There were a handful of us who met weekly while the other students were plowing through textbooks like “Serendipity” and “Kalidescope.” While we were glad to be freed from those tedious books and generally preferred our selections better (specifically I remember “The Lemming Condition”), I can only think of “Blue Dolphins” as a major struggle.

I’ve never been a fan of wilderness books (outside of Little House on the Prairie and the Boxcar Children), so this book just dragged for me. Compounding things, my mom was the reading teacher that led this book group, and every night she’d ask if I’d read the required pages. I always had two or three other books that I was reading for pleasure, and she’d make me put them down to push through the pages for our reading group. It felt like punishment, and I’d wager it’s the first book I remember resenting.

On second thought, maybe I won’t bother re-reading that one. I’ve already spent too many hours on books that didn’t do it for me…

Wednesday, February 7, 2007


Toben took the kids out for magazines at B&N and ice cream at Cold Stone, so I headed to the bathtub with a book--Shiloh, by Phllis Reynolds Naylor. This book won the Newbery in 1992.

I think I'd seen the movie based on the book, but hadn't read the book before. I knew it would be sad, and had a little knot in my stomach for much of it, because I couldn't quite remember how the story ended. I won't give it away, since you should read it for yourself!

What a great book. I finished it and thought I'd love to read it to my girls and talk about it with them because it raises some good and hard questions. When is it okay to keep a secret? Is it ever alright to lie? What do you do when what is right and what is legal aren't the same things? What does it mean to stand by your word? Can we change how other people act?

There's something about a boy and a dog...and this story tugs at your heart.

I did read the afterword first--my copy of the book has "The Story Behind the Book" at the end, complete with pictures. I always love hearing how an author came up with the idea for the novel. In this case, there is a real Shiloh (named Clover) who really did follow someone home. The rest of the story is imagined on the author's part, but both Clover and Shiloh have good endings.

By the way, the dog in this case is a beagle. And since my little beagle, Daisy, is curled up at my feet at the moment, I'd better mention that she recommends the book too!

Strawberry Girl

When I was a kid someone gave me for my birthday a boxed set of five Newbery Award winners. Three of them I loved and read many times: A Wrinkle in Time, The Twenty-One Balloons, and Roller Skates. The other two I hated and only read once: Strawberry Girl and Island of the Blue Dolphins. I thought it would be interesting to go back to Strawberry Girl -- since I had it on the shelf anyway -- and see if it improved at all thirty years later...

Strawberry Girl is about a family eking out a living in the Depression-era backwoods of Florida. Reminiscent of the Laura Ingalls books, it describes 10yo Birdie Boyer's daily life in detail. Lois Lenski wins a bunch of points for describing in a foreword the research she did and the people she talked with to gather material for the story. She says, "practically all incidents used were told to me by people who had exerienced them. Many were too dramatic for my purpose and had to be softened; some had to be altered to fit into my plot." Too dramatic: I can well believe it! The drama in the story comes from the feud between the Boyer family and their nearest neighbors, the Slaters. Pa Slater is abusive and alcoholic, Ma Slater is unable to manage crops or livestock, and Lenski doesn't pull her punches when she describes all this. Some episodes are quite painful to read.

The ending was also painful to read, but for a different reason. I think this is where she "softened" and "altered" things. I don't want to give away the ending, so I will just tell you that she wraps everything up with a pat, sweet, happy ending that feels totally false compared to the gritty realism of the rest of the book. Very disappointing.

I've been thinking about why Strawberry Girl might have won the award. One thing it has in common with quite a few of the other award-winners is that it illuminates a particular time and location. But other than its historic & geographic value I don't think there's anything too special about this one.

Monday, February 5, 2007

A Bit O' History

Julie's experience with The Story of Mankind got me thinking about this whole Newbery award. Who was Newbery? Why did they start the award? What are they (who are they?) looking for in a Newbery book?

Inquiring minds want to know. (At least, my inquiring mind wanted to know.)

So, to save you all the legwork, I did a bit of it myself.

John Newbery (1713-1767) was a jack of all trades, mostly involving books. He operated a bookshop in London called The Bible and Sun (love that name!). He published books, he commissioned books, he founded magazines. He even wrote a book in 1744: A Little Pretty Pocket-Book. This became the first in a series of books aimed at entertaining and educating young people. By the end of his life, he'd written several more.

But he didn't found the Newbery award.

That honor goes to Frederic G. Melcher, a co-editor of Publisher's Weekly in the early 1900s. In 1920, he started publishing issues devoted to children's books, and in 1921, he proposed to the American Library Association in 1921 that they give out an award to honor children's books. In his original proposal, the purpose of the Newbery was
"To encourage original creative work int he field of books for children. To emphasize to the public that contributions to the literature for children deserve similar recognition to poetry, plays or novels. To give those librarians, who make it their life work to serve children's reading interests, and opportunity to encourage good writing in this field."
(As an interesting side note, Melcher also came up with the Caldecott medal idea, too.)

The award criteria for a Newbery Medal is as follows: The committee members need to consider the interpretation of the theme or concept; the presentation of the information; the development of plot; the delineation of characters; delineation of setting; an appropriateness of style. (Though not necessarily in all of the elements, but it should be excellent in all the qualities pertaining to the book -- the reason why poetry and biography books can win.) They need to consider excellence of presentation for a child audience. They need to consider each book as a contribution to literature. And, my favorite part: "The award is not for didactic intent or for popularity."(I found this information here.)

So. There you have it. I thought it would clear up why The Story of Mankind won. It doesn't, though, does it? All I can do is assume that standards of excellence and presentation for a child audience were different in 1922 then they are today.