Friday, April 27, 2007

Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon by Dhan Gopal Mukerji

If you're interested in carrier pigeons, or pet birds, or India, or birds used in war, this Newbery award book from 1928 might just fit the bill. Yes, it's somewhat dated in style and content. Yes, the first half of the book is a nature story reminiscent of Jean Craighead George's books such as The Other Side of the Mountain, and the second half changes focus and deals with themes of fear, war, and religion. Yes, the narration jumps back and forth from the boy who owns and trains the pigeon to Gay-Neck himself telling his own story by means of "the grammar of fancy and the dictionary of imagination." Yes, its audience would probably be limited, but I think there are some children and adults, especially nature lovers and bird lovers, who would really like this book.

Dhan Gopal Mukerji was born near Calcutta in 1890 and came to the United States at the age of nineteen. So, I'm fairly sure he gets the atmosphere of life for a boy in early twentieth century India. Mukerji wrote other nature stories, including Kari the Elephant and Hari the Jungle Lad. In Gay-Neck, Mukerji gives a lot of information about pigeons and about training pigeons, and he imparts that information by means of a fascinating story of the adventures of one particular pigeon, Gay-Neck or Chitra-griva.

The descriptions of the pigeons' defense against their enemies, eagles and hawks, and of their capacity to deliver messages even in the midst of battle are detailed enough to make the reader feel as if he could go out, purchase a pigeon, and begin training tomorrow. And it sounds like fun. As an adult and a non-animal lover, I'm sure it's not that simple, but don't be surprised if a child, after reading this book, wants his own bird to train and watch and admire.

Gay-neck is admirable. Even when he gives in to fear after a deadly encounter with a predatory hawk, and again after his war experiences, Gay-Neck is able to make a comeback. "Love for his mate and the change of place and climate healed him of fear, that most fell disease."

The story does take place in India, and it's filled with lamas and monks and Hindu or Buddhist prayer and meditation. If that's going to bother you or confuse your child, but you still want a book about training pigeons or about India, try something else. However, if you can appreciate the story as a picture of another place and another time, a vivid portrait of a boy and his pet bird, and a good imaginary tale of India and its culture and a childhood in the Indian countryside, you should enjoy this book

Gay-Neck would make a fun read aloud for children who haven't been spoiled by too much action in TV and movies. Gay-Neck has lots of action, war and predators and natural disasters, but the reader or listener must have an imagination to appreciate the story. Gay-Neck would be good to read during a science study of birds or ecosystems, or as we're doing, during a study of India and its culture. The boy in the story spends most of his time with his pigeons, caring for them and training them, and he learns a great deal about birds and about communication and about fear and courage. I can see a child making the raising of pigeons a cross-curricular project and learning more than just how to train birds, too.

Finally, I leave you with a sample of Mukerji's observations on nature, especially animal life:
I thought, "The buffalo that in nature looks healthy and silken, in a zoo is a mangy creature with matted mane and dirty skin. Can those who see buffalo in captivity ever conceive how beautiful they can be? What a pity that most young people instead of seeing one animal in nature--which is worth a hundred in any zoo--must derive their knowledge of God's creatures from their appearance in prisons! If we cannot perceive any right proportion of man's moral nature by looking at prisoners in a jail, how do we manage to think that we know all about an animal by gazing at him penned in a cage?"

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Criss Cross

"Criss Cross" by Lynne Rae Perkins is a different book from the other winners I've read so far. There are a couple of reasons, and as I was reading it I was unsure about whether or not it was good or bad. First of all, Criss Cross is probably more appropriate for 8th and 9th grade and up. I don't think it's necessarily a bad book for younger readers to get their hands on, I just don't think they are old enough to "get it". The main characters are dealing with having true feelings for the opposite sex for the first time, figuring out the awkwardness that the ages of 13-15 year olds are dealing with, and they actually make a lot of progress in those areas. I don't see my 6th grade self being able to comprehend dealing with those issues with the amount of grace that these characters do. I do think it's a positive thing and that readers can learn from it and maybe even be encouraged by it. I don't think it's too heavy, it's all pretty innocent but treated like the big deal it is to develop these crushes for the first time.

Perkin's writing style was completely new to me. There is one entire chapter that is in columns. One side is one character's side of a story, the other column is her neighbor's side of the story. I couldn't read them both at the same time of course, so I read one and then went back to the other. It was a new way of showing that it was all happening at the same time but it threw me a little. It's hard to try new things in books other than the story line, but I think she accomplishes it quite well throughout!

My favorite thing about this book is how accurately it portrays the thoughts of young adults going through the awkward stages of life. I would never go back and re-do junior high! I remember it being fun but horrible at the same time. I think that she shows readers that it's only natural for it to be that way. I think it even made me appreciate that time of my life a little bit more.

I don't know if the author is Buddhist but she does bring a very small amount of Buddhism into an important part of the book. There is also some catholicism as well. There is a minister in it that teaches guitar lessons, and it's funny because he wears a collar and she talks about him like all ministers are like that. I'm married to a minister, though he's a creative arts minister, and it's always interesting to me to see other people's perspectives!

Monday, April 23, 2007

A Year Down Yonder

A Year Down Yonder, by Richard Peck, won the Newbery in 2001. I had never heard of it before browsing the Newbery winners (so thank you again Alicia, for starting this), and that's a shame. I can't wait to introduce this book to my kids. Maybe read it aloud to them.

Anyway, I've been reading a lot of books lately that capture the essence of a place. It's one of the things I enjoy most when I read, but I don't always know how true-to-life depictions of far away places are. A Year Down Yonder struck so close to home for me, though, that I can tell you that Peck captures life in small-town and rural central Illinois perfectly.

The book takes place in 1937, when fifteen year old Mary Alice has to leave her parents (her father lost his job in the Depression, and they lose their Chicago apartment) to stay with her grandmother in downstate Illinois. Like A Gathering of Days, the book chronicles a year in a young girl's life. The language and tone of A Year Down Yonder are completely different from Joan Blos's book, though. Down Yonder is a much lighter-hearted book, with quirky and memorable characters, a few laugh-out-loud scenes, and some pithy country sayings that I haven't heard for years.

I grew up in a small town in northern Illinois (though not as small as the town Grandma Dowdel inhabits), and spent many weekends with my grandmother on a remaining piece of my great-grandmother's family farm. I was surprised how many memories Down Yonder brought back. In many ways, things weren't that different in 1970 than they were in 1937, I guess. My grandmother took me to the local burgoo festival, my other grandmother was a pillar of the local DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) group, and we hid from tornadoes in the basement several times during my childhood. In fact, the town nearest my great-grandmother's farm was devastated by a tornado a few years ago.

Anyway, each of these scenarios - the burgoo dinner, the class conflict embodied by the local DAR, and a tornado - form the basis for one of the interlinked stories that make up Peck's book. Several descriptive passages also rang true for me - my parents still have a huge snowball bush in their yard like Grandma Dowdel does. I clearly remember (and still often hear from my mother) the speed with which gossip spreads in a small town, and Peck is right on target when Mary Alice notes that "Anybody who thinks small towns are friendlier than big cities lives in a big city." And you should have heard me squeal out loud when Grandma Dowdel pulls out the pink silk pillow with the gold fringe that says "SOUVENIR OF STARVED ROCK". It was like someone I knew actually showed up in the book!

I think I would have loved this book even if it didn't push so many nostalgic buttons for me - Mary Alice and Grandma Dowdel are wonderful characters, and Peck's writing is just plain fun. Down Yonder is like Holes and The Higher Power of Lucky in this - it tackles some serious issues, but it's still very funny. Which I think is sometimes not appreciated as much as it should be.

The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate Dicamillo

What can one really say about this book that will do it justice. Dicamillo is one of the best authors that I've read in recent years, and everything that she writes is deeply moving. Despereaux is a story of light and darkness, and the ways that they interleave, and depend on one another in every life. Although it is the tale of Despereaux, it is also the tale of a number of other characters, each of which is equally important to the story, and each of which has the opportunity for redemption of their pain.

You may want to read this yourself before you read it with your kids. Sure, some kids will be unaffected by it. It's just a story. But if you have a sensitive young girl, as I do, the story is very sad in places, and doesn't try to sugar-coat the fact that life is hard, and that not everybody gets a happy ending.

Despereaux, who is a mouse, commits the unforgivable offense of falling in love with a human, and so is banished, disowned by his family, and tastes desperation, loss, and darkness. And Chiaroscuro, a sensitive rat born in the darkness, has an opportunity to taste beauty and light. How each deals with these revelations is a gripping tale, and one is able to submerge in their lives for a few hours.

Dicamillo is also the author of "Because of Winn Dixie", and "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane", which I highly recommend, although Edward Tulane, once again, was very dark and could be upsetting for sensitive kids. My daughter and I are currently reading "The Tiger Rising", also by Dicamillo. I can't get enough of her writing.

The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle, by Hugh Lofting

The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle, by Hugh Lofting

Yes, I have to admit, I gave "The Story of Mankind" a pass. I tried. I really did. I'll go back and try again some day.

Moving on ...

Having seen the 1967 Rex Harrison version of Doctor Doolittle many times over the years, the book was a great delight, filling out more of the details of a well-loved childhood memory.

It's a very quick read, with short chapters, so ideal for reading with a small child. The story moves along quickly, and is told in a conversations "story telling" style. It tells of the famous Doctor Doolittle, the "nacheralist" who can speak to the animals. He travels around the world on The Curlew, meeting various animals and learning their languages.

Highly recommended, both for a casual fun read, as well as for reading to your kids.

By the way, due to the age of the book, you can obtain it online a number of places for free, including Page By Page Books.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Bronze Bow

The Bronze Bow awarded in 1962 to author Elizabeth George Speare was an excellent portrayal of Biblical times from a perspective we don't often consider. The main character, Daniel, is a young Jewish boy waiting for a great leader to rescue the Jewish homeland. His experiences and trials show a side of Jesus' ministry that is integral to the Biblical history of these times. To consider the daily life and agonies of the villagers occupied and often enslaved by the Roman legions was heartfelt and provacative. I found the following passage the most moving to me:

But Jesus said that the victory was God's promise. He called men to make ready their hearts and minds instead. Was it possible that only love could bend the bow of bronze? He sat trembling, glimpsing a new way that he would never see clearly or understand. We can never know, Simon had said. We have to choose, not knowing.

Isn't that really the heart of religion? We choose - we have faith without knowing. We will know all, but our hope and faith is our sustaining grace. When I worked with the Girl Scouts, I always told them that faith was at work when we took something that we percieved as really bad and recognized the good in the situation - seeing God's hand in the situation - accepting with faith that all will be well.

I also believe that this book would appeal to both boys and girls - the "band of brothers" fighting against the Romans for the boys and the love stories which are brief but significant in the story for the girls - no stereotypes intended. Overall, I really loved this book and felt that it brought some fullness to Biblical events. I suspect that this is a book I will read again.


Friday, April 20, 2007

The Dark Frigate by Charles Hawes

Hi all! I started my own Newbery Project back in January, and then Sandy found me and invited me to join in here. I'm enjoying my reading of the books that I haven't already read, which is quite of few of them.

Philip Marsham was bred to the sea as far back as the days when he was cutting his milk teeth, and he never thought he should leave it; but leave it he did, once and again, as I shall tell you.

The 1923 Newbery Award winner is Charles Hawes' tale of adventure and piracy in a seventeenth century sailing frigate, The Rose of Devon. It's a "dark frigate" because of the dark deeds that take place in and around it as the ship is captured by pirates, and the hero of the story, young Philip Marsham, is forced to join the pirates against his will ---or lose his life.

In an introductory note on back of the dedication page, Hawaes writes, "From curious old books, many of them forgotten save by students of archaic days at sea, I have taken words and phrases and incidents. The words and phrases I have put into the talk of the men of the Rose of Devon; the incidents I have shaped and fitted anew to serve my purpose."

Lots of sailor talk and sea-going jargon in this book: mainmast, mizzenmast, scupper-holes, lee, maintop, lanthorn, forecastle, capstan, windlass, sheet anchor, ship's liar, boatswain, bullies, whip-staff, breeching, sheet, brace, halyards, clew garnets, leechlines, buntlines, aft, amain, downhaul, traverse, gall, belay, spritsail-yard. Those are just a few of the words for which I had to guess at the meanings from only one chapter. It might be well to do a short lesson on nautical terms before reading this book aloud to a class or at home.

There were also some delightful insults that I'm sure any red-blooded child would love to write down and save for later use: lobcock, lapwing, puddling quacksalver, vagabond cockerel, old cozzener, rakehell muckworm, base stinkard, bawcock. (I'm rather attached to "puddling quacksalver" myself.) Of course, I would never allow a child of mine to use such terms in polite company, but then again, no one would know what they meant anyway. so . . .

I think with a bit of preparation and a bit of explanation along the way, The Dark Frigate could be a great read aloud, especially for boys. I can envision hours of pretend play following the reading of this book. And the book doesn't idealize pirates, either; these pirates are real villains, bloodthristy and greedy and cruel with hardly any redeeming qualities. There's a moral to the story: be careful whom you trust, and don't get involved with bad company if you can help it. Or get away from bad company as quickly as possible before you get tarred with the same brush as they are. But the moral is something to be derived from the narrative; not once is the story preachy or unrealistic.

This Newbery Medal book (1923) holds up well. The introduction to the copy I got from the library was written by Lloyd Alexander, and he says much the same thing, "Though it lies beyond our power to sail with him again, we have had the good fortune to sail with him at least once in The Dark Frigate, and we could ask for no more fascinating voyage."

Newbery books listed by ranking

This was posted on a listserv I belong to. I thought it was very interesting so I thought I'd share :)

Since 1922, the single "most distinguished contribution to children’s literature" has been given the annual John Newbery Medal by the Association of Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association. Every list you’ve probably ever seen arranges these award winners by year of award, or perhaps by author. Not this one.

Finally, the list everyone really wants... the awards, arranged--not by year--but by how much a totally biased group of readers enjoyed them. What is this group's opinion of what is really the most fun Newbery winner to read? Well, read on...

The completely biased, non-scientific, Newbery Book Discussion Group met monthly to digest a randomly selected past Newbery book and an equally random pot luck dinner. Group members are primarily teachers and librarians. All like to read children's and young adults' books. None can pass up a Dove Bar while arguing the merits of the book under discussion.

For nearly five years, this Group read, debated, and ate its way to creating a list of Newbery winners in rank order of what we liked best. In November 2000, the Group "reordered" the list and decided to discuss and add the latest Newbery winner each year. The annotations, like the ranking itself, reflect the flavor of the Group’s discussion.

Check out the website here:
Newbery Ranking - Allen County Public Library

The Story of Mankind

As I just wrote to a fellow Newbery Project member, the best thing about this book is knowing that it's all downhill from here. I can't imagine any of the other winners will be such a drag! Others have already given this a thorough review. I concur with their sentiments. But also, being a compulsive type, I couldn't participate in the project without starting at the beginning and reading every freaking word of it.

Mission accomplished. Onward and upward.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Caddie Woodlawn

1936 winner Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink is one of the few books that I remember from my own childhood. Most of the winning books that I have read were read to my own children. I really enjoyed Caddie and her adventures when I was young and I enjoyed it again now.

Set in the mid 19th century, Caddie and her six brothers and sister grow up in rural Wisconsin. But the rural lifestyle described in the book could be any rural area. I spent most summers in rural Tennessee with my three male cousins and while the times had changed, the escapades had not. We got into everything and then some. However, Caddie's world was filled with danger and she showed great courage in accepting the truths she understood about other people and cultures. The tenacity of this 11 year old girl is portrayed in a way that children can identify with and learn from - additionally, Caddie is quite the tomboy - a relief for young girls who are not so girly! The stories in the book are based on the stories told by the author's great-grandmother.

I have been reading like a mad woman but not posting due to family emergencies which have occupied most of my non-working time. Through all of the confusion and sadness, I was reminded that a book, even a 37 year old book written for children, can transport us somewhere else and provide brief respite from daily concerns. Not an escape from reality, but a time for rest.

Wishing you happy respite and reading!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Dear Mr. Henshaw

I just finished Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary in approximately 3 hours. The story begins with the main character, a boy named Leigh, writing a letter to his favorite author. Leigh starts out as an immature boy and we see his development throughout the story through his letters. He has a hard time making friends at his new school, his parents are divorced and someone keeps stealing all the best items from his lunches! At first he deals with all of this by being down and self focused all the time.

We see through his letters how he begins to work through his problems and he even begins writing on his own for Young Writers Month at his school. It's interesting to see his transformation, and enjoyable since I myself have experienced so much transformation through reading and writing.

I thought it was fun to think back on elementary school and the time of the year when we all had to write our own short stories. I always loved that! Overall, I think this book may have won because it's a great look at the impact that most authors hope to have when they write. It was simple, but I'm glad I read it.

On another note, just being in this blogring and checking out all of your blogs has got me back into crocheting and I'm enjoying it! I also just bought my first sewing machine so I'm hoping it will be mostly fun and only slightly disasterous. We'll see!!

Happy reading!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Tales from Silver Lands

Tales from Silver Lands, by Charles J. Finger (with woodcuts, like the one above that's on the cover of my 1924 edition from my local library, by Paul Honore) won the 1925 Newbery medal.

I really wanted to like this collection of nineteen South American folktales (which Finger says he collected on his travels) more than I actually did. I just liked the idea of kids reading stories from different cultures, I guess. The exotic nature of the stories (which are filled with huanacos, hummingbirds, evil white toads, and the jungles and the mountains of several different countries) appealed to me. But when it came down to the actual stories themselves, I found that many were as vaguely disturbing as the European fairytales that I know better.

Children are kidnapped, there are quests, giants are tricked and die gruesome deaths, a father is enchanted by a scheming stepmother, a magic feather helps a boy kill the last of the man-eating birds, and the origins of monkeys (shown in the woodcut above from "The Tale of the Lazy People", one of the stories I liked more than most), armadillos, and several landscape features are explained in the stories. Some of the stories have a little prelude describing how Charles Finger (shown here during his travels) came to hear them.

The individual stories are short enough to read quickly, and they do have a lingering "flavor", as well as some entertaining or poignant passages, but I had to force myself to finish them. Since this wasn't nearly as long as The Story of Mankind (the 1922 winner), it wasn't that difficult to push on and read about the children in Paraguay who made bad wishes, the little creature that disguised itself as a baby and then ate everything in a village until the hot embers that they gave it mixed with water and made him explode, and other stories like these.

One description of a cat made me think of a friend's pet - and also shows how the stories flow (very poetically, actually):
Many years ago, said Soto, there came into the world a cat. It was in the days when all creatures were harmless; when the teeth and claws of the jaguar did not hurt; when the fang of the serpent was not poisonous; when the very bushes had no thorns. But this cat was of evil heart and unmerciful and a curse to the world, for she went about teaching creatures to scratch and to bite, to tear and to kill, to hide in shady places and leap out on unsuspecting things.
If you like traditional fairytales and folk tales, then I think you'll like at least some of these stories - but I'm afraid this was my least favorite of the handful of Newbery winners I've read so far.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

More on "From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler"

It seems as though we all love this book. I just finished reading it for the first time since elementary school. I don't think I ever finished it back then, but today i am in love with it. It's everything that I was hoping for when I started this Newbery project (not to sound too dramatic). I guess we're all looking for the same thing Claudia was, whether we knew it or not...that we would somehow be different after reading all of these books. Maybe that's why we start any new book or project or career.

Just a tip, I have the 35th anniversary edition of the book. There is a great section in the back by Konigsburg that talks about the Cupid sculpture that is mentioned in the book. I guess that the exact thing that Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler was afraid of happening to "Angel" actually happened years later to the Cupid statue in a random case of life imitating art! Beyond that, it goes into other little factual tidbits about the book. The drawings in the book are actual drawings of Konigsburg's children! She mentions stories she's written about her own grandchildren as well. I found the whole thing to be a great ending to this story.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The Reach of Newbery Books

I do a lot of my Newbery Book reading on the bus, to and from work. So far, each book I've taken with me has elicited comments from other passengers.

When I was reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (which my husband just finished in honor of his upcoming road trip to NYC with our older son, who read the book when I did in January), a woman and her upper-elementary daughter both said it was one of their favorite books. They ride in the same time as me each morning on their way to the local Waldorf school. We've also compared notes on knitting projects.

Another rider told me how thrilled she was to go to the Met after reading the book and see the bed.

With Holes a university student from China (another person with whom I've talked knitting) gave it rave reviews in broken English. Likewise a high school skate-punk student said, "That's totally the best book" (or something like that).

I end up having conversations with people I never otherwise would just by sharing that common bond of great youth literature.

The Giver

I finished "The Giver" by Lois Lowry Sunday evening. It was such a creative story about a future community that has succeeded in completely removing pain, choice, color, variety, and individuality. Each individual is born and cared for in nurturing centers until December of their birth year when they all become a "level one" (instead of their actual birthday, each level, i.e. new age, is celebrated at a ceremony in December). At level 1 they are assigned to two parents who they are best suited for. Each level brings new responsibilities, like hair ribbons, or buttons, and eventually bicycles. At age 12 they receive their assignment for life. While his friends were being named Doctors, Laborers, Officials, Jonas, the main character, was given an assignment that would change his life forever.

Jonas is assigned to be the Receiver of Memories. He comes to find that the world around him is quite different, quite darker, than he could have ever imagined.

I wrote this exact post on my blog. I would love to hear what you all have to say on there without giving key plot elements away on here!

I highly recommend this one!