Saturday, May 24, 2008

Bud, Not Buddy

I read Bud Not Buddy after reading The Watsons Go to Birmingham with my 6th grade class. I loved this story. It took the reader on a journey along with a young foster boy, Bud, in Michigan. He leaves the home where he has many friends and is sent to an abusive foster home. After he escapes the horrible back shed in which he is locked over night, and attacked by door guarding fish heads and vampire bats, he sets out to find his father. 
Along the way Bud makes many friends. The struggle of common people during the Depression is shown along with compassion people seem to naturally show towards children in tough situations.  
The defining part of this audiobook for me was the epilogue. Curtis explains that many of these characters were inspired by his own family members. He encourages us all to learn our family history from our elders while they are alive. It is so exciting...I can't wait to have my students read this.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Crispin: The Cross of Lead

I'm going to give you two reviews for the price of one here: mine, and my 11 year old son's. He loved this book - he liked the action, the characters appealed to him, and the whole idea of being a "wolf's head" (a medieval outlaw) was fascinating to him.

I was a little more critical. I thought Crispin was certainly worth reading, but I found it a little dark. I kept expecting someone to get killed horribly (and it didn't help that I already knew a little medieval history and had heard of John Ball and the Peasants' Revolt of 1381). The medieval history in Crispin was very interesting, and well-presented, and intertwined nicely into the story of Asta's son - but again, it was all a little depressing for me, starting right off the bat with Asta's death.

I couldn't help comparing Crispin with the other medieval Newbery winners I've read recently (The Midwife's Apprentice, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, and Adam of the Road) - and quite frankly, I enjoyed all them a lot more than Crispin: The Cross of Lead. Crispin did make a very nice boys' counterpart to The Midwife's Apprentice, I grant you, but I didn't find the ending quite as inspiring or satisfying. In fact, I didn't like the ending of Crispin at all. I felt like it left too many questions unanswered. And both Adam of the Road and Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! had a certain story-telling charm and joy that I just didn't find nestled in Crispin alongside all of the drama and the history.

However, I know my son would disagree. He hasn't read the other Newbery winners set in medieval England, and given his taste in books right now, I think it is unlikely I could convince him to read them anytime soon. I should also note that although I didn't really love Crispin: The Cross of Lead, I did get well enough hooked that I'm going to read Crispin: At the Edge of the World as soon as my son is done with it.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!


Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz
Illustrated by Robert Byrd

Pages: 81
Finished: May 14, 2008
First Published: 2007
Genre: historical fiction, non-fiction, play, children
Rating: 2/5

First sentence:

The Feast of All Souls, I ran from my tutor -
Latin and grammar - no wonder!


Comments: A collection of monologues/soliloquies written to be performed by middle grade students. Each monologue tells the tale of an individual child from the middle ages. Footnotes are presented in sidebars and a few non-fiction factual pieces explain various medieval customs and history. The book is gorgeously illustrated with medieval-type illustrations in ink and watercolour. The design of the book is also very visually pleasing with coloured ribbon sidebars on every page.

While I found this book very pretty, the text did nothing for me. The majority of the monologues are written in verse (some even rhyming) which was very tedious to read and frankly, boring. I can't imagine watching a play that consists of a bunch of monologues to be very entertaining either. I enjoy both historical fiction and books that take place in the middle ages but this book was just not my thing.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Kira-Kira

I didn't think I was going to like Kira-Kira, the 2005 Newbery winner. Part of it was the cover - lots of people seem to love it, but it seemed a little stark to me, and on top of this, I knew that a main character dies in the story. I just didn't feel like reading one of those Reader's Digest type child death tearjerkers.

The writing on the very first page changed my reluctance to read it, though I still had some reservations about the death later in the story. The cover, I actually like now (after reading the book) - go figure. Though I still think it could use a little more color.
My sister, Lynn, taught me my first word: kira-kira....Kira-kira means "glittering" in Japanese. Lynn told me that when I was a baby, she used to take me onto our empty road at night, where we would lie on our backs and look at the stars while she said over and over, "Katie say 'kira-kira, kira-kira.' " I loved that word! When I grew older, I used kira-kira to describe everything I liked: the beautiful blue sky, puppies, kittens, butterflies, colored Kleenex (pg. 1).
Kira-Kira is the story of a Japanese-American family in the U.S. heartland in the 50's and 60's. The Takeshima family lives in rural Iowa, but moves to small town Georgia, where Katie and Lynn's father gets a job as a chicken-sexer (identifying the sex of newly hatched chicks), and her mother works in a chicken-processing plant. As you might expect, racism, the experience of second generation immigrant kids, and brutally hard work play important roles in the story. All of this really takes second stage to the characters and Kadohata's writing, though. Her descriptions never failed to surprise me. Take this description of the girls' strange Uncle Katsuhisa, who attempts to distract his nieces from crying about moving to Georgia (and not being able to find their favorite things in storage during the ride), by teaching them to spit like he does:
Lynn and I tried to rumble our throats like him.

"Hocka-hocka-hocka!" he said.

Lynn and I copied him: "Hocka-hocka-hocka!"

"Geh-geh-geh!"

"Geh-geh-geh!"

He turned to his open window, and an amazing wad of brown juice flew from his mouth. The brown juice was like a bat bursting out of a cave. We turned around to watch it speed away. A part of me hoped it would hit the car behind us, but it didn't. I leaned over Lynn and out the passenger window. "Hyaaahhhh!" I said, and a little trickle of saliva fell down my chin (p. 22).
The intimate, often funny portrayals of the Takeshima family reminded me (very favorably!) of The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963, by Christopher Paul Curtis (the 1996 Newbery Honors book), which also deals with the banality and ubiquity of racism in a totally matter-of-fact manner.

And it turns out that Kadohata's account of Lynn's death was sad, but it was not trite or Reader's Digest-like at all. The ending was beautiful, in fact, and very satisfying:
Now and then I thought I heard Lynn's lively voice. The cricket sang "Chirp! Chirp!" but I heard "Kira-kira!" ....My sister had taught me to look at the world that way, as a place that glitters, as a place where the calls of the crickets and the crows and the wind are everyday occurrences that also happen to be magic (p. 243-4).
There are a lot of rather adult references in Kira-Kira, and the lack of action and a meandering storyline in much of the book will not endear it to younger readers, anyway. But I think it's a wonderful choice for teens, especially girls. Adult readers who like this may also want to check out Bento Box in the Heartland, by Linda Furiya - a memoir (with recipes!) set a few years later than Kira-Kira, by the daughter of another chicken-sexer.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Smoky the Cowhorse - 1927

This book follows the title character from his birth onward, and is primarily written from the horse’s viewpoint (but not in first person). The first two-thirds of the book are almost lyrical in the detailed descriptions of Smoky’s first few years, until he is broken in at age four by the cowboy Clint (who grows to love him), and becomes expert at ranch work. The pace picks up in the last third of the book. Smoky is stolen by a cruel “half-breed” who mistreats him, then becomes a famous bucking bronco in the rodeo, then a “livery-stable plug," and is finally nearly starved to death until he is rescued by – guess who?

Of the 1920s medal winners, Smoky is the only one set in North America. One of the criticisms of the book is its poor grammar and spelling. The author, Will[iam Roderick] James, spent much of his life as a real cowboy, rodeo performer, and stuntman in Westerns. In his 1930 autobiography, Lone Cowboy: My Life Story, James claimed to have been born in a covered wagon in Montana, his mother dying when he was a year old, and his father, a Texas cowman, killed by a steer three years later. James said he was then adopted by a French-Canadian trapper, who drowned when Will was 13.

Besides the effort to make Smoky sound authentically “cowboy” or “Western,” there may be another reason for the poor English. Will James was actually born Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault in Quebec in 1892 and grew up speaking French. The truth came out in James’ will five days after his death in 1942. Dufault was fascinated by cowboys and horses, and at the age of 15, left his family and headed west to Saskatchewan. There he learned English and eventually worked his way up on ranches into a horse wrangler job. Sometime in 1910, he slipped across the border and changed his name. Besides his real jobs mentioned in the previous paragraph, he also served a year in the Nevada State Prison in 1915-16 for cattle rustling, and in the United States Army for a year in 1918-19, working with horses as a wagoner and mounted scout.

Injuries sustained in his bronco-busting days eventually turned James to making his living with art and ultimately writing. According to Jim Bramlett in Ride for the High Points: The Real Story of Will James, his third book was "...first titled...Smoky, A One Man Horse...the story ran in Scribner’s Magazine as a four-part serial from April through July, 1926. In September the title was changed to Smoky The Cowhorse and...[it] appeared in book form. With its forty-two pencil drawings and four pen-and-ink drawings the book was an overwhelming success....in 1929, [it] became one of Scribner’s Illustrated Classics featuring nine oil paintings.”

According to William Gardner Bell, this “deluxe edition…featured James’s first oil paintings and was reissued by Scribner’s as recently as 1962” (“’My Interest Lays Toward the Horse,’” American History, March/April 1996). I would love to obtain a copy of this edition. While the detailed black-and-white illustrations are relatively clear in my library’s 1954 (possibly as late as 1980) edition, it is rather shabby, and the 1997 hardcover reprint edition I recently purchased to replace it suffers from a problem noted in a May 9, 1965, New York Times article by Thomas Lask on “Repeat Performances”: “The drawings by Mr. James seem to have been printed too often from the same plates.”

Here is a copy of one of the illustrations from the 1929 edition, from the Montana Memory Project:
http://montanalibraries.org/MLNimages/WillJames/1996.020-VS.jpg.
The cover pictured above is from a 2000 reprint by Mountain Press, and does feature one of James’ drawings.

At 245 to 310 pages (depending on the edition), even with illustrations, this is not an easy read. Accelerated Reader ranks the book at grade 6.5 reading level (and at middle grades, 4-8, interest level) and Scholastic Reading Counts at grade 6.6 reading level (interest level grades 6-8). Nevertheless, this book would probably appeal to good readers of all ages who love horse stories, and others (boys in particular) who like animal and/or action/adventure stories.

I think it’s interesting to read some of the reviews of Smoky the Cowhorse from the 1920's:

From the Independent, September 25, 1925: “A grand book; it is hard to decide which part of it is the better, the writer’s text or his illustrations.”

From “R. L.” (probably Robert Littell, one of the editors) in New Republic, November 10, 1926: “[Smoky’s] career is told in a breezy, consciously uncultured but nevertheless rather attractive, often really charming, manner. Mr. James’ easy-going knowledge of what happens inside Smoky’s head…and his lending of biped motives to his gallant quadruped brands him as a 'nature-faker,' though one of a most guiless and readable sort. If a man loves the wild earth and a wild horse sufficiently, his affection is bound to win ours in the end, no matter how flagrantly he tames the savage animal with his mind and pen. Throughout the book one finds a good-humored, simple, wide-hearted spirit—which is a thing so rare that one always looks forward to meeting it again.”

From Ross Santee in Bookman, January 1927: “Personally I’d like to have seen the pictures given more space. For here are some of the finest drawings Will James has ever made. I think it is one of the finest horse stories ever told. It’s different from any other book that was ever written. For it’s written by a cow boy who knows a cow horse as only a cow boy can. And Will James knows his riggin’.”

And finally, from “Some in Velvet Gowns” by Marjorie Thomas, Peabody Journal of Education, November 1929:
When James' first book appeared it was realized that here was a man who was giving a true picture of the country....He has owned such a horse as Smoky, has worked with cow and horse outfits like the ones he describes, and has himself been a star participant at rodeos....The school of experience was the only one James attended....He says, "With me, my weakness lays towards the horse," and he wishes to make men remember horses in spite of automobiles and airplanes....The story is told in the vernacular of the range--not grammatically correct but decidedly artistic.

...Will James is the real artist in the realm of illustration. Smoky is an actual horse each time he is shown; perhaps he is even more alive when he is in a sketch than when he is put into words....In the Newbery Medal edition of Smoky, both black and white and color illustrations are introduced. The full page plates which show prairie, blue sky above, cowboys, and cow ponies, make one almost catch a whiff of fresh western air.

That’s how this book made me feel. The descriptions and the illustrations really brought to life this horse, and life on the range and the ranch in the early part of the last century. Recommended.

[Also posted on my book blog, Bookin' It.]

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

I Know It's Not as Pretty

but the site will be a lot more navigable using the latest version of Blogger. I hope to add some of the prettiness back soon, as well as a sidebar list that automatically takes you to all the reviews of a given title.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Still No Reviews at All

for Smoky, the Cowhorse (by Will James) and Waterless Mountain (by Laura Adams Armer).

And many, many other books have very short reviews, or reviews from just one person - wouldn't you like to add your input? We could all learn something from your perspective on these classics.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Jacob Have I Loved

I have to admit that kept putting off reading Jacob Have I Loved because the cover on the copy I got from my library was so horrendous.

It's like something from a horror novel from the 1970's, isn't it? Caroline (the main character's twin sister) looks like a ghost.

However, even really bad covers can only keep me from reading something I've heard so much good about (check out this review*) for a while.

As soon as I started Paterson's book, I just wanted to keep reading it (though maybe with one of those stretchy cloth covers pulled over it). There was so much in this book: gorgeous descriptions of life in a small town and on an island, sibling rivalry, a demented grandmother, first love, the value of hard work, an examination of how we make choices about our lives, and judging other people's (especially your mother's) choices, gender roles, WWII....have I left anything out? Hmm, maybe a lot about crabs and oysters. Reading those parts was a bit like watching an episode of Dirty Jobs. Fun, and you learn a lot about a totally different way of life pretty painlessly.

Like Flusi, I did want more at the end of the book. Or a sequel, even, filling in Sara Louise's college years and her introduction to adult life in Appalachia. And I agree with Corinne, this book is definitely for older Newbery readers - say 13 and up. There are some pretty adult themes in Jacob, including a loss of faith (oops, forgot to add that in the list of things included above) and sexual awakening. A lot of the "gave it one star" reviewers on amazon hated both of those parts; I thought Paterson's description of the first stirrings of physical attraction were amongst the most beautiful, the most realistic, and conversely the most subtly portrayed and unique that I've ever read.

And is she right about February, or what?
I used to try to decide which was the worst month of the year. In the winter I would choose February. I had it figured out that the reason God made February short a few days was because he knew that by the time people came to the end of it they would die if they had to stand one more blasted day. December and January are cold and wet, but, somehow, that's their right. February is just plain malicious. It knows your defenses are down. Christmas is over and spring seems years away. So February sneaks in a couple of beautiful days early on, and just when you're stretching out like a cat waking up, bang! February hits you right in the stomach. And not with a lightning strike like a September hurricane, but punch after punch after punch. February is a mean bully (p. 79).
I also really enjoyed Jacob I Have Loved a huge amount in comparison to Up a Road Slowly, the last book I read. Both are coming of age stories about teen girls. It would be interesting to look at just how many of these Newbery winners fall into that genre - out of just the ones I've read, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Out of the Dust, The Midwife's Apprentice, Missing May, The Hero and the Crown, and Julie of the Wolves (and maybe Island of the Blue Dolphins?) all seem especially calculated to appeal to teenage girls. It seems that this is becoming more common in the past few decades, perhaps as children's literature becomes more specialized. Maybe there should be an award just for that? Something like the "Judy Blume award for capturing the anguish of adolescence" medal?

Anyway, Jacob Have I Loved would win that award, hands down.

When I was googling for the hideous cover above, I ran across Chesapeake Bay links for this book on the Library of Congress website. Very cool. And I was also very happy to see that recent covers are much less off-putting.

*Note how much better that early 80's cover is - though I think it is pretty inaccurate, in terms of what the girls wore in the 40's, and the clothes they describe in the book. Those look like 70's sundresses to me.