Monday, June 30, 2008

Miracles on Maple Hill

I wanted to read this book simply because it won the Newbery Award the year I was born. I purchase audiobooks for my university’s collection, and have been trying to obtain (unabridged) versions of Newbery winners we did not already have. I was pleased to see this edition published in November 2007 by Full Cast Audio, a company founded by children’s author Bruce Coville to “create unabridged, full cast recordings of great books for young readers.”

In that regard, this four hour 40 minute audiobook is a resounding success. A talented cast provides appropriate voices for the characters (with the exception of one minor character, Margie, who sounds too young for age 10). Guitar interludes mark new chapters as well as the beginning and end of each disc, and the cast sings the folksong “The Fox” at the end of the production.

Miracles on Maple Hill is a family story set in the early 1950s. The father, Dale, is a former POW (World War II or Korean War is not clear and doesn’t really matter), suffering from what would probably be described as post-traumatic stress disorder today. The family moves from Pittsburg to Maple Hill, to the former home of the grandmother of Lee, the mother. They first arrive in March during maple sugaring season, where Lee, son Joe (12) and daughter Marly (10) spend the weekend while Dale stays during the following weeks to fix up the home. They come back on later weekends and stay the entire summer, and decide to live there full-time in the fall. The book ends with a neighbor’s crisis during the following sugaring season. There is much description of the seasons and simple country life, and Dale’s mood and health improve.

Author Virginia Eggertsen Sorensen stated in her Newbery acceptance speech that she based Maple Hill on Edinboro, Pennsylvania (south of Erie – Sorensen and her then- husband, an English professor, lived in a series of college towns). Some of the characters are based on real people: Mr. Chris and his wife Chrissy were Pennsylvania Dutch Mr. and Mrs. Kreitz (and he actually did have a heart attack while sugaring); the red-haired bookmobile lady was Marian Kelly, the real bookmobile lady from Erie County,; and “Annie-Get-Your-Gun” was what the truant officer/school nurse was really called!

I think this story has a timeless quality to it and is still relevant today. Many American children still grow up in small towns and on farms (my little town, 30 miles outside a rather large city, just completed a new ag barn and has students who are very active in FFA, 4-H, and rodeos). Marly, the main character, doesn’t let her older brother’s (still) typical (today) attitude of “you’re just a girl” stop her from doing and trying things.

I found an interesting article that referenced this book in the Spring 2007 Curriculum Connections edition of School Library Journal. In “No Place Like Home,” India-born Mitali Perkins, who lived in four other countries before moving to California in the seventh grade, wrote:
I'm delighted that so many books exist these days about kids growing up between cultures, but I'm certain that immigrant readers don't want to read only about that experience. When librarians and teachers ask about the best titles for these children, they're sometimes taken aback by my answer: "Stock your shelves with the best contemporary multicultural reads by all means, but kids who no longer live in the land of their roots also need books that create a strong sense of place, and it doesn't really matter where the book is set."

Displaced youngsters want to know what it feels like to have roots. Surprisingly, a few classic books from your parents' childhood might be one way to satisfy this desire. The best writers from the past were masters when it came to creating a sense of place. If you serve immigrant, internationally adopted, or bicultural young people, you may already have noticed their affinity for traditional, old-fashioned tales. One reason is because such fiction provides a historical and cultural understanding of North America, the land they call home now. Another is that the values reflected in these stories might better match the conservative values in their own families.

She notes that such books “combine three techniques to create an enduring literary home for the displaced child. They evoke the use of more than two senses when describing a place, they use details about place to illuminate plot and character, and they create a setting that reflects and echoes the broader theme of the story.”

She gives Miracles on Maple Hill as an example of the second technique:
The family's journey in winter parallels this bleak emotional landscape, and when their car wheels spin uselessly on a snowy hill, we intuit how stuck the family has been feeling. Eventually, the flowing of the sap and the excitement of sugaring brings spring to the land and healing to Marly's family. Sorenson's descriptions of spring, summer, fall, and winter always mirror the gradual changes taking place inside her characters.

Perkins concludes the article with the statement, “The mistaken buzz in the marketplace is that today's techno-stimulated kids no longer have the patience to read long descriptions of setting. But place in literature, when created artfully, still has the power to satisfy some of the heart's hunger for home. Hospitable stories that offer a connection to a place, whether real or imaginary, are the ones young readers will return to again and again-especially if they've been uprooted from their own places of origin.” I think this applies to most kids nowadays, which is why some of the Newbery classics are still appropriate today.

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

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Rabbit Hill

This story was a slow starter for me as an adult; I wonder if my kids would have any patience for it. That would be too bad because the ending is really very sweet.

The illustrations are a delightful compliment, as is the map on the inside cover. That the author was also the illustrator is a nice touch. I noticed (with more interest than I had in the book itself) that Robert Lawson was also the illustrator of a favorite story of mine, Ferdinand. Last week I discovered that Lawson is also the author/illustrator of Ben and Me, which I unsuccessfully tried reading to my son when he was seven or eight. The stuffy prose, well represented in Rabbit Hill by father rabbit's dialogue, turned him off.

For the short read, I didn't mind Rabbit Hill. However, I wouldn't expect my kids to like it and am surprised it merited a Newbery Medal.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Twenty-One Balloons

I was surprised by how much I liked The Twenty-One Balloons, by William Pène du Bois - an older Newbery winner (1948 winner) - especially since I'd never even heard of it before this project.

I'm pretty sure I would have liked this as a child, too - I loved Jules Verne (especially Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea), and this reminded me a lot of that, though The Twenty-One Balloons was a lot more light-hearted. Also, my eleven year old son enjoyed The Twenty-One Balloons as much as I did, and our tastes don't overlap that much. So I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this book should appeal to a pretty broad audience. In fact, I think it is definitely an under-appreciated, underrated classic.

William Pène du Bois' quirky, rambling writing style appealed to me as much as the story did. Who wouldn't like "a balloon in which I could float around out of everybody's reach....to be where no one would bother me for perhaps one full year" (p. 40), at least on some days?

This story of 66-year-old retired mathematics teacher Professor William Waterman Sherman, who stumbles on a secret society on the supposedly uninhabited Pacific island of Krakatoa just before its 1883 explosion, is definitely one of the most whimsical Newbery winners I've read. There's a lot about balloons; their construction and their lifting power and the mechanics of rigging a basket, a couch, a house, and a huge platform up to them. There's economy, government, and exotic restaurants, and kids who get to invent incredible things. It's a great mix of science and fantasy, appropriate for all ages. Why isn't this book better known?

Funnily enough, my family just watched a Mythbusters episode (Larry's Lawn-Chair Balloon- myth confirmed) about a guy who attached a lawn chair to a bunch of weather balloons. And tonight we're going to check out Heliosphere, an "enchanting outdoor spectacle of aerialist performers suspended from a larger-than-life helium balloon" at Ann Arbor's Top of the Park festival, just to continue the theme.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Story of Mankind Online


No, I'm not talking about a history of the internet. Here are a couple of links to online editions of the first Newbery winner - The Story of Mankind, by Hendrik Willem van Loon, which won the medal in 1922 - at this Prize-Winning Books Online page produced by a University of Pennsylvania librarian. The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, by Hugh Lofting (1923 winner) and several early Newbery Honors books can also be found through this link, along with lots of early Pulitzer and Nobel prize winners.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Carry on, Mr. Bowditch

My initial impression of this -- that is, the impression as I read it -- was not favorable. Its main character was one-dimensional. The plot turns could be seen coming pages in advance. It had improbable coincidences (happening to be at Harvard the day he was awarded his degree). It seemed odd that it addressed much of the adult life of Nat Bowditch rather than just his youth (after all, Harry Potter's adult life is summarized in a few-page epilogue).

Yet after I read it, it grew on me. It was a classic by-the-bootstraps tale. It had adventure, history and, pleasantly, science. In hindsight, I was glad to have read it.

Then, THEN, (only today!) I learned that Nat Bowditch was not a fictional character. This was a fictionalization of a real person. Mr. Bowditch really did get indentured, develop a new way of calculating lunars and create a sailing manual that is still a classic.

I wish I had known this going in. The book's sense of inevitability would have been much easier to understand.

I don't expect either of my sons would enjoy this book, now or ever. But I am glad to have read it.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Door in the Wall

The Door in the Wall, by Marguerite de Angeli, was the fifth Newbery winner set in 13th or 14th century England that I've read this year (see here for a discussion of the medieval settings of the different winners). De Angeli doesn't ever say exactly what year this story takes place, but since it is during the reign of Edward III, during and after outbreaks of the plague, and at the end of the Scottish wars, I think it has to be between 1350-1365.

Unlike the other reviewers - so far, anyway - I didn't like this book a great deal. I couldn't help comparing it (unfavorably) to the other medieval Newbery winners - Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, Crispin, The Midwife's Apprentice, and even Adam of the Road (which won the award in 1943, just seven years before The Door in the Wall won).

The Door in the Wall was a just little too heavy-handed for me. The idea that God always provides "a door in the wall" when bad things happen doesn't appeal to me much. I've always really hated it when people tell me that "when God closes a door, he always opens a window." Part of this can undoubtedly be chalked up to my lack of faith. I do think that many Christians might find this story meaningful, and de Angeli did an excellent job of describing medieval church rituals (including many feast days and daily bells and prayers, like Nones and Vespers), and of showing how the Church was such an integral part of everyday life in the 14th century.

Perseverance and courage are definitely important qualities, but I'd rather see them demonstrated, and not have characters preaching about this to Robin (the ten year old crippled protagonist) and the reader. The story bored me until I was near the end, when the castle where Robin is being fostered comes under siege. I did really like the details about the castle (boiling oil to pour on invaders' heads! a keep, a Great Hall!), and de Angeli's pencil illustrations are quite charming, and added a lot to the story. I wanted a few maps, too, though (how far was it from the castle at Lindsay on the Welsh border to London?). Here's a photo I took of the illustration of the Great Hall, since I couldn't find any of her illustrations from the book online:


I just read The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry a few weeks ago (reading The Giver started me on all of her works, and I grow ever more impressed with her versatility and skill). Anyway, The Door in the Wall fits so very perfectly in Lowry's bibliography of "old-fashioned children's books" in the back of The Willoughbys (I wish Lowry had included all the older Newbery books in there!), which include stories of "piteous but appealing orphans....magnanimous benefactors, and transformations wrought by winsome children." Granted, Robin isn't an orphan, but his parents are absent for most of the story. And the book is definitely quite old-fashioned (and I think quite unlikely to interest my son or many of his soon-to-be-entering 6th grade friends).

Finally, it's a very minor, nit-picky point, but I thought it was a little weird that there was a horse named Bayard in The Door in the Wall, when there was also a horse named Bayard in Adam of the Road (would de Angeli have read Adam of the Road? How widely known were Newbery winners of the 1940's?). Was every other horse called Bayard in the Middle Ages?

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Witch of Blackbird Pond


My Newbery Challenge is an audio experience. I listen to the books as I drive from place to place this is a unique way to enjoy books. The Witch of Blackbird Pond was a tale of discovery. The main character Kit bravely sets off to meet her Aunt Rachel in America. She is a proud, spoiled girl who had spent her whole life in Barbados with her grandfather. Upon meeting her relatives and seeing their way of life, she begins to question the decision to come to this new land. Their strict religion and hard work made her long for the freedom and lavish life she once had. Finally, Kit does befriend the local "witch". This leads her down a dangerous path that endangers her life.
I liked the suspense of the many relationship in the book. People had to act a certain proper way. Often times they could not be honest and forthright with feelings and thoughts. Although Kit struggled with this concept, as I would have. I wished the author had included more from the character Mercy. As the lame cousin, she is everyone's comfort. She was stuck in the home alone many times. She probably had a unique perspective on many of the character conflicts.
"'The answer is in thy heart,' she said softly. 'Thee can always hear it if thee listens for it.'" This is great advice for most situations. Listening to your heart can be a difficult thing to do. Hannah, the Quaker, who the townspeople label as a witch seems to be the wisest character. She guides Kit throughout her struggles in the new harsh town. Hannah has suffered a hard life of prison, branding, the death of her husband and isolation, yet as seen in this quote she i still remarkably optimistic.
The ending was predictable, but I wanted it to end as it did. This added warm to the character relationships that seemed so cold throughout the book. I enjoyed this audiobook.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Quick Link, Lots of Reading

Peter at Collecting Children's Books writes about Newbery sequels, lots of sequels and related books.

The Giver by Lois Lowry

My first thoughts upon closing the cover of this prize-winning young adult novel: what a wonderful, powerful story and what a horrible, confusing and disappointing ending! I'm not opposed to ambiguity, but be warned if you haven't read it that the ending is beyond ambiguous. I'm not sure how I would have wanted the novel to end, but I'm not the author, only the reader. I immediately looked to see if there was a sequel, and there are not sequels, but rather "companion books." So perhaps my questions will be answered and my angst over the fate of certain key characters resolved.

The Giver is a great novel, worthy of the Newbery Award it received. It brings up the issues of freedom vs. order and security, emotion vs. intellect, and the utility and purpose of memory and history. At first, Jonas, the narrator of the story, seems to live in a utopian community. No hunger, no sickness, very little pain, a society of stability, order and contentment. However, as the story progresses, the reader begins to see hints that Jonas's world might not be as perfect as it looks. His mother, who holds a prominent position at the "Ministry of Justice", is disturbed about a repeat offender who has broken the rules for a second time. The third offense means release from the community. Jonas's father is a bit concerned about a baby at the Nurturing Center where he works who is not thriving and cries at night. Jonas himself is apprehensive about his Twelve Year ceremony, coming up in about a week, in which he will receive his apprenticeship assignment, the job assigned to him for his life's contribution to his community. Then, there's the airplane that flew over the community in direct contradiction to The Rules. All in all, it's an unsettling time for Jonas and for the community.

The Giver goes from unsettling to chilling in a little under 200 pages. Short but memorable. However, I'm not the only one who found the ending less than satisfying.