Saturday, August 30, 2008

Shiloh - 1992

There’s not much I can add to Joanne’s great review from a year and a half ago. I listened to the unabridged audio version of this book read by American actor Peter MacNicol. He does a marvelous job creating different voices for all the characters, all with a Southern drawl. Banjo, guitar, fiddle, and harmonica further add to the setting, though music played in midst of the reading is not helpful.

I think this book would be perfect for reading and discussing with a class at school (as young as grades 3 for a read-aloud, up to grade 6, with a reading level of 4.4) or with one’s own children, because of the moral dilemmas it contains. Should the protagonist, 11-year-old Marty Preston, do what is legally right or what is ethically right? Is a lie of omission as bad as a lie of commission? Is it ever OK to steal or blackmail someone? Is Judd’s mistreatment of his dogs any worse than the injury Shiloh suffers as Marty tries to protect him? Since the story is told in first person present tense, the reader hears Marty struggle with these very issues:
A lie don't seem a lie anymore when it's meant to save a dog, and right and wrong's all mixed up in my head. (70)
"Jesus,” I whisper…”which you want me to do? Be one hundred percent honest and carry that dog back to Judd so that one of your creatures can be kicked and starved all over again, or keep him here and fatten him up to glorify your creation?" (57)

There are other points to discuss as well. Marty has a .22 rifle and thinks it’s OK to shoot rabbits and deer, especially for food, as long as they’re in season. Why then is he so sensitive to cruelty to a dog? Marty’s bed is the living room couch, the family doesn’t have a telephone or a working washing machine, yet they do have a TV.

As always, professional reviews of Newbery books are interesting. Before Shiloh won the award, middle school teacher Kenneth E. Kowen noted in the September 1991 School Library Journal that “Marty's father is a postman--usually one of the better paying positions in rural areas--yet the family is extremely poor. There seems to be an inconsistency here. This title is not up to Naylor's usual high quality.” After the Newbery Award, Jane Langton wrote in the May 10, 1992 New York Times Book Review, “Surely there must have been a book more important than this agreeable but slight story." Teacher Anne Hegel Clough responded in a September 13, 1992 letter to the editor:
Shiloh is a story that allows children to examine such issues as truthfulness, accountability, resourcefulness, loyalty, love, and plain old hard work. Hardly “agreeable but slight,” it is a vehicle that may be used to start grappling with some of the most difficult decisions in life. My third-grade students thrived on discussing the protagonist’s dilemmas: we stopped frequently while I was reading aloud to predict, react, and, most rewardingly, to problem-solve and talk about ethics.

…Perhaps the character of Judd Travers is too stereotyped, perhaps Ms. Naylor could have excluded religious references, and certainly things in the book tend to work out a bit more conveniently than they would in real life. Nevertheless, we now have an acclaimed story that will gain wide readership, a story that is edifying, accessible, and inspiring to our children.

In an interview by Suzanna Henshon in the January 2007 Lion & the Unicorn, Naylor said of Shiloh, “It will probably always be one of my favorites, because it has a Mark Twain theme [she stated earlier in the same interview that ‘I was probably influenced most’ by him], the voice of my father, the moral convictions of my mother, it takes place in my husband's home state, and I love that [Preston] family to pieces.”

[Cross-posted at my book blog, Bookin' It.]

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem Van Loon


“Why should I ever read fairy stories, when the truth of history is so much more interesting and entertaining?”

Imagine my surprise when I first went in search of Hendrik Willem Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind, the first winner of the Newbery Award, and stumbled onto a history tome of 500+ pages (in its “updated” state). I was not prepared for this. My brief dalliance with the Newbery Award has always been with fiction and considering the seeming shortage of children’s nonfiction I never appreciated the idea that the Newbery list may be more expansive.

First published in 1921, The Story of Mankind is a children’s history beginning with the first cells that would contribute to the initial plants and animals on Earth through the beginning of the United Nations. The Story of this work is that it’s largely written in a narrative style that reads very much as verbatim classroom lecture or simply as an adult explaining aspects of history to a child. Nearly every page is decorated with a map, illustrated timeline, or simple sketch to further enlighten the passages. Perhaps this doesn’t appear too impressive compared to modern children’s history texts, but I’m sure it was quite a staggering accomplishment for the period.

Seth Lerer describes The Story of Mankind as “rich with engaging anecdotes, clear judgments, and precise chronology” and “It gives us history that is accurate, clear, and organized.” And all of these things are true but it is the “clear judgments” that I find most troubling. Though I am only up to the chapter on the English revolution, it’s blatant that The Story of Mankind is not the most objective work of nonfiction and threads of racism and intolerance trickle throughout the texts. (Admittedly Van Loon passed prior to post-colonial studies developing into a force to be reckoned with.)

It’s ironic though that within the book Van Loon dedicates space to the idea of intolerance, “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 a do not interest them very much.” I would still give Van Loon a great deal of credit on writing a children’s history that during the time must have very much complimented other historical and nonfiction writings. It’s an idealist book that focuses exclusively on the events that leads the reader unquestioningly to the development of the modern United States. Throughout the text the reader is not often required to consider the “rightness” or “wrongness” of situations as Van Loon provides a “clear judgment” of events.


Of all the books appearing on the Newbery list, The Story of Mankind (using completely unscientific statistics) seems like the least read or most unfinished book. Van Loon’s portrayal of human history and heritage seems quite foreign to more modern Newbery winners and even stands apart from the early winners of this literary award. Perhaps the most obvious distinguishing feature is that The Story of Mankind is more or less a work of nonfiction while the vast majority (if not all of the rest) of other winners are works of fiction.

This book is problematic for the modern reader in part because it was originally published in 1921 and, like every other book attempting an all-encompassing view of history, it promises more than it can ever possibly deliver. Van Loon is a subjective writer and certain racist, hegemonic, and imperialist attitudes crop up throughout the book. And as other authors writing such a vast history, it just doesn’t work. The Story of Mankind is the story of historical events that led to the formation of the modern United Nations and doesn’t spend a great deal of time outside of Europe and the United States of America (unless other countries were briefly useful in colonization that led to the formation of the United Nations).

The Story of Mankind does work in its narrative features to deliver history and what in 1921 would have been the rather progressive look at using illustrations to instruct and enliven history for children. I was asked by Julie regarding current (if any) usage of The Story of Mankind, and while I would never argue for sole usage of this text a comparative look between this and a more recent study of history would certainly have some validity.

I must say that I am still intrigued by the presence of The Story of Mankind on the Newbery list and particularly as it was the first book to win the award. Returning to Children’s Literature, Seth Lerer describes some of the books attributes for the Newbery category: “rich with engaging anecdotes, clear judgments, and precise chrononology,” a “history that is accurate, clear, and organized,” it “is history as a social lesson,” it’s a vivid book written with clarity and optimism that from “hard work and struggle” leads to “a good feeling of success.” And I suppose that it is these categorizes that continue to filter down through the years when selecting the Newbery titles.

Originally published in two parts at Adventures in Reading.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The High King - 1969

I vaguely remember reading this book and the four books preceding it in the Chronicles of Prydain series when I was a kid. This book, the 1969 winner, would have been published when I was 11, so I would have been about the right age (the reading level of the book is about grade 6). However, it may feel familiar due more to the similarities to the Lord of the Rings series, which I read when the first movie in that series came out in 2001. Both series are coming-of-age/quest/rite-of-passage stories; both have wizards/enchantresses, dwarves and giants, a death lord, dragon-like birds, and a special sword.

Author Lloyd Alexander stated in the author’s note of the first book of the series, The Book of Three, that The Chronicles of Prydain draw upon Welsh mythology, specifically the Mabinogion. During World War II, Alexander was stationed a while in Wales and was enchanted by its landscape, language, and legends.

The High King includes a journey and a number of battles, and some of the characters introduced earlier in the series die. At the end of the book, described by one reviewer as “perfectly heartbreaking and heartbreakingly perfect,” the main character, Taran, makes a difficult yet not totally surprising decision.

The lessons of the story are reflected in these two quotes, both from the last chapter:
“Evil conquered?" said Gwydion. "You have learned much, but learn this last and hardest of lessons. You have conquered only the enchantments of evil. That was the easiest of your tasks, only a beginning, not an ending. Do you believe evil itself to be so quickly overcome? Not so long as men still hate and slay each other, when greed and anger goad them. Against these even a flaming sword cannot prevail, but only that portion of good in all men's hearts whose flame can never be quenched.”

and
…[Taran] said. "Long ago I yearned to be a hero without knowing, in truth, what a hero was. Now, perhaps, I understand it a little better. A grower of turnips or a shaper of clay, a … farmer or a king — every man is a hero if he strives more for others than for himself alone.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and will be (re-?) reading the others in the series. It’s not necessary to read the other books in the Chronicles before reading “The High King,” but I would recommend that a child do so as the story and its characters will be enhanced. I would suggest the books for both girls and (especially) boys in grades 3-6, although they could be done as read-alouds for younger children and will be appreciated by adults as well. I feel this book was well-deserving of the Newbery.

British-born actor James Langton did a fine job creating unique voices for the characters (although Princess Eilonwy sounded a bit strange), and he has narrated the audiobooks for all five of the Chronicles. Interesting trivia: The second book in the series, The Black Cauldron, was a Newbery Honor Book in 1966. Alexander wrote a prequel short story collection to the series called The Foundling and Other Tales from Prydain in 1973.

[Cross-posted at my book blog, Bookin' It.]

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech


Stars: ****

Walk Two Moons won the 1995 Newbery Medal.

Summary: “As Sal entertains her grandparents with Phoebe’s outrageous story, her own story begins to unfold – the story of a thirteen-year-old girl whose only wish is to be reunited with her missing mother.”

I must admit that the summary at the back did not sound all the interesting to me. However the book was very well put together. The summary just doesn’t explain enough. Sal is on the road with her Grandparents and is telling them the story of her friend Phoebe and her life, which at times seems to be very similar to Sal’s. The book switches back and forth from what is happening with Sal and her grandparents to what happened with Phoebe. It does not always alternate every other chapter, which makes it more interesting since you don’t know whose story will be continued next until you start reading.

The story has good lessons in it and would make a good school read I think.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Giver by Lois Lowry


I don't know about "Brave new world" or the film "Pleasentville" and I've never read "1984" by George Orwell, only excerpts in school. But as far as children's literature is concerned this is an extraordinary book. It kept me glued to it for hours. I had to know how this world worked, what were its secrets, what would happen to its protagonist. It was a real page-turner. It wasn't a simple read though, like others have said. It was quick, but it made me think about it for days. It was scary in a deep, subtle way. It raised strong, elementary emotions, and it made me shiver trying to imagine how a world like that would be possible.
The story is set in an indefinite far future, where society is organised in small communities, all designed with the same scheme: everything and everyone have to be up to the standards of the community. Everything is regulated by fixed and almost unchangeable laws. Individuality is not an option and neither is free will. This is the price that humanity have chosen to pay to avoid hunger and violence and war.
Families, called family units, are not decided by love or anything else but a Community Council which finds the right match for every person, thus creating the perfect harmony in the unit. Children are also regulated by a scheme: one boy and one girl, born by a group of birth-mothers, are allocated to one family who requests them.
At first this system seems to be the most organised way of living. There's no struggle for survival because everything is provided, everyone is kind and equal, though some "assignments"( not jobs) are less honourable than others. Everything is tidy, and quiet and peaceful. But there's something eerie is this peacefulness.
You can feel that something is not quite right. Hints are given here and there: people being mysteriously "released" (and you can guess pretty quickly what that means), an impersonal Voice that speaks through a microphone and gives orders and warnings. Even a rule that might sound positive and open-minded, the sharing of dreams in the morning and of feelings in the evening, has something mechanical and disturbing about it.
And then you start asking questions: where are the books, the writers, the artists? Will there be an assignment specifically for them? Because certainly they can't live without them.
"Stories are the most important thing in the world. Without stories, we wouldn't be human beings at all.” said Philip Pullman and so I kept reminding myself.
But it's not till Jonas, the boy who's the main character, has his first wet dream, or the Stirrings, as his parents would call it, that you realise how controlling and de-humanising this society is.
Shortly after Jonas' life changes completely when he is selected as the new Receiver of Memory. And here I stop. I've already said too much. I'll leave it to you to find out what that means. If you've never heard of it, like me before, then you shouldn't be spoiled with more informations. If you've read it, I'll like to discuss it with you in the comments!