Friday, October 30, 2009

Johnny Tremain

Here are some of the things I liked about Esther Forbes' 1944 Newbery winner, Johnny Tremain. The historical characters - stocky, practical Paul Revere, proud businessman John Hancock, and Samuel Adams with his shabby house - are all portrayed in an interesting and not overly simplistic way. They're real, complicated characters, not icons of the Revolution.

The colonial setting is also very well drawn, and Forbes has included many details about life in the late 18th century - especially food (syllabub! salt alewives, apple, mince, pumpkin and plum tarts, squabs, "a wreath of jellied eels" and "tipsy parson - white bread tied into little knots, buttered and baked", p. 58-59), and the apprentices' work, and a bit about the Puritans' religious strictures, and the general feel of the busy wharves of Boston. In addition to the silversmiths (Johnny starts out as an apprentice silversmith), there are also clockmakers, wool weavers, barbers, butchers, tailors, bookbinders, instrument-makers, printers, delivery boys (or "horse boys", which Johnny becomes, with some wonderful descriptions of his horse, Goblin), as well as chimney sweeps, oystermen, and knife-grinders. Boston and its hinterland of smaller towns and farms really is shown in a historically accurate (as far as I can tell) and colorful manner.

I did not like the cover. Peter D. Sieruta blogged about the different Johnny Tremain covers (some with Johnny in a tricornered hat and some without), but I have to say that this is one of the few Newbery winners where I think that recent covers are actually an improvement over the original. Seriously, Johnny's pale, ghostly face and the lines of redcoats and huddled houses made it harder for me to pick the book up and start reading it than it should have been. I did like the black & white illustrations every few chapters, though they weren't especially memorable.

Johnny himself is an interesting but often not very likable character, starting out with his thoughtless name-calling ("pig-of-a-louse"!), and his bullying of the "whitish, flaccid, parasitic Dove" (p. 3). He doesn't treat the women in his life very well, either, taking them for granted, pulling away from Cilla when she needs him, and then only getting interested in her when it appears she might be involved with his friend Rab.

Johnny does carry the story, though, and this is true partially because of his flaws. He does mature, and I liked how he thought better of his dead mother and the sacrifices she made as the story developed. His understanding of his own personal shortcomings and his increasing knowledge of politics and subsequent patriotism are also heartening to read about.

Paragraphs like the following infodump, however, reminded me a bit too much of the history I didn't like reading in high school (it wasn't until I got to college that I realized that I really loved history, and that it is full of the most bizarre and amazing stories that you couldn't make up):
The tension in Boston grew. Everyone knew that with the coming of spring General Gage would leave the safety of Boston, strike out into the country as commanded by his King, and this time in considerable force. He would never dare send out a mere handful. He knew how well the provincials were arming, preparing to welcome him. King George was in a fury over the dilatory, cautious behavior of his general. Rebellion had not been put down as he had ordered and every day it was growing stronger.....Word came to Boston that three generals, more ferocious than mild General Gage, were already on the way over to take command - Generals Howe, Clinton, and Burgoyne. Doubtless, perhaps against his better judgment, Gage would make his big sortie before the Cerebus arrived with the three new generals (p. 197-198).
Luckily, paragraphs like this didn't constitute the majority of Johnny Tremain's story, but they were frequent enough to make me sigh and wish for a little more showing and less telling. This is probably why a lot of kids today also dismiss Johnny Tremain as boring and old-fashioned. Which is a shame, since the story is really rather compelling, and I can think of loads of good discussion questions for kids (or adults!). You could look at how Johnny deals with his disability, what it means "that a man can stand up", and how different things were for 14-16 year old boys in the late 18th century, for instance. And why did Johnny became a Whig, and whatever happened to Dove? And Cilla and Isannah?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Secret of the Andes


Secret of the Andes, by Ann Nolan Clark, is a short and rather heavy-handedly poetic story about a boy named Cusi, who lives in an isolated mountain valley, tending a flock of llamas with an older man. The story follows Cusi as he learns about life outside the valley and subsequently discovers why he lives there alone with Chuto.

So - a few things I liked about Secret of the Andes. It's relatively short, and I did like Clark's language sometimes, especially when she describes sunrise and spirituality in the mountains:
The morning was cold with the coldness of before dawn. It was gray with the grayness of before dawn. It felt unfriendly because the world had not yet wakened to make it happy with living things.

Chuto was a dark shadow moving the gray shadows. Cusi followed him swiftly lest he become lost in the earth clouds that billowed around them (p. 19).
Earth clouds! What a great description of fog.
Then the sun came. Chuto's voice rose to meet the sun, and Cusi knew forever the joy of welcoming the coming of the Great Father who lightened and warmed the world.

After the call was finished Chuto stood for a minute with head bowed, lost in thinking. For a brief time he had touched the Spirit World, and he hated to return to the realness of living. But it was only for a moment. With a sigh the old man raised his head, straightened his thin shoulders, and turned to the homeward trail (p. 36).
Furthermore, I have a fondness for descriptions of food in books (what can I say? I studied ethnobotany for several years), and I really enjoyed the parts about traditional Andean coca use, the frozen (actually freeze-dried) potatoes that Cusi grinds up, chicha (Clark missed a wonderful chance to describe how it's made with saliva), and the obscure grains - canihua (which is related to the better known quinoa) and "pigweed" (which may be amaranth [kawicha], or canihua or quinoa) - and of course the "guinea pigs and sweet potatoes" that Cusi eats a couple of times.

I didn't like the rather plodding plot of Secret of the Andes as much. I didn't care much about the heavily foreshadowed secret, and the emphasis on pure, royal Inca blood annoyed me - not to mention that these elements precluded any kind of normal family life for Cusi (one of the major sources of conflict in the story). The characters were all rather stoic and flat, and I didn't appreciate the pseudo-profound statements about following your heart, not grieving if your searching circles (no, I didn't mean you're, it's about searching in circles), and the like. I did rather enjoy Cusi's quasi-mystical relationship with the llamas, though I got a little tired of hearing how haughty and graceful they were.

In a lot of ways, Cusi's story reminded me of ...And Now, Miguel, which won the Newbery the following year (1954) - both are slow (if not ponderous), thoughtful stories about a boy's coming of age, with a lot of ethnographic detail. Is it possible that a lot of the same committee members were still there a year later?

When I went looking for the cover of the 1963 edition that I have checked out of my library, I couldn't find it online. So above you see a photo that I took (hopefully my local librarians won't hunt me down for putting the open book face down to get a shot of the wrap-around effect of the dust jacket).

Although I'm not a huge fan of illustrator Jean Charlot (and he illustrated ....And Now, Miguel, too! how interesting), I think his cover and the endpapers (seen here in a photo taken from Peter D. Sieruta's wonderful post on Secret of the Andes) fit the book very well. Much better than the modern adaptations. Why the heck do publishers keep slapping new cover illustrations on these classics?


Peter D. Sieruta's post also led me to an absorbing online discussion of The Secret of the Andes at the Heavy Medal blog, and how Secret compares to the Newbery Honors books of 1953 - especially Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White. I don't think anyone can deny that Charlotte's Web is the more widely read and loved book today. But is Secret of the Andes actually a better book? Be sure and read the comments, they're quite enlightening.




Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Sounder (1970)


My rating 3/5 stars.

I got Sounder from the library, and put off reading it. I could tell just from the dust jacket that it was bound to be a Dead Dog Book, and I tend to avoid those. I was right, but it was far more and far less than that.

First of all, Sounder is the only character in the entire book who is given a name. The rest are referred to as "the boy" or "his father" or "the red-cheeked man." This would make you think that Sounder is the most important character in the book, and yet he isn't. The boy is. I still can't quite figure out why the author chose to give the dog a name and no one else. Well, that's not true. I can tell why the people don't have names; it is meant to be a story that could apply to the experiences of many in the sharecropping days of the South.

So why is the dog special? I'm still not quite sure. He is loyal, of course, and waits for his master - the boy's father - to return from his sentence of hard labor for years on end. And he is symbolic of...something. Perhaps I just missed the point of the dog. Maybe it is that the book didn't really do it for me so I not only put off reading it for a while, but then I put off writing this review for even longer and now I have forgotten what I thought the author's intent was.

So it is more than a Dead Dog Book because it is about a human experience of waiting, longing, unfairness, love, learning, hope. It is less because unlike books like Where the Red Fern Grows, you aren't as attached to the dog and therefore it isn't as heartbreaking when he dies. That's as much of the ending I will give away, and only because the summary of the book reveals it as well.

Even so, I found that I read it quickly (a sure sign of a plot with good movement), and there were a few memorable parts of the book that I can share with you.

Favorite quotes:
"...a human animal, like Sounder..." (p. 30) I love this. Anyone who has had a cat or dog (or perhaps other pets, I wouldn't know) can relate to this idea that those animals have a human quality.

"The boy liked the woods when they were quiet. He understood quiet. He could hear things in the quiet. But quiet was better in the woods than it was in the cabin. He didn't hear things in cabin quiet. Cabin quiet was long and sad." (p. 51) I like this way of thinking about different types of silence.

"'Go, child. The Lord has come to you.'" (p. 101). This line comes from the mother to the boy after he has told her about meeting a teacher in his journeys who has offered to let the boy live with him while he goes to school. The boy is asking his mom if he may go. What speaks to me about what she says to him is the idea that God can work in our lives through other people.

The boy would not tell her that the teacher had told him that dog days got their name from the Dog Star because it rose and set with the sun during that period." (p. 103) I didn't know this! The dog star, I learned from J.K. Rowling, is Sirius. Yes, you can get smarter from reading children's books! :-)

"Everything don't change much, the boy thought. There's eatin' and sleepin' and talkin' and settin' that goes on. One day might be different from another, but there ain't much difference when they're put together." (p. 109) An interesting way to look at one's life. Reminds me of a quote I found on The Happiness Project: "The days are long, but the years are short." Any particular day has its differences, but the years go by fast because there is a similarity about the days when they are thought of together.

"'Only the unwise think that what has changed is dead.'" (p. 114) The boy reads this in a book he finds at the teacher's house. He doesn't understand it at first, but he does by the end of the story, for reasons I can't say without giving away the ending.






A Gathering of Days (1980)

My rating: 3.5/5 stars

A Gathering of Days was a very quick read, being only about 145 pages and written in the form of a teenage girl's diary with frequent breaks. This would be a great book to read with elementary students who are learning about 19th century New England because it chronicles a year of a girl's life in Connecticut from 1830-1831 and deals with many relevant issues of the time. The main historical one is about fugitive slaves as Catherine and her friends come across one who needs help on his way to freedom in Canada.

Catherine deals with a number of other issues in this year in which she keeps the journal, and because it begins with a letter from her to her great-granddaughter, we get a preview of what's going to happen. I found that I didn't like this because it kept me wondering the entire time when her best friend Cassie was going to die (which is given away in the first page by the aforementioned letter). It made me feel unattached to that character throughout the book because I knew she wasn't going to make it.

One thing that I think is well-done about the book is the voice of Catherine as she tells what's happening to her. Not having researched how children thought, talked, or behaved in the 19th century very deeply, I can't attest too much to its accuracy. However, it felt accurate as I was reading it. I also liked how she makes it clear how she is feeling in very few words or sentences. It would be great for teaching skills on inferring from texts. (Once a teacher, always a teacher, I guess).

I didn't give it a higher rating only because it didn't grab me quite as much as some of the other Newbery books have. I still zipped through it and enjoyed it.

Great vocabulary:

abcedarian (p. 63): noun. dictionary.com suggests that the current spelling of this is "abecedarian" who is someone just beginning to learn the alphabet. Great word!

dimity (p. 118): noun. "a thin cotton fabric, white, dyed, or printed, woven with a stripe or check of heavier yarn."

loquacious (p. 129): adjective. "talking or tending to talk much or freely; talkative; chattering; babbling; garrulous: a loquacious dinner guest"

Favorite quotes:

"Trust, and not submission, defines obedience." p. 139.
I like this one because it speaks to me as a teacher and as a parent. Sometimes I need the children to obey what I tell them or ask them to do, and it is clear that children follow more readily out of trust than fear of negative consequence.

"I wonder if it common to feel that never is a place so loved as when one has to leave it?" p. 142
I think this is entirely common, so I'm not sure why I liked this quote so much. Perhaps because I feel this way about Michigan every time I have to come back to Washington, which happens regularly these days.


The Witch of Blackbird Pond (1959)

My rating: 4/5 stars

I am fairly certain that I originally read The Witch of Blackbird Pond when I was in elementary school. As it's historical fiction, it seems likely that it was assigned to me to learn about colonial history. In any case, I remembered none of it, so I figured it was time to reread it.

It turned out to be the perfect chore book, which for me is a book that has chapters of just the right length with which to reward myself after completing some task. It feels like just the right length a break from housework should be: 10-15 minutes. It also kept me wondering what would happen just enough to encourage me to complete another task so I could get back to it.

My quick summary is that Kit comes on her own from Barbados to New England to live with her aunt and uncle, who don't know she's coming. She tries to fit in with the Puritan town, but is an outsider before she even arrives, due to her outlandish behavior and ideas, like knowing how to swim. (!) Of course she makes friends with those who are also outsiders, including Hannah who is the "witch" mentioned in the title. She isn't a witch but rather a Quaker and she helps make the year bearable for Kit, though a bit dangerous as well. There is also a bit of (historically accurate) colonial politics thrown in as Kit's Uncle Matthew and the other townsmen debate the potential dismantling of the Connecticut charter.

I decided to forgive the book its easy resolution of the difficulties Kit faces because a) I like happy endings, b) I liked the characters and c) it's a children's book and not required to delve quite so deeply into what would have actually happened to someone accused of being a witch in 17th century New England. Just seemed like a lot of characters did faster about-faces than they would have, but perhaps I am selling the Puritans short.

My favorite character in the book was Nat, but I suppose the best one in real life would have been Hannah.

All in all a good read, but I don't think I'll be assigning it to my fourth graders any time soon.

Great vocabulary word:

obstreperous: adjective. "noisy, clamorous, or boisterous: obstreperous children"

Rifles for Watie (1958)

My rating: 4/5 stars

Finished reading Rifles for Watie a couple days ago. It is about a boy from Kansas who joins up with the Union army because he and his family want the Kansas territory's slavery status to be determined by the settlers, not by people crossing over from Missouri to stuff the ballots. He begins by being very excited about the prospect of fighting in battle and is dismayed when his own involvement is delayed. Of course he comes to be in many battles, fighting on both sides (one side undercover), before the war is over and sees they are nothing to be excited about after all.

I enjoyed the book, and was especially hooked when he was undercover with the rebel forces. What I liked best was that it was about a faction of the war that I never really learned about before, namely the Cherokee nation's split loyalties to the North and South, depending on which side had offered them what they considered the best treaty. Their people were just as split as the white settlers throughout the nation. The author did considerable research for the book, which made me wonder what the Cherokee perspective is on the war and the book today.

I also liked that Jeff, the main character, maintains his honor and treats everyone with respect, regardless of which side they are on. I particularly like that he is able to see the good and bad that exist no matter where he is.

What I did not like is that in the end, though the author seems to be starting off by showing Jeff (and the reader) that war is awful, ends up glorifying it anyway. There is even a line about how Jeff "lived life more fully" than most people throughout his three years in the army. I suppose if one person had indeed done all of that, it would be true. However, I felt like there should have been more acknowledgment that war is ugly and brutal.

Overall likeable characters, great use of dialect, and important messages about what it means to be human in the middle of difficult times. The Yankee soldier, Rebel girl love story didn't hurt, either.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Trumpeter of Krakow

Everyone seems to love The Trumpeter of Krakow, by Eric P. Kelly. Amazon.com has mostly four and five star reviews, and the few one and two star reviews on goodreads.com say non-specific things like "I couldn't finish it" or "really boring" - things that I think kids say about a lot of assigned books that they have no real interest in reading.

So I expected that I would like The Trumpeter of Krakow. I was looking forward to reading about medieval (or mid-evil, as one kid wrote in his review) Poland, as I like historical fiction, and have especially liked most of the other Newbery winners set in the Middle Ages.

Sadly, I really didn't enjoy The Trumpeter much. Maybe I'm becoming curmudgeonly, because the only medalist I've really liked out of the fourteen I've read in the last year is Criss Cross. Or maybe I picked all the best ones first, and now that I'm near the end of all of the Newbery winners, I'm scraping the bottom of the barrel. But I thought I was going like The Trumpeter of Krakow!

My problem with the story started right away in the first chapter - "The Man Who Wouldn't Sell His Pumpkins". The first sentence of the chapter states that "It was in late July of the year 1461 that the sun rose one morning red and fiery as if ushering in the midsummer's hottest day" (p. 7). Some interesting descriptions of wagons and people on the road to Krakow follow, and we meet the villain, whom you can tell is really bad because he's so ugly:
"It was the face, however, that betrayed the soul beneath. It was a dark, oval, wicked face - the eyes were greenish and narrow and the eyebrow line above them ran straight across the bridge of the nose, giving the effect of a monkey rather than a man. One cheek was marked with a buttonlike scar, the scar of the button plague that is so common in the lands east of the Volga, or even the Dnieper, and marks the bearer as a Tartar or a Cossack or a Mongol. The ears were low set and ugly. The mouth looked like the slit that boys make in the pumpkins they carry on the eve of Allhallows" (p. 12).

Now hold it right there. In 1461, boys in Poland did not make jack-o-lanterns out of pumpkins. Squash and pumpkins were domesticated by the American Indians in prehistoric North America, and before 1492, there wasn't much of chance for Europeans to grow pumpkins (or tomatoes, chili peppers, kidney/pinto/Lima beans, tobacco, maize, potatoes, zinnias or petunias, either). Well, maybe this wasn't widely known in 1928, and anyway, it's only a descriptive passage.

But wait a minute. A few pages later, we learn that a man, a woman, and their son have a huge yellow pumpkin in their wagon - and the man (Pan Andrew, or Mr. Andrew) refuses to sell it to the villain, even for its weight in gold. Well, that's where the name of the chapter comes from, obviously, but this late-season pumpkin from the steppes just bothered me. It made me suspicious of all of the other historical descriptions in the book.

I never really felt close to any of the main characters - Joseph (Andrew's son), his mother, Andrew the trumpeter, the alchemist Kreutz, or Kreutz's niece, Elzbietka. The mystery and the suspense that others applaud felt mechanical and forced to me. Although I enjoyed the rather lengthy descriptions of medieval Krakow, with its pillories, university students, cloth traders, night watchmen, and priests, I suspect my 12 year old son wouldn't find it as interesting as I did, especially in the absence of more engaging characters.

I guess I'm glad that so many other people still enjoy this story, but (as with Shen of the Sea), I'm at a loss as to why I don't like it more when so many others do. The whole alchemy and hypnotism story line didn't do much for me, either. But maybe I would have liked it a lot more if not for the pumpkins.

Call It Courage - 1941

Sandy D’s call for someone else to post a review of this book beside her excellent one inspired my choosing it for my next Newbery review. I recently purchased (for my library) and listened to this audio version. Actor Lou Diamond Phillips provides a dramatic, exciting reading that is enhanced with original music composed by Richard DeRosa. Especially effective were the drumbeats in the climax of the book. The combination brings this classic adventure/survival/coming-of-age tale to life.

Mofatu, whose name means “stout heart,” is 15 years old and the son of the chief of Hikueru, a real island in the South Pacific. His mother drowned when Mofatu was three (he survived the hurricane that capsized their canoe), and since then he has been afraid of the ocean. Taunted by his peers and feeling he is an embarrassment to his father, he decides to leave by canoe to test his courage, accompanied only by his dog and (sometimes) a pet albatross. He survives a huge storm on the water, landing on an uninhabited island that’s apparently used occasionally for ritual cannibalism, ultimately escaping from the “eaters of men” when they arrive on the island and returning to his home. He kills a shark, an octopus, and a wild pig. More interesting, to me at least, were the ways he fashioned tools and utensils, a canoe, and tapa cloth, the latter from the inner bark of a mulberry tree.

Author Armstrong Sperry’s observations from his trips in 1920-21 and 1924-25 to French Polynesia are evident in Call It Courage. For example:
While his breakfast roasted in the coals, the boy cleared the brush away from the base of the great tamanu. There was no wood better for canoe building than this. It was tough, durable, yet buoyant in the water. Mafatu could fell his tree by fire, and burn it out, too. Later he would grind an adze out of basalt for the finished work. The adze would take a long time, but he had made them often in Hikueru and he knew just how to go about it. The boy was beginning to realize that the hours he had spent fashioning utensils were to stand him now in good stead. Nets and knives and sharkline, implements and shell fishhooks—he knew how to make them all. How he hated those tasks in Hikueru! He was quick and clever with his hands, and now he was grateful for the skill which was his.

I liked this book and I think it would appeal to both boys and girls. (I’ve now completed Island of the Blue Dolphins - review to be posted later – and I much prefer Call It Courage). It may need to be read aloud to younger children (or they can listen to this audiobook), as the reading level measures out to 5th-8th grade. It’s relatively short (only 95 pages in my university’s 1941 hardbound reprint) with a lot of exciting action, yet there’s much interesting information about South Sea island life of a century ago, plus a valuable message about personal courage.

An autobiographical note (written in third person) published in Newbery Medal Books: 1922-1955 (Horn Book, 1955) concludes (page 198), “it is in this book that Armstrong Sperry has put not only what he saw and felt on the islands of the South Seas, but something of his own philosophy of living as well.” I would have to agree.

[A variation of this review appears on my blog, Bookin' It.]

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Shen of the Sea

It's interesting that all of the Newbery winners from the 1920's are set in exotic locations, isn't it? And it's a little strange that Shen of the Sea, by Arthur Bowie Chrisman, won the Newbery just a year after Tales from Silver Lands (a collection of South American stories) did. Were ethnic (or faux ethnic) folk tales really popular in the 20's, or were they seen as new and exciting? Maybe all the other children's books published in 1925 seemed like the same old stuff to Newbery committee?

I can't help wondering why it won, you see, because I really didn't like Shen of the Sea at all. And by the way, what were those teachers and librarians in Allen County smoking, to rank Shen at 48 out of 88? It's better than Hitty, Her First Hundred Years? Better than Criss Cross and Miracles on Maple Hill? Better than The Graveyard Book??!!

No way. I put it down in the 80's in my personal rating, close to Tales from Silvers Lands and The White Stag, if not quite as terrible as Amos Fortune or Daniel Boone.

Some passages in Shen of the Sea were enjoyable for the images they engendered, or for their poetry. Here's a short one that I liked, from the story that gave its title to the book:
And the water demons danced in the dew. Jubilant were they, flinging their toes high, spattering dew drops upon the palace roof, and singing the terrible song of the ocean (p. 34).
And here's a passage I didn't like, describing the perfect girl. It starts out well enough (and "the depraved and shameless" dances of today made me laugh), but then you see the importance of not outshining men:
If she was not so tall, she seemed equally strong and daring. She played ball with the prince. She climbed trees and rode donkeys. She could place her arrow in the target's eye, and she could swim where few would venture. More, the princess could broider, and sew, and dance most gracefully - not in the depraved and shameless manner of today; she danced the olden dances. And Chai Mi was a discreet maiden. She took good care not to excel Prince Tou Meng. If the prince's arrow struck the second ring, then her arrow came no inch closer to the mark. When swimming, the prince always won his races by the slightest margin (p. 103).
I can't help thinking that this is Chrisman's perfect girl. Though maybe that's Radiant Blossom, whose face "was shaped like a seed of the melon", whose eyebrows "were like the leaf of the willow", whose "eyes resembled the heart of an apricot" and whose feet "were three-inch golden lilies. And when she walked, she swayed as a poplar sways in summer zephyrs" (p. 112). Too bad that dishonest court painter portrays her as "a gruesome crone, a witch, a slattern" (p. 116), but this did save her from being one of the emperor's "Many Wives" (that's the name of this story). It's amazing Radiant Blossom was able to escape when the emperor sent her to marry Wolf Heart, the Barbarian, though, with the bound feet and unsteady walk.

Anyway, I didn't find the tales particularly "amusing and appealing in themselves", as promised on the dust jacket, and even without reading Amanda's review, I would be suspicious about the dustjacket's further claim that "hidden beneath their surface is the wise and practical philosophy that has influenced Chinese life for thousands of years".

The cutesy names (like Ah Mee and Ah Fun) annoyed me, and the sexism annoyed me, and it's all just sanctimonious and pretentious somehow, without the disturbing and yet compelling qualities in real folk tales (or even Tales from Silver Lands). Shen of the Sea made Smoky the Cowhorse (which won the following year) seem positively genuine - and much less annoying - in comparison.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Criss Cross - 2006

I finished this book over four months ago, but life (in the form of my husband’s bleeding ulcer, and then taking over teaching a children’s literature class for a professor who became ill) intervened. I’ve finally had a chance to catch up.

I LOVED this book! Author Lynne Rae Perkins is only a year older than I am, and this book mirrors her (and my) adolescence. Described in a discussion guide as “a companion novel to the award-winning All Alone in the Universe, Debbie is fourteen...;” she, the main character, is also described as being 13 and the year being 1969 in All Alone, so Criss Cross must be set in 1970. ”Words of Love,” the Mamas and the Papas song that Hector is listening to on pages 105-106 of the hardbound edition, came out in November 1966, and would still be getting airplay in 1970. However, much of what happens in the book has that timeless quality that makes it possible for anyone to relate to it.

The title comes from a fictional music and comedy radio show Debbie and her friends Lenny, Hector, Patty, and Phil listen to on Saturdays. It’s also reflective of the criss-crossing (but not always intersecting) activities and relationships of the characters in the book. I loved the illustration near the title page of “the spectrum of connectedness,” showing dots for “people move back and forth in this area like molecules in steam,” the area being that between 0% and 100% connectedness, both of which say “no one is here—no one.”

The book is very humorous, in a subtle way. Chapter 8, called “Easy Basin Wrench, or Debbie Has a Mechanical Moment, Too,” is one of my favorites, with Debbie reading aloud to her father the instructions for a basin wrench, which were obviously not originally written in English. There’s a funny scene in chapter 16 where Debbie plays one of those games with the letters in the names of herself and the jock she has a crush on, trying to see what permutations bring up the result (married!) she’s looking for. There’s even a clever reference to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (quoted from at the beginning of the book), with an illustration of Debbie’s crush as a donkey (page 140 in the hardbound edition).

I thought the writing was wonderful, conjuring up images and memories based on the words alone. This book is definitely character-driven rather than plot-driven, and that may make it hard for many of today’s vampire-loving teens to relate to it. Despite interesting male characters, I see this book appealing more to introspective girls, ages 14 and up.

I loved Broadway actress Danielle Ferland’s reading of this book, and I can’t understand why others have disliked it so much. I felt she used great expression in the reading and in coming up with some variations in voices for the characters, often sounding like a sarcastic or bored or self-conscious teen herself. I had no trouble following the haiku (which I thought was wonderful!) in chapter 14, nor the conversation between Debbie and Patty in chapter 10 (where, I note in the print version, the author quits using initials to designate who is speaking partway through the conversation – thereby, in my opinion, emphasizing the universality of such “girl-talk.”). However, I have to agree with Sandy D that the numerous illustrations (black-and-white photographs, pen-and-ink drawings, or a mixture of those media) in the print versions add a LOT to this book, probably making it more accessible to the target audience.

According to a January 24, 2006, report on NPR, Criss Cross was praised by the Newbery Committee chair as "an orderly, innovative, and risk-taking book in which nothing happens and everything happens." In a USA Today article the day before, Perkins said she “was inspired by her own adolescence as a ‘late bloomer’ who needed reassurance that ‘life doesn't always happen like it does in movies and books, but that's OK.’"

While the audiobook and hardbound edition I used for this review have the same cover illustration as those shown in Sandy’s and other reviews of this book on this blog so far, I decided to use the paperback cover in this post because I really like it – that could be me at 14.

[A variation of this post appears on my blog, Bookin' It.]

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Dark Frigate, 1924

There will be no piracy here. Curb your Arrrs and your mateys. Remove your daggers and hooks, your parrots and eye-patches. Stop prancing around on that wooden leg. The Dark Frigate reveals the sordid side of piracy: selfishness reigns, boastfulness passes for courage, and the gallows awaits.

Philip Marsham is raised at sea and set for a sailor’s life. But pirates overcome The Rose of Devon, and Phil finds himself forced into an outlaw existence. Should he serve the pirate captain, the shrewd man they call the Old One? In so doing, he would betray his country and risk death in a hundred ignominious ways. Should he seek help? By escaping and turning himself in to the authorities, he may be hanged. In fact, Philip cannot escape; on the open sea there are few choices. Life on the “dark frigate” is dark indeed.

At first, The Dark Frigate was a hard slog. After the sweet candidness of The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle and the lively forthrightness of The Higher Power of Lucky, I was lost in the foreign world of England under King Charles I. And, in truth, the book is a slow starter. But once those pirates crept on board, I was drawn in as helplessly as Phil Marsham.

Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be pirates.

In this day and age, we play with the notion of pirates. And why not? They have been romanticized into free-spirited heroes—wild enough to bring fear to the hearts of stuffy old men and stuffy old countries, but essentially loyal, relatively benign, and even honorable in their way. Besides, they just dress so well.

But piracy is a dreadful thing, and I appreciate that The Dark Frigate does not cast a glowing eye on such a career. Though some of the pirate crew are wise and loyal—and the Old One could match the bravery of any man—for the most part we find a host of dull-witted, strutting cowards. These men are gluttons and drunkards, egged on by promises of gold, wine, women, and palaces in the tropics. Rash in their actions and quick to complain, their own lack of discipline bungles many of their efforts.

Yet the author wisely does not paint all pirates in this color. The Old One, fearsome as he is, possesses a wit and courage that give Philip Marsham (and the reader) pause. Harry Malcolm is sea-wise and loyal. Jacob (one of the book’s most intriguing characters) owns an intelligence that could have been shaped to a much better purpose.

I also appreciate that the author paints clearly the choices of those in the grip of piracy. When The Rose of Devon is taken, the remaining crew have two choices: serve or die. Life at sea is as much a prison as it is a place of freedom.

What, this a Newbery?

Forget one little word in The Higher Power of Lucky. What’s “scrotum” on the first page of Lucky compared to the first chapter of The Dark Frigate, where our hero accidentally fires a gun, injures a “fat man,” breaks open a barrel of wine, and gets run out of town? In the third chapter, two drunken sailors brawl until one pulls a knife on the other. And then there are the pirates, who kill their victims and each other. This book wins an award for young adult literature? Bad Newbery book! Bad!

Yet just as the word scrotum can teach us to be inquisitive, guns and drink and all manner of shady characters with knives can teach us about honor, strength, and wisdom. In The Dark Frigate, what prevails is principle. The pirates’ lawless self-interest falls at the feet of a disciplined, law-abiding crew. The protagonist, young Philip, has to tread the line of right and wrong and find his own way. And choosing the right may cost him his life.

“A lobock?” “A lapwing?” “Thou puddling quacksalver—”

What did you just call me? One initial obstacle to my reading was the language. On land, I wandered through antiquated vocabulary and (to my sense) pompously contrived constructions. At sea, I floated helplessly in nautical terminology: “Cast off the topsail sheets, clew garnets, leechlines and buntlines!” (page 86) Anyone reading this book today has to wade through a slough of words—and in the beginning it is very hard going! I had to persist, let a lot of sentences slip through my grasp, in the interest of adhering to the plot. The writing style is a barrier, but the story is rewarding.

And the writing does win its share of triumphs. I even have some favorite quotes:

“Our ship is the Porcupine ketch and our quills are set.” (p 133)

“We know what we know; there be those who come toward us with their feet, but go from us with their hearts.” (p 138)

“But although he changed his manner as fast and often as light flickers on running water, under the surface there flowed a strong, even current of liking or ill will, as sooner or later all men that had dealings with him must learn, some to their wonder and some to their sorrow.” (p 124)

In conclusion

The Dark Frigate is a great adventure and a worthy, if unexpected, Newbery winner. To my surprise, I was reluctant to return the book to the library. I would like to read it again and feel again that sense of adventure.

. . .

Boardman Hawes, Charles. (1971) The Dark Frigate, decorations by Warren Chappell. An Atlantic Monthly Press Book; Little, Brown and Company, Boston. Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 77-117023.

[Also posted at Karen edits.]

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

2010 Mock Newbery Awards

Want to get started reading some the potential winners for next year's award?

Mock Newbery Award

and the ACPL's Mock Newbery Blog

The Most and Least Reviewed Books Here

People can pick any of the Newbery winners they want to review here. Initially, we tried to get people to commit to reading all 88 of the books, but life gets in the way, even without a deadline, and people have dropped out and new people have joined and no one's managed to read and review all of the books yet.

But how many reviews there are for a given title is somewhat of a measure of popularity, or at least a measure of how controversial and easy it is to talk about a given book.

Over the past few years, the most reviewed winners here have been:

The Tale of Despereaux (10)
The Giver (10)
A Wrinkle in Time (7)

Books that have only been reviewed once include:

The Westing Game
Rifles for Watie
Ginger Pye
Call It Courage
Invincible Louisa

I'm surprised no one else has reviewed The Westing Game! I thought it was a beloved favorite. Someone else really needs to write about it. I'm also really curious to hear what you think of Call It Courage and Miss Hickory.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Smoky the Cowhorse


I like horses a lot. I was one of those girls that constantly drew horses, grabbed every opportunity to go riding, and read all of Marguerite Henry's books (including King of the Wind) before I was 12. My daughter is taking riding lessons right now, and it makes me want to go again, too. I love feeding the horses treats and the smell of the stable, and when I saw The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss recommended at my local Border's, I checked it out of the library and enjoyed every minute of the story of a horse breaker in pre-World War I Montana.

So I had high hopes for Smoky, especially after reading Will James' preface:
To my way of thinking there's something wrong, or missing, with any person who hasn't got a soft spot in their heart for an animal of some kind. With most folks the dog stands highest as man's friend, then comes the horse, with others the cat is liked best as a pet, or a monkey is fussed over; but whatever kind of animal it is a person likes, it's all hunkydory so long as there's a place in the heart for one or a few of them (pg. v).
I have a pretty high tolerance for old fashioned writing styles, including lots of slang and dialog (one of the things I liked most in The Dark Frigate). Despite this, I had a really hard time getting through Smoky, the Cow Horse. It seemed so long, and although experiencing the story from the horse's point of view was interesting at first, very little happened for much of the book.

One of the things that did strike me was that soon after Smoky's first experience with humans, when he is branded, he is thereafter referred to "the mouse colored gelding". (Field mouse? House mouse? Turns out it must be a house mouse, because the color illustrations - which are pretty nice in my library's 1929 edition, anyway, as shown above - portray him as dark gray). Smoky must have been gelded when he was branded, but it wasn't mentioned, and the omission bothered me a bit. I guess that castration wasn't an appropriate topic for a children's book in 1926.

Will James' language did start to wear on me as the story plodded along, too. Crethure (creature) and eddication (education) particularly got on my nerves, and they appear repeatedly. I didn't mind the cayotes so much, and I enjoyed the use of kinky as a synonym for wild (just as gay was different when Gay-Neck was written). Those kinky calves sure ran wild on the range.

I loved a few of the old terms that James pulls out: gazabo (just some guy), "ganted up" (not sure about this, but it happens after a horse has been ridden too hard and not watered), and beezer (nose) were my favorites.

But why do half the chapters have quotation marks around them? There's "The Squeak of Leather" and the next chapter is Smokey Shows His Feelings. Weird.

The racism that I'd heard about didn't pop up until the last half of the book, and it is pretty notable that every bad man in the book is dark "complected". I didn't realize that "the vegetable man" in the last chapter was not fair-skinned until I read this shocking remark from the sheriff to Clint, the cowboy who breaks Smoky and then rescues him from an abusive owner:
"Say, cowboy," he finally says, "don't scatter that hombre's remains too much; you know we got to keep record of that kind the same as if it was a white man, and I don't want to be looking all over the streets to find out who he was (p. 257)."
Anyway, I'm glad I read Smoky - although I think much of that is because reading about Will James is utterly fascinating. You should see Amanda's review for more about him, and then you might want to check out a couple of recent museum exhibitions and articles on his work:

Cattle-Rustler Turned Author-Artist Featured at University

Plains-Panhandle Historical Museum exhibit

Canadian Cowboy Country magazine

Even as a horse lover, though, I don't recommend Smoky the Cowhorse. Those first one hundred pages were just too long.

Friday, September 4, 2009

About Sounder...

This was such an interesting blog post about Sounder that I just had to link to it:

He Does Have a Name After All


You should read it if you've ever wondered about what happened to the unnamed boy in Sounder after the book ended (like I did), or if you want to know more about author William H. Armstrong.

The Graveyard Book (2009)


My rating: 4.5/5 stars

I must confess to not being a huge Neil Gaimon fan. The first time I read Coraline, I found it a little weird and creepy. I reread it as a literature circle book with my students, and found it slightly more enjoyable, but it does have the distinction of being one of the few books I liked less than its movie.

However, The Graveyard Book was wonderful (and incidentally would make an incredible movie if one were so inclined), and far less bizarre than I was expecting. There are all the characters that you'd expect in a fantasy novel - ghosts, werewolves, ghouls - but the story itself is one that feels familiar. Bod's family is killed in the first chapter, which is the only one that would almost certainly freak out my elementary students. He is a toddler at the time and wanders out of bed and into the nearby graveyard where he is adopted by two ghosts and saved from being killed himself. He is given the name Nobody Owens, or Bod for short. His guardian is the mysterious Silas, who I am guessing is a vampire, though that is never told to the reader specifically.

Bod has a number of adventures, most of which involve his brief forays into the outside world, all intertwined with the overarching plot of the man Jack who is still searching for him. I absolutely love the way his life growing up in the graveyard is described, how he plays with children who were buried there, is taught by those who were teachers before they died, and longs to learn more about everything. It's particularly great how the graveyard teachers want him to learn ghostly skills like Fading, which comes in pretty handy throughout the book. After all, who among us wouldn't want to be invisible sometimes? To get out of a sticky situation, to scare the bullies at school... it's the superpower I'd be choosing, that's for sure.

One clever strategy that Gaimon uses to put humor in the book is to tell us what the headstones are of the ghosts as we meet them. One of my favorite serious ones is from p. 140: "Miss Liberty Roach (What she spent is lost, what she gave remains with her always. Reader be Charitable). This one from p. 209 made me laugh: "Thomas R. Stout (1817-1851. Deeply regretted by all who knew him). I know it's supposed to be that they regret his death, but the phrasing suggests the opposite. Anyway, I thought the author must've had fun thinking up the epitaphs.

My only complaint about the book really is the way it ends. I find that I am torn between giving a complete review and not wanting to reveal the ending to those who like to be surprised (not you, Mom, I know - I'll tell you what happened later). I love the resolution of why Bod's family was killed and he was targeted, particularly the aspect of meeting one's fate in trying to avoid it. It's what happens when Bod grows up that I don't like. I'll let you read it and see what you think, because you *should* read it.

Favorite Quotes:
p. 104 talking to Silas about people who commit suicide
Bod: "Does it work? Are they happier dead?" Silas: "Sometimes. Mostly, no. It's like the people who believe they'll be happy if they go and live somewhere else, but who learn it doesn't work that way. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you. If you see what I mean." Bod: "Sort of."
This quote is great on so many levels. First, because it's such a great point about people trying to make changes in their lives. Superficial changes work only if the problem in your life is really external. Internal difficulties are much harder to fix. Of course most of us would rather believe our problems are external, but that's a different issue for another time. The other reason this quote is great is just the interaction between a boy and an adult. The adult says something wise and the kid doesn't quite get it, but also isn't really sure what he doesn't get about it. So well done.

p. 149 "There were people you could hug, and then there was Silas." I'm not sure why I liked this quote so much. I guess because I know people like this, and so do you.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle

The first thing that I had to chose when I decided to read The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, by Hugh Lofting, was which edition to pick. I tried reading the original edition online here, but I don't have an e-reader and I really like reading in bed.

After looking at Amanda's post on the different editions and the content that was removed, I settled on Bantam's Yearling 1988 paperback (shown here), which was the one my local library had on the shelf anyway. I like the fact that it has many of the original illustrations and it is upfront (well, in the afterword) about the editing and the reasons for doing it. I don't really like the cover, though. Pink? Are they trying to drive boys away from it? When I went Googling for this cover, though, I found that Bantam had changed the design and the cover, and the new blue-green one was much nicer.

Anyway, I really enjoyed the first part of the story. I think that I had read at least the beginning of this book as a child (I remembered Tommy Stubbins and Polynesia and Dab-Dab, though maybe this was from a different Doctor Dolittle story), but it didn't make enough of an impression on me that I ever re-read it, or asked for my own copy.

As an adult, I particularly liked the description of the Doctor's garden (in the chapter appropriately titled 'The Garden of Dreams'), probably because it really is my dream garden:
When breakfast was over the Doctor took me out to show me the garden. Well, if the house had been interesting, the garden was a hundred times more so. At first, you did not realize how big it was. When you were sure that you had seen it all, you would peer over a hedge or turn a corner or look up some steps, and there was a whole new part.

It had everything. There were wide lawns with carved stone seats, green with moss. Over the lawns hung weeping willows, and their feathery bough tips brushed the velvet grass when they swung with the wind. The old flagged paths had high clipped yew hedges on either side of them, so that they looked like the narrow streets of some old town; and through the hedges, doorways had been made; and over the doorways were shapes like vases and peacocks and a half-moons all trimmed out of the living trees. There was a lovely marble fishpond with golden carp and blue water lilies in it and big green frogs. A high brick wall alongside the kitchen garden was all covered with pink and yellow peaches ripening in the sun. There was a wonderful great oak, hollow in the trunk, big enough for four men to hide inside. Many summerhouses there were, too - some of wood and some of stone - and one of them was full of books to read (p. 44-45).
There's more, too - there is also an outdoor fireplace, couches (with wheels on them) to sleep upon on warm summer nights, rocks, ferns, and a treehouse, and loads of birds, and "stoats and tortoises and dormice" and "toads of different colors and sizes" (p 45).

So I was happily reading along, enjoying Lofting's aptitude for description, and the character of Dr. Dolittle, who is rather charming, and then Tommy and the Doctor (does anyone else think of Doctor Who with all these references to "the Doctor" and with everyone calling John Dolittle "Doctor" instead of Dr. D. or Dr. Dolittle?) and Bumpo and some animals set out on their journey to Spider Monkey Island.

I got increasingly uncomfortable at the way the Indians on Spider Monkey Island are portrayed. Long Arrow is a great naturalist, but his people - the Popsipetel - are so backwards they don't even know how to use fire, or cook their food. Now this is interesting, because this was a huge Victorian myth in the 19th century - that there were actually humans in far off "savage" places who had so little material culture that they didn't have fire (or clothes or tools) or cook their food.

There is absolutely no evidence that any people anywhere in the world did not use fire, by the way, as Richard Wrangham describes in a recent book (Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human), which proposes that the use of fire was as essential to human evolution as walking on two legs, hunting, or using tools. So having John Dolittle not only show the Indians "what town sewers were and how garbage should be collected each day and burned" (p. 271), and make a dam and purify their drinking water to prevent "many of the sicknesses that they had suffered from before" (p. 272), and teach them metallurgy, democracy, and "the proper care of babies, with a host of other subjects" (p. 273), but for him to give them something that essentially makes them human? Yeah, more than a little condescending. And this part of the book can't be as easily removed as the pictures of Bumpo and the descriptions of his wife.

The journey home in the great glass sea snail is wonderful and whimsical, and something I'm glad to have read. I just wish the Doctor had stuck to animals and never met the Popsipetels or the Bag-jagderags, or become King Jong Thinkalot.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Graveyard Book - 2009

This audiobook, written and performed by Neil Gaiman, was better than I expected. I didn't really care for Gaiman's American Gods, and I'm not much of a fan of horror or fantasy - The Graveyard Book has a little of the first and a lot of the second. But so many people were so happy about this book winning the Newbery that I decided to listen to the audiobook right away after purchasing it for our library's collection.

A toddler wanders away from his home after his parents and older sister are murdered, and into a nearby graveyard, where he is adopted and raised by the mostly-ghostly residents and renamed Nobody Owens, "Bod" for short. There are a number of similarities to Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. Indeed, in an interview with The New York Times published January 26, 2009, Gaiman stated that he used to take his son to ride his trike in a graveyard across the street from their yardless house:

“I remember thinking once how incredibly at home he looked there,” Gaiman said. “I thought you could write something a lot like The Jungle Book and set it in a graveyard.”

Bod has a number of amusing adventures as he grows up (I especially liked his playmate at age 5, Scarlett Amber, whose parents think Bod is her imaginary friend), but the story eventually turns dark when he is 14 and the murderers of his family come back to do in Bod as well. This was actually the weakest part of the book for me, as Gaiman doesn't explain the backstory very well. It's never very clear why Bod's family is murdered and why he is still targeted, nor just who (or what) his two main protectors (Silas and Miss Lupescu) really are.

Still, I can see how this book would be really popular with children who are fans of Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, and the like. With its cast of eccentric characters, many with wonderfully old-fashioned names, it will probably make a great movie. And Gaiman did an outstanding job reading his book aloud. This book would work as a read-aloud for about fourth or fifth grade, and an easy read for middle-schoolers.

[cross-posted at Bookin' It]

Hello, Is Anybody Out There?

We have seventy bloggers signed up here, and we haven't heard from many of you for a long time. Have you given up reading the Newbery winners? Were you traumatized by Miss Hickory or did you get bogged down in The Story of Mankind?

There are a lot books here that only have one or two posts on them. We could really use some more perspectives.

You don't have to read every single book, folks. Or if you decide to read them all, you don't have to do it this summer. Come on, now's the perfect time to read Thimble Summer or A Year Down Yonder and tell us what you think.

New bloggers are always welcome, too. We can have up to a hundred different posters on this site, and we can always remove old posters that haven't posted in years (or ever).

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

I, Juan de Pareja

I think that the best parts of I, Juan de Pareja are embodied by the very first sentence of the book:
I, Juan de Pareja, was born into slavery early in the seventeenth century.
Juan's story is also that of his master, the painter Diego Velázquez, and a rambling exploration of art, Christianity, slavery, and Spain in the mid-1600's.

Although I like historical fiction, I'm afraid I was often bored by Juan de Pareja's narrative, and I frequently wondered just how probable the story was. Several other Newbery medalists have taken famous people and made stories out of their lives - sometimes basing their books on very little evidence or historical research. I think that the worst of these stories - Amos Fortune and Daniel Boone - are the least deserving of all the Newbery winners, and should be shelved in the fiction section (if the library bothers to keep them at all) instead in 921 with the other biographies in my local library.

Island of the Blue Dolphins
and Carry On, Mr. Bowditch are better stories (and both are also shelved in fiction, along with I, Juan de Pareja), but I still wonder about how much in these books is based on accurate history, or how much the author really got right when it comes to the characters and how they think. (I haven't read Invincible Louisa yet, so I don't know how the Newbery winning biography of Louisa May Alcott stacks up.)

Elizabeth Borton de Trevino actually notes that very little is known about de Pareja and Velázquez in her afterword, which I appreciated. But what about her portrayal of 17th century Spain, King Philip IV and his court, or the life of a Black slave there? Would Juan de Parejo really have worried that painting in secret was a sin? Was he really so happy as a humble, unpaid servant? I'm not an expert on the time and place, but the story just seems shallow somehow, especially when I compare it to other historical fiction (for adults, granted) like Geraldine Brooks' People of the Book, for instance.

Also, the style of Borton de Trevino's writing grated on me sometimes, and I thought the sentiments expressed were often rather trite:
The months went by, and at first I thought every day of Miri. But Time is a great traitor who teaches us to accept loss. I was young, and young hearts cannot always be sad (p. 76).
I did enjoy the way that Borton de Trevino put things at other times. When she describes Juan de Pareja's first trip to Italy with Diego Velázquez, her description of food and shopping is rather interesting and fresh:
I often went into the inn kitchen to cook for Master because he was used to a diet of meat and bread, whereas the Italians ate paste dressed with various spicy sauces, and very little meat. And when Master felt well enough to go about looking at art works, visiting galleries and shops, and pricing and bargaining, I went with him, carrying his sketchbook, his clean handkerchief, and his money, which I wore in a sash bound tightly around my waist (p. 85).
I guess I just expected more, somehow. It certainly appears that lots of other people love this book, and especially like Borton de Trevino's (you can't really say they're Velázquez's!) thoughts about art and beauty. It wasn't enough for me, though I did enjoy Googling Velázquez's paintings (especially his portrait of Juan de Pareja) and paintings by Juan de Pareja himself.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Sounder

I had a feeling this was going to be one of the sad Newbery winners. So I wasn't too surprised by the violence and tragedy that happens to the father of the unnamed boy that is the main character (and Sounder, the family coonhound) about a third of the way through the book.

I wasn't really prepared for the unrelenting bleakness of the rest of the story, though. It starts out grim, with a cold October wind blowing, the boy can't manage to go to school, the hunting is hard, everyone's hungry, and the boy suffers from "night loneliness." Things don't get a whole lot better after his father is sent to jail, of course, and the part about Sounder's injured ear is one of the saddest things I've ever read in a kid's story.

As with Island of the Blue Dolphins, the beauty of the writing saved me from hating this book. I don't think that I would have liked this book at all as a child, though. I wouldn't have appreciated the stark poetry of its language when I was depressed (and bored, because aside from a couple episodes of violence, not much happens) about the story. Quiet endurance is not a favorite kid topic, and unlike To Kill a Mockingbird, say, there seems to be little hope that things will ever change for the family in Sounder.

Armstrong's descriptions of the sounds of a woodstove, the creak of a rocking chair, and the dirty, cold space under a cabin are amazing, and I'm glad that I read them, even if I was unhappy with the story in general. His best descriptions are of Sounder, though. I would guess that not too many kids today have heard the soulful baying in the moonlit woods that he describes so beautifully:

Years later, walking the earth as a man, it would all sweep back over him, again and again, like an echo on the wind.

The pine trees would look down forever on a lantern burning out of oil but not going out. A harvest moon would cast shadows forever of a man walking upright, his dog bouncing after him. And the quiet of the night would fill and echo again with the deep voice of Sounder, the great coon dog (pgs. 115-116).

Monday, June 15, 2009

Miss Hickory is Weird

It's just a weird, weird little book. I don't know how else to put it.

It felt strange from the get-go, with its cast of characters ("Hen-Pheasant: Sad and without pep....Doe: With God.") and the pair of "large yellow feet" that Miss Hickory sees out of the corner of her eye (she can't turn her head, as it is a hickory nut glued to an apple twig) as she sweeps her corn-cob cabin with a pine needle broom.

The story just gets weirder, especially when Miss Hickory starts talking. What a contrast with Hitty (and is there anyone on earth who has read both of these Newbery winners that can not compare the two)! The first words out of Miss Hickory's inked-on mouth set the tone for her dialog in the rest of book:
"Are you at home, Miss Hickory?" Crow asked in his hoarse voice.

"Well, what do you think, if you ever do think?" she asked. "I heard your big yellow clodhoppers, and I saw you pass by. If you think there is one kernel of corn left in my house walls that you can peck out you are mistaken. You have eaten them all." (p. 11)

Even though I didn't like Miss Hickory all that much (so hard-headed...not to mention prim, judgmental, and crabby), I admit that I felt for her when she was abandoned. There are several moments of deep despair in Miss Hickory. She keeps right on going, collecting berries and sewing herself garments out of leaves and moss, which is admirable, but the sad moments are never really balanced out by the happy bits. Actually, there aren't really any joyous or fun parts in Miss Hickory - I guess that's part of the reason I didn't like it much. There are some moderately interesting parts about fall, winter, and spring in New Hampshire, the bleak parts, and then some truly "wow, this is almost as weird as that psychedelic part in the first Willy Wonka movie where the rowers keep on rowing" parts.

The worst part about all of the truly weird parts in Miss Hickory is that they are just there - something a little disturbing happens (like on Christmas Eve, which in Miss Hickory has a few macabre parts that reminded me more than a little of The Graveyard Book), and you're left hanging. There's no follow-up. The plot is one non sequitur after another, right up to the surreal ending.

I kind of liked the ending (with its vocabulary word for the day: scion), once I surrendered to the one-weird-thing-after-another vibe - it's the perfect culmination to the story - but I don't think I'll be recommending this one to anyone soon, except as an historical oddity. I did learn that bullfrogs shed (and eat) their skin, though, which is something I didn't know before this.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Strawberry Girl

Strawberry Girl, by Lois Lenski, struck me as a rather strange little book. I couldn't help comparing it to all of the other Newbery winning odes to rural life that I've read recently, especially Thimble Summer and Caddie Woodlawn (which both won the Newbery in the 30's, a decade earlier than Strawberry Girl). Although Strawberry Girl was set in central Florida at the turn of the 20th century, not during the Depression (like Thimble Summer), the narrative had a very Depression-era feeling of desperation to it. And much like Thimble Summer, Strawberry Girl features a not terribly exciting story (though it should be more exciting, with all that happens in it!) and a not particularly memorable 10 year old girl who lives on a farm with her brothers and sisters and parents.

This was the weakest part of the book for me. Birdie Boyer, the daughter of a strawberry farmer, just doesn't do enough to make me care about her. She works hard, she wants to play the organ, and at her most interesting, she hates the neighbor boy who swings a snake that drops onto her Sunday hat:
She ducked her head with a sudden, violent motion. The snake fell to the ground and slipped off into the bushes. She saw that it was a young harmless blacksnake, but that did not change her feelings.

"You! You!" she yelled, shaking her fist at the boy.

She was so angry she wanted to kill him. She hated him with a cold hard hate. She hated his overalls and his black felt hat. She hated his thin face, tight mouth and half-shut eyes. She hated every bone in his skinny body. Her anger was black enough to kill him, but he ran so fast she could not catch him (p. 47).
If only Birdie had sustained this level of passion in the story, or Lenski had described more about Birdie's feelings and her point of view. Birdie is curiously passive for most of the story, which is why I think that even the most exciting passages (grass fire threatens Birdie's house and younger siblings, alcoholic neighbor threatens her family and poisons their mule) left me curiously detached.

Caddie Woodlawn, now? She's a memorable character. So is Lucky, from The Higher Power of Lucky - in fact, I liked Lucky so much that I just checked out Lucky Breaks, the sequel to The Higher Power. (I didn't think Lucky Breaks was as noteworthy as The Higher Power, but Lucky managed to keep me reading with the force of her personality alone).

What did interest me in Strawberry Girl was Lois Lenski's obviously well-researched description of the hardscrabble life of Florida farmers and ranchers in the early 1900's. A little Googling shows that Strawberry Girl was the second installment in Lenski's American Regional books, which seem a bit like today's American Girl books (without the accompanying merchandising), featuring girls and a few boys in different settings in the U.S.

In her autobiography (Journey into Childhood), Lenski wrote that she was struck by the fact that there were "plenty of books that tell how children live in Alaska, Holland, China, and Mexico, but no books at all telling about the many ways children live here in the United States (p. 183)." So that's kind of cool, especially given the regional homogenization that has occurred in the last half century.

The language Lenski uses in Strawberry Girl is interesting, too - I particularly liked the word "biggety", which means stuck up. The characters have wonderful names: Birdie's father is Bihu Boyer, and her sisters are Dixie Lee Francine and Dovey Eudora Boyer. Birdie's full name is actually Berthenia Lou Boyer. And then there are the Slaters, the neighbors that the Boyers feud with - Jefferson Davis (aka Shoestring, who throws the snake), Essie, Zephy, Gus, Joe, Sam, and Azalee Slater. Classmates include Mary Jim, Lank, Rofelia, Latrelle, Coy & Loy (twins), Shad, Billie Sue, Roxie May, Kossie & Kessie, and Olema.

I'd never heard of cooters (they're a kind of edible turtle), or chufers (aka chufas), which the Boyers feed to their hogs along with sweet potatoes. Thank goodness for Google again, which tells me that chufas are the edible tuber of the nutgrass or yellow nutsedge (Cyperus esculentas).

In her foreword, Lenski writes a bit about "Florida Crackers" (check out this explanation of the term: What's a Cracker?), and the two families in her book are both Crackers through and through. The Slater family is so poor that the kids have never seen a comb or a tablecloth, and they consider their new neighbors, the Boyers, biggety. The Boyers feed their livestock instead of letting them range free, build fences to protect their crops (a major source of conflict in the story), and can afford luxuries like a new cooking stove and store-bought summer hats.

This Florida Cracker Homestead site shows what I imagine the Slater family cabin looked like (and isn't too different from some of Lenski's illustrations). Speaking of the illustrations, some of them were pretty interesting, and I was glad to see how cane grinding worked, but Lenski's style of pencil drawings just didn't do much for me. From Lenski's biography, I gather she was more well-known as an illustrator than an author, too.

Finally, like many other reviewers, I really didn't care for the ending. All the conflict in the story, suddenly solved by a Camp Meeting? I just hope Pa Slater really did stop drinking. He might do a lot worse than shooting the heads off his wife's chickens otherwise, since his new job has him touching off a fuse in the pits for phosphate mines, running as fast as he can, then listening to it "go BOOM and blow the whole place up! (p. 187)."

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare, 1962

To see one's loved ones taken away, tortured and killed can turn anyone into a rebel. Daniel vowed revenge after his father and uncle were carted away and publicly executed by the forces occupying his country. He is then sold to a master blacksmith so cruel that Daniel had to run to the mountains. Starved and barely conscious, he is rescued by the legendary robber, Rosh, who was rumored to be building an army so mighty, it would crush the invaders and free their people once more. Daniel grows up under Rosh's tutelage, and he sees his fighting skills and strength improve, even while the flames of his hate are fanned higher.

Then one day, through an old acquaintance, Daniel is pulled back to the village life from which he cannot escape - he is the only living relative of a sick younger sister. But he still believes in fighting for freedom and begins to recruit from the young, disillusioned men around him. They believe that their Lord is behind them and take their strength from a passage in their holy writings:

" - God is my strong refuge,
and has made my way safe.
He made my feet like hind's feet,
and set me secure on the heights.
He trains my hand for war,
so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze."


The group takes the Bow of Bronze to heart as only a man on whom the Lord bestows his righteousness and might may bend it.

In the meantime, a new leader is rising in the country. A carpenter speaking in the mountains, the market places, the fishing wharves - reaching to the common people in public places - is rallying people to a new cause. Is he the one that will rouse the people to fight against military oppression?

Disappointment is Daniel's when he learns that the new preacher's message is love and mercy. And yet he is attracted again and again to hear the man, even as his heart denies the message. Daniel is full of questions and doubts. He asks, Was it possible that only love can bend the bow of bronze? In the end, Daniel realizes that it is love and mercy that heals and strengthens.

----
The novel could easily be about anti-Americanism in certain middle eastern nations and yet, Elizabeth George Speare's novel, published in 1961, is about the struggle in Palestine against their Roman conquerors. It is also about a young man, so steeped in hate since boyhood, and his struggle understand what is good for himself and for the people around him. Daniel's service to the renegade Rosh nearly cost him the life of his best friend. His hatred for all Romans nearly killed his only family - his sister.

Of all the Newbery medalists I've read, this one made me the most uncomfortable. I didn't want to be reading what seemed like a classic case of extreme fundamentalism - young men skulking in caves, plotting the downfall of an evil empire, justifying their acts through holy writings, sacrificing themselves in the struggle while at the same time hurting the cause and the people they aim to free.

This is not an easy read - not for the children and certainly not for their teachers nor parents. Teenagers may find it a hard slog, living in Daniel's brain, the hardships of his life, the pain he has suffered as a young men. It may seem that the reward of reading it is in seeing that love does conquer all and is the solution to life's problems. But I would disagree with that. The reward here is in the effort. It is in stepping into the sandals of people who see themselves as oppressed and peek into why they may engage in desperate acts of self-annihilation.

I do not know how a child living in Daniel's place would view this book. Love? Mercy? Let's see you feel that when you're an orphan and you're hungry and your sister is not getting the psychiatric care she needs. But for the children who are lucky enough to be born in the free world, seeing this life through the eyes of another may add to their wisdom and compassion.

I find my new prayer in Psalms 46:9. May the Lord make it so:

" He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear,
he burns the shields with fire."