Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Lincoln: A Photobiography - 1988

I’ve always had a soft spot for Abraham Lincoln. Like my dad, I was born in Illinois (my mom and my four other siblings are all native Houstonians). In fact, my paternal great-great grandfather, Fred Dienes (1828-1896), owned a hat store in Springfield, Illinois and supposedly sold a hat to Lincoln. Maybe his store is somewhere in this photograph (also found in black and white in the book on page 29):

About 40 years ago, I wrote an essay on Lincoln and won a trip to Washington, DC, for the inauguration. And now I live in Granbury, where John Wilkes Booth (who allegedly was not killed after the assassination of Lincoln) lived as John St. Helen. Supposedly his ghost haunts the Opera House on the downtown square (just a half mile from my house), and the gun used in the assassination was found just two blocks from my home.

So I was excited to see that Russell Freedman’s 1988 Newbery winner, Lincoln: A Photobiography was now available as an audiobook (no doubt due to the 2009 Lincoln Bicentennial). The second disc includes an interview with the author and is enhanced with a Flash slideshow of a few (but nowhere near all) of the archival photographs from the book. Broadway and movie actor Robert Petkoff narrates the book, providing variation in voices for the numerous quotations (by and about Lincoln) used throughout it.

This audiobook was fascinating. Freedman chose details (and quotes) that would be of interest to both children and adults, and wove them into a cohesive narrative. I thought I knew a lot about Lincoln (thanks to all that essay contest research years ago), but I learned a lot from this book.

Despite my fondness for audiobooks, this is one that definitely should be paired with the book. The Flash slide show only includes a few photos from the book, probably because permission could not be obtained from the various sources (listed on page 145 of the book) to use all of them in the Flash format. There are a couple of great series of photos of Lincoln, one set (pages 64-65)showing the progression of his beard growth in 1860-61, and another set (pages 116-117) showing how the strain of the Civil War aged him. The print book also includes appendices on Lincoln memorials/monuments/museums and books about Lincoln, and an index. I could definitely see a struggling reader using the audiobook along with the print version.

On the other hand, the interview with Freedman on the audiobook is valuable, with some great quotes of its own: his advice to "...make use of the library and the precious help of the librarian, and not to trust everything you see on the Internet,” and “Biography lends itself to the art of narrative…to the fascinating spectacle of character meeting circumstance and either changing events or being changed by them—or both, as happened to Lincoln.”

Referring to the research he did for this book, which included travel to many sites relevant to Lincoln, Freedman also said, “Everything you see with your own eyes adds to your understanding of the life and times you are writing about.” He also said, “I wish I’d been able to include more in my book about Lincoln as a writer...He wrote every word of every speech himself, and yet writing did not come easily to him...he re-wrote, revised, and polished...He was a writer I admire greatly.”

Speaking of writing, one of Sandy D’s favorite Lincoln quotes about writing “enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space” (p. 135) is also my favorite.   I discovered this quote has an interesting history, being part of a much longer lecture on “Discoveries and Inventions” that Lincoln delivered in a number of Illinois towns. Probably the best thing about Lincoln: A Photobiography is that it took me days to write this review, because I kept exploring little tidbits in it like the photograph of 1858 Springfield (part of a postcard series) and quotes like the one on writing (which led to learning Lincoln actually had an invention patented). A book that can inspire that kind of curiosity is rare. I wish this book had been available when I wrote my essay all those years ago!

[This post also appears on Bookin' It]

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Criss Cross

It took me a while to get into Criss Cross, by Lynne Rae Perkins. There are multiple points of view (which I just complained about in The View from Saturday), and the whole tone of the narrative is rather off-hand and breezy. It didn't pull me into its criss-crossing stories right away. It was easy to put it down, which I don't think is particularly advantageous for a book. Too many readers might never come back.

I'm glad I kept coming back to Criss Cross, though. Over and over again, Perkins reminded me of what it was like to be 13 or 14. What it was like to wonder obsessively about your adult life-to-be, to stare at yourself in the mirror, and to question your identity and your relationships. Relationships with people you'd just met, changing interactions with people you'd known for years, pondering how minor decisions with these people could change your whole life. Perkins also shows how a teacher's encouragement leads one student towards a vocation and certain corresponding social roles, how seeing a guy playing a guitar at a coffee shop shop sends another kid in a different direction, and how something as random as a locker's location sparks an attraction to a neighboring classmate. It's all presented in a rather timeless manner, though I soon figured out that Criss Cross was set in the 1970's.

There are no overt references to Watergate or Viet Nam or to pop culture (no M*A*S*H* or Charlie's Angels or Led Zepplin or Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex*). A couple of the female characters fret about the perfect bell-bottomed jeans. Perkins' drawings of the jeans (including a thought bubble of what you say to your mom in the dressing room) is one of my favorite illustrations, one of the many illuminating cartoons that add something special to the narrative. It reminded me (favorably) of both Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid. And it should be noted that this is something that audiobook readers just won't get, which is a shame.

Criss Cross captures a bit of everyday life in small town: block parties, summer evenings spent listening to the radio in a truck in the driveway, and chance encounters at the Tastee-Freez - all things that I don't think are that different today than they were 30 years ago. I liked this, and I liked how Perkins handled the historicity of the story in such a subtle way.

One thing that did strike me as inescapably dated: near the end of Criss Cross, Debbie gets a letter from a boy she met (which is actually how my relationship with my husband started after a chance encounter twenty-six years ago). Obviously, this was back before e-mail, cellphones, or texting:

Debbie heard footsteps, and she quickly stuffed the picture of Peter down between her bed and the wall. The curtain moved, and her mother's head appeared.

"You have a letter," she said. "From California." (p. 279)

...Helen did sense something, an undercurrent. She thought that Debbie probably had a crush on this boy. But California was pretty far away, and she couldn't have gotten to know him very well in such a short time. Maybe they would exchange a few letters.

"He looks very nice," she said. "He's a cute boy."

"He is nice," said Debbie.

It was as close as she could come to saying, "I need to go to California. Can I?"

But it wasn't very close, not close enough. Her mother had no way of knowing that this would have been a good time to tell her daughter that she had once known a boy who went away. A boy who had made a game of finding little figures of dogs, and giving them to her. They might have talked then about how that felt, and what you did next. But their secrets inadvertently sidestepped each other, unaware, like blindfolded elephants crossing the tiny room (p. 281).

Readers looking for an exciting action-filled story with definite conclusions will probably be disappointed by Criss Cross, but I found myself wanting to know more about the characters after I finished it (see Peter D. Sieruta's blog post on "You Know It's a Good Book When...."). What happens to Lenny? He was one of the most appealing characters I've run across in a kids' book lately. Does Dan Persik redeem himself or turn into even more of ass? Does Hector keep playing the guitar? Does Debbie write back to Peter? Maybe she can go to college in California.

Yes, I guess I did like Criss Cross quite a bit.

*But Were Afraid to Ask - a book I remember sneaking quite a few looks at in my early teens in the 70's. Sex is not really an issue broached in Criss Cross, though romantic attraction is important in it. This makes the book more accessible to younger readers, though they might be bored with adolescents' ruminations about life.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The View from Saturday - 1997

I have mixed feelings about this book. Personally, I loved it, I could really relate to it, and I thought it was very well written. Conversely, this is one of those Newbery winners that probably appeals to adults more than children.

This book received the Newbery in 1997, the year my son started sixth grade. He was in an advanced program and on the math team. I was a bit of a nerd myself at that age (Who am I kidding? I’m STILL a nerd), winning the science fair and the spelling bee. I could SO relate to the Academic Bowl team in this story (from page 148, “Here were four kids who could speak in complete sentences without a single you-know as filler”). I think my son and his classmates could as well.

Nevertheless, even though its reading level is grade 4-5, the structure of the book will be daunting for many even-older readers, because it’s not linear and it is not plot-driven. E. L. (Elaine Lobl) Konigsburg ties together the first-person narratives of the four sixth-grade Academic Bowl team members (who call themselves "The Souls"), Noah, Nadia, Ethan, and Julian (who are interconnected in other ways), with the third-person limited story of their coach and teacher, the wheelchair-bound widow Mrs. Olinski, and an overall third-person omniscient tale of the team’s progress in Academic Bowl competition.

In “The View From Saturday: A conversation with E.L. Konigsburg, winner of the 1997 Newbery Medal” by Judy Hendershot and Jackie Peck (Reading Teacher, May 1998), Konigsburg says,
When I got to where Julian was telling Ethan about the B and B, I remembered that I had in my files a story about a young man named Noah whose mother insists that he write his grandparents a bread and butter letter, a B and B letter. That made me remember another story about a dog named Ginger that plays the part of Sandy in the play Annie. And that led me to another story about an Academic Bowl team. Before I had finished my walk, I realized that all those short stories were united by a single theme. Taken together, they reinforced one another, and the whole became more than the sum of the parts.

...all of my books deal with a child's search for identity....children want two things at the same time: They want acceptance for what makes them the same, and they want acceptance for what makes them different from everyone else. That conflict between those two needs reaches a climax at the age of 12. When I was growing up, it probably was age 14, but I think it's now 12. That problem of wanting acceptance for being different from everyone else and wanting to be the same is a strong conflict. I can continue to write for children because the basic problem has not changed.

Although never explained in the story, I think the meaning of the title is in the way the students’ bonding at tea on Saturdays at Sillington House gave them a different view of the world. Ethan says,
Something in Sillington House gave me permission to do things I had never done before. Never even thought of doing. Something there triggered the unfolding of those parts that had been incubating. Things that had lain inside me, curled up like the turtle hatchlings newly emerged from their eggs, taking time in the dark of their nest to unfurl themselves. I told jokes I had never told before. I asked questions I had never asked before....When it was my turn to tell what day I would like to live over...The Souls...were not embarrassed to hear, and I was not embarrassed to say, "I would like to live over the day of our first tea party. And, look," I added, "every Saturday since, I get to do just that." (page 93)

And near the end of the book (page 157), Julian’s father says to Mrs. Olinski:
“The Souls…found on their journeys what you found at Sillington House.”
“A cup of kindness, Mr. Singh? Is that what I found?”
“Kindness, yes, Mrs. Olinski....found kindness in others and learned how to look for it in themselves.”

In her Newbery acceptance speech, Konigsburg said, “A person must experience kindness to recognize it. He must recognize it in order to develop it. Being kind makes us kind....there is a critical age by which we must experience kindness to be kind. And that critical age is before adolescence. That critical age is in the cruelest year — grade six.”

The book subtly and gracefully deals with issues of race and disability as well. It’s sometimes sad and often funny. It was very amusing how Konigsburg tied in questions they received in Academic Bowl competitions with the team members’ individual narratives.

The book is filled with wonderful similes and metaphors; for example, Ethan describing Julian on page 66: "His skin was the color of strong coffee with skim milk-not cream-added." Nadia says (on page 26) her “Grandpa Izzy's eyes are bright blue like the sudden underside of a bird wing." On page 64, Ethan says the Sillington place “is a huge old farmhouse that has had so many add-ons it looks like a cluster of second thoughts." My favorite on page 23 compared painting Nadia without her freckles as “like brushing the cinnamon off cinnamon toast.”

A teacher could use examples from this book to study these figures of speech as well as other vocabulary and cultural references, and the use of humor, flashback, irony, perspective, and point of view (the "view" from Saturday?). I enjoyed a book with a positive view on academic excellence written by an author who doesn’t write “down” to her readers and believes they can understand her. The unabridged audiobook really contributed to the story, with a full cast of separate voices for each team member, Mrs. Olinski, and the overall narrator.

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

Monday, March 16, 2009

Thimble Summer

Thimble Summer, by Elizabeth Enright, is a quiet and very old-fashioned children's story. It was a pleasant read, full of the sensory pleasures of summer on a farm in southern Wisconsin - but the characters never seemed real nor particularly interesting to me. Even the main character, nine year old Garnet, remained distant right up to the end of the book.

There were hundreds of odors in the night air; Garnet raised her nose like a puppy to smell them all. Cabbages decaying richly in gardens made her hold her breath in passing; but the cornfields were wonderful, they had a special smell after dark that you never noticed in the daytime. It didn't smell like corn at all, but strange and spicy like incense in a church (p 33).

I can attest to the fact that corn has a distinctive smell on a hot summer night (though it never reminded me of incense), but I couldn't help but remember that Garnet's family raises pigs in Thimble Summer. You can smell a pig farm from close to a mile away - or more, if it's windy. Forget cabbages. Anyway, that's what I remember when I think about the smell of cornfields in the summer. That and speeding down gravel roads with the wind blowing through the windows and the 8-track player blasting Pink Floyd, but that really dates me.

I know that there's no need to dwell on all of the not-so-wonderful parts of farm life, like pig manure, but despite the fact that Thimble Summer is set (and was written) during the Great Depression, there's not much in the book that isn't overwhelmingly nice.

There are lots of other Newbery winners that celebrate rural life (and A Year Down Yonder and Out of the Dust, which I both loved, are also set in the 1930's), but the other winners - even the mainly upbeat books, like Miracles on Maple Hill and Caddie Woodlawn - have drama and emotion and memorable characters along with their portrayals of farm life. I kept expecting to get more of this in Thimble Summer, but before I knew it, the summer was over and nothing more had materialized.

I did have a good time talking about Depression-era food with my mom, who grew up on a farm then:

The two girls went into the kitchen for something to eat. They found a chocolate cake in the cakebox and some hermits in a crockery jar. That was the wonderful thing about Citronella's house; there was always a cake in the kitchen at the right time. Often there was a dish of vinegar candy, too; and the cooky jar was never quite empty. Probably that was why most of the Hausers were so fat (p. 28).

Cakeboxes! A few people probably still have breadboxes, but I'll bet only antique dealers and people with family heirlooms have still cakeboxes (or pie safes, come to think of it).

If you want a pleasant interlude in a time and a place that is far away from most of our lives, you might enjoy Thimble Summer. Just don't expect much action, depth, or development with your nostalgia.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry - 1977

Where to begin? For starters, Mildred D. Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is a must-read, and most deserving of its 1977 Newbery Award. The unabridged audiobook version, brought to life by actress Lynne Thigpen (of Carmen Sandiego fame), is excellent.

Although the narrator and main character, Cassie, is nine, the book is written at a fifth- to sixth-grade reading level. That, and the subject matter, makes the book more appropriate for middle school, and perhaps some advanced fourth- and fifth-graders.

Taylor introduces the complexities of race relations, even between children. She portrays African-American characters who recognize discrimination and fight it with dignity where they can. In her 1977 acceptance speech, Taylor said, “I had a driving compulsion to paint a truer picture of Black people…I wanted to show a Black family united in love and pride, of which the reader would like to be a part.”

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is actually part of a historical fiction series written about the Logan family, which is modeled on Taylor’s own family, from her great-grandfather’s purchase of land in Mississippi in the 1880s to their move to Ohio in 1943 when Taylor was three months old. It has an interesting history. In the Horn Book Magazine article, “How the Little House Gave Ground: The Beginnings of Multiculturalism in a New, Black Children's Literature” (Nov/Dec2002, Vol. 78, Issue 6), Barbara Bader writes:
Mildred Taylor had tried to write parts of her family history...before she heard about the Council on Interracial Books contest in 1973. She had tried to tell the story that became Song of the Trees from the perspective of her father, the original of the boy Stacey, but she had trouble speaking in a boy's voice. Then, with four days to go before the contest deadline, she made his sister Cassie the narrator....

...Heading home to California after the award ceremony in New York, with a publishing contract for Song of the Trees to boot, Taylor stopped off in Toledo to visit her family and, around the dinner table, heard her father and uncle tell the story of the black boy who broke into a store, and how he was saved from lynching, that provides the climax to Roll of Thunder. Hear My Cry. Taylor didn't think of the book as a story for children, she says, but rather as an adult novel along the lines of To Kill a Mockingbird. No, editor Phyllis Fogelman told her, it would be "more recognized" as a children's book. In the event, those words rank as a major understatement: Roll of Thunder took almost every available prize including the erratic Newbery, which assures a book of maximum attention and puts the rare, very fine winner over the top.

Although it was the second book written, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry falls in the middle of the series chronologically. I’m eager to read the other books: prequels The Land (about main character Cassie’s grandfather), The Well (about her father), and Song of the Trees (its plot is referred to in Roll of Thunder), and sequels Let the Circle Be Unbroken and The Road to Memphis. Two other books, Mississippi Bridge and The Friendship, are set at about the same time as Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and include characters from the other books.

The book hasn't endured without controversy. In a September 2001 interview in Booklist Taylor stated that "when Roll of Thunder first came out twenty-five years ago, there were white families who criticized it, saying, 'oh, this would never have happened.'...Now the same thing is going on with black families who don't want their children to hear the 'n' word and to hear about the truth. How can I tell a story about this period in our history without using this word?"

Similarly, in the foreword to the 25th anniversary edition of the book (published in 2001, and read by Taylor herself at the end of my audiobook edition), she writes,
...there are those who seek to remove books such as mine from school reading lists....There are those...who would whitewash history.

...In recent years, because of my concern about our “politically correct” society, I have found myself hesitating about using words that would have been spoken during the period my books are set. But just as I have had to be honest with myself in the telling of all my stories, I realized I must be true to the feelings of the people about whom I write, and I must be true to the stories told....My stories will not be "politically correct," so there will be those who will be offended…, but as we all know, racism is offensive. It is not polite, and it is full of pain.

At the end of this foreword, Taylor indicated she had “only one more story to tell about the Logan family. It is the story of the family in the North, the days of World War II, and the first seeds of the Civil Rights Movement.” In another interview in February 2008, Taylor said, “With the passing of many members of my family from my father’s generation - the resources of many of my stories - as well as the passing of my own generation, I hope I can still do that.”

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

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!

Olivia and I just finished this book, which we had to take turns reading and act out our parts. What a great book. It was well written, super fun to read and act out, and I think it may be one that I buy for my bookshelf. I highly recommend it to anyone, whether they like poetry, England, one man plays, or none of the above. Two thumbs up from the 9 year old. :) - Alicia

It is very very cool because they are one man plays. It is not what you think. Um, one of the best books that I have read in that reading level. - Olivia

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Walk Two Moons

It seems like most readers love Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech. My 12 year old works in his school library (which serves 400+ 5th and 6th graders), and reports that it is checked out often and that both adults and kids say it's great, though he hasn't read it and doesn't really want to do so - I suspect because he thinks it's a girl book. I'm hoping he gets past this phase soon.

Anyway, I was a bit surprised when I didn't start out liking Walk Two Moons very much at all.

I felt like Creech did a good job of capturing how some different kids think (and Phoebe and Sal were both wonderful, complicated characters), and there were some great portrayals of stiff-necked parents and grandparents and loud (vs. mildly neurotic) kids:

"I don't how you can stand it," Phoebe said to Mary Lou.

"Stand what?"

Phoebe pointed to Tommy and Dougie, who were running around like wound-up toys, making airplane noises and train noises and zooming in between us and then running up ahead and falling over each other and crying and then leaping back up again and socking each other and chasing after bumblebees.

"I'm used to it," Mary Lou said. "My brothers are always doing beef-brained things." (p. 62)

But I was increasingly annoyed by the tone of the story - in an early draft of this review, I even wrote a snide sentence about how there were enough chickabiddies, gooseberries, whang-doodles and the like to last me 'til the next blue moon. And as someone who has regularly driven from Indiana to Illinois near the spot where both states touch Lake Michigan, the part where Gram and Gramps and Salamanca see Lake Michigan after a big curve in the road just bothered me. We've tried all of the different routes into the Chicago area, and there is just nowhere where you can see "a huge jing-bang mass of water....as blue as the bluebells that grow behind the barn....like a huge blue pasture of water" (p. 36-37) from any highway or road into the Windy City. It's all abandoned steel mills and grain elevators and huge industrial complexes around there. You can't see the lake until you're way past the state border, and there is just no way you can swerve across two lanes of traffic and be standing barefoot in Lake Michigan "faster than you can milk a cow".

I know, you may think it's a petty complaint, but it's always jarring when your reality is so very different from an author's.

Similarly, some American Indians aren't particularly thrilled by Creech's use of rather generic nature-loving Indian stereotypes in Walk Two Moons (or the fortune-cookie title). And I thought the whole Native heritage part of the book actually detracted from the story - it didn't really serve any purpose that I could see except making Sal and her mother slightly exotic, with their unusual names, and giving them an excuse to feel closer to nature. Can't a sixth-grader with African or German great-great-grandparents feel just as much connection to their environment as Salamanca Tree Hiddle does?

Around the middle of the book, though, I was so drawn into Phoebe and Sal's intertwined stories, that most of my earlier criticisms faded. I thought I had figured out the mystery of Sal's mother, Chanhassen, early on in the story, but it turned out to be much more complicated than I had anticipated. And I really appreciated the way that Creech examined women's roles as mothers and wives in this part of the book, and Salamanca's increasing understanding of her mother, and her understanding of how other people (like Phoebe) see their own mothers.

Phoebe's obsession with cholesterol is one of the funnier parts of the book, and pretty prescient when it comes to orthorexia (an overriding focus on eating the right kinds of foods), recently popularized by Michael Pollan in his latest book - In Defense of Food.

I was surprised and moved by the plot twists in the second half of the book - it was undeniably powerful and cleverly mapped out, the way more and more of the story was revealed. I think I'd like to read something else by Sharon Creech, and if I don't endorse Walk Two Moons as whole-heartedly as some of its other readers, I do have to say that I am very glad to have read it.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

What Newbery Winners Have You Given Up On?

Or which ones have you had to force yourself to finish (because it was assigned, or you were doing it for something like this project, or because you can't stand not finishing books)?

This post inspired by Roger Sutton's post on Giving Up, which also asks:

Fessing Up: how much of a book do you have to have read in order to say that you read it?

Which I would guess is something that many of us could answer when it comes to The Story of Mankind (for me, maybe about two thirds, but it's hard to say because I jumped around so much).

I haven't read all the Newbery winners yet - and some of the ones that seem the least interesting to me are in my unread pile. But out of the fifty-some that I've read, Shadow of a Bull, ....And Now Miguel, and Up a Road Slowly were a few that I would have bailed on if I weren't on a mission to read all of the winners.

I was glad that I'd persevered with all of these, at least, which isn't always the case with some books. With unredeemingly bad books, you resent the author and blame them for the time you wasted and the money you spent. Or you're sorry that the library is counting the fact that you checked that book out as a positive in circulation records for a particular title (I think Daniel Boone is the only Newbery book in that category for me).

I'm curious about which winners the rest of you have tried repeatedly to read, or which of the ones you've read that you really wanted to give up on?