Sunday, January 24, 2010

Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze

You know, a fair number of adults today seem to enjoy Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze, by Elizabeth Foreman Lewis. A couple of my friends have said positive things about it, and it's got an average rating of 3.56 on goodreads.com, which gives it more stars than 1/3 of the other Newbery prize winners. The Allen County Newbery Book Discussion Group even rated it relatively high (at 61 out of 88).

I can't figure them out. I liked Secret of the Andes more than Young Fu! Heck, I actually had more fun reading Dobry. And it's not that I don't like reading about historic China. I liked The Good Earth when I read it in high school, and I liked it even more when I read it again a couple of years ago (interestingly, Pearl S. Buck wrote an introduction to Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze for the 1973 edition that I checked out of the library).

Unfortunately, unlike the characters in The Good Earth (which won the Pulitzer Prize 1932, the year before Young Fu won the Newbery...hmmm, is there a connection?), I found the characters in Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze rather uninspired. Downright boring, in fact. I kept waiting for Young Fu to do something exciting, but even his minor transgressions were disappointing to me (unlike Johnny Tremain, for instance, another Newbery-winning apprentice whose flaws kept me reading).

I thought Scholar Wang was going to be an important character in his own right (especially as he appears in the first chapter), but he seems to exist mainly to embody "Classic Wisdom" (p. 10), to provide the means for Young Fu to learn to read and write, and for Young Fu to be able to show appreciation for the elderly and to display compassion when Scholar Wang is sick.

The women in Young Fu are even more disappointing. Fu Be Be, Young Fu's mother, is portrayed as rather stingy, short-sighted, and superstitious, and there really aren't any other important female characters in the book. The idea that men in Chungking (modern Chongqing) considered women to be foolish, emotional, and weak is often mentioned, and although it is clear (I hope!) that this is an historic cultural perspective, it is unfortunate that this idea is not countered by a single remotely sympathetic female character - with the possible exception of a blond foreign doctor (or possibly a nurse). I don't think it's true that girls don't enjoy boy's coming-of-age stories, but I don't think that too many girls today would enjoy this one. And it is just discouraging to keep reading about women's roles in this society without ever hearing their voices, like you do in The Good Earth.
Girls always cried during the tedious moons of foot binding. He had seen them often enough in the village, though a few of the farm women kept their daughters' feet of natural size that they might help in the fields. But this was not common. Everyone agreed that it was better to stand the agony of foot binding than the stigma of possessing large feet. And even though deformed feet permitted a woman to work only around the house, they were important in getting a husband.....He, Young Fu, was glad that his mother's feet were small; that she was not a coolie woman was plain for all to see (p. 39).
I didn't mind reading about the mechanics of making brass (although Young Fu is apprenticed to a coppersmith, the story revolves around brass), and of the selling of pots, kettles, braziers, and trays, but I thought Lewis was at her most interesting when she was describing the city of Chungking itself. The city streets, steaming paving stones, shops, the tenement in Chair-Makers' Way, and the soldiers, political activists in the tea shops, and the deadly flood - I thought that all of these things were much more interesting than hardworking, virtuous Fu Yuin-fah. But I really want more than a travelogue and history when I'm reading historic fiction; I want interesting characters and a compelling plot, too!

The chapters in Young Fu are rather disjointed - each chapter reads like a separate story, which works well for some books (like The Graveyard Book, for instance), but didn't help keep my flagging interest in Young Fu's story. Lewis' frequent use of proverbs annoyed me, too, even when I agreed with the sentiments. They just seemed a bit trite and forced to me:

Laziness never filled a rice bowl (p. 16).

At birth, men are by nature good of heart (p. 54).

Character is made by rising above one's misfortunes (p. 149...doesn't this contradict the previous one?).

He who rides on a tiger cannot dismount (p. 180).

Medicines are bitter in the mouth, but they cure sickness (p. 197).
The story (in my edition, anyway) concludes with ten pages of Notes by Alison R. Lanier, updating readers on some of the technological and political changes that have taken place between Young Fu's original publication in 1932 and the printing of the new edition in 1973. Since almost as long a timespan has passed since the Notes were written ("Planes reach almost any part of China the same day. Many of the planes are British turbo-jets; others are of Russian make", p. 259), with some pretty major changes occurring in China, I think it's time for an update of the update.

Monday, January 18, 2010

2010 - When You Reach Me

Today's Newbery Medalist had been mentioned or talked up a lot in various blogs (including this one) and Mock Newberys, so this past Saturday I went to my small-town library looking for it and some of the other contenders. Luckily this one was on the shelf.

It's a quick read - at 197 pages, I read it in less than two hours while working out on my elliptical trainer. It's not going to be easy to review, as it's part mystery, part realistic fiction, part science fiction, and part historical fiction (it's set in 1978-79 Upper West Side New York City). It's funny, but it's also very meaningful.

We Newbery Project folk will get a kick out of the book right off. Miranda, the 12-year-old main character, reads her favorite book, the 1963 winner, over and over. I'm glad I recently read that book (although I have not reviewed it here yet - soon, I promise!). There are a number of parallels between that book (its title is not revealed until page 135) and this one. It inspires a discussion between Miranda and two other characters, Marcus and Julia, about time travel. I'm not sure if this book will resonate as well with people who haven't read the earlier winner.

Another plot device is Miranda's mother being selected to be a contestant on the TV game show $20,000 Pyramid. Variations of this show (with different dollar amounts) were on from 1973 though 1988, and a basic familiarity with the show is helpful. Kids today can find clips of it on YouTube and elsewhere, and the game is explained pretty well in the book. Most of the book's short chapters have titles that reflect the second "Winner's Circle" round of the game show, when contestants have to guess categories ("things that...") that a group of words fit.

I really liked this book. The interesting characters and their development (and the way the book started out) reminded me of Criss Cross. Like that book (set around 1970), in many ways it could be a contemporary story--although I doubt that sixth-graders there today are allowed to leave campus and eat lunch at the nearby delis and pizza places. The story has a lot to say about friendships and family relationships in children of this age.

The science fiction part of the plot was carefully constructed, as it was in The Time Traveller's Wife (okay, not a Newbery, or even a kid's book, but another book I love and am reminded of by When You Reach Me). The mystery kept me guessing, although I had my suspicions.

The cover and title (which appears in the text on page 189) may not inspire kids to pick up the book. Its short chapters and intriguing plot make it great for reading aloud to a class or your own children - and that will probably be all it takes to hook them in to finishing it or re-reading it on their own.

This is only the second novel for author Rebecca Stead. There are some good interviews with her on Amazon, the Fuse #8 blog, School Library Journal, and Time Out New York Kids, all probably best read after reading the book. I've tried not to spoil it in this review, either. Just go read it. Highly recommended - five out of five stars.

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

2010 Newbery Announced

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead.

Honor Books:

Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice by Phillip Hoose (also named a Robert F. Sibert honor book - a runner-up for the most distinguished informational book for children, and it was the 2009 National Book Award winner in the category for Young People’s Literature);



The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly;
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin; and
The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick.

A review of the winner is in the next post (above this one).

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The 2010 Newbery Winner Will be Announced...


...next Monday, January 18.

I've read some of the contenders already:

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly
The Dunderheads, by Paul Fleischman
Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith, by Deborah Heiligman
Anything But Typical, by Nora Raleigh Baskin
Written in Bone, by Sally Walker
Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins
Season of Gifts, by Richard Peck

and I'm on the library wait list for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin, and Claudette Colvin, by Phillip Hoose. From reading at the School Library Journal's Heavy Medal blog, I think that Stead, Lin, and Hoose are the front runners. But I know that the both the critics' and popular favorites are quite often not chosen. Tune in next week for the results.

Dobry

Well, I didn't really hate Dobry, by Monica Shannon, but then again I didn't have very high expectations for this 1935 winner.

I liked reading about the round of seasonal chores in a Bulgarian village. A lot of the story reminded me of an old-fashioned ethnography, with its dispassionate depictions of the peasants plowing, planting, hoping for rain, taking their cows to mountain pastures, harvesting tomatoes and peppers, winnowing wheat, and making bread (note the hanging peppers and the bread and oven on the cover). There were some mildly interesting and exotic words to ponder, and a few nice descriptions of food:
Roda served cherry sladco to all her guests. They sat on three-legged stools around the jamal fire which had only new air to warm up because the windows looking onto the village street were open to let the music of rain and the smell of rain come into the room. Grandfather brought in a tubful of red peppers at a time and got out a jug of sauerkraut juice from a cubby-hole back of the jamal. Peppers went on strings so fast that he could do nothing at all except serve his guests and refill the pepper tub (p. 35).
I think sladco is some kind of sweet, but it's not listed in my food dictionary or the Oxford English Dictionary, and when I Google sladco I get a thousand hits for a Russian candy company. A jamal is apparently some kind of clay fireplace stove (again, too many hits, given its popularity as a first name). I also liked the spelling of "bowlder" for boulder, the Wickerwockoffs, the descriptions of the tunnels through the snow in the village in the winter, and some of the Christmas and New Year's traditions that Shannon describes, although at times it seems like she's trying to load as many extraneous facts about Bulgarian culture as she can onto poor Dobry's shoulders.

The "massaging Gypsy bear" - first mentioned on the second page, and then appearing periodically - is just bizarre. Did such a thing really exist? Did this bear not have claws? Was it really that exciting to have a bear walk on your back? It's a little hard to believe that this gave "every peasant man in the village" something that "wiped out all thought of his summer toil and gave him the feeling that a long vacation gives to other men (p. 93)".

I don't know if the gypsy bear was stranger than when Dobry envies the older men in the village who have icicles on their chest hair in the winter. When Dobry says "I'll be proud the day I can stride in here, clinking at the chest. It's a noise I love even better than the noise of sledge bells on our oxen (p. 131)", all I could do was goggle at the page in disbelief. And then there's the idea that if you sneak a piece of pig's skin to munch on at night from the slaughtered animal hanging in your house, the ghost of the pig will ride on your back. But these passages did keep me from being bored, as I was with some of the other Newbery winning exaltations of "simple" cultures (see Secret of the Andes and ...And Now, Miguel, for instance).

But what happened to Dobry's father? He must have died sometime after Dobry was born (there's a story about him on the day of Dobry's birth), but no one seems to mourn him, not even Dobry's mother, Roda. Then again, it was hard to care much about any of the characters in the book, given the way they are portrayed. Dobry is interested in art instead of farming, but this big conflict in his life isn't even mentioned until page 80 (of a 176 page book). He's really just a generic happy Bulgarian peasant boy and his mother is a hardworking farm wife. Dobry's grandfather is a hearty man who is most notable for the number of things he is able to keep in the sash belted around his waist (on page 46, this includes "two loaves of bread, a goat cheese, garlic, and his tall wooden salt-and-paprika box," along with six tomatoes!), and of course his ability to melt snow with his body heat.

I really didn't like the illustrations by Atanas Katchamakoff (including the original cover), and agreed with Alicia's comments on them. I didn't like the stories that Grandfather told in the book, either - I think my least favorite was the story of Hadutzi-Dare and the Black Arab. I did wonder why the illustration for this story was listed in the front of the book as "Heidout-Sider Pulling the Water Buffalo with a Chain" (are Hadutzi-Dare and Heidout-Sider different translations of the same hero?), but not enough to research it after a cursory Google didn't enlighten me. I also didn't like the fact that the chapters are neither titled nor numbered, and that the only way you can tell it's a new chapter is by the fact that there's an illustration on the upper third of the page.

I didn't much care for Shannon's descriptions of Dobry's art, either:
Only youth could have brought the freshness Dobry brought to his Nativity, and only a primitive genius, Indian or a peasant like Dobry, could have modeled these figures with strength, assurance, sincerity - untaught in any school (p. 146).
I would be very surprised to hear that any kids today care for this book.