Monday, January 24, 2011

Newbery Covers

I've mentioned the covers of the Newbery winners more than a few times in my reviews here. Usually when the new covers are worse than the originals, or the covers are misleading (they made me think the book was going to be awful, and it was great, or vice versa).

Here's a blogger who is designing new covers for all the winners, starting with The Story of Mankind in 1922. He's up to 1928 now (Gay Neck), and it's pretty interesting looking at the book with a modern YA-ish style.

I can't wait until he gets to some of the more recent and/or classic ones! There are a few that I think cannot be improved upon. What do you think?

Monday, January 17, 2011

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Title: When You Reach Me
Author: Rebecca Stead
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
Language: English
ISBN - 10: 0385737424
ISBN - 13: 978-0385737425
Rating:  5/5

It was my love of puzzles that made me pick this one up, and the blurb itself was intriguing:

"By sixth grade, Miranda and her best friend, Sal, know how to navigate their New York City neighborhood. They know where it’s safe to go, like the local grocery store, and they know whom to avoid, like the crazy guy on the corner.

But things start to unravel. Sal gets punched by a new kid for what seems like no reason, and he shuts Miranda out of his life. The apartment key that Miranda’s mom keeps hidden for emergencies is stolen. And then Miranda finds a mysterious note scrawled on a tiny slip of paper:

I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own.
I must ask two favors. First, you must write me a letter.

The notes keep coming, and Miranda slowly realizes that whoever is leaving them knows all about her, including things that haven’t even happened yet. Each message brings her closer to believing that only she can prevent a tragic death. Until the final note makes her think she’s too late."
I loved everything about this book! From the amazing cover design that I talked about here, which already piqued my interest on its own, to the title, and of course, to the story it held. It was fresh, snappy and fast paced, something an impatient reader like me loves.

I finished reading this three hours since I started. The author definitely knows how to capture the reader's attention. The story is not too predictable, and if you're like me who loves mysteries, you'll have an idea for an answer to the mystery, yet when the answer is revealed, it bowls you over that you were right, but not in the way you thought you would be. The book is filled with fun twists that everyone can understand, from tweens to the older readers. It just never gets boring.

The story is not very heavy on drama, but the few ones are fraught with emotion, but never becoming too mushy. Even then, it never drags and the reader is treated to lots of welcome surprises. Most times, reading felt like riding in a speedy motorcycle, with all the thrill and exhilarating speed, but without the uncomfortable and bumpy path, without the threat of crashing looming constantly overhead. The description of each scene and the dialogue are economic, to the point, with no digression, hesitation, or affectation. The author definitely knows what she's writing about.

The characters' personalities are well-established, no contradictions but not too dull or stereotypical, with the young characters' outlook innocent, yet clever. The relationships are realistic, there are no impregnable best-friends-forever vows, no I-totally-hate-you stuff, but the loyalty and respect for each person are present. The children act their age, as do the grown-ups. Very realistic, but never unimaginative. There are no minor characters - everyone is an essential part of the book, just as there are no minor details - everything is significant. As the story advances, the characters show growth and maturity in their roles, and every change is welcome, though some are a bit sad, they are nonetheless authentic and practical.

In the story, A Wrinkle in Time by Madelaine L’Engle was Miranda's favorite book. As for me, this book, Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me is now my very own new personal favorite. I tell you, this book will never disappoint. No wonder, it's the winner of the 2010 John Newbery Medal.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Door in the Wall by Marguerite DeAngeli

The Door in the WallTitle: The Door in the Wall
Author: Marguerite DeAngeli
Pages: 128
Published: Yearling 1990 (orig. 1949)
My Rating: 3 stars

Perhaps the pickings were slim in 1950, or perhaps the Newbery's were simply in a period of highly valuing the simple, moralistic type of book, but The Door in the Wall was slightly disappointing to me.  I loved the choices from the late '40s, and again those from the late '50s, but some of these guys in between leave me frustrated.  (Ginger Pye in 1952, and The Light at Tern Rock, 1952 Honor, felt similarly moralistic and boring to me, although all the honor choices in 1953 were fabulous: Charlotte's Web, Moccasin Trail, The Bears on Hemlock Mountain, Red Sails to Capri.)

The Door in the Wall is not without value, my 11 year old son quite enjoyed the historical aspect of it, but when compared to other Newbery winners that deal with the Middle Ages (Adam of the Road, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!) this one falls short.  The medieval dialect is surprisingly readable, (though some of the vocabulary is a bit difficult to understand,) and the way of life is vivid. Although it remains rather boring during the first half, the pace does pick up toward the end, and is overall quick to read.

If the moralistic aspect doesn't bother you, then definitely give this one a shot.  Otherwise, read Adam of the Road and Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! instead.

Monday, January 10, 2011

2011 Newbery goes to...

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool.

The Honor Books are:
Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer Holm,

Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus,

Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night by Joyce Sidman, and

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, which also won the Coretta Scott King Author Award.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

Title: Kira-Kira
Author: Cynthia Kadohata
Publisher: Atheneum
Language: English
ISBN - 10: 0689856393
ISBN - 13: 978-0689856396
Rating:  4/5

According to the Blurb

"Glittering. That's how Katie Takeshima's sister, Lynn, makes everything seem. The sky is kira-kira because its color is deep but see-through at the same time. The sea is kira-kira for the same reason. And so are people's eyes. When Katie and her family move from a Japanese community in Iowa to the Deep South of Georgia, it's Lynn who explains to her why people stop them on the street to stare. And it's Lynn who, with her special way of viewing the world, teaches Katie to look beyond tomorrow. But when Lynn becomes desperately ill, and the whole family begins to fall apart, it is up to Katie to find a way to remind them all that there is always something glittering—kira-kira —in the future."


Katie and her family's life is anything but kira-kira — the life of Japanese Americans in the 1950s was anything but glittering due to the "Anti-Japanese sentiment" across America. Katie could see reality: no one wants to make friends with her at school, not even with her sister Lynn, despite her natural charm and brilliance at schoolwork and her father had to work back-breaking hours to provide for his family. On the other hand, Lynn, despite also seeing reality, chose to be the optimist and was the one who taught Katie to see things differently, that all things are kira-kira.

The author has drawn perfectly believable characters, from the humble, hardworking father, to the sweet, adoring little brother. Their voices are clear and their words are accurate. Katie describes her world with the simplicity and practicality you would expect from her age, and a natural awe for her older sister. Added to the mix are interesting characters, Uncle Katsuhisa and his family, Amber, and Silly, who provide the necessary humor and perspective that turns the plot from an otherwise depressing narrative to a hopeful, coming of age story of a young girl and her family.

Winner of the 2005 Newbery Medal, this novel, though sad, will not disappoint. It is a story of hope at its core, convincing the readers to find the kira-kira in little things, reminding everyone to keep dreaming big, and appreciating the world for all its flaws.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Amos Fortune: Free Man

by Elizabeth Yates,
read by Ray Childs

This book won the Newbery Medal in 1951.  Mistakenly classified as nonfiction, it is really a biographical novel or, more accurately, historical fiction.  Amos Fortune (c. 1710 - 1801) was a real person, but very little is known of his life.

Indeed, in an interview in The Writer in March 1998, author Elizabeth Yates said she was inspired "when I was standing by the stone that marked the grave of Amos Fortune in the old cemetery in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. Reading the eloquent though brief words about a man whose life spanned from Africa in 1715 to America in 1801, I wanted to know more, to find the story within those lines."

About all that was available was Fortune's homestead (now private property) and some documents at the Jaffrey Public Library, such as his will (written and signed in 1801), some receipts (for loans, medical services, and purchases, including those that bought the freedom of two wives), two letters of apprenticeship of young men to Amos the tanner, and an unsigned letter of manumission for Amos, written by Ichabod Richardson in 1763.  Yates adds another owner and another wife for Amos, as well as a king father and lame sister in Africa, but there is no evidence for any of these.

This book wasn't thrilling, but it wasn't boring either.  It provided insights into life in colonial New England.  Descriptions of the processes of bark tanning and the vendue of the poor were particularly interesting - the latter was something I'd never heard of before.  The audiobook narrator Ray Childs' bass was perfect for Amos Fortune, but not so good for the female voices.

This book has received a lot of criticism, particularly since the early 1970s, for being racist and/or white-supremacist.  In "A Submission Theology for Black Americans: Religion and Social Action in Prize-Winning Children's Books about the Black Experience in America" (Research in the Teaching of English, May, 1990), Ann M. Trousdale states, "The book is clearly an attempt to pay tribute to a historical character whom Yates found admirable. She portrays Amos Fortune as an honest, respectable, even noble man" (p. 124).  But (pages 126-127):
The problems with Yates' book do not lie with her conscious intent, which surely has been to portray Amos as an admirable, even saintly figure. The problems lie with her perspective, which has been shaped by her own cultural heritage, and with the selective tradition which informed it. An underlying assumption of white supremacy permeates the book in spite of its casting Amos as a noble figure.

In keeping with trends in biographies for children at the time, Yates presents an idealized view of Amos. She also presents an idealized view of slavery. Amos' own owners are model slaveholders; his first owner wants to set Amos free before Amos himself wants to be free. Slavery is presented as a practice that was of ultimate benefit to the Africans who were enslaved; it resulted in their being brought to live in a superior land and to practice a superior religion.

It is Amos' Christianity that has caused him to recognize the benefits of slavery. Christianity also informs the model of social action by which he lives in America. This model reflects some values which are non-racist in tone: honesty, industry, generosity, and loyalty. But Christianity also involves for Amos an attitude of racial submission, acceptance of mistreatment at the hands of white people, and forgiveness of white oppressors. In Yates' book, Amos Fortune is, in essence, the stereotypic "good Negro" - submissive, non-threatening, respectful of white people. The implication that it is God who has shaped Amos' character to be so is added leverage for what is basically a white supremacist view of the appropriate role and attitudes for blacks in American society.

In "Challenging the Pluralism of Our Past: Presentism and the Selective Tradition in Historical Fiction Written for Young People (Research in the Teaching of English, May, 2003), Chandra L. Power cites Amos Fortune: Free Man as an example of readerly presentism, "a reader's perception that a book written in or about the past is, for example, racist or sexist" (p. 426).  While she feels books like Amos Fortune are
seriously flawed, I am not suggesting that they are flawed because the main characters do not resist the hegemony of their day. Rather, they are particularly problematic because they are so often advanced as the accurate and authentic representation of their era, yet they do not present the complexity of their respective eras. Instead, they reify a particular perspective (p. 449).

The crucial issue here is in how these titles continue to be advanced and winners of the prestigious Newbery Award, these books are virtually guaranteed a long shelf life and continual selection by libraries and teachers. Therefore, the cumulative effect of what these critics say about the lack of choices or the lack of alternative voices in any given era serves to deny that there were oppositional voices, voices of resistance, or alternative ways of life, belief, and thought within a given time period (p. 450).

I am not advocating censorship in any form; yet as long as these books continue to be presented as exemplary in major textbooks in the field and continue to be reviewed favorably, they should be presented along with titles that offer a competing perspective on those historical eras to prevent the omission of alternative points of view and the continuation of the selective tradition dismissing an inclusive and pluralistic past (p. 456; emphasis mine).
Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find a good list of suggested titles to present along with Amos Fortune, Free Man.  While I have not yet read these books, I suspect that suggestions by Sandy D in her review of this book of Paula Fox's The Slave Dancer, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and Christopher Paul Curtis' Elijah of Buxton as alternatives are probably good, while Julius Lester's To Be A Slave, a Newbery Honor Book in 1969, would be another possibility.

In the same 1998 interview mentioned above, Yates tells of a question from a group of fourth-graders:
"Have you ever regretted anything you've written?" came the next question. Again, I sent my mind back over the years and their books. The answer was at hand, and it was No, for I have had a rule with myself that nothing ever leaves my desk unless it is the best I can do at the time with the material I have. Then I go back to Amos Fortune as an example.
The idea that took hold of me as I stood by that stone in the old churchyard and that became the book Amos Fortune, Free Man was written in 1949 and published a year later. All the pertinent, reliable material that I could find went into the book and became the story. It could not be a biography but an account of a man's life, with facts assured and some imaginative forays based on the temper of the times. The research, the writing, was done long before the Civil Rights upheavals of the 60's. I might today write a very different story, but that was then.

It would be quite interesting to read a different version of Amos Fortune's story, written to address the concerns of Trousdale, Power, and others.

© Amanda Pape - 2010