Monday, April 11, 2011

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

Pages: 351
Ages: 10+
First Published: Oct. 12, 2010
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Genre: children, historical fiction
Rating: 5/5

First sentence:

The movement of the train rocked me like a lullaby.

Acquired: Borrowed a copy from my local library.

Simple perfection. When I see that Newbery sticker on a book, this is what I expect. A book that truly is a wonderful story that will appeal to kids. A story that catches your attention from the first chapter. One with characters who are interesting, unique and you either love from the start or they eventually win you over at some part. I truly enjoyed every minute of this book and was sad when it came time to close the book on Abilene, Jinx, Miss Sadie and all the rest of the characters in Manifest, Kansas.

Set in 1936, Abilene Tucker, who has grown up as a vagrant train rider with her father, is upset when he sends her to Manifest, a town he spent a spell in his youth to stay with a friend for the summer while he supposedly works a job, not appropriate for a young lady to be around, now that Abilene has turned twelve. Here Abilene makes two friends and finds a hidden cigar box with mementos and letters from 1918 under the floor boards. One is a map of Manifest, there is mention of a spy and the girls set about to find out who the spy was in their town back during WWI and if they are still here. They also come upon the legend of "The Rattler" who wanders the dark forest at night. Is the Rattler the spy, or someone/thing else?

As the girls read the letters we are transported back to 1918 on the war front in France as the letters are from a local boy to a friend named 'Jinx'. We also are taken back to 1918 on the home-front through Miss Sadie, a diviner, as she tells Abilene stories when she comes over to work her garden to repay a large pot she broke snooping about one night.

The story switches perspective between the present, 1936, through the first person narrative of Abilene and the past, 1918, through Miss Sadie's stories, a newspaper column and the letters. A rich engaging story that while not directly linked to any historical events does place one smack dab in the past and creates a good vision of living in a small town during the depression and during World War I, along with an impression of what it was like for a young soldier in the trench warfare of France. Topped off with a large cast of eccentric characters this is a gem of a story. This will be one of the rare modern Newbery's that I think will still be read decades down the road like perennial favourites "Caddie Woodlawn" and "Sounder".

Hitty: Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field

Choosing chapter books to read aloud to my girls is not something I've ever really given much thought or planning. Instead, I just pick up whatever I see that looks interesting or that I've recently read a review of, etc. Lately, though, I've been thinking about how I should probably be a little more intentional about what I read, at least occasionally. (How's that for noncommittal? ;-) ) What I mean is this: I don't think think our read-alouds have to always be educational or challenging, but because we are home educators and because I consider reading aloud a very important part of our school day (although the girls don't even realize that we're "doing school" while we're reading), I should get in as much good literature as I possibly can. If you scroll down a bit and look over in the sidebar, you'll see a list of our read-alouds for this year. You'll note that Nim's Island was our third chapter book of 2011, but you'll also note that there's no review of it linked. I meant to review it, but I ran out of time. However, I think I can sum it up in one sentence: a fun read, but nothing that challenged us in any way. It's one of those books that I think Lulu could've read on her own, even at the tender age of six. In thinking about our read-alouds, I'm moving toward consistently choosing books that are harder than my best reader could tackle on her own. I'm sure I won't always do this, but I prefer it this way.

Okay, now that all that preliminary business is out of the way, let's get on to the real matter at hand: Hitty: Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field. Published in 1929 and awarded a Newbery Award the following year, Hitty is definitely a book that fulfills the requirement I explained above. It's not one of those books I could've continued reading after I'd come a hairsbreadth from reading myself to sleep, somehow managing to keep one eye open enough to read the text, brain on autopilot. (Please tell me you do that, too, at least sometimes!) No, Hitty requires diligence and concentration on the part of the reader. The plot is detailed and the sentence syntax is unlike that of our day. However, I never once grew tired of this story; on the contrary, I was eager each time I picked it up to find out what Hitty was going to experience next. My girls seemed to love it as much as I did. The story is rather simple, actually. It is simply the story of Hitty's hundred years of existence. Hitty is a wooden doll made of lucky mountain-ash wood, and at the story's beginning she belongs to a loving little girl named Phoebe Preble. When Phoebe's family goes aboard a whaling vessel, Hitty goes along, too. It's after this that almost all of the adventures begin. She is shipwrecked; she is taken as an idol on some uncivilized island somewhere in the middle of some ocean; she becomes the possession of a missionary child, a Quaker child, and a slave; she meets the poet John Greenleaf Whittier and sees Charles Dickens; in short, she has no end of adventures. Hitty's adventures are interesting, but what makes the story so absorbing is Hitty's voice. I just came to love her. This little wooden doll speaks with such intelligence and warmth. Although I wouldn't say that this is a funny story, there are moments when Hitty's wit shines through. I think that reading stories like this to my girls, young though they are, has immeasurable benefits. I've noted before how reading the Little House on the Prairie books has expanded my girls' vocabularies; I can't help but think that reading sentences that are more complex that we're accustomed to speaking will have a similar effect. I think it's funny that a couple of my blog readers and fellow bloggers commented about our reading Hitty when I mentioned it last week, and they had opposite opinions. Carrie said that she had to read it when she was twelve or thirteen and that she hated it. Catherine, on the other hand, said that she has already read it to her very young daughter twice, she loved it herself so much as a child. I wonder if this is one of those books that adults think children should love. (This is an opinion that is often bandied about when award-winning books are discussed.) I don't know. I do know that when I closed the book this little doll had come to mean so much to me that I had tears in my eyes. I also know that Lulu immediately grabbed the book and declared that she wanted to read it for herself. I know this is one story we'll be revisiting. Highly, highly recommended. (Please note that since this book was written in 1929, there are many elements in it that are non-PC today. See some of the reviews here for more about this.) Rachel Field also wrote a Caldecott Award winning book, Prayer for a Child, which is a Five in a Row book we own but that I don't think I ever read with my girls. She also wrote another juvenile chapter book that I have a copy of on our schoolroom shelf: Calico Bush. I think I need to pull both of these out and share them.

This review was also published at my blog, Hope Is the Word.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Moon over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool is the 2011 Newbery Medalist and it does not disappoint. While I'm not sure it's a book that would hold the attention of most children in its target age range, it's a book I greatly enjoyed. Here's the CIP summary from inside the book:
Twelve-year-old Abilene Tucker is the daughter of a drifter who, in the summer of 1936, sends her to stay with an old friend in Manifest, Kansas, where he grew up, and where she hopes to find out some things about his past.
That one sentence summary covers the plot, more or less, but it by necessity leaves out what makes this book engrossing: mysteries in spades, compelling characterization, and lots of heart. In Manifest, Abilene Tucker stays with a preacher/bartender (yeah, you read that right) named Shady, and under a floorboard in her room she finds a box. Inside it is a small collection of treasures: various trinkets, a map, and some letters. She thinks that this must surely be a link, somehow, to her father, Gideon, and what unfolds is an at times convoluted, but very compelling series of flashbacks (told by a would-be fortune-teller, Miss Sadie, who is much better at telling the past than the future) and "flashforwards" to the present. These episodes are punctuated by related editorials from the town newspaper, a device that I found somewhat annoying at times because it interrupted the flow of the story. Both the past story and the present story are set in Manifest, and they're connected, somehow. The past story is about a young man, Ned Gillen, who befriends a boy named Jinx who shows up in town, obviously running from something or somone. Ned and Jinx get into all kinds of mischief (some of it righteous mischief) and manage to become heroes. Abilene hears Miss Sadie's stories as she works off a debt she owes the "diviner" (in a sort of Jem/Miss Dubose relationship like in To Kill a Mockingbird), and as she does, she gets closer and closer to her father and his story. I'll admit I had some reservations while reading this book about some of the characters. Take Miss Sadie, for example. She's a fortune teller? A diviner? I'm not sure that's something I want my upper elementary aged student (if I had one) reading about. Then there's Shady, the bartender/preacher. Sure, he's a remarkable fellow, both kind and principled, but I can't quite figure out how to even get a handle on a bar that doubles as a church. (Yes, I know it's being done nowadays, but I don't quite know what I think about it.) Too, there's a bit more about bootlegging in the story than I feel comfortable with. By the end of the novel, though, I was mostly satisifed by Vanderpool's resolution of these various issues, to the point that I would have virtually no hesitation in giving this novel to a sixth grader. I think it would take a strong reader who really enjoys historical fiction to persevere through its 350 pages, though. I really like this book, but I'm not sure I think it's better than Turtle in Paradise (linked to my review), which won a Newbery honor for 2010. I think Moon Over Manifest is a much more complicated story, with all kinds of plot twists and many, many seemingly disparate threads to be tied up in the end, but Turtle in Paradise is much more polished. Interestingly, both are set during the Great Depression. An expanded version of this review was previously published at my blog, Hope Is the Word.