Sunday, August 21, 2011

Dicey's Song

Dicey's Song is a beautiful coming of age story of a 13 year old girl from a poverty-stricken background, who (along with her three younger siblings) has just come to live with her irascible grandmother in a dilapidated farmhouse on the edge of a small town on the Chesapeake Bay.

There isn't much action in the story, and there is a lot of self-reflection - so some teenagers (especially some boys) may not be very interested in it. The cover doesn't help much in this respect. I kept picking the book up and then moving on to a different book, because it just looked.....gloomy. Like a stereotypical "Newbery winner", I guess (though there really isn't any such thing), and I thought it would be full of angst, depressing events, and beautiful language

It wasn't until I had just a handful of Newbery winners left to read that I reluctantly picked Dicey's book up again.

Well, there is angst, and there is undeniably some tragedy (and beautiful language, too) in Dicey's Song, but it was really stupid of me to put off reading it, because it is also wonderful, and I loved it. The characters seem so real - so complex and interesting - that I can't wait to read more about all of them, starting with Homecoming, the book that precedes Dicey's Song in the "Tillerman cyle". The sibling relationships are fascinating, and Gram (aka Ab Tillerman) is one of my favorite characters in a kid's book since Richard Peck's Grandma Dowdel (in A Year Down Yonder). Ab isn't just eccentric and fierce, though - she has secrets, and we learn about some of the choices she made that have influenced the whole family in Dicey's Song.


Quite a few thought-provoking issues are explored in Dicey's story, which does put it squarely in "stereotypical Newbery"-winning territory. The meaning of family, sibling relationships, school and dealing with teachers, learning disabilities and differences (particularly in the ways different kids learn and different kinds of talent and intelligence), being an outsider, and finally, dealing with loss  - all are important parts of Dicey's Song. Unlike some of the other Newbery winners, though (like Summer of the Swans, which covers some of the same terrain), Dicey's Song is rather timeless, and isn't really linked to any specific happenings in the late1970's- early 80's. You can figure out when the story's set by thinking about the technology (pre-Internet but post-Vietnam, and plane travel isn't extraordinarily rare), but it could almost as easily have taken place in the 1930's or the 50's. The emotional stresses of worrying about a brother who gets into fights, wanting some time away from the rest of the family, dealing with financial problems and prickly characters and aging - into adulthood and "the golden years" - are all pretty interesting as Voigt describes them, anyway - and still relevant in 2011.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Moon Over Manifest


This book was most deserving of the 2011 Newbery Medal.  With dual narrative lines set in 1917-1918 and 1936, it's the story of a small town in Kansas called Manifest (modeled after the real town of Frontenac, where author Clare Vanderpool's grandparents grew up).

In her Newbery acceptance speech, Vanderpool stated, "I knew I wanted to write a story about place and about home from the perspective of a young girl who didn’t have a home." (*42)  She later added,
"I came across a quote from Moby Dick. 'It is not down in any map; true places never are.' That’s when the wheels began turning. What is a true place? What would a true place be for someone who had never lived anywhere for more than a few weeks or months at a time? What if it was a young girl during the Depression? A young girl named Abilene Tucker." (*44)

Twelve-year-old Abilene is sent in late May, 1936, to the town of Manifest by her drifter father Gideon, the closest place to a home in her father's stories.  She's supposed to stay with a preacher named Shady.  She arrives just in time for the last day of school, where she meets Ruthanne and Lettie, her playmates for the summer.  She also meets Miss Sadie, a Hungarian woman who runs a "divining parlor."

Throughout the book, Miss Sadie tells Abilene a story about Manifest in 1917-1918, that mysteriously ties in items from a cigar box Abilene found hidden in Shady's home.  The cigar box also contains letters from 1918 from Ned Gillen, a boy adopted by the local hardware store owner from the orphan train.  Ned wrote the letters back to a boy named Jinx, after he helped Ned join the army (underage) to fight in World War I.  Both Jinx and Ned (and Shady and a few other local people still alive in 1936, such as Hattie Mae and Sister Redempta) are in Miss Sadie's stories.

On the audiobook, actress Justine Eyre voices both Abilene in the first person in 1936, and the third-person 1917-1918 stories of Miss Sadie.  Besides these alternating narratives, there are also excerpts from Ned's letters (voiced by Kirby Heyborne) and from "Hattie Mae's News Auxiliary," a column in the local newspaper in both 1917-1918 and in 1936 (read by Cassandra Campbell). 

It all works together to create a novel with an intriguing plot, compelling characters, and a lot of heart and soul.  And Vanderpool does an excellent job in creating her setting, not only in time and place, but also in the details of historical events and community life.  I could feel the heat of the hot, dry summer, but I also felt the excitement of the bootlegging shenanigans, the immigrants' fear of the Klan and the mine owner, and the dread and sadness brought by Spanish influenza.

According to Vanderpool,
"Moon Over Manifest is about home and community, but in many ways it became a story about storytelling and the transformative power of story in our lives....Abilene would call this a universal—this need for story....And of all the places for her to end up in her drifting: Manifest, Kansas, the stopping point for immigrants and refugees from around the world. Displaced people just like her. People with stories of their own but whose stories become hers.... Through the people of Manifest, Abilene experiences the power in a story." (*44-45)
So does the reader. 

This book has an 800 Lexile score and measures at grade 5.3 reading level on Accelerated Reader, with an interest level of grades 4-8.  The main characters are 12 (Abilene and her girlfriends) and 13 (Jinx), at the upper end of that grade range.  With the mystery subplot and Jinx's cons, I think the story would appeal to both boys and girls.  An author's note at the end addresses what's real and what's not in the book, and suggests further reading.  There are plenty of opportunities to tie this book in with lessons on social studies, English language arts, and even science.

(*Vanderpool, Clare. "Newbery Acceptance Speech," The Horn Book Magazine, Volume 87, Issue 4, July-August 2011, pages 39-45.)

© Amanda Pape - 2011 - this review also appears on my blog, Bookin' It.

[This audiobook and a hardbound copy of the book were borrowed from and returned to the Dick Smith Library at Tarleton State University, Stephenville, Texas, where I also accessed Vanderpool's speech through the EBSCO Academic Search Complete database.]

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Up A Road Slowly

Up A Road Slowly by Irene Hunt was one of my favorite Newbery books. And I know why! This coming of age story was of a girl who grew up right before I did. It was a world I was familiar with and made my memories of these times just flow back!

The novel takes place in the 60s (I am guessing) perhaps and begins with Julie's mother dying when she was seven years old. Julie is the narrator and finds herself and older brother Christopher shipped off to spinster school teacher Aunt Cordelia's house. Their father just cannot take care of them. Initially horrified, Julie comes to love the life in the country where her Aunt lives. The story follow her growth and development from elementary school in a one room class to graduation from high school and heading to college. While I didn't go to a one room school house - I knew that they existed when I was growing up.

The story is also filled with wonderfully outlandish characters such as her alcoholic Uncle Haskell, the bad boyfriend, the good boyfriend, and a wide variety of girls who can be very nice or filled with pride and envy. Julie navigates her life with these people, learning lessons along the way - happy and sad lessons. In the end, Julie learns that her Aunt usually knows what is best for her and knows that it is through her guidance she is an adult.

Allison's Book Bag has a great review of the book as well - with some comparisons to Anne Of Green Gables. In some ways, it also reminded me of Little Women. Still I wonder if this book would still have appeal with young girls who might find it too simple.

TITLE: Up a Road Slowly
AUTHOR: Irene Hunt
COPYRIGHT: 1966
PAGES: 197
TYPE: fiction
RECOMMEND: I loved this little book.