Sunday, December 30, 2012

Island of the Blue Dolphins - 1961 Medal

by Scott O'Dell,
read by Tantoo Cardinal

In this survival and adventure story, the tribe of twelve-year-old Karana is moved off its "Island of the Blue Dolphins" (the most remote of the Channel Islands off California, San Nicolas).  Karana leaps off the ship to get her younger brother, who has been left behind.  He dies soon after, and she spends 18 years alone on the island.   Karana makes weapons and hunts, builds a shelter of whale bones and a canoe, fights wild dogs, and explores the island.  There's also a lot of information about the animals of the island and surrounding ocean, such as sea elephants and otter.

Author Scott O'Dell's note at the end of the book states that Karana is based on a real person, the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island, later baptized Juana Maria, who lived alone on the island from 1835 to 1853.   According to his website, O'Dell came across her story while researching his 1957 adult book, Country of the Sun: Southern California, An Informal Guide.   More information about the Lone Woman was uncovered in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and in 2012, a Navy archaeologist found a cave on San Nicolas that may have been hers

O'Dell, obviously, wrote his book before much of this information became available, and it was likely based on the prevailing legends of the time.  A number of these stories were published in popular magazines in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  The Lone Woman was unable to communicate with anyone, so no one really knows how she ended up on the island alone, especially since she died of dysentery only a few weeks after her rescue.

In 1976, O'Dell wrote a sequel, Zia, about Karana's 14-year-old niece by that name, who believes her aunt is still alive, and helps bring about her rescue by George Nidever.

Island of the Blue Dolphins has come under some criticism over the years, for stereotyping of Native Americans.  On the other hand, it's also been praised for having a female minority protagonist (at a time, 1960, when that was not common), and for its environmentalist message.  "Island of the Blue Dolphins," O'Dell wrote, "began in anger, anger at the hunters who invade the mountains where I live and who slaughter everything that creeps or walks or flies."

Native American actress Tantoo Cardinal's reading of the audiobook is lovely.  However, this is a book that might be better "read" in print, to appreciate its beautiful metaphors and imagery.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[The audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my university library. This review also appears on Bookin' It.]

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Witch of Blackbird Pond - 1959 Medal

by Elizabeth George Speare,
read by Mary Beth Hurt

Sixteen-year-old Katherine "Kit" Tyler, an orphan since age two, must leave her beloved Barbados when her grandfather dies.  She surprises her aunt (her mother's sister) and uncle and their two daughters, her only living relatives, in the town of Wethersfield in the Connecticut Colony.  The year is 1687.

From the very beginning, Kit can't seem to do anything right.  She jumps in the river to save a child's doll (this comes back to haunt her later), her clothes are too flamboyant,  her spirits too high.  She doesn't fit in with the strict, dour Puritans of Wethersfeld--but manages to attract the most eligible (and wealthy) young man in town, who everyone expected her cousin to marry.  This causes strife with her family members, who are frustrated with her lack of useful skills.

Kit ultimately becomes friends with another outcast, Hannah Tupper, a Quaker expelled from Massachusetts who lives near Blackbird Pond.  When an epidemic hits the town, the trouble begins.  The ending is a little predicatable, but Elizabeth George Speare makes excellent points about bigotry, tolerance, and the nature of love.

In her 1959 Newbery Medal acceptance paper*, Speare said she developed the characters first, then "was compelled to find a home for them."  She goes on:

I chose Wethersfield, the town in which my husband and I have lived for twenty years, because it is one of the oldest towns in New England, one of the first of the Connecticut settlements, because it was once a bustling river port with all the romance and color of the old sailing ships, and because the girl I could now see quite clearly [Kit] seemed ...to be at home in the quiet and lovely Wethersfield meadows that still lie for undisturbed stretches along the Connecticut River.  I chose the year 1687, arbitrarily because the story of the Connecticut Charter was irresistible, a perfect little vignette, revealing in miniature all the powerful forces which, nearly one hundred years before the Revolution, were moving America irrevocably toward independence. (pages 73-74)

Speare did a marvelous job incorporating details of life in this era, as well as the historical context, into her novel.  For example, there really were a Goody Johnson and Goody Harrison (page 182 in the text), both tried for witchcraft in Wethersfield.  I love the way Speare describes her historical research:  "I should hesitate to dignify by such a scholarly term the haphazard, indiscriminate, greedy forage in which I indulged.  History, geography, town records, genealogies, novels set in the same period - I gulped all these down with, at first, little thought of anything but my own enjoyment.  There were fascinating bypaths from which I had to drag myself back - Quakerism for one, and the early development of education in New England." The latter was another topic addressed in the novel, as Kit and Mercy run a school for a while.

I've been trying to experience most of these Newbery Medalists as audiobooks - this one (pictured above) was released in 2002.  Actress Mary Beth Hurt does a fine job as narrator.  Unique voices are created for all the major characters.  Kit's voice is a little more British (for lack of a better term) than the others, reflecting her recent arrival from the Barbados.

I can't believe I didn't read this book when I was a child.  I loved the character of Kit and really identified with her.  The book has something to say about fitting in; how one needs to adapt yet also stay true to oneself.  I think my 9-year-old self would have loved this book, especially since it has a little (but not too much) romance.  I think it would also be excellent as supplemental reading in social studies or history.  Highly recommended

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[*Elizabeth George Speare, "Newbery Award Acceptance," in Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books: 1956-1965, edited by Lee Kingman, The Horn Book, Inc, Boston, 1965, pages 72-77.   The audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my university library. This review also appears on Bookin' It.]

Friday, December 28, 2012

Up a Road Slowly: 1967 Medal

by Irene Hunt,
read by Jaselyn Blanchard

This is a coming-of-age story, narrated by the protagonist.  Julie Trelling is seven when the story begins with her mother's death.  She is sent to live with her mother's older sister, her spinster schoolteacher Aunt Cordelia, out in the country.  The story covers the next ten years in Julie's life, until her high school graduation at 17.

It's hard to pinpoint the setting for this quiet tale, especially temporally.  There are references to sweeping dresses, gloves, no central heat in Cordelia's home, a one-room schoolhouse with a coal stove, the idea that girls wearing pants is less acceptable, stationery, later rural consolidation of schools, telegrams, and a time when a long-distance phone call was "still considered an extravagance" (page 174).  I was ten years old when this book won the Newbery, and I can remember most of these things. so I think the book was probably set in the 1950s or early 1960s.  It seems to be post-World War II and definitely pre-Vietnam, but could be as early as the 1920s or 1930s (author Irene Hunt was born in 1907).  In a way, the book has rather a timeless feel to it.  Ditto the physical setting - it could be most anywhere, but is probably the Midwest.

There's no thrilling plot, but the book touches on a number of issues unusual for children's books of the time period.  Julie has a classmate who is mentally retarded, dirty and smelly.  Her uncle is an alcoholic liar.  A neighbor's wife is insane. Julie learns some life lessons from her encounters with these characters.  Julie also has to deal with the marriage of her beloved older sister and her father's remarriage, as well as a bad boyfriend who nearly leads her astray, and a friend's teenage pregnancy.  All of these are handled without being preachy.

In her Newbery acceptance speech, entitled "Books and the Learning Process" (Horn Book, August 1967, pp. 424-429), Hunt noted (page 425),

Teachers are beginning to realize that children are not created fully equipped with such values as courage, compassion, integrity, and insights into the motives and needs of themselves and of others.  These attributes...are often learned from the behavior of the characters who people the books they read.  We adults may preach the values we wish to instill, and the children will turn away from our sermons; but a book, a fine book that mirrors life accurately and honestly - there is the effective substitute for our ineffective sermons.

Often children are troubled and in a state of guilt.  One can say to them, "You are not unique."...It is in books that an identification can be made...Julie, in Up a Road Slowly, is not set apart by virtue of her high-mindedness or moral values.  But for a watchful family she might well have stepped into the same trouble in which some of her young readers may find themselves.  (page 426)

Some of Irene Hunt's inspiration may have come from her own life.  She was seven when her father died, and she and her mother moved to the nearby farm home of her grandparents.

The book is well-written and full of wonderful vocabulary - scintillating, impeccable, pedestrian, propitiated, and hackneyed were just some of the words I wrote down.  Julie aspires to be a writer, and is telling her story looking back at her past, so this is very fitting.  Julie also quotes Shakespeare and poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Sara Teasdale.

Actress Jaselyn Blanchard was excellent as narrator Julie.  Her youthful voice often trembles and quavers with emotion, at just the right time.

I think this book would still appeal to a quiet, thoughtful young lady, and I highly recommend it.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[The audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my university library.  This review also appears in Bookin' It.]