Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Jack Gantos is an author who has been on my radar for a while, at least since 2001 when his Joey Pigza Loses Control won a Newbery honor. I was never compelled to pick up that book because honestly, a book about a boy with A.D.H.D. always seemed a little too flavor-of-the-month to me. Dead End in Norvelt, his latest novel which garnered him a 2012 Newbery Medal, might convince me to give his other books a try. Although Dead End in Norvelt isn't the sort of book that causes warm, fuzzy feelings in the heart of its reader, it is most definitely one that pulls the reader along, demanding that she get to the end of the story. Quirky, weird, and even absurd are words that come to mind when I think about the whole tale. Rather than write my own synopsis, a difficult task for a book this odd, I'll borrow from the author's website:

Melding the entirely true and the wildly fictional, Dead End in Norvelt is the story of an incredible two months for a boy named Jack Gantos, whose plans for vacation adventure are suddenly ruined when he is grounded by his feuding parents for what seems like forever. But escape comes where Jack least expects it, once he begins helping an elderly neighbor with a most unusual chore—a chore involving the newly dead, molten wax, twisted promises, Girl Scout cookies, underage driving, lessons from history, obituaries, Hells Angels, and countless bloody noses. Endlessly surprising, this sly, sharp-edged narrative is the author at his very best, making readers crack up at the most shocking things in a depiction of growing up in an off-kilter world where the characters are as unpredictable and over-the-top as they come.

I have such mixed feelings about this book. Parts of it actually caused me to laugh out loud. Gantos the author actually seems to be Jack the kid (which should go without saying, I guess, except when I read his biography I realize that it and this story don't exactly line up). He captures the thoughts and feelings and pure, unsuspecting innocence of a kid in a way that is both entertaining and refreshing. My favorite scene in the whole book is when Jack goes to Ms. Volkert's house (the "elderly neighbor," who happens to be the town coroner and obituary writer) to find her "cooking" her hands in a pot on the stove. Seeing the scene, which turns out to be the innocent home-remedy of an arthritic old woman, from Jack's perspective is hilarious. The villain in the story, an elderly man who attempts to woo Ms. Volkert at every turn, is creepy in an almost-funny sort of way--he rides his gigantic tricycle all over Norvelt and behaves reprehensibly to Jack, all the while trying to (apparently) win Ms. Volkert's heart. There are countless other episodes throughout the novel (many involving Jack's perpetually-bleeding nose) that are just so perfectly the picture of a bookish and eager adolescent boy.

The story also reminds a bit of some of those 1990s television shows like The Wonder Years that were set in the 1960s. Although Dead End in Norvelt is not retrospective, it feels that way: Jack's dad constantly talks about the Commies and sets Jack to building a bomb shelter in the back yard. His mother is sort of hippy-ish in that she's mostly concerned with caring for her elderly neighbors and wants to barter for whatever they need because the family is broke. (This is actually a nod to Norvelt's beginnings, which you can read about in here on this bastion of reliable information, Wikipedia.) The story is sort of complicated and very clever, with Ms. Volkert writing original and entertaining (and pointed) obituaries for the original inhabitant of Norvelt who are dropping like flies. Ms. Volkert's obituaries are often as much social commentary as they are condolence. There's also a mystery in this already heavily-laden story, but the mystery sort of sneaks up on the reader. I didn't realize there actually is much of a mystery until the climax of it, actually. Dead End in Norvelt is a bunch of things: coming-of-age story, mystery, social commentary, historical fiction. It's an entertaining read.

Still, though, the thing that finally killed the book for me is the ending. I usually don't react that strongly to what I read, especially children's literature. This time, though, I was enjoying this story right along, thinking it was quirky but extremely well written, when bam! Out of the blue the story ends with a scene that moved his father from being a somewhat caustic personality to someone I genuinely don't like. To avoid spoilers, I won't go into any more details, but it really just don't like the place the ending leaves Jack. Maybe it's more like real life than any other imagined ending, but I still don't like it.

Bottom line? I like the book but hate the ending.

Is this one Newbery material? Yeah, I think so. It's not what I think of when I think of Newberys, for sure. (Well, okay, maybe a little like When You Reach Me in tone and subject matter, but not what I'd really consider classic material.) No doubt about it, though--Jack Gantos is a talented writer.

This is the second of the children's ALA picks I've read so far. While my vote would've gone to Inside Out and Back Again for the gold, I think they are both outstanding stories. This one is more outstanding for its sheer artistic weirdness, but it's still outstanding. Now I need to get my hands on the third of this year's Newbery designees, Breaking Stalin's Nose, and my mission will be complete.

This review was also posted on my blog, Hope Is the Word.

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.

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
PAGES: 197
TYPE: fiction
RECOMMEND: I loved this little book.

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.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Waterless Mountain

I finally decided to read Waterless Mountain, by Laura Adams Armer, on a cold March morning. Somehow reading this timeless, rather mystical coming-of-age story about young boy in the desert Southwest - with bumblebees collecting pollen and eagles soaring and the sky like a giant turquoise bowl - seemed rather appealing when it was drizzling on piles of dirty snow outside, with that pathetic grey late-winter Michigan light coming in my window. 

There are some quite beautiful descriptions of the natural environment of northern Arizona in Waterless Mountain, and of the traditional Navajo way of life, complete with lambs, weaving, corn, pinon nuts, pack rats, snug hogans, ancient skeletons buried with pottery eroding out of the ground, and sacred tobacco. There's also quite a bit of the poetry of Navajo ceremonies and their unique cultural perspective.

Songs like the following are scattered throughout Younger Brother's story:
From the house made of dawn,
On the trail of the dawn,
He is coming to us;
     He is coming.

Now the Bearer of the Day,
     Sends a beam from the blue.
It is shining on us,
     It is shining.

To the house made of night,
     On a trail made of night,
He is going from us,
     He is going.

Now the Bearer of the Day
     Sends the stars to the sky.
They are watching above,
     They are watching (p. 84).

"House made of dawn" is such a beautiful phrase. Native American author N. Scott Momaday used it for the title of his 1969 Pulitzer prize-winning book, and it is part of a traditional Navajo ceremony that has been widely reproduced because of the beauty of the its language. I think Laura Adams Armer did a pretty good job of portraying a Navajo boy in the 1920's or 30's (for an outsider, anyway), and the details of Navajo life and culture seem authentic, but it would be interesting to see what Navajo people today think about Waterless Mountain. Armer also mentions some important Navajo history, like the genocidal Long Walk, and the destruction of the Navajo peach orchards in Canyon de Chelly (p. 195-6, popularly blamed on Kit Carson).

Unfortunately, Younger Brother's narrative isn't exactly action-packed. It's mostly reflective, with calm acceptance of a few exciting events, drowsy moments thinking about legends, and then there's feelings of quiet happiness and content, followed by some zen-like attention to the moment. I found it refreshing, and liked reading about people whose religious philosophy includes the directive to "live in beauty", but I know that my son (who likes fiction like James Patterson's Maximum Ride series, for instance), would agree with the Amazon reader who said that it was "the most boring book I have ever read."

A few parts were awkward, if not "painfully condescending", as Amanda quoted in her post (from a 1993 Horn Book review), like when the Big Man (a white neighbor whom Wendy accurately sums up as the "all-knowing, kind, wise, Great White Trader" in her review) took Younger Brother up in an airplane, and when Younger Brother's family went to a movie during their trip to California. Interestingly, the "water-developer" is seen as another positive character, responsible for bringing more water to the family's livestock, and not someone stealing a precious resource for far-away golf courses or cities, as many communities in the Southwest would perceive him today.

A couple of random notes: Navaho is the old-fashioned spelling for this Native nation. Navajo is usually used today, and the people call themselves the Diné (or the Dineh).

This was one of my favorite sentences in the book, which I couldn't help reading aloud to my kids. Think no more about it, my children!
He knew that Mother was always right about everything so thought no more about it (p. 42).
I was truly surprised by how much I enjoyed Waterless Mountain, since I expected to plod through another "a boy's life in another traditional culture" story like Dobry or ...And Now Miguel. Instead, Armer's book left me longing to return to the Four Corners (ne Arizona, nw New Mexico, sw Colorado and se Utah), where I'd like to eat some fry bread, smell the sagebrush after a summer rain, and listen to the silent songs that Younger Brother describes. As the Big Man notes on page 137, "It's great stuff, this tying up fiction with facts."

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?