Monday, December 31, 2007

Newbery Project format changes

Newbery Project members:

We're a victim of our own success! There are enough of us that our posts threaten to overtake the list of books on the left side of the page. In an effort to streamline our page AND still allow us to read all the posts on a given book, I ask for your help making a format change.

On January 1, I will remove the left-margin links to individuals' posts on various books. In the interim, if you wish to have your posts grouped by book, please take advantage of the "Labels" feature by putting the title of each book as one of/the post label(s).

In this way, clicking on the label for a given book will take the reader to all posts on that title.

Please continue to use any other labels you wish.

I apologize for the inconvenience this may cause, but I hope that it will make the blog more manageable in the long run.

Finally, if any of you are familiar enough with HTML to help me include a list of labels somewhere on the page (or, better yet, to hyperlink the list of Newbery winners to the corresponding labels) please e-mail me at the address listed in the "how to join" info.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Higher Power of Lucky

The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron
Illustrated by Matt Phelan

Pages: 134
Finished: Dec. 21, 2007
First Published: 2006
Rating: 2.5/5

First Sentence:

Lucky Trimble crouched in a wedge of shade behind the Dumpster.

Comments: 10-year-old Lucky lives in a rural town with a population of 43. She is constantly worried that her Guardian will leave her and go back to live in France. This book left me greatly underwhelmed. I had no great liking for the characters and the plot was mostly uneventful. Disappointing for a Newbery winner.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

I read this one for the Newbery Project as well as for the Reading Awards Challenge. It is the winner of the Newbery Award, which honors the best in children's literature. This is the same author as Because of Winn-Dixie so I guess this also qualifies as a 2nds, even though I completed that challenge.

Despereaux is a mouse who goes on a quest to save his beloved Princess Pea from the rats in the dungeon. A servant, Miggery Sow, gets involved in the rat's evil plans. The story is one part fairy tale, one part quest story, one part fantasy, and one part bedtime story. The author relates that her son's friend asked for a story about a hero with large ears, and this book is that story.

To read the full review, see my blog.

The Slave Dancer

The Slave Dancer, by Paula Fox, won the Newbery in 1974. When I looked at some of its reviews on Amazon (fairly evenly divided between those that thought it was important and evocative, and those that thought it was overly depressing or boring), I noticed that they recommended it for ages 9-12.

I would not recommend this book for a child under 12 (although that may be The Slave Dancer's "reading level"), because the story is really quite brutal. It is not overly graphic, but it is emotionally very difficult - Fox does all too good of a job portraying casual cruelty amongst the sailors before the slaves are even purchased and loaded into the ship. After that, it's horror piled upon horror.

The Slave Dancer is basically a story about one boy's loss of innocence - the year is 1840, and 13 year old Jessie Bollier of New Orleans is kidnapped to serve as a fife player on a slave ship called The Moonlight, which sails to West Africa to pick up slaves, then to Cuba to trade the slaves for molasses, and then back to the United States. The black and white illustrations by Eros Keith suit the story very well (part of one is shown on the cover here, which I think is much more appropriate than some of the newer covers, which portray a totally misleading happy nautical scene).

From the first page, with its list of The Moonlight's officers, crew, and cargo ("98 slaves whose true names were remembered only by their families, except for the young boy, Ras"), and the note "Shipwrecked in the Gulf of Mexico, June 3, 1840: Survivors 2", I think it is obvious that this isn't going to be a happy adventure. Strangely enough, the story isn't overly intense, either (thus the many critics who said it was boring) - but I think her detached style actually adds a bit to the horror described. I think Fox's ending is pretty realistic, and it packs quite the emotional punch, but I don't want to give any more of it away than that - except to say that while it is not exactly a happy ending, it certainly isn't as depressing as what preceded it. It's a good ending, worth finishing the book to reach.

I can't say that I will ever number The Slave Dancer among my favorite Newbery winners, but I do think it is an important book. It was interesting reading this right after The Matchlock Gun, with its casual mention of slaves and man's inhumanity to man. A lot certainly changed in the years from 1942 to 1974.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Some Contenders for the 2008 Prize

Some folks associated with the Allen County Public Library (in Fort Wayne, Indiana) have put together a list of some of the contenders for the 2008 Newbery Award. You remember, these are the people who did their own controversial but entertaining ranking of Newbery winners here (which we discussed in this post).

I think that the only book I've read on their list is Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I loved it - and would be absolutely thrilled if it won the Newbery Award next year. And I'd be all ready to go with my review.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

Have you ever read a book that made you feel as though you were wrapped up in a warm blanket, sipping hot cocoa, and all was good in the world? Looking at the wonderfully romantic cover of this novel, with a gallant-looking mouse grasping a sword-like needle, and running with a determined look in his eye, I was prepared for some feel-good magic. That illusion ended on page one, and my imaginary quilt was ripped way, and the hot cocoa spilled. When Despereaux the mouse is born "within the walls of a castle," the only one of his litter to survive, his mother complains, "All of that work for nothing" and labels her newborn son a "disappointment." But this is nothing compared to the mouse council who sends Despereaux to his probable death to the dungeons for talking to a human princess; the prisoner who has sold his daughter for a red cloth, a hen and a handful of cigarettes; the man who buys the girl, Miggery Sow, and beats her so badly, that her ears look like cauliflower, and the rats who find joy in making others suffer. The narrator, who often directly addresses the reader, aptly admits (on page 183),

"The story is not a pretty one. There is violence in it. And cruelty. But the stories that are not pretty have a certain value, too. I suppose. Everything, as you well know (having lived in this world long enough to have figured out a thing or two for yourself), cannot aways be sweetness and light."

And I suppose that is true, which is why I still liked the book, blanket-free though it was. There is "sweetness and light" to contrast the darkness of this tale. There is the big-eared Despereaux, who is drawn to the light and falls ridiculously in love with the Princess and unselfishly resolves to rescue her. There is the Princess Pea, whose heart, though not free of dark feelings (are any of our hearts?), feels compassion and empathy even for those who have wronged her. And there is the hope, that even though there is evil in the world, if we seek the light, we can find our own happiness, no matter how ridiculous it may be:

"The world is dark, and light is precious."

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Matchlock Gun

The Matchlock Gun, by Walter D. Edmonds, was published in 1941. It's a short book, with less than 50 pages of text, "for boys and girls from 7 to 11" (according to the dust jacket), written rather simply and skilfully. There are quite a few more illustrations (lithographs by Paul Lantz) than most of the other Newbery winners, as you might expect from a book aimed at younger kids.

As the dust jacket also states, The Matchlock Gun is "a stirring story of American courage...the straightforward, deeply moving tale of a small boy, his smaller sister, their splendid mother and an antique matchlock gun...[that] happens to be a true one."

The story takes place near Albany, New York in 1757, when this part of New York was a British colony mainly populated by Dutch and German settlers. Although Edmonds doesn't explain it as such, the raids he describes were part of the French and Indian War, when the British and the French and their respective Native allies battled for control of eastern North America.

Edward Van Alstyne, the 10 year old hero of the story, lives with his parents, Teunis and Gertrude, and his little sister Trudy, in a snug house near the larger brick house where his grandmother (Widow Van Alstyne) and her slaves live. When Teunis leads the local militia to defend the settlements north of Guilderland, Gertrude decides to stay in the family's cabin, hoping that if the French or Indians (which Indians? It would be nice to know) make it past the militia, their house will be overlooked, since it is not on the main road. Unfortunately, raiders find their house, as described here:
There were five of them, dark shapes on the road, coming from the brick house. They hardly looked like men, the way they moved. They were trotting, stooped over, first one and then another coming up, like dogs sifting up to the scent of food (p. 39).
Edward uses the antique gun, and kills three men who chase his mother to an ambush she sets up on their front doorstep. Gertrude is wounded, and the cabin burns, but Trudy and Edward escape, and join their mother outside. Their father returns with the militia (killing another Indian they find, who had been wounded by the single blast Edward shot from the matchlock gun), and then they find Gertrude, Edward, and Trudy with the gun in the dooryard.

"They sneaked by us," Mynderse said. "Who shot them, Edward?"
"I did. With the Spanish Gun," said Edward.
"You've killed more than all the rest of us put together!" Mynderse exclaimed, and he picked up the gun and hefted it (p. 50).
Although I did enjoy the suspense, and appreciated Edmonds' writing (his descriptions of the house, their farm, and Trudy's occasionally annoying toddler behavior are especially good), the two passages cited above pretty much stopped me in my tracks. I just don't want my kids reading that.

And it's not that I want to sugarcoat colonial history. My kids have seen the bloodstained bonnet and vest (in a case at the little historical museum near my hometown) that my great-grandfather's grandparents were wearing when they were killed along with thirteen other settlers during the Black Hawk War. But even my surviving great-great-grandmother and her sister - who saw their parents, little sister, and neighbors massacred, and spent two weeks as hostages, and wrote about their experiences - never described their attackers as less than men, or spoke in such a matter-of-fact manner about killing.

I was pretty critical of the subtle racism that I saw in Caddie Woodlawn (see here), which was actually written six years before The Matchlock Gun. Well, maybe I shouldn't have been quite so hard on Caddie, because it can't hold a candle to The Matchlock Gun in this respect. Then again, I don't think Matchlock is a favorite of nearly as many people.

Doris Seale, on the other hand, writing for Oyate (a Native organization that examines how Native peoples are portrayed in literature) notes that The Matchlock Gun "may very well be one of the worst descriptions of Native people in children’s literature, certainly in the 20th Century." Check out her review for some interesting insights on it.

It's a shame, really, because Edmonds is a skilled writer, and I think that this period of our history is an important and interesting one. But I'll be looking elsewhere for stirring stories of American courage for my kids.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Call It Courage

Call It Courage, by Armstrong Sperry, is a short book, and a good one to read in Michigan in the winter. It has gorgeous descriptions of Polynesian islands, coral reefs, and the experience of being in an outrigger canoe in the middle of the Pacific, and all of this is a very nice change from freezing rain, slush, and grey days.

It's a quiet story, though. There is some action in it - the 15 year old hero, Mafatu, battles a shark, an octopus (do big octopi really attack people?), a wild boar, and barely escapes from the savage black "eaters-of-men". I winced a little every time Sperry notes that the neighboring cannibals were black (not Polynesian like Mafatu?), but this was the only bit that really dated the story. Like Island of the Blue Dolphins, which shares many similarities with Call It Courage, this is basically the story of a boy and his dog and his bird, and of his battles with the the sea and with his own fear, and it is rather timeless. And I liked that aspect of the story; I loved how the first paragraph is echoed at the end of the book:
It happened many years ago, before the traders and missionaries first came into the South Seas, while the Polynesians were still great in numbers and fierce of heart. But even today the people of Hikueru sing this story in their chants and tell it over the evening fires (p. 7, p. 95).
The woodcuts (I think they're woodcuts, anyway, but maybe they're etchings or something) were absolutely beautiful, and I was surprised to see that Sperry also did these illustrations. They really complement the book, and add a lot to its charm. But I was taken aback by the following picture, because Sperry states several times that the shark that Mafatu battles is a hammerhead, and even my six year old knows (from Animal Planet and the Toledo Zoo aquarium) that this is not a hammerhead.

Warning: some mild spoilers below the picture.

Unlike Karana in Island of the Blue Dolphins, Mafatu chooses his isolation, and returns triumphantly to his family. So the things that disturbed me in O'Dell's story just weren't here, and many of the things that I liked in Island of the Blue Dolphins were also here in Call It Courage: beautiful descriptions of the land (and sea), nearly ethnographic descriptions of the resourceful way native peoples used plants and animals, a good dog companion, and a character with strength of mind and (duh, given the title) courage.

Sperry said something interesting in his Newbery acceptance speech in 1941, which I think makes a statement about the best Newbery winners in general:
"CALL IT COURAGE meant a great deal to me in the writing but I had no idea that the response to the book would be so wide among children. I had feared that the concept of spiritual courage might be too adult for the age group such a book would reach, and that young people would find it less thrilling than the physical courage which battles pirates unconcerned or outstares the crouching lion. But it seems I was wrong ... which only serves to prove that children have imagination enough to grasp any idea which you present to them with honesty and without patronage."

Miracles on Maple Hill

Miracles on Maple Hill and the sugaring party in Little House in the Big Woods almost make me want to live in Vermont or anywhere else in maple country. Then I think about the cold winters and isolation, and get over it.

Miracles on Maple Hill is not just about sugaring and maple sap collection. I remember reading it in elementary school. However, a reread brought several surprises. I didn't remember that the father was interned in a prison camp during his military service and that his mental illness was the main reason the family stayed on Maple Hill.

It's also a quiet evocation of the importance of nature in children's lives. While this has gained more importance in recent years (Richard Louv's The Last Child in the Woods is an example), it's fascinating to read this in a book published in 1956.

Nature is at the forefront of the book; it's lovely and quiet, although there are definite adventures and suspense. I wasn't in the mood for quiet when I started the book; I considered putting it aside for another book. Once the family settled in for good on Maple Hill, I became more involved with the story.

It's not a sweet nature story by any means: the father is suffering from, if not Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (which wouldn't have been named then), then a severe form of depression following his internment in a prison camp. I'm assuming he was an American POW; he is not called that specifically by name, and the war in which he fought isn't specified. Miracles on Maple Hill was published only 11 years after the end of World War II; however, it was published only three years after the Korean War armistice was signed. I gathered that Father had only recently returned from the war; I doubt that the family had been dealing with his illness for at least 11 years. The Korean War would have definitely not been far from Virginia Sorensen's audience's minds.

Miracles on Maple Hill won the Newbery Award in 1957.

Strawberry Girl

Hello everyone! My name is Jennifer Schultz, and I'm a youth services librarian with the Fauquier County Public Library (VA). I'm reading the Newbery Medalist (and Honor recipients) in no particular order. It all depends on my mood! I recently read Strawberry Girl, and loved it. Let me tell you about it!

The next time someone asks for a book like Little House on the Prairie, I'm handing her Strawberry Girl (and Caddie Woodlawn). My newfound abhorrence of treacly old-fashioned books be gone!

However, Strawberry Girl isn't very treacly at all (ending is a little pat, but tolerable). It's hard to be treacly when you're strawberry farmers in turn of the century Florida. Especially when your neighbors are so difficult, what with their roaming animals, their troublemaking sons, and their gambling and drinking father (good old days weren't so good for many people). Admittedly, it doesn't help that there's such a wide economic gap between Birdie Boyer's family and the Slaters, which only brings upon envy and pride.

However, Birdie and one of the boys, Shoestring (formally known as Jefferson Davis Slater) form an uneasy truce. It's not all bicker and bother; Birdie helps her family with the farming, goes to school, "frolics" with the neighbors (you went "frolicking" if a neighbor hosted a gathering) and goes to town (literally) with her family (if a book features a country family going to town at any point in the story, it has me at "giddyap").

There's definitely drama woven throughout the book; the bickering between the neighbors escalates into significant property damage, one of the Slater sons causes serious problems with the schoolteacher (if a book features children and a one room schoolhouse, it has me at "A is for Adam"), arson threatens the Boyer household, and Mama Slater becomes seriously ill.

Papa Slater's encounter with a traveling preacher seems a little tacked on and rushed, but certainly not impossible by any means. It's just one minor flaw in an otherwise satisfyingly comfortable read.

Oh, the reader's curse of finding a long-neglected writer! Strawberry Girl is one in a series of regionally placed novels written by Lenski. Thankfully, we do have several, but the one I most want to read, Bayou Suzette (takes place in Louisiana) is out of print. This calls for an interlibrary loan, as does Lenski's autobiography!

Strawberry Girl won the Newbery Award in 1946.

Holes by Louis Sachar

Holes by Louis Sachar

Pages: 233
Finished: Dec. 9, 2007
First Published: 1998
Rating: 5/5

First Sentence:

There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.

Comments: Stanley Yelnats is sent to Camp Green Lake after being convicted of a crime he did not commit. At Green Lake, the inmates must dig a 5ft (in every direction) hole each and every day. It is here at this unlikely place that Stanley meets his destiny. This was such a wonderful story! I can't believe I waited so long to read it. All the characters (especially Stanley and the other boys) were so interesting and I loved the flashbacks that brought Stanley's heritage together with his present and ultimately his destiny. An unusual tale with a heartwarming ending. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

1937 Roller Skates Ruth Sawyer

In 1937 this delightful book won the Newbery Medal. When the author Ruth Sawyer received the medal she let her audience into the secret that she herself had known the ten year old Lucinda intimately – ‘Lucinda and I had the same mother’. The acceptance speech is printed at the start of my copy and was a joy to read. Ruth spoke about the ‘urge of freedom for a child’. In this simple story we see Lucinda roller skating around the city learning what it means to ‘belong’, learning about ‘everyday people’ and within the same year learning through experience of the big questions of life and death. Behind the apparent simplicity I could not help but reflect upon the generation of young Lucindas and their experiences as they yearn for such freedom.

Full of imagination Lucinda exclaims ‘I have joined a lucky orphanage’ and is excited at the thought of sleeping in a folding bed. We hear later of how books filled a large portion of her inner world – many then listed will be familiar to us as we see them in the lists of today, like Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books to Read Before You Die. I loved the her joy and love of playing with words!

Ruth Sawyer tells us ‘Nature had succeeded in pumping her full of ideas and energy which ran amuck when not worked off’. Needless to say books inspired her and she, rather like us wanted to share that love. We hear how Lucinda while reading Shakespeare to Tony ‘She noticed with a quickening eye how the imagery caught at Tony’s spirit. He sucked in his breath at this new discovery of beauty in words’. How wonderful is that !

Despite being of a different era I loved the language used and the way in which that love of language is so much to the fore throughout this book! Highly recommended.

Friday, November 23, 2007

M.C. Higgins, the Great

Cross-posted at Alone on a Limb

At first I was irritated. Virginia Hamilton began on page two throwing in M.C.'s thoughts - first person without quotation marks, here and there, no warning. I found it confusing. And irritating.

I was irritated by the violent nighttime encounter with the girl. I had a hard time forgiving M.C. for his incredible stupidity. I am son of a mother, father of daughters, and brother of sisters.

Where did Hamilton get the crazy idea of the pole? And pulling up the grave stones. And treating a hoop snake as real.

I am also, however, a former fifteen-year-old boy.

Eventually the disjointedness began to fit with the disjointed feelings plaguing M.C. He loves his maddening father. He aches for the girl. He is mesmerized by his wise and beautiful mother. He's torn by competing emotions of loyalty and anger and despair and longing and prejudice and superstition and love and hope.

He is fifteen.

Once again I bow to the wisdom of the Newbery judges. I think I know Jones and Banina and Ben and M.C. And the girl. Yes, I know the girl. These characters will stick.

M.C. Higgins, the Great by Virginia Hamilton is unique* in having won the Newbery Award, The National Book Award, and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. Hamilton is the first African-American writer to have won the Newbery. It is the 52nd Newbery Award book that I have read. I recommend it.

*This book is actually not unique in that way. See the correction in the comments below.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze

Cross-posted at Alone on a Limb.

A glance had shown a formality of language that did not bode well. Elizabeth Foreman Lewis's Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze would be the oldest of the Newbery Award books that I have read. I wondered if it weren't very dated, a World War and a Communist revolution having intervened, not to mention Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, and wild Chinese economic growth.

I bought this discard from the Sara Hightower Library annual used book sale. I often buy Newberry books for my classroom library when I find them at the sale. This one was in great shape. It was a part of the Bookmobile collection. The Bookmobile, which I drove as part of a summer job about 22 years ago, has been gone now for several years. There are 15 stamps on the date slip in the back of the book. They begin with FEB 5 1977 and end with APR 26 1988. So I am, at the least, the 16th person who has intended to read this particular volume. My intentions date back a year or more. Always some other book seemed more inviting.

But two days ago I picked it up again.

The formality turns out to be part of the charm of this story of a formal society at a huge crossroads of history. Nationalist and communist forces are on the move as various warlords alternately rule the Chungking area. The walled city of Chungking sees that wall breeched by a wide road and horseless busses. A blonde westerner is running a hospital outside the gates. Civil war has forced a third of the population into banditry. Old ways are giving way to new. In the midst of this chaos Young Fu and his recently widowed mother move into the big city from the farm.

The book is, on one level, an adventure that pits the young protagonist against poverty, crime, natural and man-made disaster, war, political unrest, communism, murder, drugs, and gambling. He is nearly killed by ruthless soldiers. He barely escapes a raging fire and a sudden giant flood. He foolishly falls among vicious beggars, thieves, and cheats and manages to survive all these challenges.

More importantly it is the story of Young Fu's growth, physically, intellectually, emotionally, and ethically, during the next five years. He is befriended by an old teacher in the apartment upstairs, by a fellow apprentice in the coppersmith's shop, by the blonde westerner, and, especially, by his wise and benevolent master, Tang. During his adventures and trials he is sorely tempted to capitulate to superstition, to desert his friends, to compromise his standards, and to prevaricate to his loved ones. All the same temptations that you and I face, less dramatically perhaps but just as surely, in our lives.

In the end, integrity, courage, intelligence, loyalty, and rationality win out. What could be more relevant to the current generation of late-elementary and middle schoolers. As I read I found myself regretting the times I have fallen short of those qualities and renewing my determination to do better. The tough wisdom and sacrificial loyalty of these characters sometimes even moved me to the point of a tightness in the throat or moist eyes.

I think the Newbery judges of 1933 made a good decision.

Wisdom from Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze

A scholar is a treasure under any rooftree.

One must first scale the mountain in order to view the plain.

He who rides on a tiger cannot dismount.

No task into which a man puts his heart is too bad.

The superior man finds pleasure in doing what is uncongenial.

If a man's affairs are to prosper, it is simply a matter of purpose.

It is better to remain ignorant than to know what is incorrect.

Knowest thou not that the treasure of knowledge is to be revered for itself alone? It has been given that men might learn how to live, not to win fortune. What is fortune without wisdom?

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Giver Asks: What Does It Mean to Be Human?

Imagine a world in which all of your choices were made for you, from your daily wardrobe to your family members to your career to your spouse. Think of a world in which you were entirely safe, where you were permitted to take no risks, and where physical pain could be erased with a single dose of medicine. Picture dwelling in a whitewashed world where everyone lives and thinks in exactly the same way, and questioning the rules leads to public chastisement and even "Release" from the community.

Jonas, star of Lois Lowry's The Giver, lives in just such a community. For 12 years, he has dwelt within its borders, attending school, mingling with friends and abiding by the strict rules that make his town the peaceful place it always is. Like all of his classmates, Jonas is looking forward to the December Ceremony when he will receive his "Assignment." This will be his career, which could be anything from Laborer to Doctor to Road Crew Maintainer. To his shock, Jonas learns he will be the new Receiver. The position comes with great honor, but even greater secrecy. Jonas receives a list of rules that will govern his training period, which allow him to do two things which are strictly prohibited in his community: to ask questions of anyone and to lie. Disconcerted, Jonas begins his training with The Giver, an elder who sags under the weight of his responsibilities. The Giver explains Jonas' new responsibilites: he must carry all the memories of the world - from sunshine, to sledding, to war, to starvation - so that his community will be free to live their peaceful, doubtless lives. In essence, he will feel all their emotions for them. As The Giver transfers his memories into his new apprentice's being, Jonas' dull world explodes into a dazzling array of color, sensation and emotion. Some of the memories Jonas receives are terrifying - war, loneliness, abandonment - but others are so powerful - love, family, warmth - that he realizes how empty his real life is. Now that he is able to ask questions freely, Jonas finds himself questioning the life he has been leading - why is he not allowed to have choices? Why can't families have more than the 2 children allowed by the Elders? And what does it really mean when someone is "Released" from the community?

As Jonas ingests this new knowledge, he knows that he can never again be satisfied with his dull, flavorless life. Together, he and The Giver hatch a plan to open the peoples' eyes. When their plans go horribly awry, Jonas suddenly finds himself on a terrifying journey to find "Elsewhere," a place that may or may not exist. Without the promised memories of courage to bind him up, Jonas must rely on his own wits and bravery to save himself, his future and the one person he truly loves. That's the story in a nutshell, but this book isn't really about the main story. As one reviewer put it, "The simplicity and directness of Lowry's writing force readers to grapple with their own thoughts" (Booklist, Starred Review). Lowry's story is so unadorned that it provides the perfect canvas for infinte thoughts, opinions and analyses. Lowry, herself, says,

...The Giver is many things to many different people. Peoplebring to it their
own complicated beliefs and hopes and dreams and fears and all that.
At the very least, it's a story about what it means to be human. To me, its message is that without choices, experience, risk and passion, we are not fully human.

I don't know if Lowry meant for the book to have any religious applications, but to me The Giver symbolizes Jesus Christ, at least to some degree. When he accepts memories for other people, he swallows some of their pain, leaving them comforted. Their pain still exists, but only dimly. This is what Christ does for us. Our suffering weighed on Christ (as it does on The Giver), as evidenced by his tortured cry, "O my Father...let this cup pass from me" (Matthew 26:39, KJV) in Gethsamane, but He knew His duty and thus carried our burdens for us. Like Christ, The Giver desires that all men have their agency so they can learn wisdom through their choices. And like Jesus, The Giver knows he must help his people through the pain that knowledge and agency can bring. Like Lowry said, we bring our own convictions to the book and this is the interpretation to which I kept returning. The one issue I had with this book is the very ambiguous ending. I'm a reading simpleton, who loves endings which neatly wrap up all of the story's loose ends. Paradoxically, I hate predictable endings. Anyway, The Giver ends in a way that leaves it VERY open to interpretation. Lowry calls it an "optimistic ending," but insists that the true ending exists only in the mind of the reader. As aggravating as that is for a neat-endings-junkie, it's also a sign of a truly great novel - one that makes you think long after you've closed the book.

Grade: A+

This review is also posted on my blog, Bloggin' 'Bout Books

Saturday, November 17, 2007

1950 The Door in the Wall Marguerite de Angeli

Robin, a crippled boy, son of a knight is the main character of this story set in medieval England. With a beginning in the city of London the setting is woven into the narrative as you learn little by little about what it might have meant to live at that time in that place. The story continues and en route we are acquainted with medieval Oxford and finally the Welsh borders. The illustrations are of their time and reflect the period in which the book was published

Throughout the story a picture is painted of our eventual hero learning by example from the monks of the hospice of St Mark’s. He learns from their wisdom far more deeply than he had previously . Wonderful passages cause one to pause and reflect upon the wisdom of the monks as they nurture their young charge.

Having been cared for by the monks Robin asks Brother Matthew about whether he would get well. The reply is one of my favourite passages,

‘Whether thou’lt walk soon I know not. This I know. We must teach thy hands to be skilful in many ways, and we must teach thy mind to go about whether thy legs will carry thee or no. For reading is another door in the wall, dost understand my son?’

Intertwined in the story are wonderful passages related to the meaning of learning, the ‘rewards’ of learning and the wisdom born of learning. This was a superb book and worthy of the honour it received.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Single Shard

A Single Shard, by Linda Sue Park, won the Newbery in 2002. It's a quiet book, filled with the mechanics of pottery-making, and I'm guessing that kids that like a lot of action in their books (like my almost 11 year old son) won't find it particularly interesting.

To tell you the truth, I wasn't really that thrilled with the book, either. Park does an exquisite job of portraying a village in Korea in the 1100's and making its inhabitants seem like regular people instead of quaint archaic primitives. Tree-ear (the ten year old protagonist) and Crane-man are interesting, but their relationship doesn't really evolve. The plot that involved potter Ming, Tree-ear's apprenticeship, and Tree-ear's journey to the capital was a little too predictable for me.

I did really like the discussion of intellectual property rights. You don't find that in kid's books too often (as far as I know, anyway, I'd be happy to hear otherwise in the comments):
Tree-ear spoke slowly. "It is a question about stealing." He paused, starting to speak, stopped again. Finally, "Is it stealing to take from another something that cannot be held in your hands?"

"Ah! Not a mere question but a riddle-question, at that. What is this thing that cannot be held?"

"A - an idea. A way of doing something."

"A better way than others now use."

"Yes. A new way, one that could lead to great honor."

Crane-man lay back down again. He was silent for so long that Tree-ear thought that he had fallen asleep. Tree-ear sighed and lay down himself, thinking, thinking....

...And therein lived the question-demon: If Tree-ear were to tell Min what he had seen, would that be stealing Kang's idea?

Crane-man's voice startled Tree-ear.

"If a man is keeping an idea to himself, and that idea is taken by stealth or trickery - I say it is stealing. But once a man has revealed his idea to others, it is no longer his alone. It belongs to the world. (p. 62, 64).
Park's descriptions of artistry are beautiful, too. I guess I just wanted more. I've decided I want the Newbery winners to really grab me, or to linger in my memory. This is a beautiful little book, but the story just didn't satisfy me the way my favorite Newbery winners have. I do think that anyone interested in either ceramics or Korea (especially its history) will enjoy this a great deal.

Here are some celadon ceramics from Linda Sue Park's homepage (note that there are story spoilers in descriptions of the pieces on this page). The pictures can't be enlarged, though, so check out the Metropolitan Museum of Art's page on Koryô celadon.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer

Here is a paragraph about this book that I wrote two years ago as a part of a longer post about children's books.

I am currently on a tear to finish all the Newbery Award winners. I’m into the older ones now. I just finished a wonderful old one: Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer. Even 70 years ago kids’ authors were tackling some big issues - an unhappy marriage, a murder, bullying, the death of a child, a child’s profane outburst, poverty - all handled with grace and style.


That tear slowed a bit, but the goal is still there. I've read 50 so far. I highly recommend Roller Skates. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron

This post, written back in June, is taken from my blog, Alone on a Limb.

I finally got around to reading the notorious Newbery Award winning book of the year, The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron. As the whole world now knows, that little book mentions the scrotum of a dog on its first page. SHOCK! AWE! KABOOM! A dog is bitten by a snake... there!
Lucky Trimble crouched in a wedge of shade behind the Dumpster. Her ear near a hole in the paint-chipped wall of Hard Pan's Found Object Wind Chime Museum and Visitor Center, she listened as Short Sammy told the story of how he hit rock bottom. How he quit drinking and found his Higher Power. Short Sammy's story, of all the rock-bottom stories Lucky had heard at twelve-step anonymous meetings -- alcoholics, gamblers, smokers, and overeaters -- was still her favorite.

Sammy told of the day when he had drunk half a gallon of rum listening to Johnny Cash all morning in his parked '62 Cadillac, then fallen out of the car when he saw a rattlesnake on the passenger seat biting his dog, Roy, on the scrotum.

Give me a break! Children are confronted daily with seamy sex and vicious violence in nauseating "reality" shows, movies, the news, commercials,"family" sit-coms... Our society is soaked in the unseemly of all sortssssssssssssssss.

And somebody is all in a tizzy because an author uses the correct term for a reproductive organ of a dog in a kid's book!

I teach fourth grade science. I admit that I feel more apprehension than I show when a young student asks about a linked pair of insects: "Look at those dragonflies, Mr. Shaw, what are they doing?" But I try to handle it like an adult. (And it's easier now than it was in 1969 - the year I began teaching.) I try hard to be absolutely matter-of-fact when I reply, "They are mating. That's how they reproduce. You'll see lot's of those animals mating this time of year. The females will be laying their eggs soon. Their life cycle is a little different from the monarch butterflies we studied..."

I think Patron did a beautiful job of handling the topic with Lucky. Are there still parents and teachers of nine- and ten-year-olds in this sex-soaked society who pretend reproduction - even in animals - either doesn't exist, or is unmentionable?

The Higher Power of Lucky is a good little book. It is not on my list of must-reads, but I have no problem at all recommending it to a fourth-grader.

Lordy-mercy, that poor dog!

A November note:
Several months later I have to say I may decide to move this book up a bit on my mental list of recommended books. Patron's characters have imposed themselves on my consciousness many times since June. I like Lucky, Brigette, and Lincoln and I believe many of my students will.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Bud, not Buddy - 3M's Review

budnotbuddy.JPGI listened to this Newbery winner by Christopher Paul Curtis with my son on the road trip to our new home. We both enjoyed it very much.

When we meet Bud Caldwell, he is living in an orphanage in Flint, Michigan. Soon, though, we find him "on the lam" and in search of his father whom he has never met. He always carries his few belongings in a suitcase, and in the suitcase are clues his dead mother left behind about his father. Set during the Great Depression, this book is excellent for its historical value for children. Recommended.

1999, 245 pp.


Rating: 4

The Tale of Despereaux - 3M's Review

taleofdespereaux.JPGThis is another Newbery winner that I listened to with my son on our road trip. We enjoyed this one even more than Bud, not Buddy.

Banished from his mouse community for fraternizing with humans (to borrow C.S. Lewis's phrase), Despereaux is sent to the dungeon where it is assumed he will be eaten by the rats. Of course, he isn't eaten by the rats, but while he's in prison he learns of a rat's plans to harm one of his beloved human friends, Princess Pea. His quest to save the Princess Pea forms the rest of the story, which I won't spoil for you!

This is a very charming fantasy tale that kept us truly entertained on our trip. It might be a little scary for those under 8 or so, though. I also recommend DiCamillo's The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, which I read and enjoyed earlier this year.

2003, 272 pp.

Newbery Award

Rating: 4.5

Number the Stars - 3M's Review

Number the Stars
by Lois Lowry

1989, 144 pp.

Newbery Medal

Rating: 4.5

This was an excellent children's book. I read it in a couple of hours while the rest of my family was at the movie theatre.

Annemarie Johansen and Ellen Rosen live in Copenhagen. They are neighbors and best friends. Ellen and her family are Jewish and World War II is going on; consequently they are in very real danger and Annemarie's family does everything they can to help them.

I can't really say much more without giving the whole story line away. This book fascinated me because many of the details are based on factual evidence. Books like these truly make history come alive and make the reader eager to do more research on the subject.

Highly recommended.

A Wrinkle in Time - 3M's Review

A Wrinkle in Time
by Madeleine L'Engle

1962, 224 pp.

Rating: 4

Newbery Medal

I listened to this book on CD with my sons on a short road trip. All three of us enjoyed it very much. Meg Murry is a girl whose parents are both scientists. Consequently her family is a little different than others. She and Charles Wallace, her littlest brother, get made fun of at school because everyone thinks they're either stupid or not living up to their potential. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Her twin brothers are more normal so they fit in.

Their father works for the government and has been missing for a few years. The search for Mr. Murry, with a little help from Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, takes them on a journey too incredible to imagine. Three sequels follow that each of us plan on reading this year or next.

The White Stag - 3M's Review

The White Stag
by Kate Seredy

1937, 94 pp.
Newbery Medal

Rating: 4

This Newbery winner tells the legend of how the Huns and Magyars migrated westward into Hungary. Descended from Nimrod (yes, the one from the Bible), Attila and his ancestors follow a white stag that shows them the way. If you like myths and legends as I do, you will appreciate this book.

My only caution is that Christian parents should read this first to see if it appropriate for their family. Although I love folklore, legends, and mythology, I was a little uncomfortable with the setting up of Nimrod as a hero. Usually I treat mythology solely as fiction with entertainment value. In this case, however, because this book does use passages and references in the Bible, I am a little more cautious.

The Door in the Wall - 3M's Review

The Door in the Wall
by Marguerite de Angeli

(1949, 121 pp.)

Newbery Medal

Rating: 4

My favorite passage sums up this book nicely:

"Fret not, my son. None of us is perfect. It is better to have crooked legs than a crooked spirit. We can only do the best we can with what we have. That, after all, is the measure of success: what we do with what we have."

Robin is a boy whose father expects him to be a knight. When his father goes off to war, Robin is left alone and falls ill. His legs are slightly crippled afterward. Some monks come to his aid and he learns to "do the best with what he has." Recommended.

Amos Fortune, Free Man - 3M's Review

Amos Fortune, Free Man
by Elizabeth Yates

1950, 181 pp.
1951 Newbery Award

Rating: 4

This book tells Amos' story from his capture in Africa to his years of being a slave and finally to his final years as a free black man. Amos was the prince of his tribe in Africa, and it is a shock to him when he is captured for slavery. He is very lucky, though, as his owners treat him very kindly. He serves them well, saves his money, and is able to "buy" his freedom. He also buys his wives' (he was twice a widower) freedom. Amos is a gentle and kind man who respects both God and others. I highly recommend this story to both children and adults.

The Higher Power of Lucky - 3M's Review

The Higher Power of Lucky
by Susan Patron

2006, 134 pp.

Newbery Medal

Rating: 4

This book created a little controversy when it won the Newbery Medal because it contains the word 'scrotum' in relation to a snake bite on a dog. I'm almost conservative as they come, and I don't see what the big deal is. I really liked this book and found it to be very charming.

Lucky is a girl whose mother has died and who lives with a Frenchwoman. They live in the desert of California in a very small (population 43) community. Also in her life besides her French guardian Brigitte are Miles, a cute little boy whose favorite book is Are You My Mother?, and Lincoln, a boy her age who is obsessed with knot tying.

These relationships and the longings of this little girl form the heart of the novel. I really cared about these characters and found myself rooting for all of them.

The Giver - 3M's Review

The Giver
by Lois Lowry

1993, 179pp

Newbery Medal

Rating: 4.5

I really, really liked this book. It is another "Big Brother" story similar to Fahrenheit 451 or 1984. Scary, scary.

Jonas is eleven years old. When he is twelve, he will receive his "assignment" or job from the Elders of his community. Everything is decided by the Elders. Who marries whom. Which occupation you will have. Which children you will raise. And even who has to be "released" from the community. When Jonas is selected for a special position that only one other person in the community has, it is considered a very high honor. What Jonas discovers about this "honor" changes his life completely.

I read this for the Banned Book Challenge. I'm not sure why it would be contested. Perhaps because there is some talk about the "stirrings" of beginning s* x u ality in Jonas. I didn't have a problem with this, but I'm really glad I read it before I gave it to my 13 and 12 year old sons to read. This book will make for a great discussion.

The Whipping Boy (1987)

Halfway through this book I thought I'd post a one word response: "Meh."

But when I finished it, I decided it's really quite a gem, particularly for its short length. This is exactly the kind of book I looked for a few years ago, when my older son had the desire to read something more dramatic than Junie B. Jones, but wasn't yet ready for Eragon.

Kudos to Sid Fleishman for writing a short tale full of humor, suspense and poignancy.

(p.s. I'm embarrassed to say I spend the majority of this book thinking it was written by the author of Danny and the Dinosaur. That would be Syd (with a "Y") Hoff. Who knows how my brain catalogue works.)

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Twenty-one Balloons

The Twenty-One Balloons
by William Pène du Bois

(Cross-posted at Alone on a Limb.)

This is a goofy book. A crazy schoolteacher endeavors to escape the unpleasantness of teaching mathematics to unappreciative scholars by taking a leisurely and solitary journey aboard a very unusual hot air balloon. A few weeks later he is found famished and floating in the Atlantic having - after a subsequent trainride across America - circumnavigated the earth.

The bulk of the book is the professor’s fantastic recounting of his accidental encounter and adventures with the fabulously rich and secretive colonists of the famous volcanic island, Krakatoa. Du Bois himself produced the lovely drawings that illustrate the wondrous apparatuses of this author’s imagination.

Du Bois is wonderfully inventive. His book is not the sort I would usually seek out. I want characters to love - Anne with an E; Jim sacrificing his freedom for a friend; Penny, Nick, and Ben risking life and limb for the dream of a father*; a terrific, if naive, pig’s loyalty to his brilliant spider friend. Twenty-one Balloons is not really character driven. The professor is the only character we come to know well. Krakatoa is peopled aphabetically, for heaven’s sake, and we don’t get to know any of them well. But this outlandish story is beautifully crafted and raises interesting issues, such as the meaning of wealth. It is no wonder the 1948 Newbery judges were taken by this little book. I enjoyed it.

I found my very readable paperback copy for twenty-five cents at the Friends of the Library used book sale. It is the fiftieth Newbery Award book that I have read. This is my first post for the Newbery Project.

*Penny, Nick, and Ben are from my favorite children’s book, The Lion’s Paw by Robb White, now out-of-print.

The View from Saturday

Cross-posted at my blog.

I read The View from Saturday for the Newbery Challenge. I'm enjoying reading the Newbery books for this challenge so much that I just might set myself a personal challenge to read every Newbery Medal winner.

In this novel for kids from about 8 to 12 years old, four sixth graders form a trivia team. Their coach is their social studies teacher, who has been away from teaching for ten years due to a car accident which left her confined to a wheelchair. The four sixth graders are connected in other ways, mostly through their grandparents. Their strengths complement each other, and this, combined with dedicated practice, helps them become an unbeatable team.

I found the dialogue, especially that of the kids, stilted and not a very good reflection of how kids this age actually speak. Nadia, the only girl on the team, doesn't use contractions at all. In theory, I think this sounds like a good way to portray Nadia as a serious, intelligent girl, but in practice, it makes her sound pompous. I'm pretty sure that in real life, Nadia would be mercilessly picked on by the other kids, who would imitate and mock her odd speech patterns. Instead, Julian (my favorite character) is picked on because he wears shorts with knee socks (which I do think is realistic). None of the four kids care about what their peers think of them, though; in fact, they don't seem interested in any social interaction with anyone but each other.

Other than some problems with dialogue, though, this was an enjoyable story, and I particularly liked the sections taking place in Florida, where three of the kids' grandparents live.

My favorite character, Julian, is Indian, and he has grown up on cruise ships, where his father has worked. At the time the novel takes place, though, Julian's father has bought a bed and breakfast in the town where the others live, and Julian becomes friends with them by inviting them to a tea party via coded messages.

As I suspected, Konigsburg herself was a teacher. Children's books that take place mostly in schools so often seem to be written by school librarians or teachers. And why not? Who else could even try to write realistic scenes taking place in a classroom? It's funny when Snape verbally abuses the kids at Hogwarts, but kids know that Snape couldn't get away with that in a real, non-magical school.

Konigsburg has a new book being published this year, The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World. I can't really say yet that I'm looking forward to reading it, but I am looking forward to seeing reviews about it that will help me decide whether to read it.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond

at my blog.

Title and author of book? The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

Fiction or non-fiction? Genre? Young adult historical fiction, Newbery winner.

What led you to pick up this book? It was one of my c for the Newbery challenge. I actually thought I had read it and this would be a re-read, but it turns out it wasn't familiar at all.

Summarize the plot, but no spoilers! It's the late 1600s, and Kit, who is a teen from Barbados, is left without any family or money after her wealthy grandfather dies. She takes a ship to Puritan New England to live with an aunt she's never met. The way of life there is very different from what she was used to. Not only does she work hard from dawn until bedtime, but even her clothes are shockingly bright and colorful compared to the dark clothes the Puritans wear. Somehow, in spite of her status as an odd outsider, a wealthy young man in the village takes an interest in her and starts to court her. Meanwhile, one of her two girl cousins is also being courted. Kit and the other cousin, Mercy, run a school for very young children. Eventually, Kit meets an older woman, a Quaker the town is suspicious of. Eventually, there are accusations of witchcraft.

What did you like most about the book? I liked the historical aspect best, but I also liked the characters, especially Kit and Hannah, the Quaker woman.

What did you like least? I found it implausible that the wealthiest bachelor in town would set his sights on Kit when she seemed so strange to the townspeople. I also found that, like in many historical novels, there were attitudes and behavior attributed to the main characters that are more in line with how people today think and act.

Share a quote from the book:This is Hannah, the Quaker woman: "'The answer is in thy heart,' she said softly. 'Thee can always hear it if thee listens for it.'" I liked that partly because it's sensible advice, partly because it seems in character for a Quaker, and partly because Kit does listen to her heart later, and finds an answer to something that is not what she and Hannah were discussing when Hannah gave her that advice.

What did you think of the ending? It ended just as I expected it to, but a younger reader may not have found it as predictable.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Island of the Blue Dolphins

Stars: *****

I first read this in grade school and loved it. When I saw I needed to read it for the Newbery Project I decided to reread it and I'm glad I did. I remembered it almost exactly and I enjoyed it very much again. I love his writing and would like to try some more of his books to see if they are as well written.

This is a great book for girls to increase girl power as the girl is alone on the island for a few years and survives all on her own. A few times I got so into the words I felt like I was there. To my knowledge this hasn't been made into a movie but I think it should, although it still wouldn't be anywhere as good as the book. Definitely deserves it's Newbery award.

Recommended for kids (especially girls) ages 10 and up

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Crispin: The Cross of Lead Avi 2003

The book begins … The day after my mother died the priest and I wrapped her body in a grey shroud and carried her to the village church.

Set in the world of mediaeval England this book tells of a young boy’s journey from naïve life to knowledge of himself. It is at one level a gripping adventure and at another it is one of the battle between power and avarice versus humility, faithfulness and genuine trustworthy friendship. I strongly recommend this book. With characters and writing that sets the scene so vividly it was a truly worthy winner.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Sarah, Plain and Tall

This 1986 winner by Patricia MacLachlan was beautiful. It was short, simple, and a very uplifting story. I think it would especially be good for younger readers (unlike many of the Newbery winners) - a great early chapter book for a 2nd or 3rd grader.

Joanne and RioFrioTex already said a lot of the stuff I thought, so I'm just going to quote a few favorite passages:
A log broke apart and crackled in the fireplace. He looked up at me. "What did I look like when I was born?"

"You didn't have any clothes on," I told him.

"I know that," he said.

"You looked like this." I held the bread dough up in round pale ball.

"I had hair," said Caleb seriously. (p. 4)
We slept in the hay all night, waking when the wind was wild, sleeping again when it was quiet. And at dawn there was the sudden sound of hail, like stones tossed against the barn. We stared out the window, watching the ice marbles bounce on the ground. And when it was over we opened the barn door and walked out in to the early-morning light. The hail crunched and melted beneath our feet. It was white and gleaming for as far as we looked, like sun on glass. Like the sea. (pp. 49-50)
You know, I could just keep quoting and quoting and pretty soon the whole little book would be here in my review. Almost every paragraph is that evocative and solid and shines in its own quiet way.

2006 Criss Cross Lynne Rae Perkins

First sentence – She wished something would happen.

Having reflected upon this book for a while I am still unsure regarding my view of it. I am wondering if it is ‘my age’ that meant that this book did not connect with me. Many of the Newbery award winners and myriads of other children’s books I have read have invariable ‘spoken’ to me. This is often in the form of deeper lessons for life, those truths that lie beneath the story. Alternatively it may be that a book resonates as I reflect upon how it could be shared in the classroom. Disappointingly Criss Cross failed to inspire and stimulate. There was a glimmer of reflection as two of the young people related to one another as they shared the task of supporting an aging and infirm ‘granny’ character. There was a sense of looking out beyond and giving to another. In my opinion this was the best part of the book. Giving to another enriched both of the characters as they found reward. Apart from this instance my view was that the characters and situations were lacking in depth. I have passed my copy to my young friend Chloe and look forward to hearing her view.

1948 The Twenty One Balloons

‘There are two kinds of travel’….. So begins this 1948 Newbery award winner, a brilliant book ranging from scientific truths to absolute fantasy. At first I thought the mingling of fact and fiction would disappoint me. To the contrary I was completely enthralled and really involved in the adventure. Black and white illustrations complemented the text and explained further some of the inventions. Underneath all the fantasy was a depth and a number of truths regarding ‘teamship’ and questions regarding riches. Excellent writing and highly recommended.

A footnote – at first I was captivated as I too have flown in hot air balloons. This has been with a friend, an amateur in the Pyrennees along with my husband, not to mention my then 87 year old mum and friend! It is the most magical and wonderful form of transport. I have already recommended this to Dave and his family, especially Chloe whose childhood took her round the Pyrenean countryside as her mum followed their beautiful balloon named One World Dreaming.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The White Stag

The White Stag, by Kate Seredy, won the Newbery in 1938. I really can't figure out why, unless the Committee was just bowled over by her illustrations (like this one from page 47), which I have to admit are gorgeous.

Maybe the legend of the white stag was just more popular back then - a little Googling shows that it was a symbol of the Scouting Movement. The Boy Scouts of America were becoming very popular in the 30's, and the 4th World Jamboree of Scouts was held in Hungary in 1933, with the white stag as its symbol. Different versions of the legend of a white stag are historically important through Europe, especially in Hungary, where Seredy says she took the inspiration for this book.

Anyway. I liked Seredy's Foreword a lot:
Not so long ago I was leafing through a very modern book on Hungarian history. It was a typical twentieth-century book, its pages an unending chain of FACTS, FACTS, FACTS as irrefutable, logical, and as hard as the learned pens of learned historians could make them.

Turning the pages I felt as if I were walking in a typical twentieth-century city, a city laid out in measured blocks, glaring with the merciless white light of knowledge, its streets smooth, hard concrete facts. One could not stumble on streets like that, nor could one ever get lost; every corner is so plainly marked with dates.

...Well, I closed the book and I closed my eyes. And then I saw an old garden, the great, neglected park of old Hun-Magyar legends, with moss creeping over the shadowy paths, paths which twisted and turned, which led into hidden nooks where fantastic flowers grew around crumbling monuments of pagan gods.

...Those who want to hear the voice of pagan gods in wind and thunder, who want to see fairies dance in the moonlight, who can believe that faith can move mountains, can follow the thread on the pages of this book. It is a fragile thread; it cannot bear the weight of facts and dates.
Unfortunately, I was pretty disappointed in the thread of the story in The White Stag. I didn't think it was fragile so much as overly militaristic, impersonal, and boring. Maybe the thread is just old and rotten, and ready to break? It's not that I don't like old books, either - I liked The Story of Mankind (1922), The Dark Frigate (1924), and Caddie Woodlawn (1936) a lot more than this, and they were all earlier winners.

Also, I like swashbuckling and legendary tales quite a lot. A couple childhood favorites were Raphael Sabatini's Captain Blood and collections of Greek legends. So I don't think that Seredy's account of 4th and 5th century warriors (including Attila the Hun) seeking a homeland in eastern Europe should have turned me off quite so much.

But I didn't like any of the main players in The White Stag. As Melissa noted in the comments here, except for Attila (whose childhood was summed up pretty bleakly in a couple of sentences), the characters are all adults. They're mostly tribal leaders, with a couple mystical passive maidens and a slave girl who happily accepts a warlord for her husband (and then dies in childbirth) thrown in for good measure.

There was a very Old Testament feel to the four linked stories, starting with Nimrod sacrificing his horse "faithful friend and companion of many great hunts" (p. 13) so that the god Hadur will reveal his people's destiny - the stag and eagles and blazing swords, and the next few generations of noble warriors who will lead them to the promised land. But by the time I was in the fourth part, I didn't care if the Huns ever got to Hungary, "where the song of whispering breeze and gurgling brooks had the magic power to banish memories of bloodshed" (p. 89). I was just happy that the story was over.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Stars: *****

This has long been one of my favourite books, if not my absolute favourite book. I read it in grade school the first time and although I loved the book, I hated studying it.

If by some chance you happen to have not heard of this book it's the story of Jonas, who lives in a strictly controlled community. Every "family" has two children, one boy and one girl. You apply for a spouse and children and they are assigned to you. No one sees colours, the weather is strictly controlled, everyone celebrates their "birthday" on the same day in December and each year they get something new or get to do something new. There are strict rules. When he turns twelve he is singled out to receive special training from The Giver. The Giver holds the memories of the true pain and pleasure of life. Now it's time for Jonas to receive the truth. There is no turning back.

The Giver, besides being the 1994 winner of the Newbery Award is also an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, and ALA Notable Book for Children, Winner of the Regina Medal, A Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book, A Booklist Editor's Choice and a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year.

It's interesting to think about what life would be like if everything was controlled and chosen for us. There are definite pros and cons. I recommend this book to everyone, adults included.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Thimble Summer

Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright was a delighful book. This is a story about 9 1/2 year old Garnet and her life in a small town in Wisconsin. This book won in 1939 and while I grew up in the 1960s, I felt that the topics were timeless. Garnet, her family, and her friends work hard to keep the farm and enjoy life. I loved that the author provided short chapters which could easily be read aloud. We have assigned the grade level 4-6 to this book although the stories might be a little too "old-fashioned" for today's sixth grader. Unless of course one is raising a prize hog or chasing after hens! There is conflict and redemption for Garnet and her family. But mostly it is just fun!

The best thing about this book is the writing which is very beautiful. The book opens with Garnet thinking how very hot it is. Here is the passage:

It was like being inside of a drum. The sky like a bright skin was stretched tight above the vallet, and the earth too, was tight and hard with heat. Later, when it was dark, there would be a noise of thunder, as though a great hand beat upon the drum; there would be heavy clouds above the hills, and flashes of heat lightening, but no rain. It had been like that for a long time. p. 3-4

Another thing I really liked about this book was the presentation of family values. Citronella, friend to Garnet, has her great grandmother tell stories about the old days. Again we see reference to the Native Americans in Wisconsin...but it is a brief description of sharing between the settlers and the Indians. Garnet's family welcomes a stranger to their home - again sharing what was available. As this book was published right after the Depression, I think the author included these types of stories to point out that suffering might be lessened when shared.

The author, like her mother, was an illustrator before she began writing. The illustrations she created for this book are very nice - some are in color and some are ink drawings. The stories were based on her summer visits to the Wisconsin farm of Frank Lloyd Wright.

One final story - the two girls go to the public library in town and in fact get so absorbed in their books that they get locked in! Here is the description of the library (and unfortunately the librarian):

Finally on the outskirts of town they came to the library, an old-fashioned frame building set back from the road among thick-foliaged maple trees.
Garnet loved the library; it smelled deliciously of old books and was full of stories that she had never read. Miss Pentland, the librarian, was a nice little fat lady who sat behind an enormous desk facing the door. p. 56

I think I have been to that library in a small town in Tennessee! And although I did not find this book when I was 10, I am glad that I found it now. Delightful!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Summer of the Swans (and Early 70's TV)

I don't know why I never heard of this book as a child - I grew up in the 70's, and this won the Newbery Award in 1971. I think it would have been very good for me to read this story then. One of the only children with a mental disability that I ever encountered in grade school was a kid with Down Syndrome, who swam in a lake near my hometown that I frequented every summer. Sadly, my friends and I avoided Eric as much as possible. Would reading this kind of book have made a difference? It couldn't have hurt.

I didn't start out liking Summer much. Sara, the 14 year old narrator, got on my nerves with her constant complaints about the summer, bickering with her older sister, and getting annoyed with 10 year old brother Charlie, who is non-verbal and likes routines, his wrist watch, and the swans that visit the town's lake.

But the story really grew on me. Sara reminded me a lot of Meg Murry in A Wrinkle in Time (are 13 or 14 year old girls anywhere at any time ever happy with their appearance, their friends, and their families? I know I wasn't). I thought the description from Charlie's point of view was well-done and not at all condescending, which is what I expected after reading the cover blurb.

I couldn't help mentally comparing The Summer of the Swans to Rules, by Cynthia Lord (one of this year's Newbery Honors books, which is about a big sister with an younger brother who is autistic, an amazing book), and expecting Summer to fall far short. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised that it didn't.

The TV references made me feel old, though. I don't think kids (or most adults under 40) reading The Summer of the Swans are going to feel the same stab of recognition that I did when Byars mentions the theme song from Green Acres, or the afternoon line-up of the The Newlyweds and The Dating Game. Or "that coyote in 'Road Runner' who is always getting flattened and dynamited and crushed and in the next scene is strolling along, completely normal again" (p. 95). Unless they've seen a lot of Nick at Nite or TVLand or something like that.

Unfortunately, this passage could have been written about the playground at my son's school:
"Well, do you know what that nice little Gretchen Wyant did? I was standing in the bushes by the spigot, turning off the hose, and this nice little Gretchen Wyant didn't see me - all she saw was Charlie at the fence - and she said, 'How's the retard today?' only she made it sound even uglier, 'How's the reeeeetard,' like that. Nothing ever made me so mad. The best sight of my whole life was nice little Gretchen Wyant standing there in her wet Taiwan silk dress with her mouth hanging open." (p. 69)
Well, there isn't a hose and you won't see any girls wearing silk dresses on the playground here. But it's pretty sad that reeeeetard is still one of the most popular insults I hear among 3rd and 4th graders (and worse, more common among many adults) almost forty years after The Summer of the Swans.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman

From For kids to get their dose of action and thrills, they need not always go to the local multiplex for the latest bang 'em up film. They could try such books as The Whipping Boy, which relies not on exploding spaceships and demonic robots but mythic story, humorous characters and, ready or not, a moral. The plot involves the orphan Jemmy, who must take the whippings for the royal heir, Prince Brat. Jemmy plans to flee this arrangement until Prince Brat beats him to it, and takes Jemmy along. Jemmy then hears he's charged with the Prince's abduction as this Newbery Medal winning book turns toward a surprising close.

My take: Lest I sound like Amazon though I have to agree with every word said. This is a wonderful book, a quick read in just 90 pages, which relies solidly on a good yarn. No bells and whistles, just storytelling at its best.

It is funny yet a poignant tale of two boys who have absolutely nothing in common. But in the face of ferocious bandits, they discover how it is to step into each other's shoes, literally ... and surprisingly, develop a lasting friendship. The whipping boy and Prince Brat - a prince and a pauper - are boys at heart after all.

As a parent you may need to explain that violent punishments were a thing of the olden days, lest younger kids get scared of the descriptions of the lashings on poor old Jemmy.

[Originally posted on my blog]

Saturday, October 13, 2007

A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park

An orphan boy in 12th century Korea lives under the bridge with a crippled man. He is fascinated with the pottery made by the craftsman in the nearby pottery village. He is taken on as an apprentice and his life slowly changes. This was a good book, a nice pleasant read but I guess I expected something more from a Newbery winner. I enjoy pretty much anything written about ancient Asia and this did give a wonderful portrayal of Korean life at the time.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois

1.jpg[Thanks for having me in this group! This is my first post. I love children's literature and really look forward to reading and participating here. Crossposted in my blog.]

I got this for a steal at a recent book sale, still wrapped up in plastic. I was having second thoughts but realizing that it is a Newbery winner, I decided that it was a good buy not just for me but for my own 8-year-old too (eventually).

On the back blurb: An absurd and fantastic tale ... Truth and fiction cleverly intermingled." - SLJ

Professor William Waterman Sherman just wants to be alone. So he decides to take a year off and spend it crossing the Pacific Ocean in a hot-air balloon the likes of which no one has seen. But when he is found after just three weeks floating in the Atlantic among the wreckage of twenty hot-air balloons, the world is naturally eager to know what happened. How did he end up with so many balloons ... and in the wrong ocean?

More...I didn't regret this read. And at the risk of spoiling things for you, I come back with more questions ... questions one step ahead of those above:

If you were shipwrecked (ok, balloon-wrecked) on a supposedly uninhabited island, only to discover that on that island, you are probably among the richest people in the world with close to a billion dollars to spend a day. Everyday could be a vacation and there is no limit to what you occupy your time with. Would you want to stay or go? What if you were forced to stay as a perennial guest? What if you had to stay even in the light of dire circumstances?

This is what the Professor went through in his three weeks disappearance.

It's a very tall tale. But its told with such an incredible amount of detail as well as plausible descriptions of inventions and the science behind them that you want to believe everything written down. Take note that this book won the Newbery in 1948, an era where great inventions were being made.

What makes the story even moreso charming is that Mr. Du Bois also happened to draw all the illustrations. One of my favorite inventions is the balloon merry-go-round.

Definitely a classic.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Julie of the Wolves

Julie of the Wolves is another Newbery book that I remember reading as a child. Unlike most of the other books, though, before re-reading this I could not remember anything but the most basic idea of the story: a girl in the Arctic lives with a wolf pack.

Jean Craighead George's My Side of the Mountain was one of my favorite books as a child, but this book was not - although I don't remember exactly disliking it in any way. And upon re-reading it, I remembered exactly why it wasn't a favorite: not much happens, until the end, and then the things that do happen aren't particularly happy.

There is a lot of explanation of wolf ecology, pack structure and society, and the tundra environment, which is interesting, but maybe not interesting enough to capture your average 5th grader's interest in the absence of a compelling story.

For example, this passage is typical:
As she packed to travel on, she thought about her escorts. Wolves did not like civilization. Where they had once dwelled all over North America they now lived in remote parts of Canada, in only two of the lower forty-eight states, and in the wilderness of Alaska. Even the roadless North Slope had fewer wolves than it did before the gussaks erected their military bases and brought airplanes, snowmobiles, electricity, and jeeps to the Arctic. (p. 133)
The insights into Eskimo (today more correctly called Iñupiat or Iñupiaq) culture were fascinating, but as with other books about different cultures (like Island of the Blue Dolphins), I couldn't help wondering how much of this exotic world Jean Craighead George really got right. For some of the other Newbery authors I've reviewed here (Jerry Spinelli, Christopher Paul Curtis, and Richard Peck come to mind immediately), it is clear that the authors know the places and the peoples they're writing about intimately. I didn't get the same vibe here, which was a little disappointing.

An adult book that I read last year that covered similar topics, on the other hand, totally blew me away - check out Ordinary Wolves, by Seth Kantner, if you want a modern look at Iñupiat culture and wolves. Unfortunately, Ordinary Wolves is not really appropriate for elementary-aged school kids, and I don't know of any other looks at Arctic life that would be good for this age group. If you know of some, I'd love to hear about them in the comments.

Martha Stackhouse, a resident of Barrow, wrote this critical review of Julie of the Wolves for an education course at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks a few years ago. (Sometimes I seriously love the internet - twenty years ago, this perspective would have stayed in Fairbanks and Barrow). It may seem that some of her criticisms are minor points, but they do all add up.

I guess I'd still recommend this, with some reservations, for kids who want to read about the Arctic world. But really, as much as I love George's other books, I'd like to have a book with a more interesting story and more of the nitty gritty of Native culture on the North Slope today. Maybe a member of one of the Native groups in the north or Seth Kantner should write a book for young adults and older grade-school kids.