Friday, March 30, 2007

A Single Shard

The 2002 winner, by Linda Sue Park is set in 12th century Korea in a seaside potters’ village, an atypical and charming setting.” Tree Ear”, a poor Korean orphan (a familiar character in Korean folktales, I’m told) lives under a bridge with his friend “Crane Man” surviving on rubbish and fallen grains of rice. Yet he yearns to become a potter.

The book, a coming of age story, in a sense, follows Tree Ear’s fortuitous but stormy relationship with Master Potter Min, to whom he is introduced through an accident of broken pottery, and the calmer, nurturing one he share with Crane Man. Predictably, Tree Ear becomes an apprentice to Min and faces the challenge of convincing Min of his worth.

When the Royal Emissary come to the village to bestow a royal commission, Tree Ear faces his biggest challenge. delivering samples of Min’s work to the capital for inspection. Along the way, he is beset by robbers and only a single shard remains.

Though the story follows a predictable course and Tree Ear triumphs in the end, the language and positive values reinforced by Crane Man make it an enjoyable read. While the descriptions of life in 12th century Korea are minimal, the author delights readers with detailed information about the ancient art of pottery making.

The descriptions in the book and the author’s notes about life in 12th century Korea and the prized, “celadon” pottery featured in this story make this book an excellent choice for home schoolers or after a trip to a “make your own” pottery place.

Monday, March 26, 2007

It's like this, cat

This is the other book I read over the past few weeks and comparatively Emily Neville's book It's like this, cat was very light and entertaining. This is a story of a young boy, coming of age, and his relationships with his family, friends, and of course, his cat.

Published in 1963, this book reminds me of my childhood and I wonder if children today have the freedom to wander large cities as I did and as did the characters in cat. The author provides great detail about New York City - at least enough to be entertaining to someone who has never been there to visit.

Overall, this was an easy read. We have it listed as Gr 7-9. I think that might be a little too old in today's world. Read it and see what you think!


Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Trumpeter of Krakow

Eric Kelly's 1928 book set in medieval Poland was not a bad book, but it took me two weeks to get through it. So even though I liked it, it was difficult to follow at times and lagged a bit. The imagery and chapter illustrations painted a good picture of Krakow and the family traveling to the great Polish city to bring a treasure to the King.

The story centers on the young boy of the family and his adventures in this booming city. The family has carried a treasure for centuries and the time had come to present it to the King. Since the King is out of town, they have to find living quarters and the means to live while secretly hiding the treasure. He and his father take on the age-old job of sounding the trumpet from the high tower of the church every hour at night while they watch for fires or attacks on the city. The short trumpet piece was always played with the final three notes missing in honor of a trumpeter who was killed.

From the Polish American Journal: The trumpet call "Hejnal Mariacki" ("Hymn to our Lady")—is played daily from the tower of St. Mary's Basilica in Krakow. This signal, known and dear to every Pole, resounds all over the city's Old Town historical district. The song dates back to the Middle Ages when it announced the opening and the closing of the city gates. It was also played to alarm citizens of fires or approaching enemy forces. The call always ends abruptly to commemorate a bugler shot through his throat by a Tatar archer in 1241.

One reason I enjoyed this book is that in March 2006 I had the priviledge of hearing Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa speak at the University. He was a wonderful speaker and gave us a magical understanding of what it is to be Polish - the traditions, the pain, the beauty. This book provided the same understanding.


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Lincoln: A Photobiography

Writing, the art of communicating thoughts to the mind through the eye, is the great invention of the world...enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and space. (from a lecture Abraham Lincoln gave to the Springfield Library Association, February 22, 1860)
This is my one of my favorite quotes from Lincoln:A Photobiography, by Russell Freedman.

I wish I had this book to read in jr. high school, or even in high school, instead of the remarkably mediocre and boring history on Lincoln and the Civil War that I got. Freedman's book is an unusually interesting one, filled with fantastic photographs (which you might expect from a book subtitled "a photobiography"), with many fascinating insights into Lincoln the person glimpsed behind Lincoln the American symbol.

I thought I knew a fair amount about Abraham Lincoln - I grew up in a small town in northern Illinois (the site of the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, actually), I was born on Lincoln's birthday (154 years later), and I've read a fair amount of history. But much to my surprise, I learned a great deal about both Lincoln and the Civil War from this children's book. I want to buy a copy of this book for myself and my children after I return this one to the library. I hope that it shows my kids that history - real history, not the regurgitated accounts we usually get - is really interesting.

Check out this description of the law offices of Lincoln & Herndon in Springfield, Illinois, in the 1850's:
Neither man was much for neatness, and people said that orange seeds sprouted in dusty office corners. Lincoln's favorite filing place for letters and papers was the lining of his high silk hat.
And this passage, with a memorable quote from William Herndon (Lincoln's law partner):
Lincoln liked to take Willie and Tad to the office when he worked on Sundays. Their wild behavior infuriated his partner. "The boys were absolutely unrestrained in their amusement," Herndon complained. "If they pulled down all the books from the shelves, bent the points of all the pens, overturned the spittoon, it never disturbed the serenity of their father's good nature. I have felt many and many a time that I wanted to wring the necks of those little brats and pitch them out the windows." (p. 41).
My only reservation about recommending this book for younger kids (say, less than 12 or 13) is that a couple of the photographs from the Civil War are rather disturbing - as indeed they should be, if we are to appreciate the cost in lives that was paid. But some children may not be ready to see photographs like this one, from Antietam.

Confederate Dead by a Fence on the Hagerstown Road,
September 1862,taken by Alexander Gardner.
LC-DIG-cwpb-01097 DLC in the American Memory
collection at the Library of Congress.

The only other part of the book that I really didn't like was the ending. Actually, Freedman did a wonderful job describing Lincoln's death and the funeral, and followed it all up with a sampler of lesser-known quotes (which I took the top one above from), I just didn't want the story to end like this.

The Dark Frigate

I decided to read the 1924 Newbery winner about a 17th century boy's adventures with "gentlemen of fortune" (pirates!) because I love Patrick O'Brian's naval stories (Master and Commander, Post Captain, and the other nineteen books in the series). And Charles Boardman Hawes' descriptive passages, like this one about the 'dark frigate', were everything I could have hoped for:
Such a ship as the Rose of Devon frigate, standing out for the open sea, is a sight the world no longer affords....their lofty poops, their little bonaventure masts, their lateen sails aft, their high forecastles and tall bowsprits with the square spritsail flaunted before the fiddlehead, came down from an even earlier day; for the Rose of Devon had been an ancient craft when King James died and King Charles succeeded to the throne.
And then there's this interchange:
At that Phil bustled up and laid hand on his dirk. "Good morrow, I say. Hast no tongue between thy teeth?"

The fellow hugged his book the tighter and frowned the darker and fiercely shook his head. "Never," he cried, "was a man assaulted with such diversity of thoughts! Yet here must come a lobcock lapwing and cry 'Good morrow!' I will have you know I am one to bite sooner than to bark."

Already he was striding at a furious gait, yet now giving a hitch to his mighty book, he made shift to lengthen his stride and go yet faster.

Unhindered by any such load, Phil pressed at his heels."'A lobcock'? 'A lapwing'?" he cried. "Thou puddling quacksalver - "

Stopping short and giving him a look of dark resentment, the fellow sadly shook his head. "That was a secret and most venomous blow."
So. As much as I loved the archaic language (and especially the insults), the style of writing in The Dark Frigate was occasionally overwhelming. It was definitely a "read a chapter every few days" type of book, not a "oh my gosh I must find out what happened to this kid in the next chapter" book. I don't think my ten year old would enjoy reading this on his own, though he might enjoy having it read to him (hmmm, I wonder if this is available on a cd or podcast?), especially with the right narrator.

Anyway, I started TDF several weeks ago, but couldn't resist picking up (and finishing) Holes and The Higher Power of Lucky (and the non-YA March, by Geraldine Brooks) during the amount of time it took me to read The Dark Frigate. And it wasn't just because of the language.

The main character, 19 year old Philip Marsham, is interesting enough, and the plot is pretty good, but despite the wonderful descriptions of ships, the English countryside, and the people in these places, I had a hard time caring much about most of the other people in the book. They were either wholly unlikable (like "the Old One", the captain of the pirates) or their interaction with Phil wasn't developed enough for me (as with Will Canty, a shipmate friend). This is where TDF just didn't live up to my perhaps unreasonably high expectations from Patrick O'Brian.

he Dark Frigate might be a pretty good movie, though. I wonder who would play Phil? I don't picture him as anything like this old cover.

As a final note - it's good to have Google on hand to understand things like this passage near the end:
If this were a mere story to while away an idle hour, I, the scribe, would tie neatly every knot and leave no Irish pennants hanging from my work. But life, alas, is no pattern drawn to scale. The many interweaving threads are caught up in strange tangles, and over them, darkly and inscrutably, Atropos presides.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

More Lucky

I just loved this story. I liked the characters, I liked the descriptions of everyday life (government cheese! Mint Milanos!), and I really liked the details about the community and the surrounding desert - chukars, rattlesnakes, red racers (in the dryer - what a wonderful and horrifying detail), burros, and tarantulas. It was especially fun to read this right after Holes, which also took place in the desert. Despite the snakes and tarantulas, though, Lucky's desert is an altogether friendlier place than Stanley Yelnats's - partially because it is clear that the author loves the desert, and partially because Lucky is quite the naturalist.

Since I have a ten year old that collects bugs like Lucky does (not even hesitating to pick up spiders with his bare hands), I really appreciated the details of Lucky's "museum". Her report on the tarantula hawk wasp sounds very much like something my son would write. Patron just got the tone and the kids' varied interests right, just like she did with the government cheese.

Her description of minor characters is just as appealing:
Lincoln's father was an Older Dad with a pension - he was twenty-three years older than Lincoln's mom - and looked more like a grandfather than a father. He drove around the desert in his homemade dune buggy searching for historic pieces of barbed wire, and then he sold them on eBay.
And Lucky's house - her 'canned-ham' trailer, and the two other trailers linked to it, "shaped and not even a mouse would be able to find a crack or opening anywhere" is simply the coolest house for a kid to live in since the windmill in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

I wrote down some of my favorite passages while we were waiting to see the pediatrician yesterday. I had to stop before the doctor came in, because I started running out of paper and I just kept finding new quotes that I liked even more than the stuff I had already written:
"It is wrong to have snakes in dryers! This is not something that would ever happen in France. California is not a civilized country!" (p. 54)

Short Sammy had gone back to frown at the block of cheese on his table. "The only thing left, man, is to fry this thing in bacon grease," he said. (p. 61)

Mothers have their good sides, their bad sides, and their wacky sides, but Lucky figured Lincoln's mother had no way of knowing at the time he was born that he would turn out to be so dedicated about knots. (p. 63)

Never before had Lucky realized that Lincoln's knot-tying brain secretions gave him such a special way of seeing. (p. 68)
All in all, I'm glad "scrotum" is bringing this to a wider audience, and I'm fairly certain that my kids will like this story as much as I did. I'm not sure that I love the cover illustration, though I did like many of the little drawings in the book itself. I just realized what is happening on the cover (a day after finishing the book) though, and it makes the cover a bit more poignant and fitting, knowing what is happening there.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Bronze Bow

I reread this book this past week; it had been a year or so since I'd read it and I recently ordered my own copy. (I've been buying a lot of the Newbery books I've read in the past that I've loved. I'm one of those people who likes to read the same books again and again--and while I adore the library, I like having my own copy of favorites!)

Daniel is a Jewish boy living at the time of Jesus, a boy whose father was killed by Roman soldiers, whose mother died soon after from grief, and whose sister was so affected by trauma that she has refused to leave the house for years. Daniel runs away to join a zealot leader, filled with hatred and with a burning desire to kill Romans. (That really doesn't give the story away--I promise!)

In the course of the story, Daniel meets Jesus and struggles to reconcile Jesus as Messiah with the zealous Messiah he's been waiting for. Love and hate, freedom and oppression, friends and enemies--Daniel grapples with all of these as the story--and he himself--develops toward completion and maturity.

I love historical, biblical fiction--and this book is no exception. Speare does a great job of setting the scene in a such a way that the places and people all come alive for the reader. She also does a superb job of showing Jesus from the perspective of a somewhat ordinary boy--a boy like many others who never show up in the pages of the Gospels.

Holes and Sploosh

When I asked my ten year old son what he remembered and liked most about this book, the first thing he said was "sploosh" (the name one of the characters in the book comes up with for some ancient jars of peach preserves). Then he described the poisonous "yellow-spotted lizards" and the kids at Camp Green Lake, all digging holes, all "exactly five feet deep and five feet around".

He read the book a few days before I did, and it certainly held his interest - and mine, too. It was an engaging story that kept me reading when I should have been doing all kinds of other things. I have to say this book was just more fun than any of the other Newbery winners I've read so far. Fun is not something you would expect from a story about a detention camp, but having looked at some of Louis Sachar's other children's books (my son read all of the "Sideways School" books earlier this year), it wasn't as much a surprise as I would otherwise have thought.

Holes did have some serious ideas in it - justice, bullying, and fate all play important roles in the story. And my son actually asked me about one of the historic parts "Was it really against the law to 'kiss a Negro?' " - which prompted a short discussion on the term Negro, as used in "the old days", along with racism and how it has changed. The use of history in the book was incredible - clever and surprising. And I loved this play on the title near the end of the book:
You will have to fill in the holes yourself.
I also loved Sachar's descriptions - the dry lake, the blazing sun, the rattlesnakes and scorpions and the yellow-spotted lizards. And his characters were so compelling - all of the kids with their nicknames - Armpit, Magnet, Zigzag, and especially Zero, and Mr. Sir and his sunflower seeds, and the ominous Warden with her rattlesnake venom fingernail polish. Offhand, I can't think of a scarier female 'bad guy' in a kid's story, and that includes both Cruella DeVille and Miss Minchon from A Little Princess.

So, two emphatic thumbs up for Holes, from both an adult and a kid. :-)

Friday, March 9, 2007

The Witch of Blackbird Pond

The main character, Kit, is very likable and readable. Her glamorous parents died when she was young. She is raised by her grandfather who appears to have been a champion of education, free thinking, strength, and "girl power". When her grandfather dies she sails from Barbados to Connecticut to live with her mom's sister, Rachel.

As you'd expect, Connecticut in 1687 is not overly receptive to Kit's free-wheeling though well intentioned ways. She struggles to find a fit within the socially and religiously conservative colony. No spoiling . . .

I really enjoyed this one. I thought it was a good mix of entertaining and educational. I would definitely attempt to persuade my daughter to read it when her attention span gets a little longer (she is 6 years old). I think this book brings that whole "trying to find a place, trying to fit in" into a good spot for thoughtful consideration. While most may say that finding a place is hard for all adolescents, I think it is definitely harder for some than others. This book does an excellent job of portraying this process. I know that I am always on the look out for a "secret society" of thinkers similar to myself, even as an adult.*

As an orphan (since age 9), I've always been a big fan of the orphan books. My sister tells me that the orphan component per her early childhood education courses is necessary because it forces/speeds character development of independence and other life skills that blossom much more slowly (if ever) under the watchful eye of helicopter moms and dads.

I think my next book will be Elizabeth George Speare's The Bronze Bow (her other Newbery Winner).

*Try as I might I have not been able to line up many friends (even my smart ones) to participate in a reading project like this. I don't think it is just because I live in Louisiana (ha ha), I think it is just part of the finding a place true to you sort of thing.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

The Higher Power of Lucky

Everyone's weighed in on the whole scrotum debate. So, I'm not going to go there.

What did I think of this book by Susan Patron? Well, not much at first. It's a quiet little book. (Really little -- it's only 134 pages.) But the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. It's not a book that makes you shout: "Wahoo! This is the best book EVER!" It's more a book that as you mull it over, you find yourself smiling about. Like Miles, the five year old who's always mooching cookies, except he doesn't really mooch, because Lucky told him he was a mooch so now he tries to trade things (like allowing Dot to wash his hair) for cookies. But people end up just giving him the cookies anyway. Or Lincoln Clinton Carter Kennedy, who's mom wants him to grow up to be president, but who just wants to tie knots and get to the International Knot Tiers convention in England.

And then there's Lucky. I think Patron really got an aspect of being ten here. Lucky's not quite a child, but then she's not quite grown up. She wants to find her Higher Power, because she wants to have some sort of control in her life. And she feels powerless right now. I think there's a lot of 10 year olds who feel that way.

Nothing really major happens in the book. It didn't make me laugh out loud. It didn't make me cry. But, you know, it's a good book.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Slave Dancer

I had such high hopes for this book. I chose it because I really enjoyed Paula Fox's story "Maurice's Room" about a boy who collects odd things in his room and drives his parents crazy. But I'm in turns bored and uncomfortable with Slave Dancer.

So far, this is about a boy who is kidnapped from nineteenth-century New Orleans and brought aboard a ship that trades in enslaved Africans. It's taken about half the book to get to the African coast, but I can't say that anything has happened yet. I'm not going to finish the book, but in light of the outcry over just one word in the Newberry's latest winner, the book still might be worth discussing because of some of its language.

I was glad to read that Sandy D. had a chance to talk with her son about racism while reading Holes. What do others think about books that use racist terms? It seems very remote when they appear in winners from the 1920s, but the 1970s doesn't feel that long ago. Does it matter which characters use the terms?

Regardless, there are enough books I have enjoyed that afford the opportunity to discuss racism that I don't think I'll be reading Slave Dancer any time soon. I am now reading Gay Neck: The Story of a Pigeon. I've been reading a lot of Mo Willems with my son, so it's a logical book for me to read next.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Jacob Have I Loved

Katherine Paterson is a storyteller and image maker. I, like others, loved this book. The topics covered were plenty and included: glorious details of life in a small water town around the Chesapeake Bay, the religious identity of a small town in America in the 1940s, small town reaction to World War II, gender issues, family relations - especially between twins who differ greatly, the magic of love, and last but certainly not least, the hard work involved in oystering and crabbing on our East Coast. Oh, yes and as a survivor of Dennis and Ivan along the Gulf Coast, the destructive and arbitray destruction of hurricanes.

I did find the book to be a bit unbalanced. We spend so much time learning to love Sara Louise, feeling empathy for her own awkwardness and self-doubt. We struggle with her as she moves through her life, half afraid and half daring. We want so much for her. The imbalance comes when she does strike out on her own and we do not find the detail or delight in her life. It is all much too brief. We do not learn about her academic experiences or her real life in the Appalachian mountains. Again, the midwife theme is here and Paterson shows what a needed and respected position Sara Louise occupies in her small town. But this is all too brief when it could have been rich and beautiful like the rest of the book. I loved the outcome but fought against the abrupt ending. I had to read the last chapter twice to make sure I understood what happened and did not miss something critical. I really could not believe the book was "done."

Favorite Quote: Crazy people who are judged to be harmless are allowed an enormous amount of freedom ordinary people are denied. (131)

Favorite Passage: When we left the gymnasium, the stars were so bright, they pulled me up into the sky like powerful magnets. I walked, my head back, my own nearly flat chest pressed up against the bosom of heaven, dizzied by the winking brillance of the night. "I wonder as I wander..." (30)

As a middle aged star gazer who is a little bit crazy, I can identify! The writing itself was very nice and I came to love the many characters in the book. This is one way I judge a book - did I fall in love? I did.


The Midwife's Apprentice

The Midwife's Apprentice, awarded in 1996, and written by Karen Cushman was a very quick read. Set in the 14th century, the author tells the story of a yound waif who is put to work by the village midwife. Having no family, no identity, and nowhere else to go, young Beetle (as she was called by Jane the midwife) accepted her new station in life. Unfortunately, Jane had no real intention of allowing Beetle to be her apprentice; rather she should function as a servant who was ordered to complete many tasks to maintain her new position. In the end, Beetle surprises everyone with her abilities.

I enjoyed the historical information in the book, from village life to medicinal treatments. As an animal lover, I did find Beetle's relationship with her cat and other animals to be endearing. I did not particularly like the way the book dealt with Beetle's thoughts and decisions. There were moments where I wanted the young girl to stand up to her circumstances. And while she ultimately did find redemption and self-confidence, I felt it took too much anguish and delay.

We have this book graded for Gr. 5-8, and I think the topics would be appropriate for this age range. I also feel that many children would enjoy reading this book and perhaps find hope for their own lives. Hope against oppression, ridicule, and aloneness.


Friday, March 2, 2007

Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary

I picked Cleary's book as my first Newberry book because as a child I'd read and loved just about everything else she wrote. I never got around to Dear Mr. Henshaw though, probably because I was already in high school when it was published.

Dear Mr. Henshaw is mostly an epistolary novel in which 10-year-old Leigh Botts is writing to his favorite author. Then, the author tells Leigh to start a journal, which mkaes up the rest of the novel. This book is terrific; it's a quick read and very funny, but addresses timeless issues for children--being the new kid, losing a parent, pet, or lunch, and finding your voice. There's lots of sly Cleary humor that I enjoyed as much now as I did when I was nine. Leigh turns up in another book, Strider, which is the name of a dog, not to be confused with Aragorn--although I'd read Cleary's version of Lord of the Rings in a second. I think Ramona could have taken care of the bad guys in fewer than three volumes.

Holes by Sachar

I finished reading Holes by Sachar (1999) last week. I absolutely loved it. I think it's my favorite Newberry winner so far.

If you haven't read it, it's about a boy, Stanley, who is sent away to a correctional camp in Texas called Camp Green Lake. Only there is no lake, and it's certainly not green. It's in the middle of the desert and the boys who are sent there are forced to dig one hole each day. In between Stanley's story are the stories of Stanley's great grandfather, which takes place in Latvia, and the story of Kate Barlow, which takes place a hundred years ago in the city of Green Lake (when there really was a lake).

I loved how Sachar connected the past and the present, and how the things that Kate Barlow did helped Stanley get out of his predicament. This is my favorite Newberry Award winner so far. Great book. I highly recommend it if you've never read it.

Susan Patron's Response to Controversy

The American Library Association's Newsletter, like the front page of the New York Times, and many other news sources devoted some space to The Higher Power of Lucky. They directed readers to the author's discussion of her work and "the" word causing all of the trouble. The article is from the Los Angeles Times. The first time I clicked, I was directed to the article. When I went back, I had to do a free registration. I loved her explanation.

Article: 'Scrotum' as a children's literary tool

We have ordered the book, and it cannot get here soon enough to suit me!

Thursday, March 1, 2007

A Gathering of Days

subtitled: A New England Girl's Journal, 1830-1832, by Joan W. Blos

I really wanted to like this book. I love the idea of the diary format (and I loved A Midwife's Tale), and I'm really interested in the time period, and especially the everyday tasks of a household -- but Catherine (the 13 year old narrator) just never became all that interesting to me.

The story is Catherine's account of a bit more than a year - and it did do a good job of making winter in New Hampshire sound cold and hard! Catherine takes care of her little sister, goes to school with her best friend and neighbor Cassie, mourns her mother, who died before the book started, attends church twice on the Sabbath, enjoys winter "breaking out" and making maple sugar, and eventually deals with a stepmother, a harsh schoolteacher, and tedious quilt-making. There is a matter-of-fact accounting of runaway indentured servants and slavery and The Liberator, a Boston abolitionist newspaper, and mill girls in Lowell, Massachusetts. And although I enjoyed the narrative, and appreciated the historical detail, I felt curiously disconnected from the story.

For example, here's part of the entry for March 1, 1831, that I think illustrates the flavor of the journal:
The sun, I think, has acquired some warmth. Now when it filters through trees, still bare, it pits the snow beneath. Cassie says she saw two robins - the very first of the season. Tradition has it that luck will be hers. But Spring, I think, suffices; and Spring comes to us all.
I don't think that this is one of the Newbery winners that I'll want to keep on my shelves to read again and again, but it was a relaxing way to spend a cold, rainy late winter day.