Friday, August 31, 2007

An Introduction from Juliette

Hello all! Julie from Oxfordshire, England here.
I see there is already a Julie so I will use my 'real' name Juliette on this challenge! I have just come back from my holiday in France having signed up for this challenge. Visited both library and book shop with list-looks like getting hold of some of them will be a challenge for me. Anyway I am going to begin with Holes 1999, followed by Despereaux, Midwife's Apprentice and The Grey King.

I am really pleased to be taking part in this project and will try and post some reviews as soon as possible! I am also in three challenges, The Book Awards, Book Around the World and 50 book challenge. Happy reading!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Secret of the Andes (1953)

Cusi, a precocious child of the ancient Inca culture, had a strange upbringing. His guardian, an old man named Chuto, was a llama herder living in the Andes mountain range near Cuzco, Peru. At the beginning of the novel Cusi has no memory of ever seeing anyone except Chuto, so when an Incan family moves into the valley below, Cusi is fascinated. He spends a lot of time watching them, wishing he had a family of his own. He has no idea who his parents were, or how he came to be living with Chuto. There are too many mysteries in Cusi's life, and he's desperately in search of answers. During the course of this unusual coming-of-age novel Cusi meets many other people and makes two trips off the mountain to visit the civilization below.

From the quality of the writing it was clear to me that the author, Ann Nolan Clark, was intimately familiar with Incan and Peruvian cultures. I did some research to see if she'd been to Peru. Sure enough, she had.

Ann Nolan Clark spent twenty-five years teaching school – most of that time at the New Mexico Tesuque school for Native American children. During her teaching career she wrote fifteen children's books that were published by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

As Longfellow wrote, “Into each life some rain must fall.”

Tragedy hit Ann Nolan Clark's life when her only child, a son, was killed during World War II. After the war the Institute for Inter-American Affairs funded this author's travels in Central and South America. For five years she journeyed through Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil. Her travels inspired more novels for children, one of which was Secret of the Andes. This novel was published in 1952 and won the Newbery Medal for 1953.

For the most part, I enjoyed reading the book. There were no glaring grammatical flaws that interfered with my reading, and the words flowed well, which is the mark of an experienced writer. However there were a few passages that went into travelogue mode, and that brought me out of the novel experience long enough to be sorry the author had not edited them out. After this happened several times, I took note of this passage to share with you:
“Chuto brought the yarn he had carried down the mountain to barter. While they ate parched corn and dried meat, Chuto bargained. The other men examined the yarn, noting its quality and the evenness of its spinning. ‘The women of your village spin good yarn,’ one man told him. Chuto did not answer. He did not say there were no women in his village. He did not say that he had spun the yarn and under his patient teaching Cusi had spun some of it. Although spinning is chiefly women’s work, men and boys know how to spin. Occasionally they can be seen spinning yarn as they walk along the highland trails.” - pg. 46
This is a great scene until the last two sentences when the author stepped out of the character's point of view and started explaining the culture.

In the second half of the book I noticed other things that bothered me even more. I don't want to write any spoilers, so I can't tell everything I had trouble believing. In her effort to teach about the mysterious Incan culture, the author gave the Incas the ability to know and do things in super-human, mysterious ways. These unrealistic plot twists didn't go over well with me, but even worse were the psychic powers given to Misti, Cusi's favorite llama. Misti gained the power to lead Cusi on incredible journeys. I would rather have seen Cusi figure out things on his own.

For me, the most annoying thing in the book had to do with a landslide. This landslide was totally unnecessary to the plot of the book. There I was, enjoying a pleasant evening with a children's novel when suddenly I'm informed of a landslide that takes a heart-rending toll in human life. My heart starts aching, but to my surprise, Cusi doesn't react much. I don't have too much tolerance for tragedy and trauma in children's literature so I found that totally unnecessary landslide to be superfluous to the plot of the novel, and therefore, annoying.

Ann Nolan Clark came through for her readers in the end. She complimented her lovely descriptions of Peruvian landscape with a final chapter that satisfied me 100%. By the time I got done reading, I was excited about knowing what the secret of the Andes was.

It seems that a lot of Newbery Medal winners are chosen because they illuminate various world or historic cultures. This book is an excellent introduction to Andean culture for young readers. I was surprised, however, at the frequent mention of Coca leaf use by Cusi and his guardian, Chuto. I always considered Coca leaves to be the natural form of cocaine. I did some research on this and discovered that Coca leaves are for sale on the internet, and it is not illegal for Americans to buy them. Coca leaf tea is said to energize, brighten moods, help digestion, regulate the metabolism of carbohydrates, and alleviate fatigue and altitude sickness. It is an important part of Incan culture that Ann Nolan Clark wanted people to know about.

There were other parts of the book I liked, for example, the relationship of the humans and llamas, a scary bridge scene, and Chuto's early morning greeting to the sun. I could go on telling you more, but perhaps I've said enough and you will soon read and enjoy this short novel for yourself.

My book review blog: Linda Jo Martin.
My children's literature blog: Literature For Kids.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Cat Who Went to Heaven (1931)

The most interesting thing about this slender book might be its author. Born in 1893, Elizabeth Coatsworth's family loved to travel, so she had the opportunity to venture through Europe and Egypt extensively before the age of 18. In her early 20s, she went on an 18-month journey through Asia on her own. Her travels inspired much of her writing. Of the 90 children's books that she wrote (between her 30s and her 80s), The Cat Who Went to Heaven, which won the Newbery in 1931, is apparently one of the few that remains in print.

Written in the style of a Japanese folk tale, the only character in the book with a proper name is a cat called Good Fortune. Adopted by the housekeeper of an impoverished artist, the cat's presence in their home begins to, of course, change their fortune. As they sacrifice to feed the cat as a member of the family, the artist wins a commission to paint a group of animals receiving the Buddha's blessing for a temple. The conundrum is that house cats are considered unlucky, even malicious, creatures. So the artist must wrestle with either creating a painting of animals without a cat (when it seems to him that the cat has saved his life), or including a cat in the painting, thus risking being ostracized.

This is an interesting take on Buddhist teaching, but a very Western one, if you know anything about the religion. A quick 74 pages with several illustrations and a few poems, it's possible to read aloud and might be preferable to kids that way because some of the antiquated and high-handed language the characters use. The morals just sound too much like morals, and many contemporary writers are much better at being clever and discreet.

Friday, August 17, 2007

A Visit to William Blake's Inn (1982)

I love letting my visits to the library be dictated by stream of consciousness. Last weekend I took my boys to the main library branch. While they were occupied with the fish tank, checkers game, puzzle table and other distractions, I pursued my own interests.

On a recent car trip, I checked out the audio CD of "Judy Moody Declares Independence." The book is about a girl's family trip to Boston and includes a few lines from "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere." I went to the library's poetry section to see if I could get a copy of the entire poem to read to the boys.

While in the poetry section, I browsed other titles. Because I'd recently read Sandy D.'s post about the book, "A Visit to William Blake's Inn" caught my eye. I checked it out, read it twice and have this to report:

It grew on me.

The first time through I thought the illustrations far outshone the writing. I was irritated with the author's presumption that the reader would be familiar with William Blake's poetry (I wasn't). I'm guessing the poems' various styles (?) were tribute to Blake's verses but without side to side comparisons, who's to know?

Then I read it a second time. Maybe it was being more comfortable with the rhyme schemes this time around, but I better saw how they interrelate to tell an overarching, albeit weird, story. I even liked a few of the poems (in particular, Blake Leads a Walk on the Milky Way").

I agree with Sandy that this is not a children's book. Or at least it's not a book I'd expect children to spend any time with.

As for me, especially for the low investment of time it required, I'm glad to have read it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


Here's my 12 year old daughter's opinion of Criss-Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins:

I started this book, didn't think I'd like it, and put it down. Then, in about a month, I started it again. And, of course, I liked it. Because my first impressions of books are usually completely wrong.

I suppose you might say there are two main characters in this story. First, there's Debra (Debbie), an imaginative, wishful and thoughtful girl. Some of her favorite pastimes are helping elderly Mrs. Bruning around the house (and consequently meeting and falling for Mrs. Bruning's handsome grandson, Peter Bruning, later in the book), hanging out with her neighbourhood friends, and speculating over things (usually nothing at all).

Then, there's Hector, a slightly pudgy adolescent boy who sees a guitarist and is inspired to learn how to play. Taking lessons from a Presbyterian minister with a few others is how he meets a young girl named Meadow and develops a hopeless crush on her, hopeless because the striking, football-playing Dan Persik is interested in her as well.

Debbie loses her necklace, which is found by a few different people, all of whom make an effort to get it back to her, but in the end of the story...

Well, now you'll have to read it.

I really enjoyed this because of the different perspectives of all the different characters. The author didn't just stick to following Debbie and Hector around, but decided to bring their friends more into the story. Just the way the book was written was intriguing.

I liked this book, and I hope anyone who reads this review will want to read it as well.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Maniac Magee

Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli won the Newbery award in 1991. This book is really timeless, though - it could have taken place anytime from WW II to the present. Spinelli's writing is just fantastic (in several senses of the word!); I'm so happy that this project introduced it to me.

In Maniac Magee, Spinelli writes in a "playground folklore" style that is very appealing. Even when reading about something I don't care much about (like baseball), the magical realism made the story interesting and entertaining. I think this would be true for most kids, too (and I'm thinking of the "child appeal" of the different Newbery books here).

The setting and sense of place is very important in Maniac Magee (and hasn't that been very true for many of these winners?) - urban southeastern Pennsylvania is not someplace that I know, but it (and its inhabitants) are portrayed in both a loving and rather brutal manner. It makes me want to go to Norristown (Spinelli's hometown, said to be the model for Two Mills in the story) and look for a corner store and buy Tastykake butterscotch krimpets.

There is a lot for both kids and adults to ponder in this book: the importance of family, homelessness, reading, and race, but what really kept me hooked were the characters and Spinelli's incredible gift for spinning a story and description. Take the McNab house, delightful in its disgusting-ness:
Maniac had seen some amazing things in his life-time, but nothing as amazing as that house. From the smell of it, he knew this wasn't the first time an animal had relieved itself on the rugless floor.

Cans and bottles lay all over, along with crusts, peelings, cores, scraps, rinds, wrappers - everything you would normally find in a garbage can. And everywhere there were raisins.

Nothing could be worse than the living and dining rooms, yet the kitchen was. A jar of peanut butter had crashed to the floor; someone had gotten a running start, jumped into it, and skied a brown, one-footed track to the stove. On the table were what appeared to be the remains of an autopsy performed upon a large bird, possibly a crow. The refrigerator contained two food groups: mustard and beer. The raisins here were even more abundant. He spotted several of them moving. They weren't raisins; they were roaches. (p. 131-132)*
This book was among my favorite Newbery winners so far, and one that I think would appeal to boys more than many that we've already read. Incidentally, it is also one that I didn't think I'd like in the least - so much for judging a book on its cover and dustjacket blurb.

*Suggested musical accompaniment: Warren Zevon's (2003) "Disorder in the House".

Friday, August 10, 2007

Bridge to Terabithia

Bridge to Terabithia is one of those books that gets into your soul and sticks there for a while. It's also one of those books that means different things as you grow older, and as you grow into the lessons that it has to teach.

It's about friendship, and family, and the death of loved ones, and the ongoing death of being unseen by the people that you need most to see you. Paterson manages to capture all of these things both at the depth of adult commentary and at the depth of childlike experience, resulting in a book that is wonderful no matter how old you are.

The recent movie was both wonderful and disappointing. Imagination and the escape to a fantasy place is a major part of the book, but by making it so explicit in the movie, much of the power of imagination is stolen from the viewer. If you see the movie before you read the book, you're dong yourself a great disservice. Of course, that's true of any book. :-)

As usual, I have a word of advice for parents. This book is very, very sad, but it's also all about redemption. Read it before you read it to your kids, but do read it to your kids. It's worth the effort, and it deals with the issue of death of a friend in a very redemptive way.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

About the Award

The other day, when it was too hot to go outside with the kids, I decided to read up a little on the Newbery Award - how exactly is it selected? The winners are so diverse. Anyway, I found this article in Open Spaces Quarterly online by Elizabeth Cosgriff, and pulled a few interesting bits out of it:
The award brings fortune (or what passes for it in the children's book world) as well as fame. Although the award itself does not include a monetary payment, it can double the sales of the book, as well as increase sales of the author's other books. It will also keep the book alive. The average shelf life (time in print) of a children's book today is eighteen months. But of the seventy-seven Newbery medal books, seventy-two are still in print today, including the second recipient, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, published in 1922.

The Newbery winner is selected by a committee of fifteen members of the Association for Library Service to Children. Competition to get onto the committee is fierce. Seven members and the committee chair are elected from a ballot of twice that many candidates, and the President of the Association appoints the remaining seven, with an eye to achieving ethnic, gender, professional and geographic balance. Although the ALSC is itself a division of the American Library Association, membership is not restricted to librarians. Parents, authors, booksellers and publishers are members and have participated on the awards committees, barring conflict of interest.

E.L. Konigsburg, Joseph Krumgold, Lois Lowry, Katherine Paterson, and Elizabeth George Speare have all received the medal twice.

What does it take for a book to win? The official criteria state that it must have "conspicuous excellence" and be "individually distinct." It must be age appropriate as well. A good book for a fourth grader dealing with, say, racial prejudice, will be very different in style and presentation from a book on the same subject intended for eighth graders. The majority of winners have been novels, but other genres have been represented as well.

The award criteria declare that the award "is not for didactic intent." But to receive a Newbery, it helps to have a serious theme. Death, loss, injustice, and hard decisions have figured in winners throughout the history of the awards. There have been lighter books, including a recent winner, The Whipping Boy, a romp in which an appropriately nicknamed Prince Brat, accompanied by his whipping boy, discovers what life is like outside the castle. But, although it is difficult to generalize among so many books, it seems that many of the more recent winners display a decidedly more serious tone than the majority of the earlier books.

The award criteria also state that the award is not for popularity, and Ellen Fader acknowledges that a well-written book could be a serious contender for the award even if it didn't have a lot of "child appeal."....Which raises the question of the role of children in the Newbery awards, and in the world of children's books generally. Children's books are an anomaly -- they are for children, but they are written by adults, purchased (generally) by adults, and judged by adults.
What do you think?

Between this article and Flusi's recent post, I'm picking up The Whipping Boy soon!