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.

Friday, October 5, 2007

The Higher Power of Lucky: Dewey's Review

Cross-posted at my blog.

I read The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron and Matt Phelan for the Newbery Challenge and the Book Awards Reading Challenge. I really enjoyed this novel, which is intended for an audience of children from ages nine to eleven.

Lucky is a spirited ten year old girl who lives in an impoverished small town in the Mojave desert. The conflict she faces was a bit simplistic for me; like a bad TV sitcom conflict, it arises out of a misunderstanding that could easily be cleared up with some simple communication. But I'm not ten years old, and maybe kids of this age could use a book that teaches them to just ask when they're confused.

SPOILER WARNING: Lucky's dad has never been a part of her life, and her mother died two years ago. When that happened, her dad, whom she didn't even recognize, convinced his ex-wife from before his marriage to Lucky's mom to come and take care of Lucky. Lucky believes that this is a temporary arrangement until she can be put in a foster home, but she's grown attached to her guardian, Brigitte, and understandably isn't ready to face losing another adult she cares about. She sees Brigitte's passport out and assumes Brigitte is going home to France without her. So Lucky runs away from home, hoping that Brigitte will miss her so much that she realizes she should stay with Lucky. As it turns out, Brigitte only has her passport out as a form of ID for a hearing to adopt Lucky permanently.

Many children's books present a false view of the world in which children have no contact with difficult situations, or with the adult world. I think that this sort of approach in children's literature gives children a strange sense that the rest of the world is safer and saner and simpler, more ethical and straightforward than their own life experiences. This gives them a feeling that there's something wrong with them and the people they know in real life.

In this book, however, Lucky eavesdrops on AA meetings and hears a lot of confusing things she doesn't understand. She has to try to come to terms with the fact that her father has simply never wanted kids and isn't about to start wanting kids now just because she has no other parent to take care of her. She wrestles with the cultural differences between her and her French guardian. She's also entirely aware that everyone in her town is poor, and that the free government food they get is of a low quality.

I think that many children reading this book will feel relief to know that even kids in books face challenges they don't really understand. I also think many children will miss some of the references to adult situations (such as twelve step programs) but they will recognize that Lucky doesn't understand either, and that will reassure them that it's natural for kids to encounter aspects of the adult world they can't make sense of.

The fact that Lucky's mother has died will be especially reassuring to kids who have had enormous losses in their own lives and are tired of reading about kids in perfect little worlds where everything is always just fine.

There was a big hullabaloo about the fact that this book contains the word "scrotum." This word, which Lucky overhears but doesn't know the meaning of, is just one more thing Lucky doesn't understand. Personally, I'm surprised that people could worry that the word scrotum might traumatize children while it's more likely a child reading this book would be shocked by the idea that hey, their mom could die in an electrocution accident, too, just any old time, right out of the blue.

One prude objector said: “You won’t find men’s genitalia in quality literature.”

Um, it's a dog's genitals mentioned in the book this objector so obviously didn't read. Every kid who has a dog sees their dog's scrotum all the time. Maybe we should start requiring dogs to wear pants in public. And they should keep their tails tucked into their dogpants, because tails are also a dog body part mentioned in this book.

But as for men's genitalia, half the kids reading this book carry around scrota attached to their bodies every day. They've probably noticed such things exist by now. As for the girls, maybe this book will initiate a birds-and-bees discussion with their parents when they go ask what "scrotum" means like Lucky did. They are theoretically nine to eleven, definitely of an age to wonder how babies are made. Or even be menstruating themselves. I would prefer that menstruating pre-teen girls know what scrota are for, so they can avoid them, but maybe that's just me.

All in all, I highly recommend this book, but don't take my word for it; take the American Library Association's recommendation. They awarded the 2007 Newbery Medal to this book.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Bud, Not Buddy

When I read an interview with Christopher Paul Curtis in the free BookPage magazine that I always pick up at the library (promoting his new kids' book, Elijah of Buxton), it prompted me to finally pluck Bud, Not Buddy off the bookshelf. It seemed fitting to read about Michigan during the Great Depression over this past weekend, when the governor was going to shut down the state until a new budget fixing the $1.75 billion deficit was agreed upon, and when Michigan leads all other states in the US in unemployment.

I was fascinated to learn that Christopher Paul Curtis not only grew up in Flint, but spent over a decade working at a GM Assembly plant there (I think one of many that has been shut down in the past twenty years) before he began writing and became successful with The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963 (a Newbery Honor winner).

Bud, Not Buddy was a fun read - like Holes, it deals with injustice and racism, but Curtis has such a light touch that the story, the characters, and the humor in his writing just send the serious issues in the book creeping noiselessly into your brain. And as with Jerry Spinelli (in Maniac Magee), the writing and the description really blew me away. I honestly think it is on a par with the wonderful passages in the award-winning book that I just read for my adult book club - The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. And like Zafón, Curtis's description of books and libraries was beyond wonderful:
The next thing about the air in the library is that no other place smells anything like it. If you close your eyes and try to pick out what it is that you're sniffing you're only going to get confused, because all the smells have blended together and turned themselves into a different one.

As soon as I got into the library I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I got a whiff of the leather on all the old books, a smell that got real strong if you picked one of them up and stuck your nose real close to it when you turned the pages. Then there was the smell of the cloth that covered the brand-new books, the books that made a splitting sound when you opened them. Then I could sniff the paper, that soft, powdery, drowsy smell that comes off the pages in little puffs when you're reading something or looking at some pictures, a kind of hypnotizing smell. (pp. 53-4)
Another passage that I loved describes Bud's first experience in a restaurant:
It was like someone took a old pot and poured about a hundred gallons of hot apple cider and a hundred gallons of hot coffee into it, then stirred eight or nine sweet potato pies, crusts and all, into that, then let six big steamy meat loafs float on top of all that, then threw in a couple of handfuls of smashed potatoes, then boiled the whole thing on high. This must be exactly how heaven smells! (p. 161-2)
This is exactly the kind of book that I want to share with kids (including both of mine) - it's got fantastic writing, suspense, clever but not condescending looks at the fears of childhood, and a wonderful coming of age story, coupled with historical and racial experiences that may as well be in Outer Mongolia for many American kids today. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Some web sites that were interesting while reading Bud, Not Buddy:

- Michigan Historical Museum Depression News
- Christopher Paul Curtis's website (check out his books for younger kids!)
- Photos from the 1930s and 1940s: Resources for Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust and Christopher Paul Curtis's Bud, Not Buddy