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.