Thursday, December 18, 2008

Criss Cross

Author: Lynne Rae Perkins
Narrator: Danielle Ferland
Published by: Harper Childrens Audio (2006)
Originally Published (2005)
Length: 5 hours, 8 minutes
Award: Newbery Medal
My Rating: 2/5
Amazon Rating: 3/5 (72 customer reviews)

This is a hard book to review--I've written something and erased it about ten times now. Can I just say that I didn't like it? The first disc was frustrating to listen to, because I didn't really know that there wasn't much of a plot, and I kept waiting for something to happen. The narrator's voice was completely wrong for the tone of the book. Once I accepted that this wasn't a plot-driven novel, it got a little better, but I have to admit that the only reason I continued to listen is because when I have an audio book in the car, I follow the path of least resisitance, which is to not take out the CD. There are moments when Perkins really captures the essence of adolescence, and looking back to when I was younger, I could identify with some of the feelings and agree that that is how things felt. I just am not sure that teens living in the midst of this time of transition in their lives would find as much meaning in it. It had more of a reminiscent feel, maybe because the setting is sometime around the 70's.
I assume this won the Newbery Medal because it was somewhat innovative. I think some of that quality was lost in the audio version (haikus, song lyrics, etc. that weren't so obvious listening to.) I much preferred Princess Academy by Shannon Hale that won the Newbery Honor for that year.
Bottom line: Writing about nothing may have worked for Seinfeld, but not for Criss Cross. If you've got the five hours it takes to listen to this audio book, watch about 10 Seinfeld reruns instead!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Hitty (aka Mehitabel)

I didn't expect to like Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, by Rachel Field. A story about a doll? A book that is commonly referred to as dated and "not politically correct"? It sounded both ho hum and distasteful.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

Although there definitely are some rather outdated parts in Hitty, as well as a few unfortunate stereotypes, these passages were not as bad as I feared. I thought that the rest of the story was an unusually charming, occasionally exciting, and truly interesting look at American history and "the good old days".

Hitty's story begins sometime before 1830 in the great "State of Maine" (as it is often referred to in Hitty), where she is carved out of mountain-ash wood by an Irish peddler. She is given to young Phoebe Preble (and fans can read more about the Preble family here), and accompanies Phoebe and her parents on a whaling expedition to the South Pacific, where mutiny, shipwreck, a desert island, "savages", an exciting rescue, and "a dirty old snake-charmer" of India (p. 92, also described as a heathen Hindoo) are encountered. And this is just in the first half of the book. That's a fair amount of action for a small wooden doll.

The not-so-PC passages are mostly from some of the parts described above, such as when the natives on the unnamed island are repeatedly described as childish, flamboyant, and possibly cannibals, who take Hitty to be an idol. When Hitty is lost in India, she describes a "babble of strange voices uttering heathenish gibberish" (p. 85). Later in the book, southern Black Americans are described as dirt poor but exceptionally musical, and then Hitty goes on meet "a noisy, unattractive lot of young men and women whose clothes shocked me by their tightness and lack of modesty" (p. 189).

Hitty's perspective is basically that of a rather old-fashioned, upper-middle-class white lady of the 1930's, so these comments are not particularly surprising. I think that the outdated passages are worth discussing*, especially with your kids, but I don't think it should lead readers to condemn the rest of the book when there is so much more to recommend it. Quakers, social class, the Civil War, theft, fashion, growing old, children's unthinking cruelty, and religion - all are touched upon, usually very graciously - in the second half of Hitty's memoir.

Plus, Rachel Field introduced me to the word "wadgetty", a regional term from Massachusetts and Nantucket (which means fidgety) that is used repeatedly and to great effect in Hitty. Although I was shocked to find that wadgetty isn't in the Oxford English Dictionary, it was fun to discover that H.L. Mencken defined it in 1948.

Dorothy P. Lathrop's gorgeous artwork adds a whole new dimension to the story. The original cover (shown above) isn't bad, but I have to admit that I like the new cover, a colored version of the illustration on pg. 13, even more.

Which leads me to the latest edition of Hitty: Her First Hundred Years (and no, it's not a sequel, though like Peter D. Sieruta, I wouldn't be surprised to read about the publication of Hitty: Her Second Hundred Years).

In 1999, a new book entitled Rachel Field's Hitty: Her First Hundred Years was written (or adapted, with substantial abridging and some entirely new adventures) by Rosemary Wells, and lavishly illustrated by Susan Jeffers. A discussion on led me to this interesting article in the New York Times Book section: Children's Books: The Name is the Same.

Boy, people are not happy when you mess with their beloved classics, and there are apparently a good number of Hitty fans out there - see Hitty Preble, presented by the Great Cranberry Island Historical Society; - The Hitty Research Pages; or HittyGirls, to begin with. I've never seen so much discussion of a character from a classic Newbery book, or one with as many related eBay auctions. I hope all of this encourages people (including kids) to read the original Hitty before passing it by as hopelessly outdated and politically incorrect.

*And not just the passages on race. For instance, when Phoebe's father, the captain of a whaling ship, says that if he strikes it lucky on his next voyage, he might "bring back six or seven hundred barrels of sperm" (p. 34), you probably want to explain to your children that Captain Dan'l is referring to oil made from sperm whale blubber.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Mock Newbery Discussion

The Allen County Public Library's Mock Newbery blog is "the place to be if you enjoy reading and discussing quality, newly published, children's literature." They've just published their "short list" of some of the candidates for the 2009 Newbery Award. There are quite a few familiar names on the list: Linda Sue Park, Lois Lowry, Cynthia Kadohata, Karen Hesse, Sid Fleischman, Sharon Creech, and Avi are all previous winners.

There's also some fun discussion at Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog (great title!). They've been discussing 1953, when Secret of the Andes (which I haven't managed to read yet - checked it out and returned it to the library untouched) beat Charlotte's Web for the medal, which a lot of people think was one of the poorer choices the Committee has made. I haven't read Charlotte's Web since grade school, and I didn't love it then, so I'm ambivalent about the choice.

Anyway, I've read more of the ACPL's mock candidates this year than in previous years, probably because I've been enjoying YA literature a lot lately. I don't think my 12 year old is mature enough to handle Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, or Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, but I loved both of them. He and I both read and enjoyed Kathi Appelt's The Underneath, and The Willoughbys, by Lois Lowry.

These four books are all rather dark. If I had to pick one out of just these four books, I'd select The Graveyard Book as my favorite, but I bet the Newbery Committee would pick The Underneath for it's poetic language, clever mix of myth and history, and its setting in an east Texas bayou.

I guess we'll see in a couple of months. Have you read any of the short listed mock Newbery selections? What do you think - last year's winner was set in medieval England, are we due for something contemporary? Something uniquely American? Something science fiction or fantasy-ish? All four of the books that I've read fall in that category!

Of course it's always possibly they'll pick something completely different.

...And Now Miguel

...And Now Miguel, by Joseph Krumgold, was not the most exciting Newbery winner I've read this year. It reminded me a lot of Shadow of a Bull - most of the story is about a boy becoming a man - and the rest is ethnographic detail on a way of life that is foreign to most readers.

I'd rather read about sheep herding in New Mexico than bullfighting in Spain, though, so despite becoming bored (and mentally re-naming the book Not Now, Miguel, for how many times I put it down and picked up another book - almost any book - that was more appealing), I did enjoy ...And Now, Miguel more than Shadow of a Bull.

Miguel, the twelve year old protagonist, yearns to go to the Sangre de Cristo mountains with the other adult men in his family, who take the sheep to graze in the high mountain valleys during the summer months. The mountains are beautiful and mystical, and it would be interesting to compare Miguel's ideas about the mountains with the unnamed narrator's view of the Himalayas in Gay-Neck. I'll spare you the compare and contrast essay, though.

I came to appreciate Miguel's story a bit more when it came to the last 40 or so pages (but what a long haul that was, considering the whole book is 245 pages), when Krumgold examines Miguel's growing maturity and how he questions his religion and how and why prayers to San Ysidro (pictured on the cover with his oxen) are answered. The questions are big ones, and the lessons learned are important, even if I don't always personally agree with the way his big questions are answered.

I did appreciate the fact that the moralizing isn't too heavy-handed, as it is in several other Newbery winners from the 50's, like The Door in the Wall, Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, and Amos Fortune (wow, they just didn't go in for subtlety then, did they), and I thought that this was the most interesting part of the book. It's too bad that a lot of kids (and adults) will probably give up on the story before they get to this part.

It's interesting how cover designs and illustrations influence my view of the Newbery winners - something I did not anticipate before starting this project. Anyway, there have been quite a few books that I didn't really like that I felt were at least somewhat redeemed by beautiful artwork (by the author, even, as in The White Stag and The Door in the Wall). And then there are others where the artwork just leaves me cold. Unfortunately, Jean Charlot's drawings in Miguel fell into this latter category. The "About the Illustrator" blurb at the back of the book says says Charlot's work was influenced by the Olmec statues in southern Mexico, and I can definitely see that. Sadly, I didn't think that the drawings particularly fit the tone of the story, and they made the whole thing even more ponderous than Miguel's thoughts and descriptions alone did.

I do think kids and adults that are particularly interested in New Mexico, sheep, or a quiet coming-of-age story might appreciate Miguel's story if they persevere with it. In retrospect, I like the story more now than I did while I was slogging through it, and a few of the beautiful and meaningful scenes from the book that are stuck in my head made it worth the effort.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Dicey's Song - 1983

Dicey's Song picks up right where Homecoming leaves off--the Tillerman children tentatively settled in with a brusque and independent grandmother who has cut herself off from the surrounding community. Gram warily (but deep inside lovingly) welcomes her grandchildren, who have come with their own experiences of being shunned by their peers in the past for having an unconventional family situation. Gram and the children come to meet a whole cast of characters in the novel who are likewise loners or unusual in some way. Obviously, this theme is woven throughout the book, and I egocentrically love it because I can identify with it. And I would imagine that most people have felt at sometime or other that they just didn't "fit in." I grew up in a loving home in which they query was often made, "Was she switched at birth?" I took an online personality test as an adult with these results: "People who know you can only desribe you as possibly being from a different planet or universe." My mother wholeheartedly agreed. I have come to neither love nor hate whatever it is that makes me different, but accepting that it just IS, and it is not an excuse or reason to be antisocial. I think this is one of the lessons Dicey learns as she gradually opens herself up to others, despite the very real fear of vulnerability. She also learns thetricky art of "give and take" in relationshipsIn attempts to reach out to others and receive in return, the results are rarely neat and tidy, but necessary all the same. As Gram has learned through her own mistakes:

"I got to thinking—when it was too late—you have to reach out to people. To your family, too. You can't just let them sit there, you should put your hand out. If they slap it back, well you reach out again if you care enough. If you don't care enough, you forget about them, if you can."

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Waterless Mountain

Waterless mountain by Laura Adams Armer, is the story of a young navaho boy Hayolkai aski but called younger brother. He wants to be a medecine man like his uncle and it tells the story from when he was a young boy to becoming a man.

Laura Adams Armer made friends with the navaho people and learned a lot about their beliefs, custums, and culture.

Younger brother decides he needs to go on a trip and search for the ancient turqoise woman and makes a long journey from his home in Arizona to the pacific ocean.
Younger brother has many experiences along the way and meets many friends and enemies.

There are a lot of old native american stories told throughout the book that are kind of interesting.

This book goes into the thoughts of younger brother and tells of the way many Navaho people think.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Dear Mr. Henshaw

Dear Mr. Henshaw, by Beverly Cleary, was so much better (and shorter!) than I expected. Why didn't anyone tell me what a sweet book this is?

I'm not a huge Beverly Cleary fan, mainly because I'm not terribly familiar with her books. I somehow missed her stories as a child (my parents and grandmothers tended to give me classic books as gifts, and I never stumbled across Ramona or Henry Huggins on my own). When Dear Mr. Henshaw won the Newbery in 1984, I was in college, and not paying a whole lot of attention to children's books. But I'm trying to make up for lost time now. ;-)

The title didn't instantly draw me to this book, nor did the cover. The reviews and summaries didn't really grab my interest, either - an epistolary story (ho hum) about a boy whose parents divorce (sounds depressing). I don't usually like heavy-handed "serious topic affecting youth today" kinds of kid's books.

But I was wrong (except about the cover, I still don't like the cover, or the illustrations all that much). This book was funny, not at all heavy-handed, and the format - of letters to Mr. Henshaw and diary excerpts - was perfect. Both Leigh's and Mr. Henshaw's "voices" (although you only get Mr. Henshaw's words as they are reflected by Leigh, but that's enough) were wonderful. The portrayal of the divorced parents was so skilfully done that I wondered whom Cleary modeled it on.

Sometimes it's good to be so far off the mark when it comes to judging a book by its cover and blurbs. Now what I'd really like is another book by Beverly Cleary featuring Boyd Henshaw (with maybe a few reflected notes from a teenaged Leigh?). He just sounds like someone I'd like to hear more about.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Cat Who Went To Heaven

This very short book written by Elizabeth Coatsworth took me a little less than an hour to carefully read. The book is set in Japan and talks of an artist struggling to sell his paintings. One day his housekeeper brings him a cat. At first the artist is very angry at the housekeeper for bringing the cat because they are considered unlucky and even evil.
A priest comes to the artists house and tells him that he is the chosen one to paint a picture of the Buddha's death which if accepted would be hung in the temple. The artist spends the next several days living the life of buddha in his mind. He paints the buddha and then all the animals that visit him at his death. Each time he paints an animal the cat comes and looks at the painting with a longing to be in it.
The artist is torn between painting the cat or leaving it out of the picture because of their bad reputation. The ending was pretty neat when the cat was finally accepted.
I liked the brief description of the life of Siddhartha and the many animals he took the form of along with the short stories of them. There are also eight songs which the housekeeper sings that are kind of cool.
This book was probably not a favorite but it wasn't bad. I think it had a deeper meaning to it than I picked up on. I think children could be taught a little about the buddha by it.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Hitty Her First Hundred Years

Hitty Her first hundred years by Rachel field is a story about the world from a doll's prespective. This book did not sound very interesting to me when I looked over the cover but I have to say it surprised me. This was the first book I have ever read about a doll and I actually enjoyed it even thought I have seen many low reviews on it compared to the other newbery book winners.
Hitty was a very special doll of her time. She was slightly smaller and wooden unlike a lot of china dolls that were popular during the time. She was made of mountain ash wood which is said to bring good luck, and you can tell that it generally did throughout the story.
The book is set somewhere in the early nineteenth century and tells of the first hundred years of her life into the early twentieth century. Hitty has many adventures and travels from her native state of Maine to many parts of the world and the United States. She is a doll that many people come to love and she goes through many owners and occupations including a snake charmer in India, a doll of fashion, a model for photography and even a pincushion. She gets to see much of the natural world and is even worshipped as a heathen idol.
I like that the book talks a little bit about what was going on during the nineteenth century including slavery and what life was like in the northern and southern parts of the United States during the Civil War.
Hitty meets many interesting and a few famous people along the way in her adventures including Adelina Patti( who I had never heard of but was a famous opera singer at the time) and Charles Dickens. She has seen the perspective of the world from many different people with different views and opinions and has been with people who treat her very kindly to people who are very cruel to her. She is owned by many girls with a variety of ways of life. She learns to accept critisism and compliments being that she is a doll of experience.
I think that most girls would really like this book and maybe even a few boys if they gave it a chance. For me it was a fast read and really easy.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Trumpeter Of Krakow

I found The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P Kelly a very interesting and creative book. The book is set in Poland in the fifteenth century. It is a story of a family on the run from the Ukraine to guard an ancient possession which is the ancient great tarnov crystal. This is very valuable and sought by many and the only person that the family would willingly give it up for is the king of Poland. The family settles in the town of Krakow and the father of the family takes on a job as the trumpeter for the church of Our Lady Mary to play a tune every hour, and to be the lookout for the town against fires and foreign invasions. Their secret is soon discovered about the whereabouts of the crystal and there are many attempts to steal it. The crystal is soon afterwards taken to the king for it's safety and protection.
I really liked the storyline. It goes from one adventure to another and leaves you wanting more. Not only does it have adventure but it describes somewhat how people acted and thought during that time (I'll have to admit that I had no idea what an alchemist was.) The author wrote also of what the town of Krakow is like and some geographical features of it. It only took me a couple of days to read this book because I could not put it down.
Along with the good story it also teaches of some great moral lessons and patriotism to ones country.
From its fast paced story to it's dramatic ending there is something to enjoy. I think that most children would really like reading this book because it is interesting and they could learn something from it. I don't know if this book is based on a true story or not but the way it was written kind of led me to believe it was, although I searched the king Kazimir Jagiello on the internet and in some books but did not come up with anything. If anyone has any information on this I would be really interested in knowing.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Gay-Neck The Story of a pigeon

Gay Neck The Story of a Pigeon by Dhan Gopal Mukerji, was not at all what I expected when I started this book. After reading it now it surprised me on how good it is and the deep meaning behind the story.
The book is set in the mid teens of the twentieth century during the first world war. The book starts out in India with the birth of a special pigeon ( gay neck) who is taught and trained by his parents and a sixteen year old boy( I am assuming it is the author, I do not recall the book ever saying his name) in the ways of flying and being a carrier pigeon.
Gay neck runs into many enemies of the sky like owls, hawks, and eagles and must learn how to outfly them or be killed. There are many adventures that gay neck and the boy go through and the descriptions of nature and the surroundings are absolutely magnificent. You actually feel peaceful reading this book.
The book is told by the sixteen year old boy but it also has parts where he has the pigeon tell his own story using, "the grammar of fancy and the dictionary of imagination." In these stories gay neck tells of the experiences he has while exploring and the many attacks on him by other birds. He talks of how cruel the world can be and asks, "Why is there so muich killing and inflicting of pain by birds and beasts on one another? I don't think all of you men hurt each other. Do you? But birds and beasts do. All that makes me so sad."
Gay Neck learns that men do go to war and hurt each other and I think that is one of the points the author was trying to make in that we humans can act just like beasts.
Gay neck goes with Ghond, a friend of his keeper to serve in the war as a carrier piegon and deliver messages from the front lines of battle to the commander in chief. Gay neck and Ghond sail from India to France and they go on a scouting trip to find a German ammunition dump. They see much killing and firing of men against men that both the pigeon and Ghond both have fear in their hearts. They go to a monestary to get healed by the wise lamas and they eventually find peace with themselves and overcome fear, suspicion, and hate.
I really liked this book even as much as I told myself that I wouldn't. I would recommend that any child read this book.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! A Brief Review

I had read raving reviews about this, but skimming through it I had my doubts about whether I would like it. I just couldn't see what the fuss was about. But this collection of monologues and dialogues of various characters living on a manor in England in 1255 is truly exceptional. I think the strength is in how she taps into the emotions and desires of the characters in a way that we can relate to. It is moving in parts, as well as humorous and educational. I would love to see this performed by an actual class!

Island of the Blue Dolphins

Author: Scott O'Dell
Originally published by: Houghton-Mifflin (1960)
Length: 184 pages
My rating: 4.5/5
Awards: Newbery Medal

This simple, lyrical account of a young woman left behind on an island in the Pacific for many years was a surprising page-turner for me. The action begins right away when the Aleuts from the north come to hunt otters on Karana's island, culminating in a battle that leaves her father and many of the other men dead. A year later, the inhabitants of the island leave on a "white-man's ship" to relocate. When Karana's brother is left behind and the chief will not go back to get him, she jumps out of the ship so he will not be abandoned. What follows is her story of her industrious survival on the island year after year. Although told in a very matter-of-fact style, it is heartbreaking at times, but she also manages to find beauty and fulfillment in her solitary life as she waits for the ship to return for her. Amazingly to me, she's never angry with the people who left her behind, or resentful that no one has returned for her. Her anger is focused on the pack of dogs who kill her brother. She makes it her mission to conquer them, but ends up finding her closest companion among them. She is there for so long that the thought of the ship returning for her was bittersweet, and I wondered if in fact it would ever come.
I did not realize until the afterword that this is based on the true story of the "Lone Woman of San Nicolas" who lived on one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara from 1835 to 1853. I would definitely recommend this book to young readers as well as "less-young" readers (that's what I call myself these days--I will never be "old". Thank goodness for hair color!)

Shadow of a Bull

I tried to like this book. But Shadow of a Bull depicts a way of life that is utterly foreign to me. It's a life where bullfighting is an all-consuming art, and a fantastically popular sport, and the bullfighters who dance with (and sometimes conquer) death are the rock stars of their day:
"In Spain, however, people have found a way of cheating death. They summon it to appear in the afternoon in the bull ring, and they make it face a man. Death - a fighting bull with horns as weapons - is killed by a bullfighter. And the people are there watching death being cheated of its right (p. 7)."
Manolo, the 9 to 12 year old protagonist (the son of a famous bullfighter who was killed in the ring when Manolo was only 4 years old) is a sympathetic character. He fears that he is a coward, and the fact that the whole village expects him to follow in his famous father's footsteps makes matters worse.

Unfortunately, I was bored by most of Manolo's story, and then revolted by the details of bullfighting. I did rather grudgingly admire the various matadors' courage and grace, and complexity and history of the corrida. But I really couldn't enjoy Manolo's years of work and his self-discoveries, no matter how skillfully Wojciechowska described the secrets of the bullring and the boys that aspire to be bullfighters, risking their lives just for a chance to train. I did applaud Manolo's growth towards self-determination, which was the basic moral of the story:
"A man's life is many things. Before he becomes a man, he has many choices: to do the right thing, or to do the wrong thing; to please himself, or to please others; to be true to his own self, or untrue to it" (p. 145).
And that's another thing. Shadow of a Bull is all about boys, and the responsibility of becoming a man. An honorable man. The only female character in the book is Manolo's mother, and she's pretty much a nonentity until one minor passage near the end of the story. I don't think a book about such an exclusively male activity (or maybe some women do it today? I have no idea) is going to appeal to many girls. There are plenty of "boy books" that do appeal to girls, but I just don't think that this is one of them.

It didn't help that I didn't care for the illustrations by Alvin Smith, which seemed to embody all that I didn't like about 60's style partially abstract drawings.

Also, I was about a third of the way through the book before I discovered the "Glossary of Bullfighting Terms" at the back, which made it a little easier to check on the terms like veronica, tienta, and muleta, which are crucial to the story (and mostly explained in context, but it's easy to get the different capes and moves and equipment mixed up).

I did end up wondering how integral bullfighting is to Spanish culture today, or whether bullfighting is just a shadow of its past. (But I didn't care enough to research it myself, which should tell you something else about how I felt about the book). Let me know in the comments if you know anything about bullfighting today.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Smoky The Cowhorse

In the preface of Smoky The Cowhorse winner of the sixth newbery medal, Will James writes, "The horse is not appreciated and never will be appreciated enough,-few humans, even them that works him, really know him, but there is so much to know about him."

After reading this book you can obviously tell that the author does know horses and really does appreciate them.
This story is about one horse in particular named Smoky, and the story of his life. Set in the early twentieth century in the Northwestern United States, this book really captures the way of life for the american cowboy, and the authors descriptions of things are really good and detailed.
Smoky starts his life being born on a nice spring day and for the first four years of his life he is free to roam the land doing whatever he pleases. His freedom of roaming the land comes to an end for a while when he meets the human. He is broke and trained by a cowboy named Clint and from the moment he first set eyes on that mouse colored horse he knew that he wanted him and would do almost anything to have him.
Smoky makes friend with Clint and they have many years of happines as Smoky works as a Cowhorse on the rocking R ranch. One winter after being set free on the range smoky is stolen.
Things go from bad to worse for the horse. He is mistreated so badly that he hates every human. He is whipped, spurred, beaten, and starved. The descriptions on how the horse feels and thinks are really good, and you feel a sadness for the horse as you read it. The horses heart and spirit are broken and the horse really does not care about anything anymore. He just goes along with it.
Smoky eventually becomes an unbeatable outlaw rodeo horse where no cowboy is able to beat him. After many years bucking his body gives out then he is sold as a saddle horse, and finally a plow horse.
He was driven very hard and almost to the point of death when he is found and rescued.
The author had really strong feelings for the treatment and proper handling and care of horses. The book does not name many characters and you get the impression that the horse is worth way more than the cruel people that abuse him.
This book is a real page turner. It was great for me cause I have never been around horses and it was intersting to get an introduction to what they are like. I think that anyone that likes horses or any other animal would really like this book. It exceeded the expectations that I had

Gay-Neck (aka Chitra the Pigeon)

Poor Gay-Neck. His name (and the book title) is rather unfortunate today, especially given the age of the kids that are most likely to read about him. Since my local library recently provided home access to the Oxford English Dictionary, I was able to learn that "gay" didn't become commonly associated with homosexuality until the 1940's; Dhan Gopal Mukerji wrote Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon in 1927.

Mukerji obviously refers to the definition of gay that means: "bright or lively-looking, especially in colour; brilliant, showy" - on the second page of the story, he says:
"His name was Chitra-griva; Chitra meaning "painted in gay colours," and Griva, "neck" - in one phrase, pigeon Gay-Neck. Sometimes he was called "Iridescence-throated" (p. 16).
Although I don't think that Iridescense-Throated: The Story of a Pigeon is much of an improvement over Gay-Neck, I do think that American publishers could take a cue from their British counterparts, who've changed the title to Chitra: The Story of a Pigeon. It's exotic without being overly weird, and maybe then kids wouldn't be afraid to check it out of the school library. But perhaps the fact that Gay-Neck won the Newbery award - and is listed by this title in so many places in the U.S. - prevents us from changing it.

Anyway, Gay-Neck was an interesting book, quite different from what I expected from "The Story of a Pigeon." There was information about pigeons' lives, but I also learned about India in the early 1900's, and even a bit about World War I (from the perspective of a carrier pigeon).

As I was reading Gay-Neck, however, I felt a nagging sense of familiarity. Finally, "O beloved ones of Infinite Compassion" (p. 178), I realized that certain phrases and descriptions reminded me of the Rudyard Kipling stories that I read as a child - especially The Jungle Book and Kim. There are elephants, tigers, water buffalo, fierce hawks, wise hunters, and even wiser lamas who live in splendid lamaseries high in the Himalayas in both. It's all very colorful (no pun intended).

Some of my favorite parts are the rather poetic passages (or, as Mukerji says, "the grammar of fancy and the dictionary of imagination", [p. 74]), like this description of a night that Chitra, the narrator (Chitra's unnamed teenage handler), and the narrator's mentor, Ghond, spend tied to the branches of an enormous banyan tree (so they don't fall when they doze off):
The tiger had vanished from under our tree. The insects had resumed their song, which was again and again stilled for a few seconds as huge shapes fell from far-off trees with soft thuds. Those were leopards and panthers who had slept on the trees all day and were now leaping down to hunt at night.

When they had gone the frogs croaked, insects buzzed continually and owls hooted. Noise, like a diamond, opened its million facets. Sounds leaped at one's hearing like the dart of sunlight into unprotected eyes. A boar passed, cracking and breaking all before him. Soon the frogs stopped croaking, and way down on the floor of the jungle we heard the tall grass and other undergrowth rise like a haycock, then with a sigh fall back. That soft sinister sigh like the curling up of spindrift drew nearer and nearer, slowly passed our tree. Oh, what a relief! It was a constrictor going to the water-hole. We stayed on our tree-top as still as its bark - Ghond was afraid that our breathing might betray our position to the terrible python (pp. 61-62).
One thing that I didn't particularly like about the story was that the different parts seemed so unconnected. First we learn about Gay-Neck's birth and training, his odyssey across India and his battles and his mate, and then bam! He's in Flanders with Ghond and the Indian Army, carrying messages for the Commander-in-Chief, "who looked like a ripe cherry and exuded a pleasant odour of soap....unlike most soldiers" (p. 141).

The black and white illustrations were beautiful and unexpectedly striking - though interestingly, few of the works featured pigeons. I Googled illustrator Boris Artzybasheff, and found quite a bit more information on him than on the author. Apparently Artzybasheff illustrated Gay-Neck quite early in his career, and went on to do hundreds of more well-known pieces of graphic art, including about 200 covers for Time magazine. Check out one of his two-page spreads from Gay-Neck here:

I also rather enjoyed the spiritual side of the Chitra's story, with the narrator's musings about the "inviolate sanctity" of the highest peaks and the many different animals' instinctive acknowledgement of dawn. The lamas do steal the show with their kindness and their meditations on courage:
"Here let it be inscribed in no equivocal language that almost all our troubles come from fear, worry, and hate. If any man catches one of the three, the other two are added unto it" (p. 128).
The ending was also quite satisfying, including some surprisingly modern reflections on animals in their natural habitats, and thoughts on the emotional ravages of war - personally, for Ghond and Gay-Neck, and for mankind in general, who are "so loaded with fear, hate, suspicion and malice that it will take a whole generation before a new set of people can be reared completely free from them" (p. 171-172).

How can I not recommend a book about a pigeon (a pigeon, of all things!) that ends with this paragraph (p. 191)?
"Whatever we think and feel will colour what we say or do. He who fears, even unconsciously, or has his least little dream tainted with hate, will inevitably, sooner or later, translate these two qualities into his action. Therefore, my brothers, live courage, breathe courage and give courage. Think and feel love so that you will be able to pour out of yourselves peace and serenity as naturally as a flower gives forth fragrance.

Peace be unto all!"

Friday, October 10, 2008

Sailing by Ash Breeze (a Review of Carry On, Mr. Bowditch)

Although Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, by Jean Lee Latham, started out rather slowly, I did enjoy it. I'm not sure that most kids (who haven't poured over all of Patrick O'Brian's seafaring works, like I have) would enjoy it so much. Unless they really, really like nautical metaphors.

The main character - Nat Bowditch - is an earnest, hardworking, exceptionally intelligent boy who comes of age during the story, which takes place from the late 1700's through the early 1800's.

Nathaniel has a difficult life in Salem, Massachusetts. His father, Habbakuk (!!), is a cooper who "lost his tuck" (i.e., his ambition; he became depressed) when his ship foundered on a lee shore (see where having read O'Brian comes in handy? I know all about the perils of losing your anchor to windward).

There are a lot of children in the Bowditch family and not much money, and Nat is forced to give up school, which he loves, and work for his father and then as an apprentice (indentured for nine years!) to a ship's chandlery, "where he kept books and sold marlinspikes, belaying pins, and hemp rope" (p. 66).

There are many family deaths (which really happened and was not uncommon in this period in history), but Nat's reaction to the tragedies is curiously flat. The narrative concerning the romances in Nat's life is similarly unemotional and frankly, rather tedious.

Latham makes the story much more interesting when she describes Nat's love of mathematics and his desire for knowledge, and his passion for teaching navigation to everyone on the fo'c'sle*. It is classic story of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, or to use the nautical term (which Latham never fails to do**), sailing by ash breeze:
Sam said, "Bah! Only a weakling gives up when he's becalmed! A strong man sails by ash breeze!" (p. 47)

..."When a ship is becalmed - the wind died down - she can't move - sometimes the sailors break out their oars. They'll row a boat ahead of the ship and tow her....Oars are made of ash - white ash. So - when you get ahead by your own get-up-and-get - that's when you 'sail by ash breeze'." (p. 48)
I think that this book was written mainly for boys, but I'm afraid that its lack of action and the overt moralizing may turn many of them off today. Yes, it's laudable that Nat wants to be a Harvard man more than anything else, and that he can learn any language, including Latin, with just a dictionary, a grammar, and a New Testament, but I don't think this will lead a lot of kids to identify with Nat.

And there are parts of the story where there is action - how could there not be action, on a tall ship doubling the Horn at the turn of the 19th century? - but Latham doesn't make you feel the exhaustion of several days of "all hands on deck" with wet clothes, cold food, and foul air belowdecks the way some authors do (not just Patrick O'Brian! read Tony Horwitz's description of sailing in the beginning of Blue Latitudes). When I read about someplace so different, I don't want to see a dispassionate list of what Nat endured. I want to taste the hardtack, weevils and all. Paula Fox did a much better job of this in The Slave Dancer (the depressing 1974 winner).

I liked the classic illustrations by John O'Hara Cosgrave II, but I really wanted a map. A trip to the island of Bourbon was an important part of the story, but until they mentioned that it had been re-named Réunion, I had no idea where they were (near Nantucket? by Hawaii?). And frankly, I only knew where Réunion was because I'd read The Mauritius Command (yes, yes, O'Brian again). If kids are reading this (and I know it's a favorite for some homeschoolers), then a map with Réunion, Madeira, Cadiz, and Batavia is a really good idea.

This online biography of Nathaniel Bowditch by the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society filled in some of the questions I had after I finished the book. What happened to Nat's father? What did Nat do after his last voyage? How much of Carry On, Mr. Bowditch was true? (This last question only partially answered, of course). It was undeniably cool to read that a copy of Bowditch's The New American Practical Navigator is still carried on board every commissioned vessel in the United States Navy.

* fo'c'sle=forecastle, or the living quarters in the bow of a ship where the crew is housed. In the book, Nat is quietly egalitarian, teaching the entire crew the arcane arts and science of navigation. I have no idea if this is an invention of Latham's, or something that Mr. Bowditch was actually known for doing. It would be nice to know one way or the other; this is something I really don't like about these children's biographies.

**"You know an anchor won't hold if the cable's too short. A man always needs another shot in the locker" (p. 170). Then there's living by "log, lead, and lookout", always "having a good anchor to windward", "swallowing the anchor", "splicing the main brace", and a lot more. I have to say some of these were the best part of the book for me, but I think it's unlikely most other readers will agree.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Shen Of The Sea

Shen Of the Sea by Arthur Bowie Chrisman is a collection of sixteen amusing and interesting chinese stories. The story Shen of the Sea is the second of the sixteen stories. Chrisman studied the ancient chinese culture and collected stories and folk tales and wrote them down in his own words.
The stories were fun to read. Some of the characters in the stories had really similar names so you had to pay attention so you knew what character the author was talking about. Most of the stories are really humorous and you can really enjoy reading them.
A lot of the stories are about how things were invented or came to be. It tells of the invention of printing, chopsticks, gunpowder, tea, kites, plates or china, and so on...
My personal favorite story in this book is one called As Hai Low Kept House, which is a comical story of a young brother watching the house for his older brother. Hai Low does everything that his older brother tells him to do but still gets in trouble for it. After doing everything wrong he eventually ends up being king.
I think children would enjoy reading these stories and I think they would get a good laugh out of this book. I really enjoyed it.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

More Controversy about the Newbery Award-Winners!

A friend just sent me these links - first, a recent article in the School Library Journal, by Anita Silvey: Has the Newbery Lost Its Way? (subtitled "Snubbed by Kids, Disappointing to Librarians, the Recent Winners Have Few Fans"), with the following response: The Best Book No Kid Wants to Read.

And this was also interesting - note that all three parts are worth reading: Newbery Report, Part 1 of 3.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Tales From Silver Lands

I'll have to say I had quite a fun time reading Tales From Silver Lands by Charles J. Finger. This book is a compilation of tales that the author has collected from his travels in many countries of Central and South America. I find it really intersting reading a large diversity of old tales coming from this part of the world.
These are the kind of stories that would be fun to sit around the campfire and listen to. The tales are really short. Most are only seven or eight pages. I personally liked to read one or two at a time. I did not like the idea of reading all of the short stories at once. I wanted to just read a couple at a time so I could think about them and enjoy them more. I did like some more than others, but all of them were pretty easy to follow.
The stories talk about many different topics but I noticed some themes in the book among which are: that good triumphs over evil, men do not know what is best for them most of the time, and to be hard working and not remain idle.
I think my favorite tale in this book is one called El Enano. This book has an interesting viewpoint on how certain animals came to be: like monkeys, seals, armadillos, and huanacos. I thought that the stories were really entertaining hearing about giants, wizards, witches, evil birds, giant cats, magic spells, animal transformations and so on..
I think that these stories could be read and enjoyed by most teenagers and pre- teenagers but some of them might be a little bit graphic for a young child.
In all I think it was fun to read and is a good choice when you only have a few spare minutes.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Dark Frigate

I was glad I picked up The Dark Frigate by Charles Boardman Hawes winner of the third Newbery Medal award. This book goes much deeper than just sea voyages and pirate tales. It talks of a young man (Philip Marsham) trying to figure out what he wants to become in life and the road he should take.
He is a runaway after an accident forces him to leave the alehouse he was living in due to an illness. He finds himself alone with very little money and no place to go. He meets up with two sailors and eventually finds himself leaving England on the Rose of Devon Frigate.
The frigate comes upon a shipwreck and saves half of their crew. This new crew takes control of the ship and murders the captain after being saved by him. Philip is forced to join them and become a pirate if he wishes to survive. They then set off on a new course robbing and murdering many people on the way. Philip escapes and eventually gets caught and sent back to England to await trial.
The language this book is written in is much different than today and at times can be a little tricky to follow. It uses many phrases that people don't say today but with careful reading you can figure out the meaning to most of the words.
This book teaches many themes among which are Loyalty, bravery, and Courage. Philip learns that not everyone is as honest and as good a person as himself. He loses almost everything he has come to know and everything that he has looked forward to having in the future. He eventually turns his back on England with much disgust and sails again as a captain in the same ship he once left before and vowed he would never return to.
I would definitely recommend reading this book. It has many adventures on the sea and teaches much about courage and loyalty.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

All Outdoors on Maple Hill

Miracles on Maple Hill, by Virginia Sorensen, was a beautiful, rather old-fashioned story that I didn't read for a long time because I didn't really like the cover (yes, all too often I do judge books by their covers) or the blurb on the back, which says:
Marly had been waiting a long time for this special moment. She sat alone in the car and stared at the lonely countryside and the small dilapidated house.

It had to be the right place. All outdoors. With miracles. Not crowded and people being cross and mean. Daddy not tired all the time. Mother not worried.....

She whispered, "Please let there be miracles." (pp. 22-23)
Maybe some kids who are religious or who long to move to snowy hillsides covered with bare trees would be compelled to read more, but I wasn't (and I couldn't entice my 11 year old son to read it, either). But I've been missing out on a wonderful story, a story about spring, and the best kind of neighbors, and flowers and gardens and all of the things you that find in the woods in the eastern part of the U.S. (bloodroot! trillium! foxes!), and a rural way of life that is both rather timeless and so very stuck in the 50's.

If you loved The Secret Garden (and I know lots of girls like me did - check out this nostalgic review of that classic), with its theme of a garden coming back to life along with the main character's health and mental and emotional well-being, then I think there's a good chance you'll like the quintessentially American Miracles on Maple Hill, with its miracles of life "pushing-up" and a father recovering from his experiences as a soldier and a prisoner of war. The whole idea of getting back to nature - which certainly isn't a simpler way of life, but definitely has its own rewards - and returning to the family's roots in rural Pennsylvania are deftly explored.

Also, it's not too often my former interests as an archaeologist (and more specifically and obscurely, as a paleoethnobotanist) collide with my current life, so imagine my excitement over Sorensen's description of the history and origins of maple syrup in Miracles on Maple Hill.*

Sorensen (perhaps unwittingly) does an excellent job of describing the strict gender roles of the 1950's, which often vex Marly, the 10 year old narrator, especially when it comes to things that Joe (her 12 year old brother) gets to do that Marly doesn't.
He [Joe] looked determined and she knew how he felt; after what happened before he absolutely had to see Maple Hill first. And she decided to let him. Boys were queer. They seemed afraid they'd stop being boys altogether if they couldn't be first at everything (p. 21).

Once in a while Fritz came by and said Daddy had worked long enough - and then they went fishing. Of course Joe went, too, and Mother and Marly had, as Mother said, "a fine female time." They didn't have to cook perfect pots of things every meal but ate up all the leftovers (pp. 90-91).
In the end, though, Marly gets to help make syrup and touch everyone's heart:
"We've decided the boys can take turns at it," Miss Annie said. "No one boy is going to suffer much loss of school if those runs last a solid month or more."

Marly stood by the telephone, poking Mother with her elbow. "Mother - ask her why the girls can't come. Why, I can carry as many buckets as Joe can!"

"You can't either!" said Joe.

"I can!"

"Ssssh!" Mother said.

There was a little silence on the other end of the phone. Then Miss Annie's voice came again. "I heard that," she said. "I didn't even think about the girls. I don't know why I didn't. Actually..." Another little silence. "I'll talk to them about it. If there are any girls who want to come and work, I don't see why they shouldn't."

"Maybe they won't want to, really," Mother said. "I'm afraid Marly's different. She's rather a tomboy - "

"Mother, I'm not!"

"You are too," said Joe.

"Just wait and see then!" Marly said (pp. 171-172).
The sibling interactions are rather realistic, don't you think? In the story, Marly and Joe clearly love each other, but can't help baiting each other at every chance.

Anyway, I unexpectedly loved Miracles on Maple Hill, and I'm looking forward to sharing it with my daughter (sadly, I don't think I will be able to convince my son to read it). Maybe by the time she can read it, the publisher will have produced a more appealing cover and blurb.

Gathering sap in Vermont in 1940; photograph by Marion Post Wolcott.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USF35-1326]

*If anyone wants to read more about maple syrup vs. sugar vs. sap production in Native North America, check out A Sweet Small Something: Maple Sugaring in the New World by Carol I. Mason, which GoogleBooks provides as part of the complete text of The Invented Indian: Cultural Fictions and Government Policies, by James A. Clifton.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle

I had a very fun time reading The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting, the second winner of the newbery medal. This book is full of adventure and you don't really have to think too hard to read it. It is a real page turner with really short chapters that allow you to stop and go whenever you please.
The book is set in the time frame of the late 1830's to the early 1840's and is told by an old man looking back in time to when he was nine years old. He tells the story of many of his amazing adventures he had as a boy and meeting the famous Doctor Dolittle.
One day while wandering the boy comes upon a squirrel that had been injured by a hawk. The boy rescues the squirrel but it is in very bad shape and is in need of serious attention. The boy hears of the famous Doctor Dolittle and eventually meets him and asks if he would look at the squirrel for him. The doctor agrees and treats the squirrel. The doctor has a great advantage over other naturalists in that he can talk to the animals and because of that he is able to solve many problems and hardships.
From here on out the doctor and the boy are great friends and the boy eventually becomes the doctors assistant and is allowed to live with the doctor and go on his voyages with him.
They decide to go on a voyage to the floating Spidermonkey Island to study natural history and there they rescue and meet one of the greatest naturalists of all time, Long Arrow.
While on the island the doctor helps the poor people considerably. He helped them overcome the cold. He showed them fire. He fought in battle with them and he eventually became a king against his will.
One of the greatest things in this book to me was the doctors ability to talk with the animals and his views on them.
One of the points people sometimes make about this book is the racism. It is true that in the older version there are some refrences to it. I don't think that is one of the major points that Lofting was trying to make while writing the book though. The new version of this book has been edited and I was surprised to find that quite a considerable amount of writing had been taken away from the older version which is really disappointing because much of it did not have any racism at all. There is an afterward in the new book by his son explaining why the old version was edited.
I'm glad I read both the new and the old version so I did not miss anything. I would recommend this book for children because of its adventure and it's lessons towards kindness and respect towards animals.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Holes by Louis Sachar

This was such a great read that I feel I could recommend it to anybody. Children, teenagers, adults, men or women. It’s a very quick read, but unlike some other short novels I read, it left quite a big impression on me. It’s probably because it can’t be categorised into anything I’ve read before and because it was so beautifully crafted. Its theme is unusual and it would be hard to convince someone to read it by simply telling them what it is about:

A clumsy and unlucky boy gets sent to a detention camp by mistake, where everyday, together with other “troubled” boys, he is made to dig a hole in the hard ground. Five feet deep, five feet across. Apparently this exercise is supposed to build their character and make them better boys, but there's something their warden is not telling them…

The truth is this is not just Stanley’s story at Camp Green Lake. It’s about Stanley’s ancestors, and about Stanley’s camp-mates. It’s about the weird connections that life lays ahead of us and how they affect our destiny one way or the other. It’s about lethal lizards and about onions. There’s also a hearth-breaking love story and a gypsy curse. And there’s friendship. Powerful and selfless friendship. That’s all I can say about it. More would spoil the plot, which is far more interesting than it sounds.

What I loved about it was the rewarding feeling that it gave me when all the threads came together in the end. All the different layers and the details in the story became one neat pattern of a jigsaw, which felt so satisfying. I love when the authors know exactly where they’re going and how they’re going to get there, even though it’s intimidating from an aspiring writer’s perspective.
I’m sure I will re-read it one day, which is saying a lot, since I don’t usually reread books.
Besides being a great piece of storytelling, it triggered many emotions. It was humorous, tragic and even heroic at some point. It was pure comfort reading. A book to keep for those reading slump sometimes people fall into. I can guarantee a speedy recovery!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


I've had this book on my shelves for over a year, but I just wasn't sure that I wanted to read a dog story - and especially not one where I was afraid that the dog might die (I'm more than a bit like the kid in Gordon Korman's No More Dead Dogs, I guess). We had to put our very elderly and much loved dog to sleep this summer and reading Marley and Me for my book club last year already made me a sobbing mess. I really didn't want another Old Yeller experience.

But Amanda's recent post finally convinced me to pick up Shiloh when I didn't feel like reading anything else in my "to read" stack. I've noticed that good kids' or YA books really help me get out of a reading slump.

Anyway, I enjoyed Shiloh, in a quiet way. I thought that Phyllis Reynolds Naylor really captured many of the joys of having a dog, as well as a thoughtful 11 year old's perspective on some weighty moral questions. I liked how the story unfolded, the ending was entirely satisfying, and I saw lots of great possibilities for discussion (if I could ever convince my own 11 year old to read it. But at least he's reading another Gordon Korman book recommended by his teacher right now).

But somehow the book just didn't transport me or totally engage me like my favorite Newbery winners (or some children's books in general) have. I didn't have any problems setting it down at night, it didn't make me cry (spoiler alert - highlight to read: no dogs died, thankfully!) or laugh out loud, and I thought the book was perceptive but not incredibly insightful.

Maybe my standards are just really, really high. I think some of the other books I've read for this project have blown them sky high, actually. Anyway, I would recommend Shiloh, especially to 9-12 year olds, and I am glad to have read it, but I'm not going to push it towards random friends and family members insisting that they read this incredible work that will change the way they feel about kids' books or dogs or life in West Virginia.

Here's one my favorite passages about dogs from Shiloh, though, and one that struck me as very true (especially since I'm still missing my dog):
We stand out in the meadow flying the kite, and I watch the blue-and-yellow-and-green tail whipping around in the breeze, and I'm thinking about Shiloh's tail, the way it wags. You get a dog on your mind, it seems to fill up the whole space. Everything you do reminds you of that dog (p. 92).

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Story of Mankind

When I picked up the first newbery medal book, The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem Van Loon it was not what I expected. My first thought was how huge the book was and how it could possibly be written for a childrens audience. After sitting down and reading the first few chapters I began to understand it's writing style and unique way of representing history.

He did a good job covering what he did in the very large timeframe he had to work with, which was the time from which man (or a creature more or less resembling man) has been on this earth. I imagine it must have taken a lot of time and patience to cover all of this material, not to mention the numerous hand drawn illustrations and maps.

In the foreward the author talks of a visit to the tower of Old St. Lawrence in Rotterdam that he took in his younger years. After climbing to the top of the tower he looks down and remembers all the history making moments that happened in the busy streets below where people were going about their business in their normal fashion. He finds this trip very rewarding and returns many more times. He then gives us the "key" that will open the door of history for us.

The first half of this book is a lot easier to read than the second half. It made me remember a lot of history stories I had learned from school and I also learned many other facts and stories I did not know before.

This book reads more like a story than a history book. The book does not try to give an account of everything that has happend in the history of mankind. It tries to explains certain significant events, that without them the world would not be how it is today. The books talks about how we have become who we are today, from being men and women concerned only about finding food and shelter to using our brain to make tools. It talks about the origin of writing and the importance of being able to write down thoughts and ideas. This book focuses on how and and most importantly why things happened the way they did.

I enjoyed reading how man has evolved into the present day. I particularly enjoyed the chapters about the revolutions and how people over came the rich and corrupt governments to become independent people and nations.

Most of the chapters read just like a story. There are others however, like National Independence and Colonial Expansion and War, that are very confusing and you have to be very focused on reading them so you don't miss anything. When I say confusing I mean that there are too many people, dates, and countries to remember and this makes it difficult (even as an adult) to follow.

The goal of this book is to try to give you a taste of history and I believe the author has done just that. He really tries not to let his own views and perspectives bias the book, and he does a good job of making history fun for the most part. Overall it's a good read but I really doubt many children would pick it up and read it.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem Van Loon

“Why should I ever read fairy stories, when the truth of history is so much more interesting and entertaining?”

Imagine my surprise when I first went in search of Hendrik Willem Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind, the first winner of the Newbery Award, and stumbled onto a history tome of 500+ pages (in its “updated” state). I was not prepared for this. My brief dalliance with the Newbery Award has always been with fiction and considering the seeming shortage of children’s nonfiction I never appreciated the idea that the Newbery list may be more expansive.

First published in 1921, The Story of Mankind is a children’s history beginning with the first cells that would contribute to the initial plants and animals on Earth through the beginning of the United Nations. The Story of this work is that it’s largely written in a narrative style that reads very much as verbatim classroom lecture or simply as an adult explaining aspects of history to a child. Nearly every page is decorated with a map, illustrated timeline, or simple sketch to further enlighten the passages. Perhaps this doesn’t appear too impressive compared to modern children’s history texts, but I’m sure it was quite a staggering accomplishment for the period.

Seth Lerer describes The Story of Mankind as “rich with engaging anecdotes, clear judgments, and precise chronology” and “It gives us history that is accurate, clear, and organized.” And all of these things are true but it is the “clear judgments” that I find most troubling. Though I am only up to the chapter on the English revolution, it’s blatant that The Story of Mankind is not the most objective work of nonfiction and threads of racism and intolerance trickle throughout the texts. (Admittedly Van Loon passed prior to post-colonial studies developing into a force to be reckoned with.)

It’s ironic though that within the book Van Loon dedicates space to the idea of intolerance, “For tolerance (and please remember this when you grow older), is of very recent origin and even the people of our own so-called ‘modern world’ are apt to be tolerant only upon such matters a do not interest them very much.” I would still give Van Loon a great deal of credit on writing a children’s history that during the time must have very much complimented other historical and nonfiction writings. It’s an idealist book that focuses exclusively on the events that leads the reader unquestioningly to the development of the modern United States. Throughout the text the reader is not often required to consider the “rightness” or “wrongness” of situations as Van Loon provides a “clear judgment” of events.

Of all the books appearing on the Newbery list, The Story of Mankind (using completely unscientific statistics) seems like the least read or most unfinished book. Van Loon’s portrayal of human history and heritage seems quite foreign to more modern Newbery winners and even stands apart from the early winners of this literary award. Perhaps the most obvious distinguishing feature is that The Story of Mankind is more or less a work of nonfiction while the vast majority (if not all of the rest) of other winners are works of fiction.

This book is problematic for the modern reader in part because it was originally published in 1921 and, like every other book attempting an all-encompassing view of history, it promises more than it can ever possibly deliver. Van Loon is a subjective writer and certain racist, hegemonic, and imperialist attitudes crop up throughout the book. And as other authors writing such a vast history, it just doesn’t work. The Story of Mankind is the story of historical events that led to the formation of the modern United Nations and doesn’t spend a great deal of time outside of Europe and the United States of America (unless other countries were briefly useful in colonization that led to the formation of the United Nations).

The Story of Mankind does work in its narrative features to deliver history and what in 1921 would have been the rather progressive look at using illustrations to instruct and enliven history for children. I was asked by Julie regarding current (if any) usage of The Story of Mankind, and while I would never argue for sole usage of this text a comparative look between this and a more recent study of history would certainly have some validity.

I must say that I am still intrigued by the presence of The Story of Mankind on the Newbery list and particularly as it was the first book to win the award. Returning to Children’s Literature, Seth Lerer describes some of the books attributes for the Newbery category: “rich with engaging anecdotes, clear judgments, and precise chrononology,” a “history that is accurate, clear, and organized,” it “is history as a social lesson,” it’s a vivid book written with clarity and optimism that from “hard work and struggle” leads to “a good feeling of success.” And I suppose that it is these categorizes that continue to filter down through the years when selecting the Newbery titles.

Originally published in two parts at Adventures in Reading.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

Stars: ****

Walk Two Moons won the 1995 Newbery Medal.

Summary: “As Sal entertains her grandparents with Phoebe’s outrageous story, her own story begins to unfold – the story of a thirteen-year-old girl whose only wish is to be reunited with her missing mother.”

I must admit that the summary at the back did not sound all the interesting to me. However the book was very well put together. The summary just doesn’t explain enough. Sal is on the road with her Grandparents and is telling them the story of her friend Phoebe and her life, which at times seems to be very similar to Sal’s. The book switches back and forth from what is happening with Sal and her grandparents to what happened with Phoebe. It does not always alternate every other chapter, which makes it more interesting since you don’t know whose story will be continued next until you start reading.

The story has good lessons in it and would make a good school read I think.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Giver by Lois Lowry

I don't know about "Brave new world" or the film "Pleasentville" and I've never read "1984" by George Orwell, only excerpts in school. But as far as children's literature is concerned this is an extraordinary book. It kept me glued to it for hours. I had to know how this world worked, what were its secrets, what would happen to its protagonist. It was a real page-turner. It wasn't a simple read though, like others have said. It was quick, but it made me think about it for days. It was scary in a deep, subtle way. It raised strong, elementary emotions, and it made me shiver trying to imagine how a world like that would be possible.
The story is set in an indefinite far future, where society is organised in small communities, all designed with the same scheme: everything and everyone have to be up to the standards of the community. Everything is regulated by fixed and almost unchangeable laws. Individuality is not an option and neither is free will. This is the price that humanity have chosen to pay to avoid hunger and violence and war.
Families, called family units, are not decided by love or anything else but a Community Council which finds the right match for every person, thus creating the perfect harmony in the unit. Children are also regulated by a scheme: one boy and one girl, born by a group of birth-mothers, are allocated to one family who requests them.
At first this system seems to be the most organised way of living. There's no struggle for survival because everything is provided, everyone is kind and equal, though some "assignments"( not jobs) are less honourable than others. Everything is tidy, and quiet and peaceful. But there's something eerie is this peacefulness.
You can feel that something is not quite right. Hints are given here and there: people being mysteriously "released" (and you can guess pretty quickly what that means), an impersonal Voice that speaks through a microphone and gives orders and warnings. Even a rule that might sound positive and open-minded, the sharing of dreams in the morning and of feelings in the evening, has something mechanical and disturbing about it.
And then you start asking questions: where are the books, the writers, the artists? Will there be an assignment specifically for them? Because certainly they can't live without them.
"Stories are the most important thing in the world. Without stories, we wouldn't be human beings at all.” said Philip Pullman and so I kept reminding myself.
But it's not till Jonas, the boy who's the main character, has his first wet dream, or the Stirrings, as his parents would call it, that you realise how controlling and de-humanising this society is.
Shortly after Jonas' life changes completely when he is selected as the new Receiver of Memory. And here I stop. I've already said too much. I'll leave it to you to find out what that means. If you've never heard of it, like me before, then you shouldn't be spoiled with more informations. If you've read it, I'll like to discuss it with you in the comments!

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Miracles on Maple Hill

Miracles on Maple Hill, by Virginia Sorensen, was selected as the Newbery Award winner in 1957. While some of the older Newbery winners seem to be outdated in today’s world, this book is filled with relevant historical and emotional topics.

As I read the book, I was struck by the imagery and sense of place which was strongly developed by Sorensen. I have never been to visit the northern United States, but I feel like I have been there – visited four times in a year and caught a glimpse of each season.

The story revolves around a family. The father has returned from the war (which is unnamed) and is having difficulty returning to the civilian life. How appropriate is that in the lives of children today? The mother and two children are concerned about the father and wish that he would return to his old self. To help with this process, the family visits the grandmother’s old place in rural Pennsylvania – a place called Maple Hill, where miracles happen!

The story is told from the perspective of the daughter, Marly, who immediately falls in love with the mountain and the wonder of the rural life. The father stays on fulltime at Maple Hill, while the family visits every weekend. The strength of the novel is the descriptions of the flora and fauna in the area and especially the gathering and processing of the maple syrup.

Other reviewers have talked at length about this spirit of the place, and I invite you to read them here!

TITLE: Miracles on Maple Hill
AUTHOR: Virginia Sorensen
PAGES: 180
TYPE: fiction, Newbery Award Wimmer
RECOMMEND: I loved this book.
Flusi the LibrarysCat

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Dr. Dolittle by Hugh Lofting

From Adventures in Reading:

Preparing to read Seth Lerer’s Children’s Literature, I decided to first delve back into my own childhood and reread Hugh Lofting’s The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle and by incident this also kicks off my first book for the Newbery Project. Recently at work, various aged co-workers and I were discussing the excitement surrounding the fast-growing young adult section and reflecting on our own young adulthoods which had far less reading fodder. When I was a young adult literature was certainly available, but I often found myself searching for something to read and one of these conquests led me to Lofting.

It’s difficult to not be familiar with some aspect of Doctor Dolittle even if it’s only that he was a character who could speak with animals. This 1923 Newbery Award winner is told in hindsight from the somewhat fatalistic viewpoint of young Tommy Stubbins. After becoming more or less apprenticed to the good Doctor, the two and their human and animals friends begin a voyage to Spider Monkey Island off the coast of Brazil. Various adventures ensue including stowaways, bull fighting, floating islands, and a shipwreck.

Central ideas in the book are fairly representative of the time; particularly Dolittle’s interest in natural history (the popular scientific study of animals or plants) and the Dawin-esque feel of exploration stealthily lodges Doctor Dolittle into a bubble of historical consciousness. Lofting’s sketches illustrate the quite diminutive Tommy exploring Dolittle’s world. The back story is also quite interesting, as apparently Lofting wrote these tales out as letters to his children when he was a soldier during the World War.

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle is problematic however in its representation of race, indigenous culture, and colonialism. Two characters in particular stand out: Bumpo an African prince being educated at Oxford who incorrectly uses lengthy words and prefers going about barefoot and Long Arrow a stoic South American indian who venerates Dolittle. So imagine my surprise when I finished the book and learned in Christopher Lofting’s afterword that the Yearling edition is actually an edited version from the original text and that some socially questionable illustrations had also been removed. I confess my interest is peaked more than ever to reread this book in its original format.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle - 1923

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting
Illustrated by Sonja Lumat
Doctor Dolittle, Book 2

Pages: 276
First Published: 1922
Genre: children's animal fantasy, adventure
Awards: Newbery Medal 1923
Rating: 5/5

First sentence:

All that I have written so far about Doctor Dolittle I heard long after it happened from those who had known him -- indeed a great deal of it took place
before I was born.

Comments: In this second book of the series we meet Tommy Stubbins, the boy who becomes Dolittle's assistant. Once again Dolittle sets off on a voyage this time to meet the great botanist Long Arrow, son of Golden Arrow and along the way they meet many side adventures. Dolittle becomes set on learning the shellfish language, meeting the Great Glass Sea Snail, ends up on Spidermonkey Island, saves the island from floating into the Antarctic and helps the natives build a thriving city and society.

Both the 8yo and I thoroughly enjoyed every word of this book. Everything a child could want in a book is here: adventure, fantasy, science and animals all rolled into one. The action starts in the first chapter and is non-stop right to the very end which comes to a heart warming ending that leaves the reader with the feeling that there most certainly must be a sequel.

The edition I have is unaltered from the original text. At least I can find no indication that it has been altered, though the spelling has been Americanized. This edition is part of the Grosset & Dunlap Illustrated junior Library which has been in publication since the 1950s so I am fairly confident the text has not been edited. Since these books are often cited as being racist by PC fanatics I will note that I found absolutely nothing offensive in the book at all. The original illustrations have been omitted and replaced by a handful of full-colour plates illustrated in a cute fashion which I am not fond of. I will look for an original edition with Lofting's illustrations to replace this one someday.

Having read the first two together I can say for certain we will continue on with the series. The 8yo thought it was one of the best books we've read together and we both agree it is even better than the first book. Having read this as a child myself it is great to see that it lived up to my expectations and then some. Recommended!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Rabbit Hill

Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson is another classic children's book that I never read as a child. And I thought I was well-read!

I think I would have really enjoyed Rabbit Hill, since one of my favorite children's books was another talking animal one - the original Bambi, by Felix Salten. And a few years after that, I also loved Watership Down. I wonder if Richard Adams read Rabbit Hill as well as The Tale of Peter Rabbit as a child or young man?

Anyway, Rabbit Hill is definitely an old-fashioned story, and rather slow-paced, as Alicia noted. As an adult, I didn't mind the wordiness and lack of action so much (especially since the story is only 128 pages long). But the things that I really enjoyed in this book as an adult are probably things that a lot of kids would not be interested in or wouldn't even notice.

I loved the comparisons between the different people that lived on Rabbit Hill (which was also the name of Lawson's country home in Connecticut, I gathered), especially the difference between "planting folks" (gardeners) and others:
Then evil days had fallen upon the Hill. The good Folks had moved away and their successors had been mean, shiftless, inconsiderate. Sumac, baybery, and poison ivy had taken over the fields, the lawns had gone to crab grass and weeds, and there was no garden (p. 14).
I spent a little time wondering if the animals were really better off with people living on the hill and actively managing the land. I know that many of the animals in the story (like rabbits, groundhogs, moles, and fieldmice) do benefit from human agriculture, and especially like to eat some of the species in lawns and gardens, but is there really that much of a gain? What if the new folks didn't plant a vegetable garden? And what about today's suburban enclaves of asphalt, golf-course grass, and gravel with a few yew bushes or yuccas and day lilies? These landscapes must produce a huge net loss when it comes to biodiversity and small creature population. Though I have heard that vegetable gardening is getting more popular again.

I really enjoyed all of the descriptions of ecological succession, with wars and economic changes and people and farms, factories, and gardens coming and going, and the rabbits continuing on, adapting to the Black Roads and various folks' dogs and cats.

Although Father Rabbit's verbosity did occasionally get on my nerves, in general I really liked the language and the tone of the story. The "free garbidge" that the skunk loved was a nice touch, and I squealed when Phewie the skunk goes on to mention that Deer was "not above a mess of garden sass* now and then" (p. 24). The discussion of "Reading rots the mind" was fun, and I thought it was cute that the woodchuck (i.e., groundhog) was named Porkey. I did think the story got more exciting as it concluded.

I wonder if Rabbit Hill won the Newbery in 1945 because Americans really needed comforting stories of home at that point in time. It is a comfortable book, with its vision of little creatures living in harmony with (at least a couple of well-read) humans on a picture-perfect farm. I want to go spend a quiet weekend there, eating garden sass and watching the animals come out at dusk.


*garden sass = garden sauce, an old-fashioned term for vegetables that I blogged about a few years ago. A little more research on the term shows that "garden sass" (instead of sauce) was already being used by 1856, as in this Lea & Perrins ad for Worcestershire sauce:
Lexicographers tell us there are various kinds of sauce, some of which are exceedingly appetizing, while others are difficult of digestion. The old Colonists, and even modern Yankees and Virginians, speak in their quaint rustical way of “garden sass,” under which term they include all culinary vegetables.
In 1947, in the Secrets of New England Cooking, Ella Shannon Bowles and Dorothy Siemering Towle noted that:
Garden sauce and green sauce were old English terms dating from the time of Beaumont and Fletcher and perhaps before. Corrupted in New England to garden sass, it included all the vegetables raised in the garden. At one time some of the vegetables were classified as short sauce, others as long sauce, but these finer distinctions have been lost, and in northern New Hampshire and Maine, even today, garden sass is the accepted term for all garden vegetables.
I think this sentence in Lawson (and Bowles and Towle a few years later) are around the last print references I've found to "garden sass," except for the recent works that refer to it as an antiquated or no-longer-used term.