Thursday, January 31, 2008

Make My Day Award

Dear Alicia and all friends who have made such a success of this real community blog - I just tagged you for the Make My Day award. Come and see! I don't think we have to reply and do the nominating thing! Alicia - thank you for keeping this blog in shape....

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Witch of Blackbird Pond

I've always been kind of interested in the Puritans - probably because I have a bunch of Puritan ancestors. Many of these men had cool names like Obadiah, Nathaniel, Abram, and Azariah, and the women had even more exotic names: Comfort, Persis, Jerusha, Fear, and (my personal favorite) Mindwell.

And I know that I read this book as a child or adolescent - I remember the cover very well (it was the gothic 70's one above). It sat on my bookshelf for years, next to the other "non-favorites" (like Island of the Blue Dolphins).

But despite my interest in the Puritans and history, before re-reading of The Witch of Blackbird Pond, all I could remember about it was that the heroine's name was Kit and that the Puritans suspected that old ladies who lived by themselves were witches.

I don't know why I didn't really like this story as a child, because this time around I really enjoyed it. I think this is the first time I've totally changed my childhood opinions on any of these books. And I think that The Witch holds up very well, considering it was published in 1958. If I didn't know how old it was, I could easily assume The Witch of Blackbird Pond was written ten years ago instead of nearly fifty years ago.

The characters in The Witch are all interesting, complicated people, with lots of shades of gray in them (instead of the absolutes you might expect of the sadly stereotyped Puritans), and there is suspense, romance, and a lot of good history. I think Speare does a rather wonderful job of balancing an interesting story with complex history.

There's a witchcraft scare, but there's also good description of the religious and political differences amongst the colonists (I never knew about the Connecticut charter), slavery, and the sheer amount of work involved just to survive in the late 1600's in New England. The Indians get rather short shrift in The Witch, in historical terms, but maybe Native-European relations would be better served in different book, anyway.

On one of the coldest days of the year here in Michigan, I particularly enjoyed Speare's description of Kit's first winter after her arrival from Barbados:

January dragged by, and February. It was the hardest winter most of the townspeople could remember. Old people shook their heads, recalling blizzards of their childhood, but it was impossible for Kit to visualize anything more bleak than this first winter of her experience. She no longer saw any beauty in a world muffled in white. She hated the long days of imprisonment, when there was nothing to see through the window but shifting curtains of pale gray, when drifts stood waist high on the doorstep, and it took hours of backbreaking labor to carve a passage to the well. She hated the drafty floors and frigid corners, and the perpetual animal reek of heavy clothes hung about the fireplace to dry.

Every night she shrank from the moment when she and Judith must make the dread ascent to the upstairs chamber with only the meager comfort of a warming pan. But impatient as she was with the long days indoors, the outdoors promised only aching misery. She resented the arduous preparation for the journey to Meeting, the heavy leather boots, the knit socks drawn over them, the clumsy little footstove they had to lug all the way, that cooled off long before the sermon was finished and left one to sit with stinging fingers and toes, while the breath of the whole congregation rose like the smoke from so many pipes (p. 234-5).

I think older kids (especially girls) would enjoy this more than younger Newbery readers, especially given the romantic part of the plot, but there's nothing inappropriate for an interested third or fourth grader. But encourage your kid(s) to try it again when they're 14 or 15 - they might like it more then.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox

Stars: *****

When I found out it was Historical fiction I was nervous as this isn’t a genre I usually read. However I needn’t have worried. One of the few histories I do read about is African history. This story is based on what happened June 3, 1840. A slave ship called The Moonlight shipwrecked in the Gulf of Mexico. Of the 13 crew and 98 slaves, only 2 survived.

Paula Fox did a superb job of telling the story. I don’t know if the survivors told their story and she based it on that or if nothing is known except what’s stated in the paragraph above and she made everything up. Either way it was a heart wrenching story that both pulled me in and pushed me away. I couldn’t stop reading it even when what happened was so appalling I felt ashamed to be human and Caucasian.

The Slave Dancer most definitely deserved to win the Newbery medal. I don’t know what other books were in the running that year but no matter how good they were, this one would have still beaten them up. We need to remember what was done to the Africans to help ensure nothing like that happens again.

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle and Other Tales by Hugh Lofting

Stars: ****1/2

NOTE: The picture isn't of the version I read but I can't find it right now. When I go home I'll write down the ISBN and next time come and find the right graphic.

I had never heard of Doctor Dolittle until the Eddie Murphy movie came out and although the movie was silly, the idea of being able to talk to animals was an interesting one. So when I found out it was a book first I knew I wanted to read it. One day I found it at a library sale and I took it home.

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, if you don’t already know is the story of the adventures of a Human Doctor, turned Animal Doctor who can speak almost every animal language. He is the best animal doctor around. His life goals are to see the bottom of the sea and to find the legendary sea serpent. He travels around the globe meeting new animals and people, healing sick and hurt animals and learning new things.

The premise is very cute and creative and I enjoyed reading about Doctor Dolittle’s adventures. It’s nice to read a book with a plot that is entirely different from other books instead of the same basic story over and over with a few changes.

I can see why it won the Newbery Medal although I’m curious as to what other books were in the running that year as most of the other Newbery Winning Books I’ve read so far were a lot better.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The High King

I’ve tried to read this series a dozen times and I’ve always given up until now. This time I started with the last book in the series and I couldn’t put the book down. The author assures the reader in the introduction that though this is the final book in his series it is a stand alone; I found this to be so. The characters are slowly led on the stage, with their past exploits clearly delineated. I never felt unclear or confused. I grew to love all the characters, even the whiny Glew and the shifty Achren. The author, without revealing any of the clever twists of the plot, brings everything to a firm, though not always happy, conclusion.

The Slave Dancer

Jessie Bollier is kidnapped, taken from his mother and sister, and left stranded aboard a slave ship, on its way to Africa to acquire a boatload of slave cargo. He has been taken in order to play the fife on the ship, to play the fife for the slaves, to entice them to dance, to keep the slaves fit while incarcerated on the ship.

This was a grueling tale to read. Jessie is in misery. His fellow members of the crew are in misery. The slaves are in misery. There can be no happy stories in this book and there can be no happy endings. But, along the way, Jessie meets a few people who show tiny sparks of humanity and give him hope.

The Tale of Despereaux

A mouse falls in love with a princess…a rat hates living in the darkness of the dungeon and longs to live in the light…a serving girl wants to be a princess…The Tale of Despereaux is rife with impossible-to-resolve conflicts. Only in a fairy tale can a mouse find a way to marry a princess…a rat find a way to live in the light…a homely servant find a way to become a beautiful princess. Though much of the book feels like a fairy tale, the author chooses to go another direction at the end. No one lives a sappy sweet happily-ever-after. Dreams aren’t realized in the way one might hope, but instead in the way one needs. The book is chock full of ponderings about the power of hope, forgiveness, and love, but, again, the author shows how these save one, though not in the way one might expect.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

For me, this book falls into the "important but very painful to read" category. It was depressing, disheartening, and yet an important look at race relations in the south in the 1930s.

The basic story is a year in the life of the Logans, as told from 9-year-old Cassie Logan's point of view. She and her family live in Mississippi, north of Vicksburg, on a former plantation. Her family is different than the other tenant farmers in their area: they own 400 acres of their own land. It was a fluke: a Yankee had bought some after the Civil War and ended up selling some to Cassie's grandfather. Yet, it's the land -- and owning it -- that allows Cassie's family a measure of freedom that the other families don't have.

The interesting thing (to me) is that the other black families don't hold it against the Logans do what they can to help out their neighbors and work hard at making ends meet. It's the white people that claim the Logan's are putting on airs, getting uppity and the like. In the end, it's the land that both dooms them and saves them. (Which sounds ominous, I know, but really that's the way it happens.)

Mildred Taylor doesn't spare any one or anything. When Cassie disobeys, she gets whipped. She gets humiliated for just being black, and manages to get her "revenge". It's very much a world of get and try and give back. The children get splattered every morning on their way to school by the white bus going by (on purpose), and they take their revenge. Which sets off a chain of events. I think more than race relations, this book is about consequences. The consequences of choices, of decisions, of being black (or white) in Mississippi. There's a strong sense of family, too. The Logans deeply care for their children, wanting what's best for them. They are also concerned for their safety, navigating the difficult path of what's right versus what's best.

It was a very powerful book, one that I'm sure will stay with me for quite a while.

Cross posted at Book Nut.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Good Masters! Sweet Lades! (#2)

In a word: delightful.

Other words to describe this: gem, fascinating, funny, captivating, beautiful.


I won't go into how much I loved the foreword, or the explanation sections, since Sandy did that already (and I wholeheartedly agree with her!)

It's amazing how much information Laura Amy Schlitz packed into 81 pages. There are 23 captivating characters, each one with their own story. It's a well-researched (but never dull) peek back in to Medieval times, the harshness of it, as well as the simple little joys. I liked that Schlitz didn't glamorize the lives of these children, but I liked that she kept it accessible to kids of today. I liked that much of it was poetry: beautiful, simple, powerful. (And this is from someone who isn't necessarily a fan of poetry.)

It's a treasure, and well worth the Newbery it won this year.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!

This year's Newbery winner is Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Robert Byrd.

It's a charming book. I love history, and I love footnotes and poetry, and Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! has all of these in great abundance. It's also got gorgeous (vaguely medieval looking) illustrations, including a wonderful map of the world of the unnamed manor, that includes all of the characters, their houses, fields, and even some activities and animals.

In high school (about twenty-five years ago in north-central Illinois), we had to read selections from Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology. Those interlinked epitaphs or "poetic monologues" made quite an impression on me - I actually wanted to name my daughter Lucinda after one of my favorite Spoon River characters. Unfortunately Lucinda just doesn't go well with my husband's last name, or mine, so we went with a different (but still rather literary) girl's name.

Anyway, Schlitz's collection of "miniature plays", written for her students at the Park School in Baltimore (lucky students!), like Masters' epitaphs, provide intimate looks at people from very different social classes and temperaments. Masters' collection focused on a small town in Illinois; these stories come from a manor (a small town associated with a lord) in England in the year 1255. But both books have the same feel to me - they're basically gossipy stories that highlight deeper issues.

Part of the appeal of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! (and the Spoon River Anthology) is how the different monologues reveal different aspects of the characters. In addition to each kid's own piece (Schlitz notes in her delightful foreword that she imagines the characters in GM!SW! as "between ten and fifteen years old", pg. ix), you also get several fascinating glimpses of how some of their peers - in age if not class - also see each other.

And in Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, you also learn quite a bit about medieval history.

Schlitz really had me hooked in her foreword:
When I was a student, I had two ideas about history, and one of them was that history was about dead men who had done dull things. History was dates and governments and laws and war and money - and dead men. Always dead men.

But I also read historical novels. And I adored them. People in historical novels loved, fought, and struggled to survive. They died violently; they were beset with invaders and famine and plague. They wore splendid clothes or picturesque rags. They performed miracles of courage and strength just to get something to eat. It was from novels that I learned that history was the story of survival: even something that sounded boring, like crop rotation or inheritance law, might be a matter of life and death to a hungry peasant. Novels taught me that history is dramatic. I wanted my students to know that, too (pg. ix).
Happily, the rest of the book fulfilled the foreword's promise (not like here, where I ranted about just the opposite in The White Stag, which won in 1938).

I gathered that GM!SL! was a dark horse in the Newbery race this year when I talked to the librarians at my library this morning (they had to fetch the book from the office, where it was awaiting its Newbery sticker). I have to say I'm happy with this unexpected choice.

And the 2008 Winner Is....

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, by Laura Amy Schlitz

the Honors winners are:

Elijah of Buxton, by Christopher Paul Curtis (ha! I just checked this out of the library yesterday)

The Wednesday Wars, by Gary D. Schmidt

Feathers, by Jacqueline Woodson

They all sound pretty interesting. There's a blurb from the American Library Association here.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron

Cross-posted at The Well-Read Child

With this year’s Newbery winner being announced on Monday, I figured I’d better get around to reading last year’s winner.

The Higher Power of Lucky is set in Hard Pan, California, a destitute town where nearly everyone receives “Government Surplus commodities.” Even though the town may be lacking in money, it’s not lacking in interesting and eclectic people. First you have Short Sammy, a recovering alcoholic whose house is made of a water tank. Then there’s quiet Lincoln, Lucky’s friend who is fascinated with tying knots. His mother a librarian wants him to be president, and his father, a much older man spends his day driving around in a dune buggy looking for historic pieces of barbed wire he can sell on EBay. And then there’s Lucky Trimble a 10 year old girl whose mother was electrocuted by down power lines when she was eight. Her father, whom Lucky doesn’t even know wasn’t about to become a father when her mother died, so he somehow managed to get his first wife, Brigitte, to come all the way from France to be Lucky’s guardian. Lucky is consumed with the fear that Brigitte will go back to France and leave her. The book centers around this as we get a glimpse into Lucky’s everyday life and the people of Hard Pan.

When I first read this book, I thought, “THIS won the Newbery Medal?” I thought it was a good story, but I didn’t think it one of the best young adult books I’d ever read and certainly not as good as Hattie Big Sky, which was named a Newbery Honor Book last year.

But as I kept thinking about the story and the characters, it grew on me. Patron does an exceptional job with characterization in the book. Lucky is exceptionally smart and creative. She loves to make up stories about the “Olden Days” where her companions, HMS Beagle (her real-life dog who is “not a ship or a beagle”) and Chesterfield, a mule, have all kinds of adventures. For a child of ten, she has had to deal with things that no adult would want to go through—the death of her mother and the abandonment of her father. These experiences give her a sense of maturity that many 10-year-olds don’t have, but Patron reminds us over and over again that she is a child. She carries around a “survival backpack” wherever she goes. Its contents include a survival blanket, half a tube of toothpaste, a bottle of Gatorade, tins for collecting her bug specimens, and much more. She puts mineral oil on her eyebrows so they’ll glisten (Brigitte won’t let her wear real makeup), and she has a bit of a crush on Lincoln. She eavesdrops on AA meetings and other “anonymous meetings,” and it’s apparent that she doesn’t understand what they’re really all about as she tries to search for her own “Higher Power.” These types of things made me chuckle and then I’d come across a passage like this that would tug at my heart: “Sometimes Lucky wanted to change everything, all the bad things that had happened, and sometimes she wanted everything to stay the same forever,” (p. 8).

Patron gives us a glimpse into what it feels like to live in constant fear that you’re going to be abandoned and not know where you’re going end up—the fear that is all too real for most foster children. Even little Miles, who lives with his grandmother, doesn’t know where his mother is and carries around a worn copy of “Are You My Mother?” I couldn’t help feeling empathy for him as Lucky refused to read it to him—again.

Even with all of the heart wrenching moments, Patron does a fine job of balancing them with humor and an engaging storyline. The book is not too heavy or depressing and has an uplifting ending.

I was surprised (well not really) to hear all of the hubbub about Patron’s use of the word “scrotum” on the very first page of the book—she’s retelling Short Sammy’s story of his lowest point with his alcoholism where his dog gets bit on the scrotum by a snake. There is nothing sexual or perverse, and in fact, Lucky is not even sure what a scrotum is—another example that she is just a child. My two cents—children have heard much far worse, and it is the proper name of a sexual organ. Patron could have used a number of alternative terms. It is not and should not be a focal point of the book, and the fact that it has been banned is completely ridiculous. But don’t get me started on what I think about censorship…even I am making this is the focal point of my review.

The Higher Power of Lucky is a good book with lovable characters, great and believable dialogue, and both poignant and funny moments. I personally would have picked Hattie Big Sky to win, but I’m not on the committee, so what can I do?

Correction: My sources were incorrect...The Higher Power of Lucky hasn't been banned although there was a lot of chatter about it being challenged or banned. Even so, I STILL think it's ridiculous that it would even be considered. Thanks to Susan at Wizards Wireless for setting me straight and pointing me to this article.

Miss Hickory

I decided to tackle Miss Hickory by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey, and what a wonderful book to read in the wintertime!

Miss Hickory is made from an apple-wood twig for her body and a hickory nut for her head. Though most people would say she is a doll, Miss Hickory is alive.

As the book opens, Miss Hickory has a problem. Winter in New Hampshire is rapidly approaching, and she will not be able to last the season in her little corncob house under the lilac bush. Miss Hickory despairs until her friend Crow offers a solution: he has found an abandoned robin's nest in the apple orchard which Miss Hickory can occupy at least until the spring.

The reader follows Miss Hickory's adventures with animals of farm and field and experiences the beauty of nature with her. The book is filled with gorgeous passages that draw a vivid picture of Miss Hickory's world. To quote one such passage from chapter 11:

"Snow a foot deep still whitened the top of Temple Mountain, but at the foot a rose-pink haze lay in lovely color. That was the budding of the red maple trees. In the lee of the mountain there hung a golden curtain, as pale yellow as a new moon. That was the flowering of the willows... Once, as Crow swooped down over High-Mowing, she saw some moving spots like bits of scattered broken sunset."

I strongly encourage everyone to pick up a copy of Miss Hickory and get lost in the loveliness of a New Hampshire winter!

The Twenty-One Ballons by William Pene Dubois

The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene Dubois

What a peculiar story! William Sherman, tired of teaching ungrateful children, decides to travel around the world in a hot air balloon. Sherman succeeds, but not in the way he'd anticipated.

Unexpectedly, Sherman crashes on the island of Krakatoa. Instead of finding a deserted island, however, he comes upon a strange community of people. The community has a source of wealth, a magnificent diamond mine, that allows the people to do anything they wish. The people have created a zany civilization founded upon the idea of restaurants, eating out at a different family's restaurant every night. Sherman is shown novel designs for homes and odd inventions that have come from the clever minds of the island's residents. Despite their apparent creativity and great wealth, the people choose to live on an island that, every hour of the day, threatens their lives.

And, of course, as one might expect, the moment comes when Krakatoa blows. Somehow, the people are able to escape without harm and Sherman is able to return home to San Francisco.
Very, very peculiar book.

And what an odd coincidence that Twenty-One Balloons is my twenty-first book of the year!

Shadow of a Bull by Maia Wojciechowska

Shadow of a Bull by Maia Wojciechowska

A book about bullfighting seems like the last book I would want to read, but Shadow of a Bull is not just a book about bullfighting. Shadow of a Bull is a rich book about the trials of being the son of a hero, a book about the struggles of a boy trying to find his own way in a world that is attempting to force him to take a path the boy does not want to take. Manolo is the son of a magnificent bullfighter. When Manolo's father is killed in the ring, the people look to Manolo to become the man his father was. Manolo does not want to be a bullfighter. But he does not want to disappoint his mother and his father's friends and all the people of his town. He is afraid, paradoxically, of both the bull and of being a coward. He can find no way out.

The author is somehow able to share with the reader the beauty and the horror of bullfighting. I was surprised to find that I could see bullfighting in a new way, as an art, as a heroic act, though I continue to feel revulsion as well.

Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray

Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray

"A road's a kind of holy thing," said Roger the Minstrel to his son, Adam. "That's why it's a good work to keep a road in repair, like giving alms to the poor or tending the sick. It's open to the sun and wind and rain. It brings all kinds of people and all parts of England together. And it's home to a minstrel, even though he may happen to be sleeping in a castle."

Adam is a young boy of eleven, spending his time in school while awaiting the return of his father, a minstrel of some repute, and the resumption of his life with his father on the road. Adam's father does return and together father and son head out on the road but, like all road trips, this adventure has many unexpected twists and turns, including the kidnapping of Adam's beloved dog and Adam's separation from his father. The fun of being on this road with Adam is seeing the people and places of another time, parsons and knights and other minstrels and other travelers.

As a librarian, I began to see myself like Roger and Adam, as a kind of minstrel, singing songs, reciting poetry, relating stories. Ah, a new epithet: "Minstrel of the Library."

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Amos Fortune, Free Man

Amos Fortune was born At-mun, the son of a king in Africa. Before he knew it, he was seized and taken to America, to be sold as a slave. He was fortunate, however, and was sold to a kind Quaker who treated him justly and beneficently and allowed him to buy his freedom. All his life (and he lived a long life, living to nearly one hundred) Amos helped others become free, including all three of his wives.

With a copyright date of 1950, I anticipated there would be lots of racist elements to this book. There were, but the book was redeemed somewhat by the depiction of Amos as a pioneer, a good man, a man who led the way for others.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Trumpeter of Krakow

Adventure…kings…alchemists…heroes…castles…villains…treasure…What more could a kid want in a story?

The book centers on a family who has come to Krakow having lost everything to marauders seeking an ancient treasure said to be in the family’s possession. A classic story of adventure.

Secret of the Andes

Secret of the Andes is a quiet story of an Inca boy growing up in the mountains of Peru, raising llamas. This boy, Cusi, knows little of his past, and has no home other than the mountains, no family outside his elderly mentor and his llamas.

Time passes and Cusi knows he must leave the mountain, leave his llamas, leave his mentor, and go to the city to seek out his heart’s desire. Will he find this heart’s desire? And, if he does, will it be what he thought it would be? A wonderful little story of the seeking and finding of simple happiness in a big world.