Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Daniel Boone

Daniel Boone, a biography by James Daugherty, won the Newbery in 1940. It's one of the few Medal winners that is currently out-of-print, and is consequently somewhat expensive and may be hard to obtain. Many libraries do have old copies of it (my copy, one of two from the small Saline District Library is copyright 1962; I noticed that the much larger neighboring Ann Arbor District system only has one copy, which is on permanent reserve in the Reference Collection).

I hate to say it, but I'm glad this book is out-of-print. It has replaced The Matchlock Gun (1942) and The White Stag (1938) as my least favorite of the thirty-six Newbery books I've read so far. I thought that the story and the descriptions (with the exception of the casual racism) were actually very well done in The Matchlock Gun, and the artwork was gorgeous in The White Stag, but I couldn't find any such redeeming qualities in Daniel Boone.

James Daugherty did the many illustrations (as well the cover and the text) in Daniel Boone, and although I like WPA-era murals and posters in general, I found the pictures in Boone just plain creepy. The green and brown coloring on the black & white outline drawings just added to the general fugliness of his strangely contorted figures. It's like they all have bowling balls under their clothes, and even the illustrations that don't show wickedly muscular Indians terrorizing cowering settler maidens are weirdly unsettling.

The Newbery Companion (a book that is almost entirely readable and searchable through GoogleBooks) suggests here that Daniel Boone is appropriate for Grades 5-9. (Amazon's assigned reading level of "Baby-Preschool" is obviously an error). I think that kids this age would be mostly bored by Daugherty's ode to Manifest Destiny, which is full of flowery passages like this:
So Daniel Boone grew lean and strong with his toes in the good black dirt, with the ring of the anvil in his ears, strong and sure-handed with tools and guns, and his head as clear and cool as the hillside spring above his cabin home (p. 14).

He had often dreamed of a way, some river trail or hidden pass that would lead surely over the mountains to the unknown plains. It might be the gateway to a new America, a fabulous western world with a destiny of glory like the towering storm clouds in a fiery sunset (p. 27).

The lives of these movers on the Wilderness Road and forest settlers were a rough and violent saga full of lights and shadows, sweet and bitter as the wild persimmon, rough and tough as the shag-barked hickories, fierce and tender as the tall waving corn of the valleys (p. 52).
The following passage, where Daugherty writes about Daniel Boone's first biography, (written by a schoolteacher named John Filson, who interviewed Boone and published his account when Boone was 50 in 1784) is particularly ironic in light of Daugherty's own choice of language:
What a story he must have heard! Mr. Filson embalmed it in elegant language and dullness and reflections on the beauties of nature (p. 80).
Daugherty's biography rests very lightly on the historical facts. I was frustrated at the beginning by not even being able to figure out exactly what time period the book was set in (no Googling until I finished!) - not until page 26 (over a quarter of the way through the book) is a date even mentioned. And then you realize that it's 1765, and that Boone must have been born at least a couple of decades before this (as a matter of fact, Daniel Boone was born in 1734 and died in 1820).

The French & Indian War and the American Revolution are never mentioned as the primary causes of the Native/English/American violence repeatedly described in Daniel Boone. The reader is left with the idea that the "bloody tales of massacre, torture, and desperate escapes" (p. 38), as Daugherty puts it, are probably due to the nature of the Indians, who are variously described as savage, savage demons, rats in the night, outlandish, infesting the woods, cat-eyed, and as doomed as the buffalo. One passage does also describe "The splendid copper-gleaming images of the dreaded Indian chieftains [that] emerged suddenly out of the dark green forest background" (p. 39).

But by far the most disturbing part of the book for me was the gratuitous inclusion of the following passage from The Autobiography of David Crockett - meant to illustrate the destruction of an Indian village, I guess:
We took them all prisoners that came out to us in this way; but I saw some warriors run into a house, until I counted forty-six of them. We pursued them until we got near the house, when we saw a squaw sitting in the door, and she placed her feet against the bow she had in her hand, and then took an arrow, and, raising her feet, she drew with all her might, and let fly at us, and she killed a man, whose name, I believe, was Moore. He was a lieutenant, and his death so enraged us all, that she was fired on, and had at least twenty balls blown through her. This was the first man I ever saw killed with a bow and arrow. We now shot them like dogs; and then set the house on fire, and burned it up with the forty-six warriors in it. I recollect seeing a boy who was shot down near the house. His arm and thigh was broken, and he was so near the burning house that the grease was stewing out of him. In this situation he was still trying to crawl along; but not a murmur escaped him, though he was only about twelve years old. So sullen is the Indian, when his dander is up, that he had sooner die than make a noise, or ask for quarters (p. 24-25).
So what age group is this appropriate reading for? I know I don't want my 11 year old to read that, especially when it is not portrayed as a particularly bad thing, but just as part of frontier life or as a characterization of "The Indian". This kind of violence may have been common in the 18th century, but I don't think it's something to be celebrated, or even casually mentioned in children's literature, as it is in Daugherty's Boone.*

Daugherty's graphic (pardon the pun) art is still controversial, by the way: check out this 2006 newspaper article on the display of one of his murals in an elementary school in Connecticut: Mural's Content May Stop Its Return to School.

In short, I was alternately bored, fairly disturbed, and annoyed by this book, and I don't think its shortcomings can be easily dismissed as a product of its time (especially when it is compared to other earlier winners, like Caddie Woodlawn, Call It Courage, and The Story of Mankind). I didn't even learn that much about Daniel Boone, except when I started searching for information online on sites like Daniel Boone: Myth and Reality in American Consciousness (an American Studies project at University of Virginia). I would recommend kids interested in learning more about Daniel Boone and Euro-American settlement in the Ohio River Valley look elsewhere. Almost anywhere else, in fact.

*I can see using that passage as part of a lesson like this one (for Grades 6-8, from the History Channel), but that's clearly not the situation here.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Time-Traveling with the Newbery Awards

is the title of an interesting article by Michelle F. Bayuk, who did what we're doing now: she read all of the Newbery winners. And it only took her twenty months!

I nodded and chuckled over her likes and dislikes, and wondered how I missed the bit about glaciers in The Story of Mankind. (I have to check that out next time I'm at the library).

I actually found this article while Googling for reviews and more information on my latest least favorite Newbery Award winner: James Daugherty's Daniel Boone (the 1940 medalist, on which Bayuk also made a few choice comments). But I'm going to save my comments on Daugherty's Boone for my review.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Dicey's Song by Cynthia Voight

I avoided this book for a long time because I had heard it was too upsetting for children. Yes, it is a sad book. And it might be too sad for some children. But there are lots and lots of children who would like to hear this story.

Dicey and her three siblings have come to live with their grandmother. Their mother is in a mental hospital; their father skipped out before Dicey’s youngest brother, Sammy, was born.

There are lots of problems to overcome. Dicey’s sister, Maybeth, isn’t learning like she should in school. James, Dicey’s brother, hides how smart he is in order to fit in. Sammy gets into fights. People talk about and tease the children about Gram. Dicey, like Gram, has learned to feign indifference.

The whole Tillerman clan slowly works on all these problems, talking together, singing together, making new friends, working, building a boat.

Now I’m anxious to see what my readers of realistic fiction at school think of this book.

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse

Billie Jo and her parents are struggling to survive. There is no money. The farm has had no rain. Worst of all, storms are blowing across the land, raining dust on everything.

And then, in the midst of all the suffering, comes tragedy: Billie Jo’s mother and tiny baby brother die in a horrible accident. A difficult life becomes impossible.

A grim, bleak novel, yes, but a novel that has stayed with me since I first read it ten years ago, a novel that is just as good the second time as it was the first.

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Jonas lives in a perfect world. Everything in the world has been carefully planned and designed and carried out to make the world perfect. Each family has exactly one boy and one girl. All children get a bicycle at nine, no sooner, no later. At dinner, each family member brings up the feelings of the day; at breakfast, each family member relates his dreams. All families. Every day.

Twelve is the big year, the year each child will be assigned his job, the perfect job just for him. Jonas is eager, though perhaps a little anxious, to turn twelve and learn what his role in his society is to be.

He is shocked to learn that he is to become the Receiver of Memory, the one person in the society who holds all the memories, both good and bad, happy and sad, of the past in his head. He is given special privileges: he can ask any questions he wishes of anyone and he can lie. He studies with an old man, the former Receiver of Memory, a man who asks Jonas to now call the Giver.

And the Giver does given memories to Jonas: color, snow, the sky, families, pain, and – most powerfully – love.

As Jonas learns the black truths behind the perfect world he lives in, he and the Giver realize it is up to them to change this perfect world.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Slave Dancer - 1974

The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox
Illustrations by Eros Keith

Pages: 176
First Published: 1973
Rating: 3/5

First Sentence:

In a hinged wooden box upon the top of which was carved a winged fish, my mother kept the tools of her trade.

Comments: Thirteen-year-old Jessie Bollier is kidnapped by sailors and taken to work upon their ship. Jessie learns that the ship is a slaver and is going to Africa to pick up slaves to take back to Cuba. Jessie's purpose on the ship is to be the 'slave dancer', he will play his flute, while the slaves are made to dance so as to keep their muscles fit. This was an okay book. The first half of the book is an intriguing look at life at sea and the characters are interesting. The second half of the book deals with the slave trade and the horrors of such are not sugar-coated and it is a compelling read. However, the writing just didn't grab me all the much. The characters lacked vitality. It was interesting but not one that will leave a lasting impression. Also, I must say I was not impressed with the illustrations at all. They are full of shadows, lack details and very vague. Ultimately, a good, but not great, book.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse

1998 Newbery Winner

The dust bowl is hard for Billie Jo and her family, but they still have each other, and Billie Jo can lose herself by playing the piano. Then an accident occurs, and everything changes. Bereft of so many things important to her, Billie Jo struggles to deal with the circumstances she finds herself in.

The word that comes to mind when I think of this book is “raw”.

I don’t mean like unpolished, or any of that stuff. I mean, it almost hurts to read it. None of the words are wasted, and as such, they pack a powerful enough punch to knock you down. The emotions aren’t excessive, but they’re so undiluted that they sort of take your breath away.

I’m slightly allergic to books written free verse. After all, why write a book with all those funny little lines when you could just put them in perfectly nice paragraphs? Much more organized. I won’t say that this book won me over to free verse, but I will say that I don’t think this book would have been nearly as good had it not been written in free verse. So if you, like me, are a little worried about the format of this book, I would give it a try anyway. I think most would like it.

(By the way, this is my first post here. Hi everyone!)

The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron

In light of the controversy surrounding this Newbery pick of 2007, I'd like to add this subtitle: "The Curious Incident of the Dog with the Scrotum Bite." A story about a girl named Lucky living in the desert of California, and how she deals with growing up, losing her mother, knowing her father does not want her, and worrying that her guardian is going to leave her and move to Paris, gets overshadowed by the reference on page one of a dog's scrotum bitten by a rattlesnake. I have to admit, the first page caught me off guard, but more so because of the story surrounding the tragic (though insignificant) snake bite. I completely agree with Kristen McLean of Pixie Stix Kids Pix:

"I can’t help but notice with amusement that no one has objected to another passage in the first chapter of the book that involves a man “who had drunk half a gallon of rum listening to Johnny Cash all morning in his parked ‘62 Cadillac, then fallen out of the car when he saw a rattlesnake on the passenger seat…” Apparently rum, drunkenness, and poor taste in automobiles have nothing on scrotums when it comes to getting people in a moral outrage. (I can’t criticize the Johnny Cash. I love Johnny Cash.)"

I did wonder exactly what audience she was trying to reach. As a self-proclaimed quirkophile, I thought I would enjoy the quirkiness of the characters, but I found myself switching from the audio book to the radio a lot and waiting anxiously for the story to end. In a possible defense of the book, when I listen to books in the car, it is very fragmented. I have four kids who go to three different schools, and I do daycare a few times a week for kids who go to yet another school. So the story gets broken up into about six or seven five-minute segments throughout the day. I can't help but wonder if I would have appreciated it more if I had sat down and read it all at once. As far as children, I have no idea if it would hold their attention at all. My 11-year-old son, who only heard bits and pieces, just described it as "weird," but I think that was after hearing about how Lucky puts mineral oil on her eyebrows to make them "glisten."
Overall, I just wasn't that impressed, and although I'm not quite in agreement with the author: “The word is just so delicious. The sound of the word to Lucky is so evocative. It’s one of those words that’s so interesting because of the sound of the word,” the scrotum and the controversy were the only exciting aspects of this children's novel.

P.S.-Sorry if the text is annoying--this is the way I do it on my blog, and I just copied it from there and was too lazy to resize the phrases!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

Cross posted at The Well-Read Child

2005 Newbery Medal Book

Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Reading level:
Ages 10-14
272 pages
Aladdin (December 26, 2006)

Kira-Kira is the story of the Japanese-American Takeshima family, told from the point of view of Katie, the youngest daughter. We learn in the opening passage of the story that Kira-Kira means “glittering” in Japanese, and that it was Katie’s first word, taught to her by her older sister Lynn. It’s obvious from the beginning that Katie adores Lynn.

Born in Iowa to Japanese immigrants, Katie and Lynn have a nice childhood, but everything changes when the family’s oriental food store goes out of business, and they move to Georgia to become factory workers in a poultry processing plant. It’s here that Katie realizes for the first time that she is different. Shunned by the white Georgians, the Japanese community in Georgia is tight knit, but life is very difficult. Katie and Lynn’s parents work extremely long hours under harsh conditions. Katie and Lynn rarely see their father, and when they do, he’s exhausted. Their mother is forced to wear “pads” because bathroom breaks are not allowed in the factory. When their baby brother, Sammy, is born, the girls and a next door neighbor pretty much raise him. Just when things can’t get worse, Lynn becomes very ill, and the family’s bonds are tested.

This heart wrenching story is one that I will soon not forget. Cynthia Kadohata expertly gets into the mind of a girl Katie’s age who has to deal with some very adult situations but does not quite understand them. An example of this is when Lynn is very ill, and despite appearing very strong and brave in front of Lynn, Katie needs a moment alone and breaks down:

“I cried and cried. For a while as I cried I hated my parents, as if it were their fault Lynn was sick. Then I cried because I loved my parents so much. Then I didn’t feel like crying anymore. I just felt barren, my eyes felt dry. They sky was still gray. Everything was gray, the sky and the store and even my hand when I held it out in front of myself. I wondered in anyone else in history had ever been as sad as I was at that moment” (p. 199).

We also see racism, prejudice, and the unfair treatment of the factory workers through Katie’s eyes. While some have criticized this book and being slow and uninteresting for young adults, it would have been right up my alley when I was younger. Certainly, it’s not for every kid and may appeal more to girls than boys, but it’s a story that I think will impact many. It was completely deserving of its 2005 Newbery Medal win.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Johnny Tremain (1944)

My spouse and I read this one aloud to our then-eight-year-old son. It was a great fit, both for him and for reading aloud.

The book's language is a little formal and dated. By that I mean Forbes uses constructions that were common in the late 1700s. Actually, I don't know if she researched it to use historically accurate language, but it's noticably different from contemporary writing (and from 1940's era writing), so I assume the effect was intentional.

Anyway, I think the language would have confused or alienated our son if he had been reading it on his own. Because we were reading it aloud, however, we could talk about what was happening and answer his questions as they arose. We all found that after a chapter or two, as often happens, the language felt more natural and less of an effort to understand. Then we were just able to enjoy the story.

It's a clever device Forbes uses: telling the story of the building pre-war tension and activities through the eyes of a boy living/apprenticing in Boston at the time. Interwoven with historical events (the tea party, Revere's midnight ride), is the equally dramatic story of Johnny's personal relationships. He worries about friends' safety as they hold illicit meetings. He has a crush on a girl from the aristocratic class. He struggles with the ethics of being a good English subject or a rebel.

It was a great adventure, a great piece of historical fiction and an overall great read.

This all came as a surprise to this reader, who is not a history fan or reader of boyish adventures.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Newbery Winners No One Has Reviewed

Won't someone take on the following titles? We still don't have a single review of:

Dicey's Song by Cynthia Voigt (1983)
Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt (1967)
Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith (1958)
Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham (1956)
The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong (1955)
Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson (1945)
Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes (1944)
Daniel Boone by James Daugherty (1940)
Waterless Mountain by Laura Adams Armer (1932)
Smoky, the Cowhorse by Will James (1927)
Shen of the Sea by Arthur Bowie Chrisman (1926)

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sounder by William Armstrong

My favorite Newbery so far. A story I want every child, every adult to read. A father (no proper nouns are ever used except for the name of the dog, Sounder) and his family are hungry. The weather makes hunting impossible. The father makes a decision to steal a ham for his children. But he is soon caught. When the men come to take the father to jail, they take a shot at Sounder and Sounder disappears. The father is sent to jail and then to work on a chain gang. For much of the book, the fate of neither Sounder nor the father is clear.

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

Annemarie is living in dangerous times, Denmark, 1943, during the Nazi occupation. Soldiers line the streets and harass the citizens daily. One day, Annemarie’s family learns that the Nazis have decided to relocate the Jews living in Denmark. Annemarie’s best friend and her parents are suddenly forced to find a way to get out of Denmark. It is Annemarie and her family who are able to help.

This was an exciting adventure story with scary Nazis popping up on every page. I listened anxiously to find out whether Annemarie’s friends would manage to flee Copenhagen and sail across to safety in Sweden.

The Grey King by Susan Cooper

At last! I made it through a book in The Dark is Rising series…though, to do it, I had to listen to it on audiotape. This was the last book in the series. Somehow I felt like I was missing a lot by not reading the earlier books. I didn’t understand how Will came to know he was an Old One. What does it really mean to be an Old One? Were there earlier mentions of Arthur and Guinevere? What else did Will have to obtain other than the harp? What is the difference between the Dark and the Light? Were all of these or any of these addressed in the earlier books?

Will made for an interesting hero, part boy, part wise man. His path led him to Wales and to the young mysterious Braun. The story reveals that Braun was brought to our world by his mother, but we are left unclear about Braun’s origins and his place in the story until the very last pages of the book.

Animated Despereaux

Well, this is interesting - an animated movie of The Tale of Despereaux is in production (see IMDb blurb with actors here). It's not going to be out until next Christmas, though. Anyone seen any of the movies made out of other Newbery winners?

Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer

“Who wanted to walk through lonely years, right foot, left foot, and never change step---never skip, run or skate?”

That’s Lucinda, an Anne-of-Green-Gables girl, filled with energy and enthusiasm, unexpectedly set loose in the city of New York. Lucinda’s parents head off to Europe for their health and Lucinda is left in the care of two very relaxed school teachers. She travels around New York City, befriending the poor and the lonely, on roller skates.

What a surprise to see a girl of the 1890’s, a society girl raised with all the Victorian rules and regulations stamped upon her, free to make friends with homeless men and battered wives of new immigrants and fruit sellers! I liked this book a lot. I wonder if Lucinda is able to keep her friends and her freedom once her parents have returned and regained control.

It's Like This, Cat by Emily Neville

Dave and his dad fight all the time and Dave’s mother gets sick. Dave brings home a cat who he appropriately names Cat. Cat helps Dave meet Tom and Mary and binds Dave and his parents into a real family.

I can remember reading this book when I was a young girl. I remember being confused about people who live in apartments (people do that?) and hearing a dad and his son argue all the time (a son is talking back to his dad and surviving?). I remember thinking Tom was an odd duck, a boy who was ignored by his family (does that really happen?) And the lingo the people speak, especially the young people, a dialect and vocabulary so different from my Texas lingo….This book took me right out of my little small-town world.

Invincible Louisa by Cornelia Miegs

I’ve often heard little stories about the Louisa of this book, Louisa May Alcott, but I’ve never read much real information about her. This is a biography of her life. Louisa grew up in a family determined to change the world by actively living their beliefs. She was best known as the author of Little Women.

As interesting to me as Louisa May Alcott was her father. Bronson Alcott was friends with every influential person of his time including Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorn. He barely made enough money to feed his children, yet he felt led to always give what little he had away to help others.

Louisa provided the only income the family had for much of her life. She worked doggedly as a writer between stints of work as a governess, a teacher, and a seamstress.

What a family!

Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski

How could a child read this book and complain about her life in 21st century America? The two families in this book suffer from the ravages of grasshoppers, illness, hunger, and jealousy. They argue and fight with each other, eventually going so far as to kill each other’s animals and set fire to the other’s farmhouse. A hardscrabble life complete with rattlesnakes and alligators and swamps. Yet there was also a beauty to this life, of neighbors helping each other, even when they have little for themselves.

Do endings like this really happen in real life? Would modern children believe this ending?

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Adam of the Road

Adam of the Road, by Elizabeth Janet Gray, is a classic road trip story. It's funny, because I'm reading Huckleberry Finn for my book club right now, and there are a lot of similarities - companions lost and found, unscrupulous wayfarers, country vs. city comparisons, and genuinely nice families that want to take a young boy in and teach him their craft and dress him appropriately. Adam is a lot less cynical than Huck, though, and blessed with a caring father, even if he loses him for part of the book.

Although I rather liked Adam of the Road, particularly for its descriptions of medieval life and the English countryside (and isn't it interesting that this is the second Newbery winner set in the 1200's in England? see Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! for a very different view of 13th century life), I have to disagree with Linda, who said that "the book contains plenty of action to keep a child interested" in her review here.

There have been some suspenseful Newbery winners that I could hardly put down (like Holes and Bud, Not Buddy). This wasn't one of them.

Adam of the Road reminded me a more of the 1924 winner, The Dark Frigate, which included an amble through the English countryside (along with the scenes set on a pirate ship). There is a plot, but I think it is pretty secondary to the scenery and the history. Which may make this a bit challenging for some kids to read (I can already hear my 11 year old son saying "It's soooo booo-ring").

I found it a relaxing and interesting read, but I'm not sure that is really enough for this award, if you know what I mean. Maybe there weren't many other choices for the Newbery Committee in 1943? The only Honors books for this year were Eleanor Estes' The Middle Moffat and Have You Seen Tom Thumb? by Mabel Leigh Hunt, which I haven't read but don't sound riveting, either. Maybe WWII put a crimp in children's book publishing.

Here's a couple examples of the descriptions that made the book worthwhile for me, anyway.
There was immense bustle and excitement within the walls of de Lisle House when the lord and lady and all their followers got there. The squires and maids went running about with perfumed and steaming baths, the grooms and stablemen were busy watering and bedding the horses; the carters unloaded the goods they had carried over so many miles. One cart had panes of glass in it, packed with the greatest care in layers of straw. Not many people had glass in their windows, but Sir Edmund did, beautiful glass, some of it painted, and he carried it from one of his houses to another as he traveled about (p. 65-66).
On the Great Hall of de Lisle house:
In the daytime the hall was the center of all the life of the household. On the dais at one end was the high table where the de Lisles and their guests ate, with their falcons sitting on perches on the wall behind and their dogs lying on the floor at their feet. In the center of the hall was the hearth, where on cold days a fire was lighted.

...At night, on the benches against against the wall, or even in the rushes on the floor, slept some of the men of the household. The porter slept there, for instance, and the clerk of the kitchen, an archer or two, and Roger and Adam and Nick (p. 86).
In short, if your kids aren't addicted to action in their books, then they might enjoy this. Or if they really like stories with faithful dogs (Nick is a beautifully described red spaniel whom is central to the plot), it might be a good pick. Also, Nick doesn't die, so you don't have to worry about one of those Old Yeller experiences when reading Adam of the Road. I've decided that happily ever after is definitely better when it comes to dogs in children's literature - but maybe that's a topic for another post.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

A Gathering of Days

A Gathering of Days by Joan W. Blos

Written in the form of a journal, this book is the story of a year in the life of a fourteen year old girl living in New England in the early 1830’s. During the year, Catherine helps a runaway slave, loses her best friend, sees her widowed father remarry, and leaves her farm forever.

There is something about a book written as a journal that draws the reader close to the characters. I had just started this book when a fifth grader came into the library and asked if I could find her a book like A Gathering of Days. She loved it and wanted to read more books like it.

Ginger Pye

Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes

This is the kind of simple story about ordinary happy families that I read in bulk as a child. (I remember reading this particular story, in fact.) Rachel and Jerry are brother and sister, living with their mom and dad in a quiet little town. Jerry wants a dog, but he knows it is nearly impossible for him to earn the dollar he needs in time to buy the dog. Lo and behold, an opportunity to earn money avails itself to Jerry and, before he knows it, he is the proud owner of Ginger, a brilliantly clever dog. But, alas, others learn of Ginger’s brilliance. Ginger disappears.

The rest of the book is devoted to searching for Ginger. And that’s the whole book. No family turmoil. No dysfunctional people. Everyone in the story seems, well, focused and kind and happy and…gosh, nice. Was Estes deluding herself? Were families really like this? Are most families like this now? One can always hope.

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!

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

This year’s Newbery winner. Loved it.

The book was written in the form of short monologues, with characters representing many of the traditional people of medieval times. The author uses the sidebars to explain here and there words and expressions that children might not know. She also interjects a few pages of informational text to explain some of the key features of the times.

Loved it!

Miracles on Maple Hill

Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorensen

This is the kind of book I was afraid I was in for when I decided to read the Newbery books. The truth is that it was and it wasn’t. A white family, looking at the world, saying, “Oh gosh,” and “Oh golly,” facing issues like the son staying out too late and wondering where he is, facing how to get the big maple sugar crop in before it ruins, and lots and lots of “You can’t do that; you’re a girl.”

But it was also more. Dad was thought killed after time in a war camp, but he returns home, safe but scarred. Marly, the ten-year-old daughter, doesn’t listen to all the warnings about girls being unable to do things. Moving to the country heals. The family develops a deep friendship with an elderly couple nearby. The couple is warm and loving, but does not come across as overly false.

The details about maple sugaring are fun and new. The family heals, and reading about that process feels good. Yes, there are (sorry) sappy parts, but they, too, feel part of the time in which the story was written. Refreshing, somehow.

The Hero and The Crown

The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley

Aerin, the daughter of a witch and the king she bewitched, lives a lonely life, derided by her countrymen, scorned for her lack of gifts. Somehow she takes an elderly, broken-down warrior horse and heads off to kill a small dragon. In the process, she finds her life.

It was grueling to read the parts of the story where Aerin faces the enormous dragon, burning off her hair, scarring her. It felt, for some reason, more difficult to read than stories of men facing dragons. I do not know why.

I don’t know what children would make of this story. Big vocabulary. Tragedy. Love.

But I liked it a lot. Aerin learns much from a mystical mage, falls in love with him, and yet chooses to leave him to save her people, her ungrateful, cruel people.

...And Now Miguel

…And Now Miguel by Joseph Krumgold

Miguel wants desperately to go with the men on the long sheep drive in the summer, but his father thinks he is too young. Miguel does everything he can to prove himself to his father, but his father's answer is still no. Finally, Miguel resorts to praying to the saint, begging the saint to find a way for Miguel to go on the drive.

Miguel does not anticipate the consequences of his prayer. His father changes his mind, allowing Miguel to go, but at what cost, for what reasons?

This book is a thoughtful look at a boy growing to become a man, suddenly seeing things that were once clearly black or white have become a frightening gray.

M.C. Higgins the Great

M.C. Higgins, the Great by Virginia Hamilton

‘”I don’t know.” M.C. signed. “…But I’m getting tired of Daddy. Tired as I can be.”

“Come on,” Banina said. “We’ll miss the morning sun.” And later: “It’s not your daddy you tired of, M.C. It’s here. It’s this place. The same thing day after day is enemy to a growing boy.”

And all the ghosts, M.C. thought. All of the old ones.’

M.C. lives on the side of a mountain, just like his father before him and his grandmother before him. But all that must come to an end. Strip mining threatens to send a pile of rubble down on his home. M.C.’s father refuses to see it.

But M.C. is watching for ways to get away and one of the ways arrives in the form of a fellow recording songs. This fellow, this dude, as M.C. calls him, will get M.C.’s mother a singing contract and take the family away from the hills, M.C. thinks.

Another stranger visits, a girl traveling around the country, a city girl who shows M.C. other ways of thinking, of viewing his world, the bigger world. She could be a way out, M.C. thinks.
But again and again life disappoints, people disappoint. Out of the disappointments M.C. takes new knowledge and adds it to his old life, building a new life out of the old.

Friday, February 1, 2008


I'm not sure what I think of this book by Cynthia Kadohata. At first, I wasn't sure I liked it. It's one of those books that's not really about anything. I'm not sure I could sum up the plot: it's a young Japanese girl growing up in Georgia and her family surviving. It doesn't sound terribly interesting. (I'm not sure how many kids would be taken in by the cover, either.)

And yet, it's a lovely book, word-wise; very evocative of place and mood. You easily get a sense of Katie's wonder at the world, at her love for her sister (and eventually her younger brother). And because of the language, it becomes a beautiful tribute to sisters and to growing up. Katie would do anything for Lynn, even when the going gets difficult. Lynn loves Katie, even when she's being a teenager and thinks Katie's too immature. It's a testament to family and to how pulling together family can get someone through just about everything.

It's heartbreaking at the end, when Lynn becomes ill and eventually dies. Katie not only helps nurse her through her illness, but has to help her family pick up the pieces and move on. It's not easy; there are times when everyone loses it. But, they do move on, remembering Lynn yet not ending their lives for her.

It was a good book. Much better than I was expecting, and I'm glad I finally got around to reading it.

Cross-posted at Book Nut.