Monday, March 31, 2008

The Wheel on the School

This is another Newbery book that I had a terrible time with remembering the title every time I was at the library. The keywords wheels and schoolbus bring up a lot of hits in the library catalog, but not this 1955 Newbery winner.

Frankly, the book didn't sound very interesting when I finally managed to get the title right. When I picked it up, though, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was illustrated by Maurice Sendak, and that the wheel in the book goes on top of the school to attract storks. Storks are definitely more interesting (to me, anyway) than schoolbuses - which are no where to be found in this book, my mind just sticks wheels and buses together because of the preschool song - the wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, ad nauseum.

Anyway, I found The Wheel on the School a gentle and interesting if not overly exciting read. It reminded me a bit of Roller Skates in this respect - and like Roller Skates, DeJong's story does an excellent job of portraying a community of interesting characters and a time and place that is unfamiliar to most of us.

I did a little reading on the author, because I was intrigued to read on the dust jacket that Meindert DeJong lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan, after he came to the US (from Holland) as a child in 1914. DeJong's memories of his childhood in a small town in Friesland formed the basis for this story.

I think he did a masterful job of describing the dikes, the sea storms, the fishermen and their families, and the kids themselves:
It was a picnic - steaming coffee and cakes and fatballs. It was a feast! Hot chocolate milk for the boys and Lina! That was what made it really a picnic and a feast. You had hot chocolate milk on the Queen's Birthday and fatballs only on Santa Claus Day. But now fatballs and chocolate all the same day!

...It happened so seldom, having their fathers home. Always they were out at sea or, if home, busy with nets and sails and the readying of the boats. Now they'd have almost a whole day with their dads. The storm had made it a holiday for them, a chance for games and jokes with their fathers (p. 231).
Fatballs sounded so decadent and delicious I had to Google them. Here's a recipe - it does sound like they would be very good with hot cocoa.

After a few days of stormy weather in Shora, though, the situation was no longer quite so cozy:
For five days now each fisherman had been cooped up in his little house - one living room, a hall, and a kitchen. The living room, with its bedding from the closet beds piled over every chair, seemed always to be in the long, awkward process of bedmaking. The restless fishermen were growing irritated by the closeness of the dark, shut-up houses, the smell of their own stale tobacco smoke, the babies and little children that seemed always to be underfoot...

On the fifth day of the storm Lina's father finally swept the whole mess of dominoes off the table so hard that two of them landed in the ash box of the peat stove that his wife was just emptying. "You can't eat dominoes," he exploded. "It seems when I'm not holding a half-wet tot, I'm keeping older kids quiet with dominoes. Dominoes! It's getting so I'm getting spots before my eyes!" (p. 235)
For kids (and adults) that have the patience for this story - it is a bit long, especially compared to some of the other winners - there is a lot to enjoy. DeJong shows a fine understanding of environmental relationships (and how cool would it be to have storks on your roof?), community and family interactions, and how kids think. I'm glad I read The Wheel on the School, and I wouldn't mind reading some of DeJong's other books - a couple of the others won Newbery Honors, and several more are also illustrated by Sendak.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien

Mrs. Frisby’s son, Timothy, is ill and cannot be moved. But it is time for the family to move. It is time for farmers to start planting their crops and, to do so, they must first till up the land, including the spot where Mrs. Frisby’s house is located. Mrs. Frisby consults a wise owl who introduces her to a brilliant tribe of rats. The rats, Mrs. Frisby learns, are friends of her late husband. She hears their fascinating story and the rats are able to come up with a way to save Timothy and Mrs. Frisby’s home.

The Matchlock Gun

The Matchlock Gun by Walter D. Edmonds

Another Newbery tale that was once popular and now is seen as wrong-minded. This is an old family story of a boy who saved his mother and sister from Indian attack in the early years of New York. The boy was able to fire off an ancient family gun and stop the invaders from destroying his family. I understand how a group of people, in this case the Native Americans, can be unilaterally seen as cruel and aggressive from books such as Daniel Boone and The Matchlock Gun, but another part of me sees this book as part of history, albeit a part of history that is no longer recognized as unbiased.

Daniel Boone

Daniel Boone by James Daugherty

And, at last, I dared to read Daniel Boone. It’s a story full of wicked Indians and good-guy white settlers, full of killing and attacking. You can almost see Daniel’s halo and the devil horns of the Indians as you read the story. It is told in the vernacular of Daugherty’s time and it is undoubtedly an interesting and exciting story. Must we pull it from our shelves simply because it is chockfull of opinions and prejudices? Can it not be read as a story without vilifying either the Indians or the white people of the book? What about reading it as a legend, a folk tale, which, of course, it is?

Walk Two Moons

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

I read this book for the first time when I was doing my training to become a librarian. It was a breathtaking book, full of mysteries and small plots that all come together for a fantastic ending. The story is that of Sal who is traveling with her quirky grandparents across the US, taking the same path as that of Sal’s mother. Sal is on her way to find her mother who left home a year ago and has not returned. During the trip, Sal tells her grandparents the story of her friend, Phoebe, who received mysterious messages, met a “lunatic,” and, like Sal, had a mother who disappeared. The story is thoughtful as well as plotful. I loved this book.


Dobry by Monica Shannon

Why is this book a forgotten Newbery? I had so much trouble finding a used or new copy that I ended up having to get a copy from my library.

Dobry is the story of a boy in Bulgaria who wants to become an artist during a time when most people are farmers. The story is full of details about Bulgarian life during the time, the arrival of storks, a massaging gypsy bear, diving through ice to locate a golden crucifix. Why, then, is this book forgotten? The illustrations were initially not compelling, but I grew to appreciate them as the story progressed. There is mention in the book of both peasants and gypsies; could this be why the book is ignored?

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor (Audio)

Roll of Thunder is a reread (or, to be more exact, a re-listen). I loved it the first time and I loved it this time. It’s the kind of book I now want to push off on everyone I meet.

It’s a story of the horrible effects of racism, but it is also much more than that. It’s the story of the struggles of a family to keep their land, to be good citizens and human beings, to have children that are good citizens and good human beings. I marveled at the character of Mama and Papa who never gave up their fight. I was happy to see Mr. Morrison in the story, a white man who dared to flaunt the social norms for the higher principles of justice. I was sad to watch T.J. fall prey to greed and pride.

Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

How many times have I read this book? Ten? Fifteen? I know only that much of the book I already knew by heart.

Meg is a classic gifted kid, brilliant in certain areas, but without a clue as to how to fit in among regular kids. Her little brother, Charles Wallace, is even more precocious. Meg and Charles meet up with three mysterious creatures, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Who, and befriend a boy as gifted as they are who has learned to get along, Calvin. Together, they go off in search of Meg and Charles’ father and, in the process, have to find a way to fight the Black Thing and IT.

This was the first book I remember wanting to read over and over again when I was a little girl.

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

Cross posted at The Well-Read Child

The Tale of Despereaux has everything I look for in a good fairy tale: a hero, a damsel in distress, an evil villain, and an exciting plot, full of suspense, where ultimately good triumphs over evil. Kate DiCamillo brilliantly includes all of these elements in an unconventional and quirky way that kids will love.

Our hero, Despereaux is a tiny mouse with “obscenely large ears” who lives in a castle with his large mouse family. The runt and only survivor of his mother’s last litter, he has always been different and a source of embarrassment for his family. In addition to his size, he doesn’t enjoy hunting for crumbs and prefers reading books instead of eating them. He even commits the ultimate offense of talking to humans and even let one, the beautiful Princess Pea, touch him. GASP! It’s this offense that sentences him to be eaten by rats in the dungeon. He manages to escape this sentence but soon has to return as he sets upon his quest to save the Princess.

Our villain is the rat, Chiaroscuro, Roscuro for short. He led a normal and rotten rat life in the dungeon until a match was lit in front of his face, and he began to crave light. It’s this craving for light that brings him up into the castle and ultimately results in the Queen’s death. Something happens during this incident that causes him to hate the Princess Pea, and he develops a plan to destroy her.

Our damsel in distress is the kind and lovely Princess Pea who manages to make Despereaux fall in love with her at first sight. But she’s actually kind of boring—the character I liked the most was Miggery Sow.

Named after her father’s favorite pig, Miggery Sow’s, Mig for short, mother died when she was a young girl. Her father sold her for a red tablecloth, a hen, and cigarettes to a cruel man who “clouted” her on the ear so much that she lost part of her hearing and ended up with ears that resembled cauliflowers. A stroke of luck gets the slow-witted Mig a job at the castle, where she desperately wants to become a Princess. Roscuro uses this to his advantage and tricks Mig into helping him execute his plan to destroy the Princess. Readers will feel sympathy for Mig as they learn about her background, but will also roll with laughter when she misinterprets what people say to her because her poor hearing.

These eccentric characters, along with an engaging, fast, and peculiar plot make The Tale of Despereaux a fantastic book that many children will love. I particularly liked the narrator’s frequent asides to the reader. While some criticize this as distracting, I think it actually draws readers in and makes for an excellent read aloud. For example, in one section, we learn about Mig’s arrival at the castle and her inability to find a job she was successful at completing. To help set the stage for this section, the narrator says,

“Reader, as the teller of this tale, it is my duty from time to time to utter some hard and rather disagreeable truths. In the spirit of honesty, then, I must inform you that Mig was the tiniest big lazy. And, too, she was not the sharpest knife in the drawer. That is, she was a bit slow-witted.” (p. 152)

So what made this book win the Newbery Medal in 2004? I think it’s because Ms. DiCamillo skillfully weaves in some great themes that can lead to many discussions, including accepting differences, living with honor, treating others with respect, the power of hope, and more. She manages to do all this through a charming story that children of a variety of ages will enjoy. It’s fast-paced and a great choice for a read aloud to younger children, and kids who are in the 8-10 range will be able to read it with ease.

Kids above ten may like it but pretend it’s too childish, but I don’t want to give off the impression that it’s meant solely for younger children. Along with its lighthearted and funny parts, there is death and a little violence. But here’s how the narrator explains one part that is particularly dark.

"The story is not a pretty one. There is violence in it. And cruelty. But the stories that are not pretty have a certain value, too. I suppose. Everything, as you well know (having lived in this world long enough to have figured out a thing or two for yourself), cannot always be sweetness and light." (p. 183)

If your kids are Harry Potter fans, these parts are certainly not as dark as scenes in those books—not even close in fact. I wouldn’t have a problem sharing it with younger children, but be prepared to explain these issues if your young kids have questions.

I finished this book about two weeks ago and have sat down numerous times to write my review, but I’ve actually a hard time explaining it and wrapping it up into a succinct little description because it’s different than any other book I’ve read, but in a good way. In fact, I don’t think I’m doing it justice now. The bottom line is that I highly recommend it, and I think you and your children will like it just as much as I did.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Bronze Bow

I certainly never expected to encounter among the Newberys a book of historical fiction where the main character meets Jesus!

Daniel is a young man growing up in Israel during the time of the Roman occupation. Daniel wants nothing more than to rid his land of the hated Roman legions. He joins a band of warriors who are preparing an army to go up against the Romans, but, in time, he sees that the hatred of the band against the Romans is not conquering them. He hears about a rabbi who goes from village to village, preaching love not hate, and he comes to meet up with Jesus and sees with his own eyes the power of love.

Caddie Woodlawn

The Newbery Award committee members seem to love a strong girl and Caddie is among the strongest. She roams and tarries with her ruffian brothers on the wild plains of Wisconsin around the time of the American Civil War. Caddie plays practical jokes on her cousin, runs to the Indians to warn of a massacre, and proudly displays an Indian scalp belt for all the town to see. Caddie finally begins to see that becoming a lady is not just learning to quilt and say the right words and wear fancy clothes.

King of the Wind

This is the story of the founding father of racehorses, Sham, “King of the Wind,” and his friend, the stable boy, Agba. The story begins in Morocco where the sultan sends Sham and Agba off to France as a gift for the king. But the French laugh at the little horse and Sham is sent off to a series of owners, here and there, loved and hated, until he finally ends up in England. It is only in England when the true nature of Sham’s racing abilities are realized through his offspring, three horses who win for their owner prize after prize.

The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle

Tommy Stubbins is thrilled to make the acquaintance of the esteemed Doctor Doolittle. Doolittle has the amazing ability to talk to animals and he loves to travel; these two combine to send him off on many adventures. And Tommy is able to come along, a witness to all the adventures of the doctor. They meet up with the world’s greatest naturalist, Long Arrow, on a floating island. The doctor teaches the people of Spain a new way to fight bulls. And the doctor is made king.

Onion John

Onion John is Andy’s best friend, but Onion John is not an ordinary kid….Onion John is a man who does things his own way. John has lived in Serenity for many years, scavenging to furnish his home, working a little to buy food and supplies. Then he needs a new hinge for his door and suddenly everyone wants to change Onion John, from his home to his ways of making a living to his ways of thinking. The town gets together and decides to build a brand new house for John; it is not really what John wants and before the second day has passed, the house has burned to the ground.

Should we change people? Should we try and make everyone fit in? Can it be done? Or does a world need people who don’t quite fit, people like Onion John?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Number the Stars

Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry, won the Newbery Medal in 1990. It is a fairly short and simply written story, and quite beautiful in many ways, which surprised me. I didn't expect a story about the Nazi occupation of Denmark in 1943 to be so poetic. I thought it might be moving (which it was), and suspenseful (it definitely was), but it is Lowry's unaffected illustration of everyday life and the heroism of ordinary people that really shines in this book.

Although I've had this book on my shelf for months, I didn't read it because I thought a book - even a children's book - about the Holocaust was bound to be depressing. I was utterly wrong; this book was anything but depressing. It was inspiring, and one of my favorite Newbery winners so far.

A lot of other reviewers have already described the plot. I thought I would just add that I loved the kitten in the story - Thor (aka The God of Thunder). He added such a realistic little touch to Uncle Henrik's farm:
Inside the house, Mama scrubbed and dusted, tsk-tsking at Uncle Henrik's untidy housekeeping. She took the rugs out to the clothesline and beat them with a stick, scattering dust into the air...

"Just look at this," she said, opening the door to the little-used formal living room with its old-fashioned furniture. "He never dusts." And she picked up her cleaning rags.

"And, Kristi," she added, "the God of Thunder made a very small rain shower in the corner of the kitchen floor. Keep an eye on him."

Late in the afternoon, Uncle Henrik came home. He grinned when he saw the newly cleaned and polished house, the double doors to the living room wide open, the rugs aired, and the windows washed (p. 70).
Lowry writes with such economy. It was a joy to read her elegant descriptions, and the story was beautifully plotted, with several unexpected twists. And I know some of the things I learned will stick with me forever - especially the fish skin shoes and the clever, clever handkerchiefs. Don't make the same mistake I did and dither about reading this one.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Midwife's Apprentice

The Midwife's Apprentice, by Karen Cushman, is the most recent of several Newbery winners set in the Middle Ages that I've read (including Adam of the Road, Good Masters, Sweet Ladies!, and A Single Shard). It's interesting to see how this time period is portrayed so differently in these books. Maybe I should read Crispin and The Door in the Wall next.

Anyway, Cushman's 14th century England starts out as a cold and hungry place, filled with hard work. I think her introductory paragraph was incredible - it hooked me hard, and it definitely set the tone for the rest of the book:
When animal droppings and garbage and spoiled straw are piled up in a great heap, the rotting and moiling give forth heat. Usually no one gets close enough to notice because of the stench. But the girl noticed and, on that frosty night, burrowed deep into the warm, rotting muck, heedless of the smell. In any even, the dung heap probably smelled little worse than everything else in her life - the food scraps scavenged from kitchen yards, the stables and sties she slept in when she could, and her own unwashed, unnourished, unloved, and unlovely body (pg. 1).
I really enjoyed all of the details on midwifery in the past that Cushman wove into the story - the herbs, the superstitions, even some of the details of labor. I would guess all of this would appeal more to girls than boys. Similarly, the story of how Beetle becomes Alyce, and how Alyce grows into a valued member of the village, with more confidence, perseverance, and knowledge (as well as a cat and a comb), is a story that girls will probably appreciate.

Medieval Stories

As I finished The Midwife's Apprentice last night, it occurred to me that an awful lot of stories set in England during the Middle Ages have won the Newbery Medal. I decided to search out the medieval titles and see if there was any sort of pattern (yeah, I'm procrastinating here, avoiding some real work):
2008: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, by Laura Amy Schlitz - set in 1255 in an English manor village.

2004: The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread, by Kate DiCamillo - ok, this is fantasy, but it's set in a castle with a dungeon, and there's a princess.

2003: Crispin: The Cross of Lead, by Avi - set in England in the 1300's.

2002: A Single Shard, by Linda Sue Park - an exception to the usual "merry olde England" setting, since this story is set in 12th century Korea - but the village society and feudal structure are very similar.

1996: The Midwife's Apprentice, by Karen Cushman - another English village in the 1300's.

1987: The Whipping Boy, by Sid Fleischman - like Despereaux, this is set in a fantasy world of castles, villages, and fairs.

1985: The Hero and the Crown, by Robin McKinley - set in a vaguely Arabic fantasy world, with castles and dragons.

1969: The High King by Lloyd Alexander - Prydain is not unlike medieval Europe.

1950: The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli - between 1350-1370, London and a castle on the Welsh border.

1943: Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray - 1200's England - Oxford and several other cities.

1929: The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly - medieval Poland instead of England!

1924: The Dark Frigate by Charles Hawes - set partially in England in the 1600's, but the inns and blacksmiths and the like are very similar to those in stories set a few centuries earlier.
Have I missed any books? It looks like more realistic medieval settings (and darker stories in general) have been especially popular in the last ten years. Before that, fantasy settings - Ye Merry Old England, or the Middle Ages as we like to imagine they might have been - (like in the tales of Robin Hood) were more popular.

I do love reading about the past in these books, it's been one of my favorite things about this project. Good thing I like it so much, because historical fiction is apparently really popular amongst Newbery Committee members.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Shen of the Sea

Shen of the Sea by Arthur Bowie Chrisman

This kind of book, a collection of old folk tales, was probably my favorite kind of book to read as a child. I like this book as an adult, too.

The stories all feel vaguely familiar as if they’ve been told many times in many places. And yet they are also fresh and reveal little hidden aspects of human nature.

The Wheel on the School

The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong

This is truly an odd story. A village in Holland is sad because no storks come to nest in their town. The children and their teacher decide to change things by making a project of it; they will find an old wagon wheel and put it on top of the school for storks to nest in.

Pretty soon, the whole town is involved in the project. Everyone is out looking for wagon wheels. Everyone is figuring out how to put the wheel on the school. Everyone is helping put the wagon wheel on the roof of the school. There are plenty of difficulties in the task, including finding the wagon wheel in the first place. The project creates unexpected side benefits of a strong community spirit and new friendships.

Maniac Magee

Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli

I listened to Maniac Magee on CD. I know I have read this book in the past, but I did not remember much about it; I read it after Stargirl and found Maniac Magee less compelling.

I liked it a lot more this time. Maniac is an orphan with superhero-like athletic abilities. He settles in with an aunt and uncle but soon wanders away to find a new home with a black family. At the time of this story, a white boy living with a black family is a difficult situation. Maniac becomes the target of both blacks and whites who find the situation intolerable. Finally, Maniac gives into pressure and wanders away from the black family to live with an old black man. Maniac teaches the old man to read and the man helps Maniac hone his baseball skills. Maniac is finally able to find a way to come home to live with the black family who had so warmly received him.

A Single Shard

A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park

I read this a couple of years ago at the urging of some of my students. It was a magnificent read, all the more so because it had been students who encouraged me to read it.

It was even better this time. That is one of the marks of an outstanding book for me, a book that bears up under the pressure of a reread.

The story is that of Tree-ear, an orphan, living in twelfth-century Korea. He lives under a bridge with a fellow outcast, Crane-man, a man who is only able to hobble about with the help of a cane. The two survive by scavenging. Then Tree-ear accidentally breaks a pot of one of his village’s greatest potters, Min, and, to compensate for his carelessness, he goes to work for Min. Tree-ear dreams of learning Min’s trade, but Min is an angry man who feels only a son should learn a father’s trade and he regards Tree-ear as no son of his. Min and his wife are childless, having lost their son earlier in life. Min’s wife gradually comes to love Tree-ear and, even more slowly, Min does, too. When a representative of the king visits the village in search of a new potter for the royal family, Min’s work is found to be worthy of a closer look. To show his work to the king, Tree-ear offers to take Min’s pottery on a long journey to the royal city. It is a trip fraught with danger. Along the way, Tree-ear is besieged by robbers and, in the process, all of Min’s work is destroyed. Tree-ear, though discouraged, does not give up. He takes an intact shard of Min’s pottery to the king and the tiny piece of Min’s work is enough to give Min a commission to the king. Tree-ear loses his friend, Crane-man, but acquires for the first time both a family and a vocation with Min and his wife.

The View from Saturday

The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg

This book kinda sorta was about a team of young middle school kids who work together and go to the Academic Bowl.

If this was a linear world, and this book was a documentary, that’s what you’d say this book was about.

Instead, Konigsburg tells a circuitous story, of four misfits and their misfit teacher, who develop a friendship amid a hostile world. In the process, they not only create their own, kinder world, but they gentle the world around them.

Hitty: Her First Hundred Years

Hitty: Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field

Copyright date: 1929…Odd to think that my mother might have run across this book as a little girl and read it….I remember reading it myself as a little girl. Like many of the older Newbery books, it is a vision into the past, a little trip into life for kids before tv and computers and Ipods.

Hitty is a wooden doll made in the early 1800’s. Her underpants are embroidered with her name and along the way she becomes the most literate of dolls. One girl after another owns her, though her painted features fade and her various dresses come and go. She has a series of exciting adventures: she lands in a tree, in a shipwrecked, on a deserted island worshipped as an idol (!), on a steamship, under the cushion of an old couch, in an exhibition, and, finally, in an antique store. She manages to survive all her adventures with her dignity intact, finding a way to take pleasure in even the least interesting of her situations.

Summer of the Swans

The Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars

Sara is not enjoying her summer. She feels like she is on the other end of a teeter-totter, with a companion determined to jerk her here and there. Her family is difficult and she can’t seem to get along with them, especially her troubled brother, Charlie. It is only when Charlie gets lost while searching for the beautiful swans on the lake that Sara learns what is really important and how to deal with problems.

The conversations in this book felt tied to their time period and, at first, I didn’t think I was going to like the book. But the search for Charlie completely changed my feelings about the book. The author could have easily turned the book into a movie-of-the-week, but she stayed away from that. Instead, she used the situation to help all her characters grow.

Julie of the Wolves

Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George

A young girl is forced to befriend a pack of Arctic wolves as she attempts to escape from an intolerable marriage. The details of life with the wolves was nothing short of amazing; who would believe before reading this story that a girl could live among wolves and who would, after reading it, not believe it? Julie/Miyax desperately tries to survive and find food as she crosses the frozen world of the Arctic. It is only with the help of the wolves that she is able to find nourishment. In return, she helps them in their time of trouble, helping them avoid the dangers of the human world.

The book left me thinking about it; that, to me, is the measure of a good book. Julie unexpectedly finds her father, but the reunion is not as she thought. Her father has changed and she has changed. How can Julie go forward? Can Julie and her father once again live together?

Bridge to Terabithia

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Poor Jess is pressured everywhere, to find his place at home, at school. Then he meets Leslie and she changes his life. Leslie is able to deal with the pressures of the real world (cruel kids, competition) and is also able to find great joy in the world of the imagination. Ironically, it is on her way into that imaginary world, while she is swinging across a raging river, that Leslie’s rope breaks and she is killed. Instead of being filled with sorrow, however, Jess takes everything Leslie has given him and uses it to help himself and to teach others.

From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

A book I’d throw into the categories of “Book With Titles that are Better than the Actual Story” and “Books with Plot Summaries that are Better than the Actual Story”.

I grew impatient with this book. Why did Claudia want to run away? If it was her family that was the problem, why did she take one of her brothers along? She picked the Metropolitan Museum of Art as her refuge, but she didn’t seem to enjoy much of the art there. The whole story is written as if Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is telling it to her lawyer, but we don’t really see Mrs. F well and the lawyer doesn’t seem that interested in the story. The resolution of the story seemed too easy (Mrs. F already had a document that solved the mystery). Claudia and her brother seem oblivious to the pain and fear they have inflicted on their parents. And for what? A rather unsatisfying week spent in a museum? What was it Claudia wanted? To be a celebrity? To be recognized? I honestly can’t believe the document Mrs. F promised Claudia would satisfy her in those ways.

The Whipping Boy

Sid Fleischman's The Whipping Boy won the Newbery in 1987. It's a light-hearted book, unlike many of the other Newbery winners (here's a couple posts on the serious nature of many of these books).

I thought it was a little too light at first, actually - it reminded me of a weird combination of Mark Twain (both Huck Finn and The Prince and the Pauper) and The Tale of Despereaux (though it should be noted that The Whipping Boy preceded Despereaux by over a decade). I guess it's the medieval folk tale style. Except in The Whipping Boy, Jemmy says "Gaw" a lot instead of "Gor," which was peppered throughout The Tale of Despereaux.

I didn't really care for the illustrations so much either (though I didn't hate them), but like the story, they grew on me. By the end of the book I was thoroughly enjoying both the story and the pictures, and was pleasantly refreshed by the lack of angst, death, and horror.

I think The Whipping Boy is one of the Newbery winners that is well-suited for younger readers as well as older ones (like this adult). If you'd like to read a short, relaxing story about the adventures of Prince Brat, Jemmy, Cutwater, and Hold-Your-Nose Billy in a castle, at a fair, and in the sewers with the hordes of rats that live under a brewery, check it out. I'm going to recommend it to my eleven year old. I think he could use a mental break after he finishes Lois Lowry's Gathering Blue (a companion book to The Giver, which is set in a very medieval post-apocalyptic village).

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Good Masters, Sweet Ladies

I cannot think of the words to say how much I loved this latest Newbery winner. Good Masters, Sweet Ladies: Voices from a Medieval Village is a wonderful adventure in medieval history. Written by Laura Amy Schlitz to be performed by middle school students with each having a substantial role, the author introduces a variety of young people who might have lived in a village in England in 1255. Interspersed between the short vignettes provided for each villager, the author includes brief historical notes and longer explanations of specific topics which might be of interest to the reader. What a successful plunge into the publishing world by a fellow librarian.

I cannot leave you with my favorite quote because I just don’t think I have one. You need to read the book (I read it in only about 30 minutes) and see what you think. I should also add that I really liked the illustrations by Robert Byrd as well. Another quality which is very nice in a children’s book is a full bibliography. I loved it!!


Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Giver

Wow. I don't even know where to start with my thoughts about this book - there is just so much in it, so many ideas, so much to talk about. And I read it with my eleven year old son, so I have a few of his thoughts to share, too.

My first reaction was "Thank goodness for the Newbery Project, because otherwise I might never have read The Giver" (or Holes, or Maniac Magee, or Out of the Dust or many other newly discovered classics). And The Giver was every bit as thought-provoking and compelling as the best adult science fiction I've read - it would be a shame to have missed this just because it's a children's (or YA) book.

Since so much has been written about The Giver already, I'm going to focus on a few of the things that struck me (and my son) most about Lowry's dystopia.

It's a culture of Sameness - where conformity is ruthlessly enforced. My son both laughed and was shocked at the "May I have a smack, please?" mistake (and the resulting punishment) that Jonas' friend Asher had as a Three. A three-year-old. Physically punished for weeks for a slip of the tongue. "That's harsh," my son said. (He suspected the meaning of Release by the end of the second or third chapter, by the way, but told me he was hoping it was something different).

I was taken aback by the idea of a society that didn't feel sunshine, and that had done away with weather and hills. Not to mention red apples, love, grandparents, decisions, and the past. Lois Lowry is one incredibly creative person, to have come up with this world (this brave new world? strange new world?) and its scarier than Stepford society. And she writes about it so cleanly (with such precision of language!), so eloquently.

My son questioned how people can think that living the way the people in the book did was normal, and we had a good discussion about how people can get used to all kinds of strange things as "normal". He thought the ending was happy. I'm happy to leave it ambiguous, and am already half way through Lowry's companion book (not a sequel, exactly), Gathering Blue. And will no doubt be reading Messenger after that.

I'd also like to note that I loved the cover of this book, since I've snarked about so many of the covers (especially the 70's and 80's reprints). It's nice to see a cover that actually "says" something about the story.

And here's a very cool coincidence - I thought this might be a book we wanted to keep, so instead of getting it from the library I requested a copy of it from The book we got was not only signed by Lois Lowry, but was made out to someone who shares a name with my son. This book is definitely a keeper.

Witch of Blackbird Pond

I’ve avoided this book, thinking it was a rehash of stories about women accused of being witches during the early days of America.

It was about women accused of being witches, but it was really about so much more.

Kit impulsively hops on a ship to America after the death of her grandfather, leaving behind the beautiful tropical islands where she was so freely raised. She goes to find a home with her only remaining relatives, her mother’s sister and her family. Kit’s aunt, she learns, has been worn down by life in America and by her marriage to a Puritan man. But these characters are not stiff stereotypes; the harshly Puritan uncle loves American freedom, not the English king; the dangerous witch the community fears is really a quiet, lonely Quaker woman; the man who loves Kit fails to step forward to help her when Kit is in trouble. An excellent, thoughtful story of how being different can both threaten a society and build a society.

Tales from Silver Lands

This is an old Newbery, a book I approached with great trepidation. I soon found my trepidation unjustified, for this is a timeless book of old stories from Central and South America, none of which I’d ever read or heard before. All the themes of folk tales are here: the value of courage, the triumph of virtue, the dangers of power and wealth. Though the themes were often the same of other stories I’ve read, the stories felt fresh, peopled with small tribes living in the forest or “warm lands where spice-laden breezes blow gently soft,” stories filled with llamas and humming-birds and huanacos and calabashes.

Rabbit Hill

“New Folks coming…new Folks coming into the Big House!” That’s the cry of every Animal on Rabbit Hill. The Animals are filled with excitement…and fear. Will the new people bring a new prosperity to the house and the hill? Or will they bring danger?

Not to give away too much, but the charm of the story is the way the new Folks are everything the Animals could hope for and more, beautiful role models of love.


Funny songs, funny movies, funny books…these usually don’t win prizes. Holes is a funny book that won prizes. But Holes is not funny in the way that Sideways Stories is funny; Holes is a quieter, sadder sort of funny.

Stanley Yelnats is sent to a camp for delinquent boys. He is said to have stolen a pair of celebrity shoes. All day long, Stanley digs holes as punishment.

But is that the real purpose of the digging of holes?

I loved this book. Everything comes together at the end in an unexpected way. Stanley grows from being a fat, scared kid into a fit, clever boy able to hold his own against all sorts of bad guys.

Island of the Blue Dolphins

Karana lives alone on the Island of the Blue Dolphins. The rest of her tribe escaped on a ship, but Karana had to stay behind to care for her little brother. This is short-lived, however; it is not long before the little brother wanders into trouble yet again and this time he is devoured by wild dogs.

Karana is now truly alone. Quite unexpectedly, she captures and befriends the leader of the wild dogs. The rest of the book tells the story of her struggles with dangers on the island, including the elements and the arrival of foreigners, and her struggles with loneliness during her many years on the island.

For me, it was the moment in the book where Karana befriends her brother’s killer that makes the book leap into excellence, into becoming Newbery-worthy.

Sarah, Plain and Tall

When Caleb is born, his mother dies. Caleb’s sister, Anna, is angry with Caleb for causing the death of their mother, but she also loves Caleb.

The whole story of Sarah, Plain and Tall, is filled with beautiful conflicts like these. When Sarah arrives to answer the ad placed by Anna’s father for a mother for Anna and Caleb, Anna is torn. She loved her mother and she loves Sarah. Is that wrong? Sarah, we discover, loved the ocean, but she is now to live in a world with no ocean, a world covered with the tall grass of the prairie. Can she live without her ocean? Even if Anna and Caleb and their father love Sarah, will the love be enough to keep Sarah with them?

I, Juan de Pareja

Juan de Pareja was a real-life slave of Diego Velazquez, the famous Spanish painter of the 17th century. At that time, it was illegal for slaves to paint. Secretly, however, Juan watches Velazquez and experiments with his techniques, painting. Juan is able, in time, to become free and to marry and to set his wife free as well.

Slavery, freedom, truth in art—these are the great themes of this book.

“I thought Art should be Beauty,” he (an apprentice to Velazquez) muttered.

“No, Cristobal,” (replied Velazquez) “Art should be Truth; and Truth, unadorned, unsentimentalized, is Beauty….I would rather paint exactly what I see, even if it is ugly, perfectly, than indifferently paint something superficially lovely.”

Johnny Tremain

I was familiar with the story, a tale from the American Revolution. A boy, a silversmith apprentice, burns his hand in an accident that occurs while working on a Sunday (illegally) in haste. The boy, Johnny Tremain, is left unable to wrok as a silversmith apprentice. He is filled with despair. He is befriended by a kind boy, Rab, and together they are able to earn money by caring for horses. The job allows the boys to come into contact with British soldiers and to obtain secret information the boys can then pass on to the revolutionaries.

I wasn’t as satisfied with the story as I’d thought I’d be. The characters, especially those who were actual people from history, felt flat, one-dimensional. Johnny seemed too prideful, too selfish, too judgmental for a reader to love, to serve as a main character. The words and actions of the characters seemed false, overly heroic, like the words and actions our mighty American forefathers should have used and should have done.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

I seem to remember that when I read Wrinkle as a kid I thought it was fabulous, brilliant, gripping. I'm really not sure what I thought was so great about it. Perhaps it's a book for kids, and its appeal doesn't reach forward over the generations as one ages. I don't know. Anyways, on this re-reading, 20 years later, I found it plodding and inscrutable, preachy, and overly pseudo-intellectual. The characters were hard to like. The story was hard to follow - or at least, hard to want to follow. Perhaps I need to read the other 78 books in the series to justify why they wanted to go this peculiar planet to begin with. There's no apparent motivation for It, or for the bizarre planet It runs, nor is there any particular motivation to save the cardboard-cutout people from It's reign.

Granted, many, many people I know tell me that this is one of the most brilliant books ever written, and that I'm just being obtuse. However, I'm pretty sure that most of them read it when they were 20 years younger than they are now.

Holes by Louis Sachar

I've finally finished reading Holes. My daughter read it a while back, and then bugged me to read it for more than a month.

I had already seen the movie, several times, in fact, and was pleased with how closely the movie followed the book, with a few small changes that seemed necessary to make the movie flow. While I have no problem with letting the kids read the book, there's a couple scenes in the movie that my daughter, at least will find upsetting.

The conversational story-telling tone of the writing is very engaging for young readers, and the story keeps moving. The flashbacks to Stanley's earlier relatives can be a little confusing at times, according to certain younger readers, but I enjoyed the playing out of the one story with its parallels to the earlier story.

Definitely recommended for younger and older readers.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Free, Joyous Roller Skates

What a relief to read Ruth Sawyer's Roller Skates (the 1937 winner), especially after the sour taste left in my mouth by the last Newbery book I read (Daniel Boone, the 1940 winner). Roller Skates was a gentle book, an unpretentious and interesting look at "the old days" - the 1890's - in New York City. It couldn't be more different from Daniel Boone in almost every way.

Were any of the same people on the Newbery Committee three years later, when Boone won? Did they think that Daniel Boone was a good "boy story" and that Roller Skates was a good story for girls? It's really hard for me to imagine any of the same people selecting these two books for an award.

Anyway, about Roller Skates. Like many of the other historical fiction winners (especially the older ones, like Adam of the Road and The Dark Frigate), I don't think that a lot of kids today would really enjoy this book. I suspect that they would be bored, and the story isn't really exciting enough to keep them going through the descriptions of pongee pinafores, hansom cabs, penwipers, and puppet theatre - though I really enjoyed it a great deal (despite having to Google pongee, which turns out to be a kind of unbleached cloth, and guimp, which is a type of ribbon decoration).*

It's a shame that more kids won't read it, though, because Roller Skates really has a lot to recommend it. The main character, Lucinda, is a strong-willed, energetic, free-thinking girl, who takes to her year of "orphanage" (her parents are in Italy for her mother's health) with more liberal caretakers as a time of "free, joyous vagabondage" (p. 59). She gleefully takes this opportunity to explore outside traditional constraints of gender and social class:
For ten years life for Lucinda had been systematic. At almost any waking hour of it she could have pointed finger at the clock and said: It is time for this or that. Aunt Emily had brought Lucinda's mother up on System, Duty, and Discipline; these were for Aunt Emily the three Rs of living.

...Life beyond the brownstone front, two flights up and beyond, was delightfully higgledy-piggledy as to System; and Duty and Discipline had become pale, thin creatures that no longer cast shadows except on Saturdays - from four o'clock on. Saturday was dedicated to Aunt Emily and sewing. Lucinda buttoned up her fortitude and her best manners, when she buttoned her best pinafore, made of white French lawn, Hamburg edging, and sleeveless. It was a step up in the world above the pongee (p. 47-48).
See what I mean about the possibility of grabbing the interest of your average 5th grade boy? Slim at best. However, if you've got a kid (or an adult) who likes Little Women, you might have better luck getting them engrossed in Lucinda's adventures with an Italian grocer's son, an Irish cab driver, a poor violinist and his family, and her puppet production of The Tempest.

The only part that struck me as a little "off" in Roller Skates was Lucinda's relationship with the "heathen Chinee" wife of a wealthy (and somewhat scary) businessman. Spoilers below the picture (one of the modern reprint covers of Roller Skates - and isn't the original cover above much classier? Does anyone know if these later reprints include Valenti Angelo's lovely line drawings?).

"Princess Zayda", as Lucinda calls her, ends up unexpectedly murdered - Lucinda actually discovers her body. We never find out who killed her (although it was implied that her husband was jealous and possibly abusive), and we never find out if anyone was arrested for her murder. The whole chapter didn't really fit in with the rest of the story, and this loose end (and Lucinda's rather stoic acceptance of it all) bothered me. Plus, the slightly condescending view of other ethnic groups and social classes (not too surprising, given that Roller Skates was written in 1936) is most pronounced in the chapters that mention Mrs. Isaac Grose. Well, and when Lucinda goes on about those cute bambinos that just keep being born. Still, this is a pretty minor part of the book, and something that can be discussed with young readers (just like the same kind of sections in Caddie Woodlawn).

Otherwise, Roller Skates was an enjoyable if rather old-fashioned read, and one I'm glad to have done.

*I never did figure out what kind of food pettyjohn is - there are too many people with Pettyjohn as a surname to Google it, and I couldn't find it listed in any historic food glossaries or discussions. Whatever it is, Lucinda ate it with toast and cocoa. Please leave a comment if you know what it is!

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Four Newbery Winners Out of Print and a Gold Star for Tedium

I thought you all might be interested in knowing that only four Newbery winners are out of print:

1925 -- Tales from Silver Lands by Charles Finger
1932 -- Waterless Mountain by Laura Adams Armer
1935 -- Dobry by Monica Shannon
1940 -- Daniel Boone by James Daugherty

No one here's read Waterless Mountain yet. I'm actually glad Daniel Boone isn't easily available anymore, and I'm not all that surprised that the surreal Tales from Silver Lands isn't still being sold. It fits the stereotype of the Newbery award in this funny article: A Gold Star for Tedium: Do the Newbery Medal-Winning Children's Books Really Have to Be So Dreary?

The author, E.J. Graff, had exactly my take on Island of the Blue Dolphins, but she (or he?) was sooooo wrong about A Year Down Yonder and Out of the Dust.
So why, instead of delightful and powerful fictions, give children these other insomnia-curing books written in terrifyingly earnest and plodding prose, full of stick figures -- books as free of passion as a bad educational documentary, books that could turn an imaginative child into a dedicated television fan?
Graff goes to highlight some books that didn't win the Newbery, to compliment a few recent winners (like Holes), and to suggest that parents read the books before they give them to their kids (which I have to agree with):
It's time we adults grew up -- and start thinking of the Newbery medalists as suggestions, not final judgments. It's time to stop treating children -- the children we were, the children we know now -- as less perceptive and emotionally sophisticated than they are. It's time to chase away that lurking childhood belief that the ALA's committee of librarians -- the experts -- has some special insight into what children want to and should read. Before you buy a Newbery book for your daughter, your nephew, your young friend -- or yourself -- start reading. See how long it keeps you riveted. Ask yourself whether you'd rather read that or "Anne of Green Gables," "Tom Sawyer," Edith Hamilton's Greek myths, "My Antonia," "Annie John," "To Kill a Mockingbird," "War and Peace" or any other truly memorable book. Your guess may well be as good as the ALA's.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Higher Power of Lucky

Lucky isn’t. That is, Lucky has not had much luck. Her mother died. Her father never wanted a child. Her guardian is Brigitte, her father’s ex-wife sent from France to take care of Lucky, and Lucky fears Brigitte is tired of caring for her. Lucky senses her life needs more and she finds some comfort by listening in to sad stories told by members of an AA group, though she cannot seem to find her own higher power.

A young neighbor boy, Miles, lives with his grandmother, but spends most of his time with Lucky. Miles learns that his mother is in jail and decides to run away. At the same time, Lucky, decides to run away. They spend a terrible night in the desert but decide to return to their lives and face the truths there.

Initially, I didn’t find much to distinguish this story from hundreds of others of sad stories about unhappy children. But it has stayed with me and I’ve found myself continuing to think about the story. A good sign.

A Year Down Yonder

Mary Alice goes to stay with her eccentric grandmother who lives in a small town during the Great Depression. She dreads staying in the small town, but comes to love the town and her grandmother so much that she begs to stay. Grandma is the highlight of the story. She seems like a prickly character, never one for hugging, but through the stories Peck tells about her, we grow to learn the softer side of Grandma, a side she doesn’t really like others to see. Grandma and Mary Alice have a whole series of adventures including Halloween pranks with a privy and middle-of-the-night visits to a pecan tree and a cherry pie social with the DAR.

The Door in the Wall

Robin, the son of a knight, is all set to set off for the home of a noble lord where he is to begin training as a page. Then tragedy strikes. Robin is beset with an illness that leaves him unable to walk. His servants come down with the plague and he is left alone. Just in time he is rescued by a monk who carries him to safety at a monastery, a monk who helps him find the door in the wall Robin needs to leave his castle home and the doors in the wall Robin needs to find in order to make his life a good one.Though this is a happier story than one might anticipate, Robin experiences no miracle cures and has no easy transformations. Time and love and learning help change a moody, spoiled boy of priviledge into a boy of courage and compassion.

Crispin: The Cross of Lead

A boy, apparently a peasant boy known only by the name of Asta's son, finds his mother has died, leaving him an orphant. His whole world shifts and changes when he is given a cross of lead by the village priest and told that his name is the noble name of Crispin. Though he does not know why, he becomes the object of a hunt and soon Crispin is on the run for his life.While on the road, Crispin is befriended by a giant of a man known as Bear. Bear teaches Crispin the ways of the ministrel and together they make their way to the city. Neither Crispin nor Bear suspects that the city contains enemies of both of them. A riveting story of adventure, but also a story that encourages questioning and thought. Bear is a brilliant man and he shakes Crispin's small world.

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch

Nat has every reason to expect that he will be able to attend college and go on to a happy professional life. Then everything is taken away from him. His father has a tragedy at sea and is forced to leave his life as a captain and become a menial worker. His mother dies and his father takes his sorrows out in drink. Nat must then leave school and become an indentured servant. His dreams of school seem lost to him forever.Nat never succumbs to feeling sorry for himself or bitterness. Instead, he finds a way to use his workplace to better himself, learning everything he can about ships and navigation. He is able to take this new knowledge and teach others, becoming well known as a brilliant mathematician and navigator.The life of Nathaniel Bowditch is a wonderful story of finding good in bad and becoming all one can become.