Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Up a Road Slowly

I'm not surprised that Irene Hunt's 1967 winner, Up a Road Slowly, isn't one of the more popular Newbery books. Despite its relatively recent publication date, it reminded me of a much older generation of children's books - it's more Little Women than Holes, for example. It's not even much like The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Whatsername or A Wrinkle in Time, a couple of the other books that won the Newbery in the 60's. If not for the portrayal of an alcoholic uncle - which I don't think would ever have been mentioned so frankly before the 60's - I would have guessed that this story was written sometime in the first half of the twentieth century, when it was set.

Like Roller Skates (another pretty old-fashioned Newbery winner), this is the coming-of-age story of a strong-willed girl. Unlike Roller Skates, Up a Road Slowly starts out with some real tragedy, and is not a charming romp of exploration and adventure. Instead, it's the story of a rather slow road (sorry, couldn't help myself) of self-discovery and discipline that is peopled with rather difficult people, which sometimes include Julie, the heroine herself.

Also, Up a Road Slowly is really a teen story, although the book covers Julie's life from ages 7 to 17. I think Hunt did a pretty good job of portraying teen angst and self-centeredness. Strangely enough, at times Julie reminded me of Bella of the hugely popular YA book Twilight - both Julie and Bella were good students, liked Shakespeare, and went on about their emotions at great length. Alas, there were no vampires in Up a Road Slowly.

Anyway, parts of this book I liked moderately well. Julie was usually an appealing character, and I thought her flaws made her more realistic. Some of the author's heavy-handed moralizing got on my nerves, though, and alternatively I was disgusted by a few scenes that I don't think Hunt planned that way. I didn't want to stomp on this book (like Daniel Boone, for instance), but these particular parts of Up a Road Slowly pretty much ruined the rest of the story for me. It reminded me a lot of The Matchlock Gun, which was charming - except for those horribly racist parts.

Here's one of the parts that had me shaking my head. It concerns Aggie, a classmate in the one-room schoolhouse where Julie's aunt taught:
Aggie was a mistreated, undernourished and retarded girl, the youngest child of a shiftless, vicious father and a mother who had been beaten down by the cruelties of her life. Aggie must have been ten or eleven the first winter that I knew her and even then, she hardly recognized a dozen words in the primer from which Aunt Cordelia tried to teach her. She would stand beside my aunt's desk floundering through a page that the youngest child in the room could have read with ease, and after each mistake, looking around the room to grin and smirk as if her failures were evidences of some bit of cleverness on her part...But it was not Aggie's retardedness that made her a pariah among us; it was the fact that she stank to high Heaven (pp. 23-4).
Aunt Cordelia forces the children in the school to be civil to Aggie and prevents them from excluding her from games or the group lunch, but when Julie turns 12, she decides she would rather not have a birthday party than have one where she is forced to invite Aggie. She is then cruel to Aggie, who becomes a little afraid of her. Soon after this, Aggie cuts her foot, doesn't receive any medical attention, and becomes very ill with a fever. Julie takes her some flowers, recoils in horror from Aggie's squalid house and bitter mother, and then is consumed with guilt when Aggie dies.

Her Uncle Haskell has this to say after the funeral:
"Now, why should you feel guilty, my little Julie? You know very well that if this Kilpin girl could approach you again, as moronic and distasteful as she was a month ago, that you'd feel the same revulsion for her. You couldn't help it."

He was right, of course...."Hadn't you rather thank Heaven that she has escaped what life had to offer her? And isn't it a blessing that society escaped a multiplication of her kind? Come, Julie, death may be the great equalizer; let's not give in to the hypocrisy that it is the great glorifier." (pp. 65-6).
Julie goes on to say that Uncle Haskell "expressed something that was true," but that there was actually "something more" to Aggie than "a distasteful little unfortunate's few barren years and her fever-driven death." Later, Haskell tells her that the compassion she has learned from this experience "may well become immortality for the girl you call 'Aggie' " (p. 67).

I don't think this section would have bothered me so much if it didn't seem that Hunt (and Julie) basically agreed with Uncle Haskell. And the fact that Aggie gets to serve as an object lesson for Julie makes her life (and death) worthwhile? Uh, no.

I'm really curious about what other readers think of this part of Up a Road Slowly. And the part where Julie gets in trouble for giving another classmate a black eye after two other boys hold her arms and he kisses her. So please - read it and post about it here.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

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

1972 Newbery Winner

Mrs. Frisby the mouse is faced with a real dilemma. Her youngest son is sick with pneumonia and is too weak to move from the house. Yet Mrs. Frisby must find a way to move him, for very soon the farmer will plow up the field in which her family is living. Desperate for help, she visits the owl for advice. He tells her that there is just a chance that the rats might help her. Her deceased husband did them a service once.

Mrs. Frisby is quite surprised to hear this. What connection could her husband have had with rats? Nevertheless, she goes to visit the rats’ headquarters. And it is then that she hears a very surprising story, about her husband, and the rats of NIMH.

The biggest problem I had with this book was the balance between the stories of Mrs. Frisby’s dilemma with her son and the rats of NIMH. I wished the author had focused more on either one or the other of the stories, rather than balancing pretty much equally between the two. That part just didn’t work so swell for me.

However, the writing was good, and I wouldn’t be one to deny that this was a very exciting book. I wouldn’t hesitate to hand it over to a kid.

There were some unsatisfactory loose ends, but I understand that the author’s daughter, Jane Leslie Conly, wrote a sequel called Rasco and the Rats of NIMH. If someone was really dying to find out what happened, and wasn’t a real purist, that could be read in conjunction with this book.

The Dark Frigate

I finished reading The Dark Frigate on the plane on the way home last week, and I have to say, if this is the best that 1924 had to offer, I'm just glad I wasn't a young boy in 1924.

Although the cover promised that this was going to be a book about pirates, it was more than a third done before our young hero sees the ocean, and more than half done before the first pirate shows up. Then there's a few failed pirate raids, and then ... well, I'll let you endure it yourself.

A couple years ago I determined to read all the Newbery books, and I still have this goal, but some times I have to wonder if the Newbery judges had horrible childhoods and wanted to make other little kids suffer too.

I dunno, perhaps some people like this kind of thing. And the blurb on the cover says it's the best thing since Treasure Island. But this guy is no Stevenson, and The Old One is no Long John Silver. Count me very disappointed at the 1924 choice, and hoping it gets better.

The Giver by Lois Lowry

My recent reading of The Willoughbys (see my review here) inspired me to re-read one of my favorite books by Lois Lowry, The Giver. After reading the lighthearted and irreverant The Willoughbys reading The Giver left me astounded at Lois Lowry's versatility and complete and utter brilliance as an author. Do I sound a little stalkerish here?

Here's a brief rundown The Giver if you haven't read it. (And if you haven't read it, you should. Seriously.)

The book begins when Jonas is about to turn 12. He's very nervous because this year at the Ceremony of Twelve, all of the "Twelves" will find out what career path has been chosen for him. You see, Jonas lives in a futuristic Utopian society where everything is carefully planned from the parents you receive to your spouse to the age when you receive a bike. There is no pain, no suffering, and those who do not fit in the community are "released" to "Elsewhere."

At the Ceremony of Twelve, Jonas' friends receive careers that perfectly complement their personalities, but Jonas receives the most honorable position of The Receiver of Memories. This important person receives all of the memories of the world--good, bad, happy, sad--and an old man, the current Receiver of Memories, must pass them onto Jonas. Through "The Giver," Jonas learns what snow is, what sunshine feels like, and what the color red is. But along with these happy/comforting memories, he must experience pain as he sees the horrors of warfare, starvation, and more. Jonas soon realizes the unjustness of the perfect society in which he lives, and he and The Giver develop a plan to make things different. However, as with most "perfect plans," things don't go the way they're supposed to, and a perilous journey lies ahead for Jonas.

Through this simplistic, yet gripping narrative, Lois Lowry brings us a thought-provoking book that stays with you for a while. What are the risks of living in a "perfect" society? What are the benefits of "sameness?" What sacrifices must be made to have a society free of pain and worries?
Back in my days as an English teacher, I developed a unit of instruction based on this book for my 7th graders. The boys and girls alike really enjoyed the book, and it led to many in-depth discussions. One of their favorite activities was to write a final chapter to the book, detailing what happens to Jonas. I was always pleasantly surprised at their creativity, their different interpretations, and the care they took to write this final piece.

I highly recommend this book.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Wrinkle In Time

This classic novel for middle graders begins on "a dark and stormy night." Meg Murry, her younger brother Charles Wallace, and her mother, a scientist, are in the kitchen having a midnight snack when a strange visitor shows up at their door. Soon after, this visitor, Mrs. Whatist, takes Meg, Charles Wallace, and their schoolmate, Calvin, on a dangerous journey to save Meg and Charles Wallace's father, a scientist who has been missing for over a year.

A Wrinkle in Time has been a favorite of children for many years. Because I never read it as a child, I'm not sure if my opinion about it would be different. For example, I recently reread The Chronicles of Narnia, a series that I read multiple times when I was a child. While I observed some shortcomings in the books and was bothered by the religious undertones I never seemed to notice when I was a child, I thoroughly enjoyed rereading them as an adult and getting reacquainted with familiar characters and plots.

Maybe I would have felt the same with A Wrinkle in Time. However, after reading it for the first time as an adult, it was just okay.

I loved the characters…kind hearted Meg, the exceptionally bright Charles Wallace, down-to-earth Calvin, and the quirky Mrs. Whatist. The plot full of magic, space travel, suspense and mystery is good enough to get a child hooked on sci-fi/fantasy. The dark and frightening climax when Meg is fighting "It", the disembodied brain, will keep kids on the edge of their seats and leave many eager to read the other four novels in the quintet.

What bothered me though was the lack of detail I would have liked to have seen more of. I wanted to know more about Mrs. Whatist and company and more about Aunt Beast, the furry creature that saves Meg's life. I would have liked to have seen the aftermath of Meg's defeat of "It" on Camazotz. Were the people freed? Was "It" destroyed? Granted, this may be revealed in a later novel in the series, but I did wish that there was a little more background information.

The other thing I had a hard time getting past was L'Engle's religious messaging. I admit that I'm uber-sensitive about having religious messaging in children's books that aren't advertised as religious-themed books. I feel that it alienates children of different faiths and is unnecessary in mainstream stories like this, especially when it adds nothing to the storyline. This has been a contentious issue since the book's publication, and L'Engle herself has always claimed that she talks about faith, not religion. I remain skeptical about that.

But religion aside, I do think it's a book that many children will enjoy. Because there are some frightening situations, I do not recommend it as a read aloud to younger children. I think grades 5-7 would be the appropriate age range.

Cross-posted at The Well-Read Child

Saturday, April 5, 2008


Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

Katie is Japanese-American and she adores her older sister, Lynn. Their parents close their Oriental food market in Iowa and must move to Georgia to find work in the chicken-processing plants there. It is a hard life. The family is poor, but “…in the way Japanese people are poor, meaning (they) never borrowed money from anyone, period.” Lynn is Katie’s idol and the two girls are wonderful friends. Lynn teaches Katie all she has learned in life. Then Lynn becomes weak and ill and the family is shaken to the core.

Rifles for Watie

Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith

I’ve never read a book about a soldier in the middle of a war. Jeff Bussey is just a boy, but he decides to enlist in the Union Army during the Civil War. He longs for fighting. Time after time, he gets whisked away to other duties while the other soldiers fight. Finally, he is set up against the Southern Army and he finds it is not the glorious adventure he thought it would be. He makes an enemy of his commander and has to fight not only the Southern soldiers, but his own commander. Jeff is selected to infiltrate the Southern Army and to bring back information to the Union soldiers. He ends up spending many months with the Southerners and finds they are not so different from his Union friends.

My son has raved about this book for years. It was a very powerful book that I am happy to have finally read.

Lincoln: A Photobiography

Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman

Lincoln is presented here as I have never seen him, in both text and photographs. The details about him surprised me; I knew, of course, that he was extremely tall and had had a limited formal education, but I had no idea his voice was high pitched and that he had so much trouble finding a good general during the Civil War and that he was shy. I also loved the fact that though he had a total of a year of schooling he was able to read and study himself for two years and pass his bar exam. The Civil War years were a revelation. Poor Lincoln went through general after general who was afraid to act. And Lincoln’s assassination was so unexpected, coming so close to the end of the war. I could really feel Lincoln’s anguish in trying to figure out how to lure back the rebel states without cruelty yet also closing the door forever on slavery.

Joyful Noise

I listened to this on audiotape, then I read the poems, and then I listened to the audiotape again. It’s amazing to hear the poems read aloud, in two voices, converging, diverging, making a strong statement by reading a line in unison.

The poems are all about insects. The illustrations are lovely pen-and-ink drawings. I want to get the audiobook for my library and find a way to use it with the students.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Amos Fortune: Free Man

I did not expect to like Amos Fortune: Free Man, by Elizabeth Yates, at all. After all, it ranked even lower than James Daugherty's Daniel Boone in the Allen County opinionated librarians' list - and I hated that Boone "biography" so much that I didn't think it should even be on the shelf in my local library (see here).

Well, the good news is that I didn't hate this book as much as I did Daniel Boone. There were a lot of interesting bits, historically speaking - I really liked the descriptions of tanning. The story was basically one of perseverance and of the life of a kind, gentle (and for most of the book, fairly old) man. It was sometimes boring, but I thought that was infinitely better than the pompous declarations that littered Daniel Boone.

Though the Allen County librarians' comment from the website above was right on target: "If Pollyanna was a slave... The things that come out of his mouth are invented at best, offensive at worst."

Like Daugherty's Boone, Amos Fortune was filed in the (non-fiction!) biography section, when really, it is more fiction than not. Very little is known about the real Amos Fortune (but see here and here for what there is). There were a handful of documents, a house and barn, and a couple of grave markers in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, and Yates took this information and created a prince named At-mun who is captured by slavers in western Africa, stoically endures the Middle Passage, and is sold in Massachusetts.

At-mun becomes Amos, who is extraordinarily (and unbelievably) fortunate in his owners, who treat him with respect and Christian kindness. Then Amos - who really is rather ridiculously complaisant and cheerful about his different situations in life - goes on to become a tanner, buys himself and several wives out of slavery, and prospers, leaving a small legacy to the church and school in Jaffrey, NH. It's a good life, which happens because Amos is humble, trusts God, and just has such a darn good attitude about it all, Yates implies:
"Once, long years ago, I thought I could set a canoe-load of my people free by breaking the bands at my wrists and killing the white man who held the weapon. I had the strength in my hands to do such a deed and I had the fire within, but I didn't do it."

"What held you back?"

Amos shook his head. "My hand was restained and I'm glad that it was, for the years between have shown me that it does a man no good to be free until he knows how to live, how to walk in step with God." (p. 161-162)
Ok, then.

It's interesting to compare this story to Paula Fox's The Slave Dancer, which won the Newbery a generation later than Amos Fortune, and is similarly based on a few historical facts concerning the trans-Atlantic slave trade - but is classified as fiction. Amos Fortune's capture and passage to America is not particularly brutal as Yates describes it (not when compared to The Slave Dancer or Alex Hailey's Roots, anyway), and although she goes on about freedom and dignity at some length, I don't think kids really get the idea of how horrible the Middle Passage or slavery in general was from this book. Amos Fortune's life appears to be much like that of any hardworking servant or apprentice in colonial New England in Amos Fortune: Free Man - and really, that's not right.

I think kids (and adults) would be better off reading The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (which was published in 1845! It's even more classic than Amos Fortune, and it was written by someone who actually experienced what he wrote about), or Christopher Paul Curtis' Elijah of Buxton (which won Newbery Honors in 2008).

Thursday, April 3, 2008

A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park

2002 Newbery Medal Winner

Tree-Ear is a young orphan boy who lives under a bridge with his companion, Crane-man, in 12th century Korea. The two friends never know where their next meal is coming from, but what is lacking in food and money is made up for in heart and friendship.

When Tree-Ear is not scrounging for scraps of food, he watches master potter Min make his beautiful Korean Celadon pottery. One day he can't resist picking up a beautiful piece of pottery and ends up damaging the work. Because he can't repay Min in money, he agrees to work for Min to repay him in hopes of learning from this master potter. But Min has other things in store, and Tree-Ear finds himself doing excruciating manual labor.

When the king sends his emissary to find potters for a lifelong commission, Tree-Ear finds himself going on a journey that forever changes his life.

A Single Shard is a beautifully written and emotional novel about friendship, hope, love, and acceptance. Here's a passage near the beginning of the novel that particularly spoke to me:

The gentle curves of the vase, its mysterious green color. The sharp angle of the plum twigs, their blackness stark amid the airy white blossoms. The work of a human, the work of nature; clay from the earth, a branch from the sky. A kind of peace spread through Tree-Ear, body and mind, as if while he looked at the vase and its branch, nothing could ever go wrong in the world. (p. 52)
But things do go wrong in the world as we witness Tree-Ear on both his physical journey and his emotional journey in the book. Through Tree-Ear's story, the reader also learns a lot about pottery making during the 12th century and the hard work involved in creating one single piece of celadon pottery. The Author's Note at the end of the book along with an essay about celadon pottery teach us more about the time period and the art of creating this rare and beautiful pottery.

This book is would make a good clean read aloud for an entire family, and children will enjoy going back into time and learning more about pottery making. Chock full of learning opportunities, this book would also make an excellent addition to any classroom curriculum.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Criss-Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins

I decided to try listening to an audiobook while knitting, and I chose Criss Cross (a Newbery winner) because I thought it'd be shorter than an adult novel, just in case the whole audiobook thing didn't go well.

I discovered two reasons I vastly prefer reading to listening. First, the voice of the reader for this book was hideous. When I finished Criss Cross and started listening to Purple Hibiscus while knitting, it was such a relief just to have a pleasant voice to listen to. Aside from that, this book used a lot of poem and song snippets. The reader's awful voice was not improved by singing. And when she launched into a poem, I usually didn't know it was a poem right away, because I couldn't see the form on the page.

I really didn't particularly care for this book in general, though. The characters seemed interchangeable. I could not tell the two main girl characters apart. There were several times when there was dialogue between them that I just had no clue which girl was supposed to be speaking. The boys were more unique, but not by much. It seemed that although they had different interests, they all had the same personality.

It also didn't seem a special enough book to win the Newbery award. It was a story of middle school kids learning a little bit about themselves. Nothing out of the ordinary. The Wikipedia article calls it postmodern, but if that's true, it didn't come through on the audiobook. Maybe it's visually innovative? Powell's says, "Illustrated throughout with black–and–white pictures, comics, and photographs by the author." Maybe I just chose an audiobook version of something that should always be read. I can't even imagine trying to listen to The Invention of Hugo Cabret on CD, for example.

My favorite scene was the one in which two of the kids are helping an elderly woman, who becomes ill and has to be driven to the hospital by one of the twelve year olds.

What I did find special in this book were the kids' observations. The kids talk or think about life a lot, and their observations are quirky and amusing while at the same time very insightful. But perhaps a bit too insightful? Even gifted kids are not generally very emotionally precocious. These are tweens with the vocabularies of college graduates and the wisdom of grandparents. I'm not sure how actual tweens would react to that. Would they simply accept the insights and gain some understanding of their own? Would they feel inadequate because they don't think such things? Would they just think, "Huh?"

Cross-posted in my blog.