Thursday, July 31, 2008

Miracles on Maple Hill

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 While some of the older Newbery winners seem to be outdated in today’s world, this book is filled with relevant historical and emotional topics.

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Dr. Dolittle by Hugh Lofting

From Adventures in Reading:

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle - 1923

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

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

First sentence:

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 21, 2008

Rabbit Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Monday, July 14, 2008

1980 - A Gathering of Days

A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl's Journal, 1830-32 by Joan W. Blos won the Newbery Medal in 1980. As you might guess, the book is written in the form of a diary which was kept by thirteen year old Catherine Hall who tells about her life in rural New Hampshire in the early 19th century.

I liked the opening of the book which was a letter from Catherine to her great-granddaughter who was turning fourteen. She writes, "Once I might have wished for that: never to grow old. But now I know that to stay young always is also not to change. And that is what life's all about - changes going on every minute, and you never know when something begins where it's going to take you. So one thing I want to say about life is don't be scared and don't hang back, and most of all, don't waste it."

The beauty of this small book is in the descriptions, both of the physical places and the emotions of the young girl who loses her mother and her best friend to fevers. Until her father remarries, she must take care of her younger sister. Young children (we have it with a recommended reading level of grades 4-8) might appreciate Catherine's emotions as her new "mother" moves in with them and brings many changes to their home!

In addition to winning the Newbery Medal, this book also won the American Book Award (Children's Fiction) in 1980.

TITLE: A Gathering of Days
AUTHOR: Joan W. Blos
PAGES: 144
TYPE: Fiction
RECOMMEND: I really liked this book and would recommend it to children who are interested in New England history or how young people lived in the past.


The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

7 of 12 for the 2008 Young Adult Challenge
2 of 3 for the tl;dr challenge
1 of 6 for the Classics Challenge
5 of 11 for the Summer Reading Challenge

This is a breathtaking book. It takes us to Puritan New England, in the colony of Connecticut. Sixteen year old Katherine (Kit) arrives in America after having been brought up by her grandfather in Barbados. Her liberal Shakespeare-reading, ocean-swimming, silk-dress wearing upbringing did nothing to prepare her for the inflexibility and piousness of her aunt’s family that takes her in. In fact, Kit’s free thinking and outspoken ways create suspicion and irrational fear.

Speare’s characters are fleshed out and conflicted and it is a pleasure to watch them learn and grow throughout the book. Kit’s constant impulsive decision making and the inadvertent consequences never felt contrived. The time period and its rigid culture played a huge part in the plot of this novel – where seemingly harmless gestures and friendships can somehow make a person seem like a Satan-worshipper and be put on trial for witchcraft. It was a tremulous and frightening time, where politics were a constant topic of conversation as the colonists were just beginning to decide that they no longer wanted a king.

Kit’s indecision about what and who she loves, and where she belongs, rang so true to me. The descriptions of New England itself and of the traditions and chores of the time were expertly woven into the prose. The sprinkling of romance throughout the story fit just right and I loved the ending. If you are a lover of young adult historical fiction, this Newberry Award winner is a must-read.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Lincoln: A Photobiography

The 1988 Newbery winner Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman is an excellent and informative book about the life of our 16th president. What makes this book amazing is not only the pictures, but the writings of Lincoln which are provided and the small details of his life which perhaps are not as well known.

One amusing detail of his writing is from his home-made arithmetic book. In his own writing, Lincoln says:

"Abraham Lincoln

his hand and pen

he will be good but

god knows when" (p. 13)

Freedman provides many stories about Lincoln's childhood and family. The details of the day Lincoln was killed are very touching. The war was over and Lincoln and his wife, Mary, were trying to come to terms with the death of their second child. During a carriage ride early in the day, Lincoln told Mary, "We must both be more cheerful in the future. Between the war and the loss of our darling Willie, we have been very miserable." (p. 121)

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in one of our most honored presidents.


Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Author Comments upon Winning the Medal

This is a nice collection of author responses following the phone call informing them that they'd won the prestigious Newbery award (from 1996, so don't expect more recent authors' comments): Newbery Authors

I found the site Googling "getting your kids to read Newbery", wondering if there was a trick to convincing my son to read something that I recommend. His friends, even the school librarian, random advertisements - they all carry more weight than my opinion. :(

We still do a little "read aloud" to wind up the day, so I've been picking Newbery winners that I want to read for that. He does admit that some of these are pretty good. But except for The Twenty-One Balloons, I've only been doing books that I've already read that I really know he'll like. I'm good at picking out books that people will enjoy, why won't he believe me when I say it's something he'll like? It must be a tween thing.

On a related topic, I have a whole stack of "girl books" that I can't wait until my daughter is old enough to read. It's interesting dividing the Newbery winners up into "girl vs. boy vs. either gender will enjoy" categories.