Thursday, December 18, 2008

Criss Cross

Author: Lynne Rae Perkins
Narrator: Danielle Ferland
Published by: Harper Childrens Audio (2006)
Originally Published (2005)
Length: 5 hours, 8 minutes
Award: Newbery Medal
My Rating: 2/5
Amazon Rating: 3/5 (72 customer reviews)

This is a hard book to review--I've written something and erased it about ten times now. Can I just say that I didn't like it? The first disc was frustrating to listen to, because I didn't really know that there wasn't much of a plot, and I kept waiting for something to happen. The narrator's voice was completely wrong for the tone of the book. Once I accepted that this wasn't a plot-driven novel, it got a little better, but I have to admit that the only reason I continued to listen is because when I have an audio book in the car, I follow the path of least resisitance, which is to not take out the CD. There are moments when Perkins really captures the essence of adolescence, and looking back to when I was younger, I could identify with some of the feelings and agree that that is how things felt. I just am not sure that teens living in the midst of this time of transition in their lives would find as much meaning in it. It had more of a reminiscent feel, maybe because the setting is sometime around the 70's.
I assume this won the Newbery Medal because it was somewhat innovative. I think some of that quality was lost in the audio version (haikus, song lyrics, etc. that weren't so obvious listening to.) I much preferred Princess Academy by Shannon Hale that won the Newbery Honor for that year.
Bottom line: Writing about nothing may have worked for Seinfeld, but not for Criss Cross. If you've got the five hours it takes to listen to this audio book, watch about 10 Seinfeld reruns instead!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Hitty (aka Mehitabel)

I didn't expect to like Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, by Rachel Field. A story about a doll? A book that is commonly referred to as dated and "not politically correct"? It sounded both ho hum and distasteful.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

Although there definitely are some rather outdated parts in Hitty, as well as a few unfortunate stereotypes, these passages were not as bad as I feared. I thought that the rest of the story was an unusually charming, occasionally exciting, and truly interesting look at American history and "the good old days".

Hitty's story begins sometime before 1830 in the great "State of Maine" (as it is often referred to in Hitty), where she is carved out of mountain-ash wood by an Irish peddler. She is given to young Phoebe Preble (and fans can read more about the Preble family here), and accompanies Phoebe and her parents on a whaling expedition to the South Pacific, where mutiny, shipwreck, a desert island, "savages", an exciting rescue, and "a dirty old snake-charmer" of India (p. 92, also described as a heathen Hindoo) are encountered. And this is just in the first half of the book. That's a fair amount of action for a small wooden doll.

The not-so-PC passages are mostly from some of the parts described above, such as when the natives on the unnamed island are repeatedly described as childish, flamboyant, and possibly cannibals, who take Hitty to be an idol. When Hitty is lost in India, she describes a "babble of strange voices uttering heathenish gibberish" (p. 85). Later in the book, southern Black Americans are described as dirt poor but exceptionally musical, and then Hitty goes on meet "a noisy, unattractive lot of young men and women whose clothes shocked me by their tightness and lack of modesty" (p. 189).

Hitty's perspective is basically that of a rather old-fashioned, upper-middle-class white lady of the 1930's, so these comments are not particularly surprising. I think that the outdated passages are worth discussing*, especially with your kids, but I don't think it should lead readers to condemn the rest of the book when there is so much more to recommend it. Quakers, social class, the Civil War, theft, fashion, growing old, children's unthinking cruelty, and religion - all are touched upon, usually very graciously - in the second half of Hitty's memoir.

Plus, Rachel Field introduced me to the word "wadgetty", a regional term from Massachusetts and Nantucket (which means fidgety) that is used repeatedly and to great effect in Hitty. Although I was shocked to find that wadgetty isn't in the Oxford English Dictionary, it was fun to discover that H.L. Mencken defined it in 1948.

Dorothy P. Lathrop's gorgeous artwork adds a whole new dimension to the story. The original cover (shown above) isn't bad, but I have to admit that I like the new cover, a colored version of the illustration on pg. 13, even more.

Which leads me to the latest edition of Hitty: Her First Hundred Years (and no, it's not a sequel, though like Peter D. Sieruta, I wouldn't be surprised to read about the publication of Hitty: Her Second Hundred Years).

In 1999, a new book entitled Rachel Field's Hitty: Her First Hundred Years was written (or adapted, with substantial abridging and some entirely new adventures) by Rosemary Wells, and lavishly illustrated by Susan Jeffers. A discussion on led me to this interesting article in the New York Times Book section: Children's Books: The Name is the Same.

Boy, people are not happy when you mess with their beloved classics, and there are apparently a good number of Hitty fans out there - see Hitty Preble, presented by the Great Cranberry Island Historical Society; - The Hitty Research Pages; or HittyGirls, to begin with. I've never seen so much discussion of a character from a classic Newbery book, or one with as many related eBay auctions. I hope all of this encourages people (including kids) to read the original Hitty before passing it by as hopelessly outdated and politically incorrect.

*And not just the passages on race. For instance, when Phoebe's father, the captain of a whaling ship, says that if he strikes it lucky on his next voyage, he might "bring back six or seven hundred barrels of sperm" (p. 34), you probably want to explain to your children that Captain Dan'l is referring to oil made from sperm whale blubber.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Mock Newbery Discussion

The Allen County Public Library's Mock Newbery blog is "the place to be if you enjoy reading and discussing quality, newly published, children's literature." They've just published their "short list" of some of the candidates for the 2009 Newbery Award. There are quite a few familiar names on the list: Linda Sue Park, Lois Lowry, Cynthia Kadohata, Karen Hesse, Sid Fleischman, Sharon Creech, and Avi are all previous winners.

There's also some fun discussion at Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog (great title!). They've been discussing 1953, when Secret of the Andes (which I haven't managed to read yet - checked it out and returned it to the library untouched) beat Charlotte's Web for the medal, which a lot of people think was one of the poorer choices the Committee has made. I haven't read Charlotte's Web since grade school, and I didn't love it then, so I'm ambivalent about the choice.

Anyway, I've read more of the ACPL's mock candidates this year than in previous years, probably because I've been enjoying YA literature a lot lately. I don't think my 12 year old is mature enough to handle Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, or Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, but I loved both of them. He and I both read and enjoyed Kathi Appelt's The Underneath, and The Willoughbys, by Lois Lowry.

These four books are all rather dark. If I had to pick one out of just these four books, I'd select The Graveyard Book as my favorite, but I bet the Newbery Committee would pick The Underneath for it's poetic language, clever mix of myth and history, and its setting in an east Texas bayou.

I guess we'll see in a couple of months. Have you read any of the short listed mock Newbery selections? What do you think - last year's winner was set in medieval England, are we due for something contemporary? Something uniquely American? Something science fiction or fantasy-ish? All four of the books that I've read fall in that category!

Of course it's always possibly they'll pick something completely different.

...And Now Miguel

...And Now Miguel, by Joseph Krumgold, was not the most exciting Newbery winner I've read this year. It reminded me a lot of Shadow of a Bull - most of the story is about a boy becoming a man - and the rest is ethnographic detail on a way of life that is foreign to most readers.

I'd rather read about sheep herding in New Mexico than bullfighting in Spain, though, so despite becoming bored (and mentally re-naming the book Not Now, Miguel, for how many times I put it down and picked up another book - almost any book - that was more appealing), I did enjoy ...And Now, Miguel more than Shadow of a Bull.

Miguel, the twelve year old protagonist, yearns to go to the Sangre de Cristo mountains with the other adult men in his family, who take the sheep to graze in the high mountain valleys during the summer months. The mountains are beautiful and mystical, and it would be interesting to compare Miguel's ideas about the mountains with the unnamed narrator's view of the Himalayas in Gay-Neck. I'll spare you the compare and contrast essay, though.

I came to appreciate Miguel's story a bit more when it came to the last 40 or so pages (but what a long haul that was, considering the whole book is 245 pages), when Krumgold examines Miguel's growing maturity and how he questions his religion and how and why prayers to San Ysidro (pictured on the cover with his oxen) are answered. The questions are big ones, and the lessons learned are important, even if I don't always personally agree with the way his big questions are answered.

I did appreciate the fact that the moralizing isn't too heavy-handed, as it is in several other Newbery winners from the 50's, like The Door in the Wall, Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, and Amos Fortune (wow, they just didn't go in for subtlety then, did they), and I thought that this was the most interesting part of the book. It's too bad that a lot of kids (and adults) will probably give up on the story before they get to this part.

It's interesting how cover designs and illustrations influence my view of the Newbery winners - something I did not anticipate before starting this project. Anyway, there have been quite a few books that I didn't really like that I felt were at least somewhat redeemed by beautiful artwork (by the author, even, as in The White Stag and The Door in the Wall). And then there are others where the artwork just leaves me cold. Unfortunately, Jean Charlot's drawings in Miguel fell into this latter category. The "About the Illustrator" blurb at the back of the book says says Charlot's work was influenced by the Olmec statues in southern Mexico, and I can definitely see that. Sadly, I didn't think that the drawings particularly fit the tone of the story, and they made the whole thing even more ponderous than Miguel's thoughts and descriptions alone did.

I do think kids and adults that are particularly interested in New Mexico, sheep, or a quiet coming-of-age story might appreciate Miguel's story if they persevere with it. In retrospect, I like the story more now than I did while I was slogging through it, and a few of the beautiful and meaningful scenes from the book that are stuck in my head made it worth the effort.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Dicey's Song - 1983

Dicey's Song picks up right where Homecoming leaves off--the Tillerman children tentatively settled in with a brusque and independent grandmother who has cut herself off from the surrounding community. Gram warily (but deep inside lovingly) welcomes her grandchildren, who have come with their own experiences of being shunned by their peers in the past for having an unconventional family situation. Gram and the children come to meet a whole cast of characters in the novel who are likewise loners or unusual in some way. Obviously, this theme is woven throughout the book, and I egocentrically love it because I can identify with it. And I would imagine that most people have felt at sometime or other that they just didn't "fit in." I grew up in a loving home in which they query was often made, "Was she switched at birth?" I took an online personality test as an adult with these results: "People who know you can only desribe you as possibly being from a different planet or universe." My mother wholeheartedly agreed. I have come to neither love nor hate whatever it is that makes me different, but accepting that it just IS, and it is not an excuse or reason to be antisocial. I think this is one of the lessons Dicey learns as she gradually opens herself up to others, despite the very real fear of vulnerability. She also learns thetricky art of "give and take" in relationshipsIn attempts to reach out to others and receive in return, the results are rarely neat and tidy, but necessary all the same. As Gram has learned through her own mistakes:

"I got to thinking—when it was too late—you have to reach out to people. To your family, too. You can't just let them sit there, you should put your hand out. If they slap it back, well you reach out again if you care enough. If you don't care enough, you forget about them, if you can."