Saturday, April 2, 2016

1986 - Sarah, Plain and Tall


This little book is absolutely charming. I had not heard of it before, and when I saw the title, I did remember the movie they had made of it, though I had not seen it. There are only 58 pages, but the author does a lot with those pages.

The plot is simple, but deep and meaningful to the characters. Papa, Caleb, and Anna, the narrator, have been left without wife and mother when she died the day after giving birth to Caleb. There is a lingering sadness; Papa doesn't sing anymore, Caleb wants to hear the story of his birth over and over again, hoping that it will bring up a memory, any memory of his mother. They live in pioneer times out on the Midwestern plains. And now Papa breaks the news that he has placed an advertisement for a wife, and it has been answered by Sarah, "Plain and tall," as she describes herself.

Sarah comes out for a month, during which time she will see if they suit each other. The story gently proceeds, with them getting to know each other, Caleb worried that she will not like them, Anna and Caleb looking for clues and hints that she is planning on staying, and Sarah's lonesomeness for her place by the sea, where she came from. Sarah does stay, saying that "There is always something to miss, no matter where you are," and that she would miss them more than the sea, if she left.

I enjoyed that the children were not bratty and resentful about a new person coming in to take a role in the family - they wanted their Papa to have a wife and themselves to have a new mother. The conflict was whether Sarah could love them and the land that was so different from her home enough to stay. We only see Sarah's mind through Anna's eyes and words, as Sarah speaks of the sea and is quiet and thoughtful.

I liked the book, and I think it would be a pleasure to read aloud to a child. I picked this copy up for under a dollar at the thrift store.


Friday, April 1, 2016

1945 Honor - The Hundred Dresses

The Hundred Dresses, by Eleanor Estes, is just a slim book, eighty pages with illustrations and generous white space. It's quick and easy to read. But it is also hard to read, because it is about the careless bullying that privileged and secure children can dish out to kids who are poor, different, or outsiders.

Peggy is the well-off and popular girl. She is one of the de facto leaders of the girls in their classroom. Her best friend Maddie would say she was not a cruel person. She "protected small children from bullies and cried for hours if she saw an animal mistreated." But Peggy was the one who had started the game of making fun of Wanda Petronski.

Wanda was very poor, from the slum area of town, and had a strange last name and accent. Mostly the other children ignored her; even the teacher seemed to have not taken any interest in her progress. Until one fine day when Wanda made the mistake of joining the circle of girls as they admired a classmate's elegant new dress. For a moment, she seemed to feel like she fit in and was emboldened to say the words that would be the fuel for all the unkind teasing to come: "I got a hundred dresses home."

It instantly became a habit for Peggy to wait for Wanda at the start of each school day and "have her fun," asking Wanda to describe them and why she never wore any of her hundred dresses to school. The other girls would join in, but Maddie mostly listened, uncomfortable, but never sticking up for Wanda. Maddie was in a precarious position with her status. She understood that Peggy, in spite of being her best friend, could turn on her and make her suffer the same fate, since she did not have the security and standing of her friend.

The most poignant passages of the book deal with Maddie's inner dialog, as she struggles with wanting to stop Peggy's "game," and the fear of being ostracized herself, and with her pain as she realizes how hurt Wanda and her family were by their treatment.

There is a small light at the end of the book to ease her guilt, but no shining moment to make it all better. I looked up Eleanor Estes and discovered that she wrote the book to help her overcome some of her own guilt from being involved as a child in an episode like this. I think we all can look back at at least one example where we wish we had been more kind, or been stronger in protecting the weak from a bully. Perhaps this well-written and interesting story can be the book that helps children understand some forms that bullying takes and that sometimes, one can be just as complicit when standing by silently.

I bought this library discard at a thrift store for under a buck.

Friday, July 24, 2015

2014 Honor - One Came Home

During my latest trip to the county library, armed with a list of current Newbery winners, I checked out a short stack of books to go read and review. I don't go out of my way to find the honor books, but One Came Home by Amy Timberlake, was available and right before me, and with a jacket leader like "A sister lost, a body found, the truth buried," I was hooked.

The book was immediately interesting and intriguing with Georgie's opening words being, " was the day of my sister's first funeral, and I knew it wasn't her last, which is why I left." Georgie is a 13 year-old girl who lives with her small family in south-central Wisconsin, and the year is 1871. Her beautiful older sister disappears, and parts of a mangled body are found a couple weeks later which is identified as being the sister. But Georgie does not believe it is her, and since no one else is willing to consider she might still be alive, Georgie decides to slip away on her own to find out what she can.

This is not a fanciful, unbelievable quest. It is realistic and gritty. Georgie is no helpless little girl. She has a dead aim with her Springfield single shot rifle, but dismisses her skill with the comment, "I practiced. Anyone can if they practice enough." She describes the remains of the body they buried as, "Not the weight of two cats, and no face," Which is one reason why, even though it was clothed in her sister's dress, she holds out hope.

The fascinating setting to the tale is the arrival of a huge nesting flock of passenger pigeons. This is a boon for the town, that they have settled so near. Pigeoners come from everywhere to harvest them, relying on supplies and goods from the town. While I have heard the historical stories of the massive flocks of passenger pigeons, I have never been able to visualize what that meant on a local level. The author does a great job of using that backdrop without letting the descriptions compete with the story.

I really liked this book, and would highly recommend it. It had a bit of the flavor of the book True Grit, by Charles Portis. I like that it kept close the mysteries of what really happened, and indeed, made you wonder if you would even find that out by the end of the book.

Monday, July 13, 2015

2015 - Flora & Ulysses, The Illuminated Adventures

Enough for now with the dusty Newbery Winners of our parents (and grandparents!). I have actually just read a brand-new, this very year 2015 Newbery Award Winning Book, Flora & Ulysses, by previous medal-winning author Kate DiCamillo (Tale of Despereaux).

A comic-book air of fun and surrealism suffuses this book, making it immediately engaging, yet it never takes over or minimizes the story. Some of the action that is presented through images and comic-strip match with the fantastical air of what is happening in the tale.

Ten year-old Flora, though a "natural-born cynic," is none-the-less quite influenced by the comic books introduced to her by her father. They feature Alfred T. Slipper, the unassuming janitor who becomes "Incandesto," the superhero who fights evil and other malfeasance. She has also learned a lot from bonus parts of the comic books, such as "Terrible Things Can Happen to You!" Which comes in really handy when she needs to give CPR to a squirrel who has been vacuumed up by a Ulysses 2000X Vacuum Cleaner in the neighbor's yard. Though the squirrel has lost a lot of fur going through the brushes, he has gained a rational, thinking brain. Luckily he can also type, so the astonished rescuers can understand what is going though his mind.

But like most good literature, the story isn't all in the plot action,  but just provides a fun and exciting background to reveal more about the characters.

While I find Flora fun and worthy, the character I like the best is the boy William, who is staying with his aunt (the one who accidentally vacuumed up the squirrel). William wears dark glasses and announces that he is temporarily blind induced by trauma. You sense there is something interesting going on with his story from clues dropped here and there. He's a bit insufferable, in a fun way, and I liked him.

Flora's biggest challenge is deciding to be loyal to Ulysses, the squirrel, in spite of the acute conflicts that arise, specifically her mother wanting to kill that "rabid, diseased thing."

I enjoyed reading the book, and I expect that most junior readers would find it fun and interesting too,  and also appreciate the conflicts that arise around Flora.

I checked this book out of the library. It was a donated gift to the Shasta County Library.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

1981 - Jacob Have I Loved


And it has finally come to this, reviewing Jacob Have I Loved, by Katherine Paterson. This is not a book I read as a kid. I first came across it courtesy of my children, who had to read it for school. It's hard to say if I would have liked it as a child. I don't think my kids particulary enjoyed it, but not because it wasn't well-written, and not because it wasn't interesting. It was the "M" word, "meaningful."

I'm sure this was one of the books that provoked my discussion with them on reading fiction, that the fluffy, fun, escapist books might be entertaining to settle down into, but are soon forgotten. The meaningful books will stick in your mind and, sometimes uncomfortably, cause you to think deeper thoughts. Like her other Newbery Award-winning book, Bridge to Terebithia, this book is also meaningful and thought-provoking, dealing with deep sibling rivalry, adolescent angst, not fitting in, and gender roadblock issues.

Louise and Caroline were twins, born on Rass Island, a small Chesapeake Bay community, populated by fishermen who harvested oysters and crabs. The stage is set for their relationship when healthy baby Louise is born, followed by weak, sickly Caroline, who immediately receives all the attention, so that she can live. When Louise asks for retellings of the story, hoping to hear a scrap of extra attention paid to her newborn self, she never gets it, reinforcing her idea that Caroline is the favored child, and that she is less. Her feelings even gain a slogan, after her demented grandmother meanly and pointedly quotes from the Bible to Louise, "Jacob have I Loved, Esau have I hated."

This story is told in the first person voice of Louise. Her feelings are complicated, and expressed honestly to herself. She is the tomboy, but is unable to go out on the boat with her father as a son would have because she is a girl, though she does manage to become quite skilled by going out on her own little skiff. Jealousy and having incompatible personalities taint her relationship with Caroline. She has an inappropriate, but rather natural crush considering her stage of puberty, which her senile grandmother torments her over. Louise has never really thought about what she would want to do in life besides her dramtic fantasy of being the eccentric single woman going out crabbing like the men.

So yes, this is a "coming of age" story. And like several others I have read, the last couple chapters dramatically speed up the passing time. So while you are used to strolling through the days, a season or two, then a year, all of a sudden, ZING! She graduates, goes to college, graduates, takes a job in a remote area, marries, has a kid... and then wraps up the story. Personally, I prefer a book to carry on its pace to the end and then wrap it up in an epilogue. But that's me.

I like to feel sympathetic toward the protagonist, and at times that was hard to do here. But it is a difficult thing, feeling misunderstood and unappreciated, yet unable to easily communicate with those around you. I expect that is the case with more tweens and teens than not, and it's helpful to understand the universality of that.

I got this book at the thrift store for about a buck.


Saturday, July 4, 2015

1929 Honor - Millions of Cats

"What?" You are saying. "Millions of Cats? By Wanda Gag? But," you sputter, "Isn't that a kid's PICTURE Book? Don't they have their own awards, like the Caldecot Medal, for Pete's sake!" Well, I guess that in 1929, it slid into the ranks of books under consideration for the Newbery Award, and it did indeed win an honor medal.

When my kids were young, I ran across it often in kid's book references. I always wondered why it totally passed under my radar, or maybe wasn't even around much when I was little. I did get a copy of it for my kids and was very charmed by the lovely pen and ink illustrations and the story, all 29 pages of it.

I'm not going to worry about spoilers because the nature of the book is to be read and re-read to kids, ad nauseum. If you like cats and kitties, this story will appeal to you, since it contains, "Hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats!"

The old man and old woman were lonely. "If only we had a cat!" are the fateful words of the old woman, so the old man sets out to find them one. Eventually he comes to a hill covered with cats, hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats. He selects what he thinks is the prettiest one, but of course there is always one just as pretty, so he continues picking cats, until he has chosen them all. So off they go back home. The environmental disaster that accompanies them on the way home is a foreshadowing of what awaits the herd. They are thirsty, and drink an entire pond dry. They are hungry, and devour every blade of grass on the grassy hills. When the old man arrives, the more practical old woman declares, "They will eat us out of house and home!" The old man decides to let the cats themselves choose who will stay. Since the old man's criteria had been, "the prettiest one," they begin arguing over which one is the prettiest. It turns into such a catfight that, frightened, the old couple dash inside and shut the door. When they finally peep out, all the cats are gone! They have eaten each other up! Except for one. A scrawny little thing who did not think itself pretty at all, and so did not engage in the quarrel. Of course, with a little milk and loving, the homely little cat turned into the prettiest one, after all.

There are really so many elements you can pick out and ponder in this simple tale. A pet can make you less lonely. The humble will be elevated. The prideful have their ruin. Prettiest matters the most. Men just don't think things out to their logical conclusion. And then the big one. Where the heck did all these cats come from? 1929 was way before spay and neuter, and I have seen what happens when cats have kittens, their kittens have kittens, etc. if nothing disastrous happens to the population. I expect it was an unpleasant reality at times to have to "take care of the problem." It is pretty tidy that in this book, the problem takes care of itself, but that's the way fairy tales work. I'm left with some  unease over the noisy violence that was surely happening out there. I think some kids will just accept that, and some will imagine the process. (How can a million cats "eat each other up?")

The book was entirely inked, drawings and text alike. It is really a beautiful thing, and the cats are so drawn that you are tempted to actually count them.

I bought this hardbound book at the thrift store, and have purchased multiple other copies the same way to give out to young nieces and nephews.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

2001 Honor - The Wanderer

Since I mostly focus on the gold award seal rather than the silver "honor" designation, I almost passed this book up at the Goodwill Thrift store where it was shelved. But then I saw it was written by previous Newbery Award Winner Sharon Creech (Walk Two Moons). I knew that it had to be delightful and tantalizing, the secrets of the story gradually unfolding at just the right moments.

I was not disappointed.

I finally got around to reading it, and only put it down because it got too late to read, and then I finished it this morning.

The Wanderer is the name of a Uncle Dock's sailboat. He and his two brothers have fixed it up and are going to sail to England, taking along two of their boys. Sophie persuades her mother, Uncle Dock's sister, to let her go along with them. The three children are all about the same age, thirteen. Sophie and Cody each keep a ship's log, which is the way the book is written.

For such a sizable cast of main characters; Uncle Dock, Uncle Mo, Uncle Stew, Brian, Cody, and Sophie, they quickly become memorable for their personalities and quirks. That makes it an easy process to dive into the story without having to leaf back to see "Now which one was that uncle?" Enough attention is given to them so they do not seem too shallow, but not so much to keep from focusing on Sophie, whose story unfolds against the background of the others.

At first it seems like a pretty straightforward adventure book. Will the boat ever get the final kinks worked out? Will the shakedown trip go all right? Will they get lost in the fog? How bad will that storm get? But tidbit by tidbit, the reader finds the heart of the story lies in Sophie's past and how she is dealing with her past trauma.

The author lets the two main characters in the story, Sophie and Cody, tell the tale in their own words. Done skillfully, like in this book, the first person view can be a superior storytelling method. Many books that switch off between the "I's" seem jarring and clunky to me, almost like the author can't manage to convey what is happening with the other characters without resorting to the switcheroo. But The Wanderer makes it seem like a bonus rather than a crutch to see events from Cody's thoughts and feelings along with Sophie's, the main protagonist.

I got this book at the thrift store for less than a buck. I always enjoy inscriptions in used books. This one says, "Keep reading Baylee! Love, Mrs. Imes, May '04" I know that children grow up and get rid of their childhood books, but I like to think that teachers like Mrs. Imes (whoever and wherever she is) would be pleased to know that their gifts keep on giving!