Saturday, April 22, 2017

1962 - The Bronze Bow


Sometimes I wonder how it is that the same authors win the Newbery Award multiple times. Are they champions in the world of children's literature? Are there actually just few writers of children's literature? Is there a familiarity with these names in the higher reaches? I don't know enough to make a guess. But if you are familiar with the interesting and excellent Newbery Winner, The Witch of Blackbird Pond (1959), then you are familiar with Elizabeth George Speare, who also wrote this award winner, The Bronze Bow.

The first time I started to read this book, I was put off at first by realizing that it was a story about young people interacting with Jesus and his ministry. I put it away for awhile while I examined my feelings about a book of this nature being part of the Newbery Award platform. I had to consider how I would feel if it were about the origins of Islam, promoting that way. Or, like The Cat Who Went to Heaven, a clear pitch on Buddhism. I didn't want to dismiss it, just because it might belong to the category of propaganda or tracts. It did win the award, after all. So I picked it up again and dove in.


Daniel is a young man, 18 years old, who has chosen to live a life in hiding, in the mountains with Rosh and his band of zealots. He has a sorry past of pain and loss at the hands of the occupying Romans, and he has turned his life over to revenge and hate, and future glory when they overthrow the hated overlords and Israel reclaims its land and autonomy. He looks to Rosh as a father figure and is proud and grateful when give the chance to participate in raids against traders on the road. We are allowed to see that Rosh is an uncouth and selfish leader, who cares nothing for the men in his band except what they can do for him. But Daniel is blind to that.


After Daniel makes some friends from the town, while they were out exploring the hills, he begins to spend some time down there. He visits the hut of his grandmother and sister, Leah, who is suffering from mental disorder from the earlier trauma to their family. He stays, he goes, he comes back; he can't stand to be there, but he feels guilty for not being there for them. He develops his friendship more deeply to the pair he met in the hills, and then enters into intrigue and spying and plans for revenge and helping to bring about the revolution, trusting in Rosh to carry through on his part.


Daniel hates the Romans, deeply. Stupidly deeply. Spitting at them, insulting them, seemingly not able to control his actions. Hate and anger, anger and hate. Selfishness. Mean to his sister. He's nice at times, but is so selfish he cannot care for her or her needs beyond a pretty low bar. Jesus is kind of a sidebar to the story, really. You just get a brief inclination of what he was all about. But it feels that the story is leading to a redemption of Daniel and his awful nature, even if that nature is mixed in with sincere concern for Jewish freedom. He struggles a little with some of the ideas Jesus has communicated, such as loving your enemies and his coming kingdom, but manages to shrug most of it off.


Even though Jesus is a real person in this book, he has been cast in a mystical glow, as he speaks and heals the sick. You will have guessed already that Daniel is indeed redeemed and changed from his former self, but unsatisfyinly so. I did not like the character. He did not have my sympathy, especially for the way he treated his family, and for his rage and surliness. I could have invested more of myself in the story if I had been allowed to see more of his change of heart, his reactions to self-revelation, his regret over past actions. But the author waited until the last couple pages to handle that, and I only know Daniel's character as the young man I spent 250 pages getting to know and dislike.


Bought this book at the thrift store.

Friday, April 7, 2017

2017 - The Girl Who Drank the Moon

The kindly witch of the forest did not mean to feed the baby moonlight. She had only intended to satisfy the infant with drops of honey-sweet starlight to keep her happy on the journey to the free cities, where the formerly doomed child could be raised with love and happiness and sunshine. But she wasn't paying attention. She let her mind wander. Maybe you will feel that she did it "accidentally on purpose." But in any rate, the deed was done--the child was now enmagicked, and Xan must raise Luna as her own, teaching her the ways of magic and loving her as her own "granddaughter."


Where did these abandoned babies come from, one each year? Xan didn't know, but she did know that if she did not rescue them, they would be devoured by wild animals. The truth is, they were the annual sacrifice from the gloomy village, to sate the evil witch of the forest, according to their myth. But the truth was even more horrible than the depressing loss of the youngest child of the town each year. An evil existed that was beyond their knowledge, and almost beyond Xan's, perhaps the only one who could help their world from being destroyed.


The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill is lyrical, mysterious, tucked with magic and mysterious creatures, but grounded in the reality of a good story well-told. The threads that run through the pages eventually come together. And while you know what you want to happen, you cannot trust that it will. This is that sort of book.


I really enjoyed every one of its 386 pages. But unless you want to find yourself staying up late because you don't want to put it down, don't get too close to the end of it at bedtime!


I bought this hardbound version (brand new 2017 award) from Amazon.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

2015 Honor - El Deafo

I loved this book!

I wanted to get some more contemporary Newbery books in my collection, rather than flip through the old classics always present at the thrift store. I did some research online and came up with a few books to order, this being one of them.

El Deafo, by Cece Bell, is an autobiographical graphic novel of her life from age 4 until about 18. The illustrations are very very fun. Everyone is a sort of animal, my best guess is rabbit. That makes it less about who is pretty, who is not, what ethnicity are they and what does that mean, etc. It's all about, what are they like? What is their personality and way of interacting with their friends? And it's all about the people. No swirling background scenes to distract from the interactions and from the inner life of Cece, the main character and star.

At 4 years old, little Cece was stricken by a severe case of meningitis, which left her without most of her hearing. A hearing aid helped. And that was good. Except that you can imagine what it was like starting school with a bulky device strapped to your body and wires in your ears. What do these kids think about you? Are they staring at you? Are they making fun of you? Cece shares her thoughts, fantasies (which can be very funny, and will also strike a chord if you can remember your childhood fantasies) accomplishments and regrets as she goes along with her life.

And then, when she realizes her superpower, well, that is very empowering. Could the teachers have guessed that having a microphone around their necks so as to communicate clearly with their hearing-impaired student would enable said student to hear what they were doing throughout the school grounds?

I found her relationships with her different "best friends" to be somewhat hilarious. You can think back on different school friends you have had, and name some that match up to these girls! And I totally get the eye-hearts when Cece is thinking about her crush.

I remember being like Cece, who found it difficult to say out loud what what she really thought about things. Watching her grow in the ability to assert herself was rewarding.

Honestly, if you have a kid who is about 4th grade, or a little below, or a little above, get them this book! Or if you are like me, and just have that appreciation for middle-school level literature, get it anyway. And then share it with the kids you know.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

1976 Honor - The Hundred Penny Box

I had never heard of The Hundred Penny Box by Sharon Bell Mathis before. And there it was before me on the Goodwill shelf, a slim 47 page volume that looked more like a children's picture book at first glance. The illustrations are ethereal, with a dream-like quality, and also strong with emotion. Was this a simple little book with a nice message, or could something powerful be packed inside?
We don't find out right away exactly what the hundred penny box is, but shortly we do see the family situation. Michael's dad's great Aunt Dew has come to live with them. She is very old, a hundred years old, in fact. Michael loves to visit with her and hear her stories, the stories that inhabit every year of her long and interesting life. And that is what the hundred penny box represents, a penny for each year, all packed into an old rugged wooden box.

Michael's mother is having a difficult time, however. There is little meaningful communication between the two women, and some misunderstanding. His mother has had to discard many of Aunt Dew's possessions when she moved in with them. And now she has her eye on the hundred penny box! To her, it is old and ugly and should be replaced with something newer and more attractive. Michael realizes what his mother does not, that the box is not just a decoration or a holder for the pennies, but that it is part of his family heritage and is the essence of Aunt Dew's self-identity.

The balance of power is never equal in a family. And this imbalance is well-felt by the reader. The lead characters, Michael and Aunt Dew, are the least powerful, as the very young and very old are. Simple things like autonomy of self, where to go, what to say, holding on to a beloved item that is slated for disposal, those can be a battle hard to win.

I paid a dollar for this book at Goodwill.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

1995 Honor - The Ear, the Eye and the Arm

The what? What a strange name for a book, I thought.

After I read a couple of other books from Nancy Farmer (and reviewed them on this blog) , The Ear, the Eye and the Arm was also recommended to me. This one was also deemed good enough for a Newbery medal, and so it was good enough for me.

When I know I'm going to read a book, I try not to know too much about what happens in it. I avoid the details in blurbs and reviews that give away the surprises. But I also like to be just a little prepared, so I can have more appreciation of the tale from the beginning. So I read the author's forward, which bears quoting:

I used to work for a company in Zimbabwe called College Press. My job was to create stories for African school children, so I went to the secondhand stores to find out what they liked. There were no free libraries in Zimbabwe then, and new books were far too expensive for my students. I discovered that they loved science fiction. Several would chip in to buy a new novel for ten cents. They would read it and read it and read it until it fell apart. I went straight home and wrote The Ear, the Eye and the Arm.

So yes, it is science fiction. But it is grounded and accessible to a concrete mind, concerned with all the things that children of this age are concerned about.

It is 200 years in the future, and although Africa is recognizable, things have changed technologically and to a lesser degree,  politically. Tendai, Rita, and Kuda, the children of Zimbabwe's wealthy and powerful chief of security are itching to fulfill their scout badges. But even though all have been earned in the safe enclosure of the family compound, the explorer badge required some exploring. 13 year old Tendai wants to be allowed out into the city, for the first time in his life, to quickly and safely navigate a distance, and then return home later that day. With just a little trickery, they are out, and on an adventure.

When their father finds out, he is devastated, and for the first time realizes how unprepared he has made them to be out in the real world. He has made them weak, by keeping them isolated and totally safe, all while being somewhat disappointed in them because they were not as strong as he wanted them to be. He knows that his enemies will be after them, for ransom and, as it turns out, even more nefarious purposes.

But the children are actually pretty resourceful, and even when they end up in the clutches of people who don't wish them well, they are getting savvy, and learning the strengths of each other, and Tendai begins growing in the spirits of Africa.

After it is obvious their father will be unable to find them, their mother hires three detectives from an agency. They are Ear, a man with freakishly large ears who can hear whispers from another room, Eye, a huge-eyeballed man who can see details all others miss, and Arm, a strange spider-like man who picks up others' emotions.  They pick up the trail, always just late enough to miss the children, but as they work, they are a part of the larger story that comes to a crashing conclusion with all the characters and spirits warring against each other at the top of a mile-high building.

I haven't read many African- based tales, but I do remember the feel and rhythm of Anansi the Spider books that I used to read to my children when they were small. This has a similar feel. Farmer's writing is fun and refreshing, and the concrete details that pop up make the story come alive.

I think the most popular youth books are coming-of-age stories, like this one, and the best ones handle complicated subjects in an interesting, skillful and realistic way. I liked how Tendai comes to appreciate the stubbornness and uncooperative personality of his sister, Rita, because that is how she survived their ordeal--she was strong. I appreciated the deep bond between the children. I liked the subtle way Farmer shows that Tendai's parents understand that he has now become a man.

I bought this book from Amazon. 

Friday, January 27, 2017

1931 - The Cat Who Went to Heaven

Have you ever heard of this one? I had not! Not until the other day, as I was browsing among the kid's books at Goodwill and saw it. There it was, the gold Newbery seal in the corner. The Cat Who Went to Heaven, by Elizabeth Coatsworth, is a slim little novel, only 54 pages in this edition. At the start of each chapter there is a small woodcut-looking picture of the cat, and between chapters there is a small poem, the old housekeeper's reflections and observations on the events unfolding.

This is an oriental story, specifically Japanese. It is supposedly based on a Buddhist folk tale, from what I can glean on the internet.

The painter is poor, so poor that he and his old housekeeper are practically starving. He hasn't sold any paintings in so long, there is hardly any money left. The wise housekeeper understands that they are lonely, and buys a cat with some of their last coins. At first the artist is furious. After all, cats are evil!
"'A cat? A cat?' he cried. 'Have you gone mad? Here we are starving and you must bring home a goblin, a goblin to share the little we have, and perhaps to suck our blood at night! Yes! it will be fine to wake up in the dark and feel teeth at our throats and look into eyes as big as lanterns! but perhaps you are right! Perhaps we are so miserable it would be a good thing to have us die at once, and be carried over the ridgepoles in the jaws of a devil!'"

But the cat's meek, polite and well-mannered ways gradually win over the man. Especially when he notices the cat "praying to The Enlightened One," he becomes quite fond of her.

One day the priest brings news that a painting of the Death of Buddha is needed for the temple, and the omens have chosen this artist to provide it. The commission comes with an initial purse of money, to ease his mind while he works.

The artist spends 3 days meditating on Buddha's life, so that he can best represent his death. He paints in all the animals that have a significance in Buddha's life and his past lives. As the painting nears completion, he becomes more and more saddened as his fondness for the cat grows. For everyone knows that a cat has no place in heaven or with Buddha, since the cat was too proud and rebellious to receive his blessing. What should he do? Turn in his commissioned work like he knows they would all want it to be? Or to follow his conscience and paint in this cat, who obviously honors Buddha and wishes to be included?

You'll have to see what happens. I wish I could say what happens. But it should be discovered on one's own reading. Not your typical western children's story finale.

I did enjoy reading it, though it did read equally balanced between a folk tale and religious tract. It was interesting to imagine it told in a western Christian version.

I got this from Goodwill for $1.99.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

2003 Honor - The House of the Scorpion

This one, I couldn't put it down. I think I pretty much read it straight through. It was the day after Christmas guests left, and it was just me, the fireplace, the couch, and leftover Christmas candy. And The House of the Scorpion, by Nancy Farmer.

I like books that don't spew everything you need to know on the first couple pages; that is part of the deliciousness, letting the interesting and pertinent bits come as they will. And even though you will be a little ahead of Matteo in figuring things out, that's ok, because he is just a little kid.

This dystopian-shaded book is set in the future, not too far away, just far away enough so that some things have changed. The important one being the border area between The United States and Mexico. Finally the countries got fed up enough with trying to manage border security that they made a deal with the drug lords, and a new country, appropriately named "Opium" stretched in a narrow band all along the border. Opium handled border security far better than either of the countries above and below, and in the process ending up with enough workers to toil in their eponymous fields. The concession was that they would only peddle their wares to the eastern hemisphere.

But that is just the setting. What of the boy Matteo? Why is he so important, yet treated so strangely? What is his connection to El Patron, the 140 year old de facto ruler of Opium?  You'll see a glimpse in the short family tree printed at the prologue, but you won't understand all the meaning of that until you get a little further into the book.

At first I was dismayed by listing of the family tree and the summary of who the characters were, at the start of the book.  I don't like to have to figure out who everyone is before I am even motivated to do so, or to have all their relationships be so confusing that I need to keep flipping to where it's all mapped out. But never fear. A brief scan of the tree and then a few referrals are all that is needed. Once, I couldn't remember if someone was a cousin or other relative, but a quick check at the summary showed me she was only an acquaintance.

This is a book that I don't want to summarize, because you should enjoy the same pleasure I did in finding things out as they come along. But just a hint--if you like clones and "zombies", this will satisfy. One trait this book shares with some others I'm sure you have read is the jolt of the New Section, in this case called La Vida Nueva (The New Life). When you enter that, you will have the sense that it is another book, yet there is no time gap or style change between the two sections. You understand that he must leave in order to go back. He must endure other experiences before he can become a man. He must see things, understand other things, and The New Life brings that to Matteo.

I felt like the book could have spent a little more time handling the wrap-up of the new life, which circled back around, of course. It felt a little dizzying, the speed by which events happened. but perhaps since this is a young adult novel, it felt long enough to the author or editor by then. There is a sequel, which has good reviews, and I am interested enough in what happens to these characters and their situation that I plan on buying it.

I bought this book new on Amazon.