Monday, November 1, 2010

1974 - The Slave Dancer

The Slave Dancer is another Newbery Award book that I hadn’t heard of before I started this project. As usual, when at a thrift store, I head to the children’s and young adult books and scan the spines for likely-looking titles or the tell-tale insignia for a Newbery book. I found this unassuming little paper back, 127 pages, and it had the gold seal of a Medal book on the upper right hand corner of the front cover. The cover had an intriguing picture of a group of huddled, bewildered-looking Africans on the deck of a ship, a boy playing a fife in their direction, and a grizzled sailor watching sternly over them.

Jessie, a boy of New Orleans, likes to play his fife down by the docks to earn a few pennies. His mother supports the family as a seamstress. When she sends Jessie out to borrow a few candles to help her work on a big project, Jessie is kidnapped, and his life changes forever. He has been taken to work as a “slave dancer” aboard a slave ship.

It was in the best interests of the slaver captain to arrive at his destination with as many healthy slaves as possible, and they felt the slaves should be “exercised.” A group of chained slaves would be made to go up on the deck and be forced to dance and move to the lilts and trills of Jessie’s fife. The boy is horrified and mortified to be doing this.

I played on against the wind and my own self-disgust, and finally the slaves began to lift their feet, the chains attached to the shackles around their ankles forming an iron dirge, below the trills of my tune. …From barely more than an audible moan or two, their voices began to gain strength until the song they were singing, or the words they were chanting, or the story they were telling overwhelmed the small sound of my playing.

Grim details are not spared just because this is a kid’s book, but they are not sensationalized either. Jessie is the narrator, observing events that make him recoil, but he is stuck on the ship and in that life—he must continue life, learning about human nature, making relationships and surviving.

The horrors of the slave trade and conditions on the slave ships are very descriptively told and moved me to compassion and to bewilderment that the tradesmen involved in it could treat other human beings in that way. It’s a story that must continue to be told. But this book is also a boy’s adventure and a journey into manhood as he deals with the crises that confront him.

I enjoyed The Slave Dancer and am glad that because of the Newbery Medal, I plucked it from the thrift store shelf of Babysitter Club and Disney books to buy it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

1972 - Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

Growing up, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH was a cartoon – a much loved cartoon. There was poor, cute little Mrs. Frisby, and sick little Timothy. The dashing (yet, very much dead) Jonathon…not to mention evil lab employees in white coats grabbing squeaky mice by their tails and injecting them with big syringes of fluid that vaguely resembled gingerale (which to my surprise, after working with mice for vaccine development years later was eerily accurate).

In 4th or 5th grade this was a required reading in my literary class, which I neatly got out of ready by lying to the teacher, telling her I had already read it, and then managing to fib my way though a verbal quiz by being intentionally vague and sticking to the general plot of the cartoon.

I had read most of the books required for the class previously and the teacher would let me pick my own books if I had already read the required reading. Most of the books she picked were BORING, so I got out of them if at all possible - much to my chagrin as an adult when I picked this book up from the library.

What a delightful, entertaining book! Poor, widowed Mrs. Frisby must have her house placed to the lee of the stone, so that it isn’t plowed over by the farmer. I’ve often observed this phenomenon – that the area right behind a big stone is left unplowed or undisturbed by natural occurrences – and thought this was a very innovative plot element. In the search for the answer to her dilemma, it leads her to consult with an owl, go piggy back on a crow, drug a cat, and learn the truth about the death of her husband, Jonathon.

I truly enjoyed this book. Well written, exciting, innovative, and well-paced – this is a Newbery award winner, (along with “The Graveyard Book”), that will find a permanent place on my book shelves.

The first image is the book cover I had in 4th grade, the second the cover I actual read from the library.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

1960 Honor - My Side of the Mountain

Would I be very far off if I said that every kid has fantasized about running away from home? Even if conditions aren’t bad enough at home to really run away FROM, the desire swells up to run away TO something. Run away to some place, some state of being where you are independent (when legal independence is still years away), where you can live off the land, where you have a chance to search for and discover who you really are. My Side of the Mountain brings reality to that wish, in such a detailed and inspiring way as to make it all seem possible, desirable even, to a kid with that hunger inside him or her.

From a crowded New York City apartment, 13 year-old Sam Gribley runs away to the wilderness of the Catskill Mountains to make a new life of his own, living off the land. Although he leaves with few possessions; flint and steel, twine, a penknife, an ax, and $40, he is rich in ingenuity, resourcefulness, and determination. Sam has read a fair number of books on wilderness survival, giving him a reasonable start in his new life, but the fascination of this book is in what he learns along the way.

My Side of the Mountain has a real-time, immediate feel to it though the use of Sam’s journal entries, which are interspersed throughout the telling of his adventure. Also tucked among the entries are his sketches of useful or edible plants, items he has crafted, and traps.

It is hard not to envy Sam. “Thoreau,” as Sam is known by a wilderness friend, is able to live somewhat like his namesake. Casting off the demands and hustle-bustle of society, he lives in harmony with nature and has time to reflect on serious philosophical thoughts, such as “What makes a boy a boy and a bird a bird?” Of course, Sam is a boy—actually a self-reliant young man by now, and after about a year, he must return to civilization.

As a kid reading this book, it was wonderful to live vicariously through Sam; I was about his age the first time I read it. Though I enjoyed his success in wilderness prosperity, I was reassured when he became lonely, and he helped set the stage for his eventual discovery and return to modern life, validating the reality of the life most kids live.

A note on movies made from Newbery books—some are good, some are…not so good. I watched, as an adult, the mid-seventies movie made from My Side of the Mountain. It mechanically followed the book, but lacked the grand adventure of the imagination of the book. Sam was a precocious, wordy youth who was a little bit annoyingly book-knowledgeable.

I believe I bought this book a few years ago at a school book sale.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

1999 - Holes

After my son read Holes, he came to ask me about the yellow-spotted poisonous lizards with the black teeth and the milky-white tongue. Inserted into a story that seems realistic on the outside, the presence of the lizards seems perfectly reasonable to anyone who hasn’t studied reptiles. And yet, Hole’s back-story is too coincidental to be realistic. To allow yourself to enjoy the tale, you must accept what is presented without protesting too much. Then you can relax and enjoy a most enjoyable and heartwarming tale.

We’ve all heard about the desert boot camps that incorrigible boys and girls are sent to for reform. Through an accident of fate, innocent Stanley Yelnats is sent to Camp Green Lake, as punishment for stealing. Camp Green Lake is on a desert pan, far away from anything, where “If you take a bad boy and make him dig a hole every day in the hot sun, it will turn him into a good boy.” The conditions are brutal and realistically covered. Stanley’s cabin mates are a tough bunch, and not very friendly. But Stanley learns the ropes and is surviving. Things start coming together for him, and the story starts heating up when he realizes that the Warden and Mr. Sir are not having the boys dig holes randomly; they are looking for something.

Flashbacks in history help tell the unfolding story of both Camp Green Lake and Stanley’s ancestors. The fable-like histories are told in such a matter-of-fact way that you can accept them as the reality for this book.

I like Stanley. He is no super-kid; he starts out soft and overweight, without confidence. He is a good-hearted boy who, because he doesn’t want to worry them, writes his parents glowing reviews about the camp, details which are humorous because they are so exaggerated from reality.

Stanley’s epiphany of how his life has changed for the better comes during his escape, and his rescue of another boy. He still has no idea how he can come out of his situation, but,

“…Stanley lay awake staring up at the star-filled sky. He was too happy to fall asleep. He knew he had no reason to be happy…”
“He liked himself now.”

It’s a beautiful moment in the book. If you’ve ever worked through a disastrous situation with a friend or two, then you know the intense bonding and the kind of pleasure that can result.

I found this book in the thrift store. I would have preferred the earlier cover with Lane Smith’s illustrations (Stinky Cheese Man, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs) but alas, the cover is from the Disney motion picture of Holes.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

2004 - The Tale of Despereaux

I read this book a few weeks ago in a frenzy of library-induced-newbery-book-reading and am only just now writing the review.
---(sorry - these are paragraph placeholders - I can't get blogger to cooperate today...)
Part of me feels a bit guilty - is it really fair to review a book several weeks after the reading?
The other side of me feels like as a Newbery Award winner, it should be good enough to leave a lasting impression on my phsychy. Afterall, the award goes to "influential" fiction, and thus should leave a lasting impression (or at least my rationalization goes!).
At the time of the reading I found the book cute. To this day when I think of it, I cannot help but smile. A cute little mouse, an evil rat, a weird human/rodent relationship and a liberal sprinkling of the word "perfidy". The tongue in cheek narration fits the story quite well.
Unfortunately, it was not the kind of book that made any real, lasting impression. Once the cover closed, it remained a cute story about a mouse, but didn't excite my imagination or invoke a particularly novel idea. I would consider the reading level to be similar to "The Whipping Boy", so it's not the fact it's for a younger audience that makes it shallow for me.
On the other hand, my mother seems to find joy in 90% of the Newbery books she reviews and I'm being annoyed by 90%. I must face the fact that I somehow need to shift my thinking.
I think this book is best suited to being read aloud to younger children. As I was silently reading to myself, I could barely restrain myself from making the voices of the characters come alive through my voice.

Monday, August 16, 2010

1930 - Hitty: Her First Hundred Years

I fell in love with Hitty during one of those dreamy grammar school years when I was discovering all those wonderful classic children’s books for the first time. I believe my older sister had checked it out of the library, and I read it during one of those sessions when Hitty stayed with us. (Our normal practice was to re-read our favorites, so a rotating handful of those were always around) Whenever I re-read Hitty today, I can still feel the excitement of the first time; what in the world will happen to Hitty next? It’s not “What will Hitty do,” but rather “What will happen to Hitty,” because, you see, Hitty is a doll, a doll carved by an itinerant peddler out of his lucky piece of mountain ash for a little girl in Maine.

For a while, we kids had a rumor going that there was another book out there; Hitty: Her Second Hundred Years. Since Hitty has ended these memoirs during the dawn of the age of aviation, it seemed like a reasonable story for the 1960’s. But, alas, the book was written in 1929, so if Hitty’s second hundred years make it to print, it won’t be by Rachel Field.

Hitty is a small doll, less than six inches in height, allowing her to be tucked into a girl’s muff, be shoved into the back of a sofa, become a pincushion, and be clutched in a small hand. Her pleasant expression is painted on her face, reflecting a serene spirit and pragmatic acceptance of her lot.

Hitty is a practical being. She does not waste her energies on sentimentality or regrets. She may engage in a few moments of nostalgia, but that can be forgiven, since this is, of course, a memoir! I see her values as being those of that generation who met the Great Depression with the courage and fortitude to make it through. If Hitty were to teach a lesson, it would be to accept with equanimity and optimism the position you find yourself in. Of Hitty’s responses to a bad situation, here is one of my favorites. Hitty has fallen overboard from a burning ship just in time.

“Well,” I remember thinking as I took the plunge. “At least I shall not be burned up. Water is kinder to wood than fire and I have heard that salt is a great preservative.”

Hitty passes from hand to hand, experiencing a century of being owned, treasured, forgotten, worshiped, and abused by a wide assortment of individuals until she has ended up in an antique shop, “In Which I Begin My Memoirs.”

Don't think that Hitty is a dry book of moralizing. Not so! Under her cheerful and practical demeanor runs a dry wit and underspoken humor.

Hitty is a wonderful book that has taken on new life, as the original audience has grown up and started various Hitty Doll Clubs, with all the accoutrements that go along with it. I must admit that I would have pined to have my own Hitty doll as a kid, but I’m sure I would have been ultimately disappointed because it would have only been a copy of the real thing.

I picked up my copy of this book recently at a thrift store. The cover is more modern (1990) than the interior illustrations, which are original and more fascinating.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

1936 - Caddie Woodlawn

It’s hard to believe this book never crossed my field of reading when I was a kid. I suspect that at some time in the past it was a certain generation’s required reading in grammar school.

Caddie Woodlawn is a lovely book that covers a year in a pioneer child’s life in Wisconsin. For her health’s sake, she has been allowed to play the tomboy with her brothers; gathering nuts, wading creeks, plowing fields, playing and exploring. Twelve-year old Caddie loves this life; she doesn’t want to be a “lady” with restrictive clothes and boring activities. Another conflict running in the background is her mother’s undercurrent of dissatisfaction in being a pioneer mother and wife out on the frontier. She misses Boston terribly. When a dramatic choice is given to the family that could change their lifestyle forever, all have to examine their hearts to see what they really want.

Caddie Woodlawn was written in 1935 by Carol Ryrie Brink, the granddaughter of the real Caddie Woodlawn, Caddie Woodhouse. Brink was raised by her grandmother and her aunt and listened to Caddie tell stories of her childhood as a pioneer girl. When Brink wrote the book, Caddie was still alive and able to help fill in some of the details.

1935 was a long time ago, and time changes the terms we use. I believe in viewing literature relative to the culture and times it was conceived in. “Squaw” and “Half-Breed,” “Redskin” and “red savages” were accepted vocabulary then, though not considered correct today. And it’s a little jarring to follow the “You like him dog?” Indian dialog, though for all I know, it’s the way they really spoke and not just a caricature. The Indian encounters create a good opportunity to consider both the injustice done to those indigenous Americans, and to the very real danger that the settlers faced from them.

One part that touched me was Caddie’s gradual realization of how left out her little sister Hetty felt when the older siblings played and conspired together. She begins to understand that Hetty's annoying habits might be a result of that lack of attention, and that she could be a better sister to her.

Comparisons may be made with the Little House on the Prairie books, but after the first couple chapters, that feeling fades. Caddie’s family is different, her adventures are different, Brink’s writing style is different, and the time-frame is about 20 years earlier.

I enjoyed Caddie Woodlawn; it was a fun and interesting book. I found this copy at Goodwill Thrift Store.

Monday, August 9, 2010

1987 - The Whipping Boy

I can remember picking up "The Whipping Boy" as an elementary school reader, probably in the first grade. What I remember of the book is that it was "weird" and not especially enjoyable, which makes sense if one remembers that my definition of a "good book" at that time was "The Black Stallion". Although it was not an "assigned" book (remember this is first grade!) I read it out of obligation to the medal and acknowledgement that I "should". Whatever I thought of the story at the time, the concept of having someone take the punishment of the favored one stuck with me.

In college I had rats. One in particular - a beautiful, sweet, Siamese marked dumbo named Oliver - was the favored. I decided he needed a companion and friend as I started my full time job. From a Craig's list ad, I found a small, runty little brown rat (technically "agouti") for free. No suitable name was found and I referred to him as "The Whipping Boy", as his only job in life was to be a companion to, and make happy my darling little Oliver.

Upon re-reading "The Whipping Boy", I found a short but charming story. Why I didn't like this book as a child, I cannot imagine. Probably a result of reading it too young - yes, I could read and comprehend the words, but could not appreciate the nuances of Prince Brat's transformation and the blossoming friendship between a pauper and a prince. I thoroughly enjoyed my re-read of this book as an adult and understand why it has it's place on many home and school shelves, almost 25 years after it's publication.

After finishing these posts sometimes I look up reviewers comments. On amazon I read this comment from Orrin C. Judd "brothersjuddotcom":

One thing that occurred to me in reading this story is the way that Anglo-American literature turns the traditional fairy tale of mistaken identity on it's head. The emblematic story of European tradition would be the Frog Prince, wherein the royal personage lies buried beneath a facade, but inevitably is discovered and accedes to his birthright. American stories like this one and Prince and the Pauper have as their premise that the regal upbringing has left the heir somehow unfit to rule and only after experiencing life as a commoner can they rightly ascend to power. The contrast obviously owes much to the underlying political philosophy of the respective cultures--the former supporting the idea of nobility being a function of birth, the latter premised on, if not consent of the ruled, at least a requirement of worthiness on the part of the ruler and an informed understanding of the plight of his subjects.

I had never (not being particularly English or Literature driven in school) considered this aspect of the American literature. It's an interesting concept, and one, at least in my limited experience, rings true. In general, I find plots with corrupt leaders and talented commoners infinitely more interesting.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

1969 - The High King

I like trilogies. And to some degree a trilogy plus one or two. When the story is good, the telling is fine, and the adventure seems real, then I can read the first books with a luxurious feeling, knowing that the pleasure will stretch on. Sometimes it just feels right for a story to span out over three or more books. But it’s an awkward situation, when you have just one of the set to win an award, the Newbery Award.

The High King is the last of the series, begun with The Black Cauldron and followed by The Book of Three, The Castle of Llyr, and Taran Wanderer. I had read all of them some years ago, though most of the details have slipped my mind. The introduction states: “Like the previous tales, this adventure can be read independently of the others.” I decided to take that statement at its word, and for this review, re-read The High King only.

I had problems with taking this book independently as an award-winning book and finding much pleasure in it. Many named characters appear in the first few chapters. Obviously, Taran and the rest of the gang are familiar to each other, so not much time is set aside to introduce them to the rest of us. It isn’t easy to figure out who is important enough to pay attention to and fix them in my mind so as to recognize them later. I resorted to keeping up the pace of the reading and then going back to search the pages for clues on a character once I saw that he would be important to the story. “Coll” is an example. Well into the book, I realized that he was quite close to “Taran,” the hero of the story. I backtracked all the way to the beginning, where he appears almost casually, along with many other folks. I never found any other information about him except that he is a gardener. To me, that made his character very flat, at least, in this book.

What makes it very difficult to keep track of the people and the place names is that they are all Welsh. Eilonwy, Dallben, Collfrewr, Gwydian, Gwystyl, Dyrnwyn, Lluagor, Llassar, and Llyr, Caer Dathyl, Prydain, Caer Cadarn, Cenarth, Annuvin. I can’t pronounce them in my head, which makes it harder to differentiate them.

In this tale, Taran, the Assistant Pig-Keeper, who has apparently been traveling in the previous books, proving himself to be more than just a pig keeper, has entered into the battle to finish off the evil dark lord who has reached out his arm to try to conquer the known world. His armies are hordes of undead, and of rulers who have made alliance with the evil lord, Arawn of Annuvin, believing it is to their advantage to cast their lot in with him. Taran’s companions and allies are men, the “Fair Folk,” an indeterminate furry being, and various intelligent animals who travel through mines, mountain passes and secret routes. If you are feeling a hint of “Lord of the Rings,” you’re not the only one. I remember the previous four books well enough to know that this is not a knock-off series, and it could be that there are just not that many ways to wind up an epic like this one besides a “Return of the King” style.

I feel that the award was probably given to this, the last book, as a nod to the entire series. A boy raised in a low station makes something wonderful out of himself. The princess is a strong female character, who rescues at least as much as she is rescued. Friendships are strong, and at times, sacrificial. Interesting characters come forth who are hard to forget; the annoying but intensely loyal Gurgi, the fortune-telling pig Hen Wen. But if that is the case, that the series is the real winner, I wish it would be spelled out in the award, because this book, taken on its own, is not as unique and significant as I would have liked.

Like the rest of the books in this series, I found The High King at the thrift store.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

2009 - The Graveyard Book

For proof that not all Newbery books are the same, one only has to pick up "The Graveyard Book" by Neil Gaiman.

As I browsed my library's Newbery award section, I was immediately attracted, and even attempted to read the first few pages at the redlight intersections on the trip home. The illustrations perfectly capture the mood of the book and I found myself impatiently flipping ahead to catch a glimpse of the next illustration.

The first chapter of the book was so violent, at first I was uncertain whether this really WAS a Newbery book - after all, no medal was on the cover of the copy (probably because it's a recent winner). Maybe it was a mistake? As an elementary school reader, it probably would have traumatized me, although I probably never would have picked up a book at that age, with the word "Graveyard" in the title, being an especially wimpy, impressionable child. To be fair, the book does clearly state that it's intended audience is middle schoolers.

I have never, as an adult or a child, read a book quite like this one. The tone and style of the writing is not like anything I've encountered before. As a young reader I can see how I would have been drawn into the adventure and suspense, and as an adult I appreciated the various play on words that the author scatters throughout. For example, the child, brought up among the mists and veils of the graveyard has the last name (or at least did, before his family was brutally murdered) of "Dorian", all the killers have the first name of "Jack" along with various last names such as "Frost", "Nimble" etc.

Gaiman doesn't see fit to do much explaining. After finishing the book, I realized just how "bare bones" the plot really is. Boy's family is murdered, boy is adopted by a graveyard. Boy eventually confronts killer in graveyard and through a not-so-well-explained graveyard phenomenon, binds him in an ancient grave with a not-so-well-explained graveyard monster. The book reads more like a collection of loosely related short stories than a traditional mystery or adventure novel.

However, I found the plot irrelevant because what makes this book an enjoyable read is the richness and color of the boy growing up, and having adventures, and the author's unique way with words. I felt like a person, upon discovering a foreigner in their midst, strikes up a conversation only to hear them talk. The book was both simple and complicated at the same time - a juxtaposition that makes the book truly intriguing.

Only time will tell whether this book will become a favorite among it's intended audience and fondly looked back upon, however I will be picking a copy up for my collection and will be recommending it to friends and family.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

1941 - Call it Courage

The book I am going to review next is a dear friend of mine. I know it well, through and through. I should. I have read it enough times. Bless Scholastic Book services with their eagerly anticipated flyers that arrived on our desks beginning in the 3rd grade. With prices for books starting at 15 cents, even a kid with a few dimes in the piggy bank could buy her own adventures.

Call it Courage sounded like a good bet, so I ordered it. I loved it. The language was rich and evocative, yet plain-spoken enough for a kid to understand. Through this book, I first heard “outrigger canoe” and figured out what that was. I first met the tiger shark, I read about cannibals, I felt the life of the ancient Polynesians.

Mafatu was a boy who lacked the thing most valued in his society—courage. He was afraid of the most important and prominent aspect of island life—the sea. No matter that he had good reason! The reader sympathizes with him, but there it is, and he’ll never be a respected member of his society unless he is able to face his fear and prove himself. And so he does, leaving the safety of his island, alone, to prove his courage to himself, or die trying. His moment of no return happens as he approaches the sea-race through the reef.

Behind him lay safety, security from the sea. What matter if they jeered? For a second he almost turned back. Then he heard Kana’s voice once more saying: "Mafatu is a coward.”

Every kid has fears; I was afraid of the dark outside. I don’t know if I was able to consciously use Mafatu’s example of being afraid inside, but doing what you have to do, and finding your courage in the process. But it was an inspiring story, making me feel brave along with him and feeling proud when he returns in glory.

Sometimes, something happens to the pure pleasure of a book when it is required reading in school, and each chapter and every meaningful detail is read aloud and discussed over several weeks. The lesson is learned, the theme is understood, but the excitement is dulled. Some of my children were assigned Call it Courage in this manner. That was good, but it was bad. They don’t especially care for it now. But I’m hoping in future years, they will return to it fondly.

Monday, August 2, 2010

1966 - I, Juan de Pareja

I found myself in the children’s section of the county library this week and, skimming across the titles, came to “I, Juan de Pareja,” Newbery Medal winner for 1966. Taking advantage of the opportunity, I checked it out. Unlike most of the other Newbery books, I’d never heard of this one. I was absolutely delighted by this lovely story.

Juan is a negro slave in Spain, born sometime in the early 1600’s, and this is his memoir. Based on real characters and using reasonable and interesting scenarios to fill in the missing threads of their lives, de Trevino has brought a piece of European medieval history to life.

As a boy, Juan has a rough time of it, but his life changes for the better when he is inherited by the great painter, Diego Velazquez. As he grows, he becomes not only the indispensible assistant, but dear friend of his Master.

The description and the vocabulary gracing the pages make the story soar. “Ay, my mother…what a challenge to a painter you would have been! What a delight and torment to try to catch the soft sheen of apple green taffeta and garnet velvet of the mistress’s gown, the sober brown of yours, the pink and gold of your turban, picked up by the gold hoops in your ears and the beautiful dark glow, like that of a ripe purple grape, along your round cheek and slender neck…” And beautiful words; capricious, ignominy, furbelows, annihilating, paroxysms.

Juan is made real, and we care what happens to him. I wanted to keep picking the book up, to read some more, but I did not want to hurry it along; I found too much pleasure in the journey to try to reach the destination too soon.

I think the title of the book, while descriptive, is unfortunate for a child’s book. It has no hook to make the casual hand want to pull it from the shelf and consider it. I have actually come across a renamed young adult book. When I was young, I read a book called “Take Me to My Friend,” and years later found the same book re-titled “Three Desperate Days.” But that treatment is unlikely to ever happen here.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

2005 - Kira-Kira

I’m not sure how well I would have enjoyed Kira-Kira as a child. My tastes usually ran to exciting plot-driven stories, not meaningful character-driven tales, as this one is. I might have found it hard to identify with the Japanese girl and her family, not realizing at the time how universal are the main themes in Kira-Kira of family relationships, pulling up stakes to start a new life, the stress on the family to make a living in hard times, and other life-changing events.

Kira-kira means “glittering; shining” in Japanese. Katie, who tells the story in her own voice, loves and adores her older sister Lynn, who is always finding kira-kira in the everyday pieces of their lives. When they all have to pack up and move from a Japanese community in Iowa to the deep south of Georgia, Katie looks to big sister Lynn for friendship and guidance as she grows up and gets used to the new life. Lynn is gentle, thoughtful, smart, and kind. When she becomes seriously ill, it becomes harder for everyone to hold together the things that are most important to them as a family.

This tale could have been told in any setting—it is the family dynamics and Katie’s experiences that is the story. They face stares and some prejudice and are unsure of their status. The restaurants they ate in The restaurants they ate in had signs that read, "COLORED IN BACK." The whites ate up front. Since they didn’t know where they fit in, they just got their food to go. But these types of experiences do not drive this book.

A couple of things struck me in Kira-Kira. One was the introduction of Uncle. The way the girls first see him do not make him a character that you think you’ll like. It feels like he’ll be more trouble than he’s worth. Without making significant changes in the way he is, the author brings Uncle and his family into the family circle, makes us feel more affectionate toward him; he is accepted. Just the way it would work in a real family.

A thought-provoking subject that arose was the bad conditions that existed in the chicken “factory” where Katie’s parents worked, and their dilemma of whether to support the union. The image that stayed with me was the pad Katie’s mother had to wear since the workers were not allowed regular bathroom breaks, and the smell that sometimes accompanied her because of it.

I couldn’t get very excited about this book, a thrift store find, though I did enjoy reading it. If it weren’t a Newbery book, I’d probably pass it on to someone else.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

1997 - (Honor) Moorchild

Melinda's perspective:

One can’t help comparing successively read novels to the one prior, which is unfortunate for McGraw’s “The Moorchild”. Unfortunate because while I’m sure that “The Moorchild” is a perfectly pleasant book, it happens to share the same underlying theme as “Princess Academy” and I thought “Princess Academy” did it better.

On the other hand, maybe all juvenile fiction follows the same theme? That of being different or the “odd one out”?

Still, the contrast between the two books was a bit jarring. While Hale paints a subtle picture of a girl striving to fit into her society, McGraw’s heavy handed changeling child felt like I was being hit over the head with a hammer - “some people are different and it’s hard for them!”

So heavy handed was the message, at some point I actually started to read political “stuff” into the book – which I never do. How McGraw portrays the treatment of the villagers towards the changeling is SO characteristic of how conflicts between homosexuals in conservative small towns is portrayed in the media, it was distracting. (and as someone that really isn’t into the whole current events thing with the gay and lesbian groups, for me to the draw that conclusion was quite a feat).

Now, I’ll be the first to admit I’m not qualified to pass judgments on an acclaimed novel who has been awarded the prestigious Newbery Honor. Good thing this isn’t a review because then I would have to actually know what I’m doing. Take the rest of my comments (and for that matter, ALL my comments) as personal opinions only. If you LOVED the book – feel free to write a rebuttal! I might even publish it here!

Unlike “Princess Academy”, “The Moorchild” starts off with a bang and had me hooked in the first couple of pages. However, soon I found most of the characters quite two dimensional, and long stretches of nothing but the moorchild playing the pipes and talking to some other understanding bloke in an annoying dialect that did nothing except raise the reading level a grade. Once we FINALLY get to the action part of the book, I’ll admit I was so bored that I skimmed through lots of it.

Hint to future novelists
: If you are going to plan a grand rescue of a someone that got stolen in the first couple of pages, it’s best to mention them again BEFORE you ACTUALLY rescue them a few pages from the end.

The ending was unsatisfying and because I’ve been paying attention to endings, I have decided why it doesn’t work for me. Although the ending has a beginning, but doesn’t actually get to the end of the main story enough to “call it good”. (See my “Princess Academy” post for more on what I learned from endings.)

On to the next one!

Carolyn's Perspective:

Actually, I did enjoy “The Moorchild.” While I acknowledge some of the flaws Melinda pointed out, and I will mention a few others, I felt that the book does merit its “Honor”place—though not an “Award” designation.

Yes, much juvenile fiction handles the subject of the child who is different. In real life, most children share common odd-man-out feelings, the sense of being misunderstood, being unique and irregular. They are unable to see that their peers, who may appear to have it all together are probably plagued with the same feelings of not fitting in. Books are able to bring that situation to an entertaining reality, where the kid REALLY doesn’t fit in, because, say, she is another species entirely, like the moorchild. Young readers can follow the sympathetic character, identify with her, feel crushed when she is hurt (“Yes! I feel like that when kids say mean things to me!), and then feel lifted up and inspired when she triumphs. What makes the book meaningful is how realistic the conflicts and resolutions are.

So The Moorchild is more entertaining than realistic. The story is well-told fantasy, fun, and I did care about what happened to the child, though most of the sympathy is derived from her victim status.

But—the things she has to suffer did bug me a little. It disturbed me that her parents, especially her dad, were suspicious of her and didn’t seem to love her. Yes, she was unlovable at first, but kids should be reassured that, even in spite of it all, they have their parent’s love, even if they can’t recognize it. Their defense of her against the villagers (shades of the Salem Witch Trials) was inadequate. The whole atmosphere against her was too toxic to hold with.

As a reflection on contemporary prejudices of the ‘70’s, I think a mixed-race child might identify with some of the situations. The child never quite fit in as an elf, and she doesn’tfit in as a human either.

The last part of the book was exciting, but the very end was sort of a let-down. It’s always easier to write an ending that “shakes the dust off the feet” rather than fix problems. I would have liked to see some changing attitudes and acceptance in the conclusion.

If you like the fairy-changeling plot, I have a recommendation, though admittedly for an older teen audience. The book is called Poison, written by Chris Wooding. (see on Amazon)

Saturday, July 17, 2010

2006 - (Honor) Princess Academy

It’s a bit of a cheat starting with “Princess Academy” by Shannon Hale. It isn’t even a proper “Newbery Medal” book, having garnered “only” honors. But, as a reviewer who views “The Black Stallion” as the height and epiphany of Juvenile fiction, the “Princess Academy” is the perfect place to start. What better introduction to the Newbery Awards, than a book that manages to shatter any preconceived notions regarding Newberry books, and “princess school” books?

Having read numerous peasant-girl-goes-to-princess-school-and-becomes-somebody as an adolescent, I was fully prepared for what this book was going to offer me – in spite of the Newbery seal, a light-hearted read with some good laughs and delightfully precocious characters.

Not so much.

After yawning through the first pages, I settled into the book with a sigh – now I was remembering why I avoided medal-adorned books in school – they were slow. Get on with it!

The book starts as all good peasant-girl-to-riches-story do – the rural family does romantic things such as sleep on pallets, live without electricity, and skin little rabbits. Then (you guessed it) a royal decree is pronounced – all girls of the right age will be shipped off to princess academy where one will have the honor of being the prince’s wife.

Now, I’m sure you’re all rolling your eyes. But I can assure you; this is where the similarities between my pop fiction girl-turns-into-princess books, and this book end.

What grownup girl can’t relate to Mira and her struggles to define herself within her social group? Hale skillfully portrays the drama that occurs. She neither over-dramatizing the misunderstandings that often occur while adolescents struggle to define themselves, nor downplays the significance of such interactions.

I appreciated that Mira is not portrayed as a victim, even though she is in some angst over her situation both socially and within her family. In real life, people tend to make the best out of whatever situation they happen to be in and Mira is no exception.

I’m always impressed with a good author’s ability to end the story exactly where it needs to end. It seems like they pick the EXACT time the story being told has almost ended, and a new one has just began. I wonder – is the author ever tempted to write the story further? Are they ever curious about what happens next to their characters? Or are they content to leave it to their readers’ imaginations? If I’m ever to write a novel, this is a lesson I must learn – as one story ends, another begins, and without the end followed by a beginning, there is no ending.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

1963 - A Wrinkle in Time

I first read A Wrinkle in Time, written by Madeleine L’Engle in 1962, when I was in about the 4th grade. It immediately became my favorite book, a status it kept for several years. It was exciting, mysterious, inspirational, it had colorful characters, and the hero was a girl! I didn’t exactly identify with Meg; her personality was too different. But I did wear thick glasses, have unruly hair and suffer through some of the self-doubt and insecurities just like she did.

When the story begins, Meg’s physicist father, who had been working on a secret project for the government, has been missing for over a year. What with the townspeople’s nosy interest in Father’s disappearance, Meg’s prickly nature, and her feeling the need to constantly defend her unusual little brother, Charles Wallace, she isn’t having an easy time of it. Ahh, Charles Wallace. You either hate him or love him. Unrealistically precocious, he is a caring, intelligent, mature, cute 5 year-old with ESP, who has purposefully avoided learning how to read until he goes to school so “they won’t hate me quite so much.” I can’t help it; I adore Charles Wallace.

Charles Wallace introduces Meg to the three guides he has made the acquaintance of, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, who will take them to rescue Father, who is stranded on another planet. They use an ingenious method called “tesser,” after the word tesseract. (For years I didn’t know this was a real word and concept that was a bit of a mind-bender itself.) The other member of the party is Calvin, a teen who is a kindred spirit to Charles Wallace and who provides a small hint of romance to Meg with hand-holding and a good luck kiss.

During their quest, the Dark Thing is revealed to them, the shadow of evil that engulfs planets, a nameless and faceless evil that must be fought against. Camazotz, a planet that has fallen under that shadow, is their destination. The children’s three guides cannot accompany them there, and they are dumped just outside of town with scanty instructions.

An association was burned into my brain when I read the description of the suburb they passed through on their way to the city center. I’d been listening to Pete Seeger at the time I first read the book.
“Little boxes, little boxes, little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes, little boxes, little boxes all the same…”
The houses and yards were gray and all the same. Everyone moved in the same rhythm. Everyone followed the rules, and everything was predictable. An ominous subliminal pulse seemed to drive this community.

At this point the danger escalates quickly and eerily, and in the end, it falls to Meg to find the courage, strength and unique gifts within her to rescue her family.

I could divide my reading-opinions of Wrinkle into three parts; when I was a kid, when I was a twenty-something, and now as a fifty-something. As a kid, I found few flaws in my favorite book. I took it at face value, living for the excitement and danger of the story. Some of the descriptive elements were well-enough written that they created pictures in my head that have stayed with me. As a young adult, I was very annoyed at Meg’s incessant whining and complaining. Looking at it as an older adult, I can’t see what bothered me; Meg seems pretty normal for an adolescent! But I can see now why parts of it were so unmemorable. Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace are the only characters who have any depth; the others fade away. But I forgive that, as the book is only 211 pages long. Obviously, the Dark Thing is meant to give the story deeper meaning, of good trying to overcome evil, but as a kid, it was the fleshed out villains who sent chills down my back, not a nameless force. The recurring scripture quotations in the book seem a little strange and out of place now, just as they did then. Not bad, just kind of odd.

I no longer have my original book, which I bought from Scholastic Books at school for thirty-five cents in 1967. But I did find a 1982 paperback copy at the thrift store for twenty-five cents. It is interesting how the cover art of a popular book changes over the years in response current artistic fashion. My copy showed silhouettes of small figures surrounded by jagged, electric lines. This one has a noble centaur ferrying children through the sky over a foreground of flowers.

I was first introduced to the “Newbery Award” books through Wrinkle. From that time on, I associated the award with a sure-bet good read in youth fiction. I have rarely been disappointed!