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!