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.