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.