Monday, May 16, 2011

1991 - Maniac Magee

Maniac Magee is a legend, perhaps a myth, perhaps a real kid who might have or might not have done all the things attributed to him. So the prelude warns us that the history of a kid is one part fact, two parts legend, and three parts snowball before beginning the story of Maniac Magee.

The boy’s early history is shortened down to a couple pages, setting Maniac, an orphan who ran away from an unhappy home to the town of Two Mills, two hundred miles away. And the running is literal. Maniac’s running is part of his legend; he can outrun just about anyone. Other unusual skills pop up later to distinguish him from the usual gang of kids.

This kid is a sort of innocent. He has no understanding of bigotry or racial segregation. So when he plops into the Black side of town, he doesn’t get what he is up against, from both Blacks and Whites. He is a kid alone, who just needs a family, and it doesn’t matter much what color the folks are.

There are frustrating and sad moments in the story, as Maniac struggles to find his place among the people of Two Mills, while at the same time enhancing his legendary status with both sides, sort of like a tragic superhero.

I enjoyed the book well enough, though I wouldn’t say it was in my top group. His interactions with the Black folks on the other side of the tracks were fun and interesting, and sometimes thought provoking. But for me, I couldn’t feel close to Maniac; I couldn’t get to know him until near the end of the book. It seemed to me that the point of the book was more important than the thoughts, feelings, “innards” of the boy.

I picked this book up at Goodwill for a buck fifty.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

1995 - Walk Two Moons

Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech, has been sitting on my shelf for quite a few months. If I had had any idea of what a marvelous book this was, I would have read it long ago!

This is, quite simply, one of the best novels for young readers that I have read. “Richly layered” begins to describe it. There are several stories going on at once here, and they weave gracefully between each other, building interest and intrigue.

What makes a book delicious for me is when the author keeps a close hand in revealing details, secrets, motivations. They are parceled out, each naturally in its own time, the characters becoming more rounded, their actions more meaningful as the story progresses.

Sal, the 13 year old protagonist has to leave the farm in Kentucky that she grew up in after her mother left. She’s dropped into a new situation in the town where they move, starting school, making friends. Everyone around her has interesting secrets, some for her to find out as she is able to bear to hear them, and some that are revealed in the stories she tells about them. There are some stories-within-stories, as Sal tells the tale of Phoebe, her new friend, to amuse and distract her grandparents during the drive out west they take to visit her mother.

Creech crafts what would be ordinary points in her book to become charming, memorable treats to the story. I loved the telling of how Sal got named and what it was supposed to mean.

I let this book set on the shelf for awhile because the title didn’t appeal to me. I thought it was a character’s “Indian name,” and that it might be more meaningful than entertaining, not what I was in the mood for. Instead, it refers to a saying, “Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked two moons in his moccasins,” a gentle theme of the book as Sal and those around her do learn to see things from other’s points of view.

I picked this book up at Goodwill for about a buck and a half I think.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

1997 - The View From Saturday

I picked this book up, used, at a Thrift store. On the surface, it didn’t look like anything special, and the title was strange and not very revealing. But then I saw the familiar gold seal on the front and knew it would be worth a read; it was a Newbery Medal Winner.

The writing method used in this book is a little unusual. In the hands of someone less skilled, it might have been confusing and disjointed. But The View From Saturday is not; it draws the reader in to know and care about the characters, and to share the growing excitement to the conclusion.

Mrs. Olinsky has brought her 6th grade team to the Academic Bowl Championships, an unheard-of accomplishment, not only for their school, but also for their grade level. As each question is asked, she knows which one of her team will answer it and how they had come into the knowing.

At this point, the 3rd person narrative shifts to the 1st person telling his or her own story, starting earlier, back when each of the four had started becoming interconnected with the others. At times the stories overlap; one’s relatives are related to another’s, this person’s father is another person’s dentist, etc. The final boy’s story to be told makes the magical connection, like a puzzle that is made stronger and finer by putting the last piece in.

You can start thinking this story is all about the kids, but we are given glimpses of Mrs. Olinsky’s feelings, her pride in the kids, her situation of becoming a recent paraplegic. Yes, this book is about the kids, it is in their voices after all. But adding depth to Mrs. Olinsky brings a layer of richness to the story.

I did find the word usage a little odd at times. I don’t know of any 6th grader who uses the word “prepubescent” to describe a peer. And the lack of contractions in their speech recalls Portis’s True Grit.

Throughout the book people ask the teacher, why these kids? Why didn’t she pick the academic stars of the school, the A honor roll? She gave good answers, but couldn’t find the words for the real truth of it. The answer, coming at the end of the book, is not as much a revelation to Mrs. Olinsky as it is a confirmation of what she had seen in all of them when she began to pick them.

Because this book doesn’t have a huge plot, after the first time I read it through, I enjoyed it and then promptly forgot most of it. I enjoyed it just as much re-reading it and hope I retain more of it this time!

Monday, March 7, 2011

1968 Honor- The Egypt Game

My children told me how much they liked a book called The Egypt Game, a Newbery Honor book, so I was pretty pleased when, just a few days later I found a copy for sale at Goodwill. The author, Zilpha Keatley Snyder has written several other books I have read, such as The Witches of Worm and The Headless Cupid.

Right away I recognized a commonality with Snyder’s other books—an annoying, somewhat unlikeable, but exciting young female protagonist. In The Egypt Game, young April Hall has been sent to her Grandmother’s to stay while her Hollywood mother pursues her career. April is not easy to like; she’s haughty and seems insensitive to the feelings of others while being touchy herself. But she is vulnerable inside and has to handle the feeling of rejection from her mother that she can no longer deny.

April does make some friends, Melanie, Marshall and Elizabeth, and draws them into a game she creates, the Egypt game. The back yard of an old man’s antique store becomes their secret land of Egypt, and they decorate it with the trappings, customs and religions of ancient Egypt. Elaborate rituals and play-acting dominate their imaginative game. But a neighborhood menace threatens to take away their Egypt game, which has come to mean so much to them.

While I did enjoy reading the book, because I could not identify with April, I was less than enthusiastic about it. She is the ringleader type, who tends to drag innocent friends and bystanders into trouble. She has no qualms about praying and bowing to the ancient gods, all part of her reality within the role-playing. I wonder how I would have felt about the book if I had read it when I was a kid. It did make me think about some of the imaginative games I used to play with my sisters and friends.

I appreciated the subtle and realistic way Snyder deals with changes April’s character, how she becomes a better friend and begins to appreciate her grandmother, but always remaining April.

I bought this book used for 25 cents at a Goodwill.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

1928 - Gay-Neck

I wonder, how many Newbery Award readers have read the one of the first winners of this prize, Gay-Neck, written in 1927 by Dhan Gopal Mukerji? It is sort of an odd book, I think partly because it is older and partly because it takes place in India and is written by an East Indian in a different style than we might be accustomed to.

I found this book as a library discard, and I was pretty excited, first because it was a Newbery book I had not come across before, and second because it was written by Mukerji. Years and years ago, I had a favorite book, Chief of the Herd, also written by Dhan Gopal Mukerji. I had the good fortune as an adult to find it again in a used book store and snatched it up. I was looking forward to something of the same caliber with Gay-Neck.

Gay-Neck is a pigeon, a carrier pigeon who is hatched from a pair of pigeons belonging to the narrator, a boy, and becomes his special pet. We are treated to descriptions of how Gay-Neck is trained and of his various escapes from dangers. Over a couple of the chapters, we employ our imaginations and read Gay-Neck’s first-person telling of a particularly harrowing odyssey and his visit to a monastery. The latter half of the book concerns the little pigeon’s service with the British War Department.
It was sweet to feel the boy's affection for his bird, and I enjoyed an animal story about a novel pet--a pigeon. But connection and engagement with Gay-Neck only came fleetingly; the writing got in the way.

I couldn’t help comparing Gay-Neck with Chief of the Herd, written in 1929.
With the two books stacked up to each other, Chief of the Herd is clearly the winner. Learning about Asian elephants and India was fascinating (even if some of it was myth, such as the "Elephant Graveyard"), and the relationships the elephants had with each other, and the themes of loyalty and love drew me into the exciting story. But Gay-Neck was rather dull, and I finally just couldn’t wait to be done with it.

If you get a chance to read Gay-Neck, you should skim through it, just for the experience. And if you get a chance to read Chief of the Herd, then do, to see what this author is capable of, the one that should have won the award!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

1985 Honor - One-Eyed Cat

It is interesting to me how many authors of children’s literature win the Newbery Award or Honor book more than once. There must be many, many hopeful writers putting out books every year, but there is obviously a smaller group who have the touch that the committee is looking for.

Paula Fox, who wrote One-Eyed Cat, also wrote The Slave Dancer, the Newbery Award winner for 1973. As with The Slave Dancer, the material in this book is not fun, games, and fantastic adventures. Rather it places the protagonist in some uncomfortable positions and then lets his character develop.

Ned Wallis is the son of the minister of the Congregational Church. We learn right away that something is terribly wrong with his mother; she is ill, and the pain of her rheumatoid arthritis is not just her own, but it affects them all. An unpleasant housekeeper sees to their needs. Into this household, Ned’s uncle arrives with a gift for him, a Daisy air rifle. His father is dismayed.

“It’s loaded,” said Uncle Hillary. “All ready to go. It’s time you had a boy’s present instead of an old bone or a dead bug or an ancient coin that wouldn’t buy you a jellybean.”

“Those bones and bugs and carvings you brought Ned were splendid,” Papa said loudly, “tokens, clues to the past, signs for guessing and imagining.” … “What is there to imagine with a gun?... Something dead. That’s what there is to imagine with a gun.”

Ned agrees to trust his father. The gun will go up in the attic until the next year when he turns 14. He is admonished to put it out of his mind, which of course is an impossible thing for Ned to do. We know what he will do next. He will justify a certain sneaking with it in the night, to try the gun just once. But a shadowy movement catches his attention and to his horror, he has shot at it.

When a feral cat with one eye shows up, wounded, at his elderly neighbor’s house, Ned is guilt-stricken and helps his neighbor care for the cat as best they can. But it is Ned’s painful secret, he cannot imagine how he could share it with anyone. And secrets are very hard to bear, tied up in guilt.

Fox’s prose is rich and descriptive. The reader can see, taste, feel and imagine it all through her artful and nuanced language. I enjoyed reading the book and would recommend it for a thoughtful, character driven novel.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

1952 - Ginger Pye

Do you ever read a book and just don’t get it? That’s how I felt about “Ginger Pye”. I have not a clue why it’s Newbery award book.

I have to admit that I didn’t even finish it. I gave it a fair chance. I even broke my 50 page rule (if the book doesn’t appeal after 50 pages, I give myself permission to set it aside) as I was certain, with a designation as a Newbery book, there had to be something redeeming about it.

Some kids (brother/sister) get a dog. Their last name is Pye, their dog’s name is Ginger. Eventually Ginger disappears. At the end of the book (yes, when I decided I wasn’t going to finish it, I skipped ahead and read the last chapter) they find the dog and implicate the boy who was mean at the beginning.

Unfortunately the book is short on plot and big on filler. I had a hard time staying interested and many of the adventures were mundane and the discussions between the siblings less than inspiring.

I think this book was probably primarily written for the younger audience – perhaps a reader just starting to read novels with real chapters. However, I can’t say that this book would have appealed to me as a reader of that age. I think there are far more interesting books that fill this category.

Admittedly, I may be completely off base. This book may be beloved by millions. I may have missed a crucial detail of what makes this book great.

*off to research what OTHER people said about this book*
*comes back*

OK – I admit that when I go to see what “everyone” thinks about a book, my choice is Amazon.

It looks like this book may be part of a larger collection by the same author, and thus for some this may be the latest installment in a series of beloved stories.

The book received mixed reviews. Many of the reviewers who seemed to enjoy the book the most seemed very young in their writing, while a reviewer who identified herself as a mom, trying to read this book to her kids had complaints nearly identical to mine.

I can’t find anyone who is referring to some deep-rooted allegory in the book that I’m missing, so I’ll have to assume that what I see is what I get for “Ginger Pye”.

Overall, I can’t say I recommend the book, however from reviewing Amazon, this book may strike a chord with younger readers, who may say that *I’m* the one that doesn’t “get it”.