Tuesday, December 18, 2012

1998 Honor - Ella Enchanted


I saw the movie made of this fine Newbery-recognized book several years ago. At the time I was unaware that it was a book, much less a Newbery book, until my daughter told me, who was very knowlegeable about such things. That intrigued me, and I've sort of had it in the back of my mind to read it and see how it compared next to the movie. The question, as it always is, is how do you potray the workings of the mind of the character to an audience who can only see what is played out in fron of them? Add to it that this book is told in the first person, and you will see how hard that might be.

Ella has been enchanted since the day she was born by a mischevous fairy who gave her the "gift" of obedience. So everything that Ella is told to do, she must obey. But obey orders not only from her parents, but anyone else also. Thankfully, she is also under the compulsion to not tell anyone about her gift, lest she let it slip and let some random person have power over her. Meanwhile Ella and her confidant, the cook are trying to think up ways to break the spell.

The major conflict is set up early in the book- the mother dies, the rather cold-hearted father remarries, and one of her boorish stepsisters realizes Ella's little problem and takes advantage of it.

Yes, this is a Cinderella tale, but with enough plot turns and extras to make it an interesting read.

Ella is forced to do some unpleasant things, and because we see into her thoughts, the reader can understand her anquish and robot-like need to comply with orders. Most of what I remember from the movie is Anne Hathaway getting a blank, dumb look on her face as she quickly complies with any orders, so we know she isn't doing it on her own volition. I understand that, but it shows me that, indeed, "The book is better."

In spite of Ella's handicap of obedience, she is a strong female character, and I would recommemd it to girls looking for that sort of heroine.

I bought this book at Goodwill for $1.49.


Thursday, October 18, 2012

1948 - The Twenty-One Balloons

I have to say that The Twenty-One Balloons, written by William Pene du Bois, although amusing at times, is unlikely to be a book that I shall re-read at a future date. I enjoy both plot driven and character driven stories. But this is a strange little piece that seems to be not much of either. It is written in an oddly stilted style, as if it had been translated like The Little Prince, or as if it were an attempt at a writing style from the late 1800's, during which time this tale takes place. It's not written badly, but it contributes to me feeling detached from the characters and the story.

Professor Sherman has just been fished out of the ocean, and the world is dying to know what his adventures have been since he set off in a little house set with hydrogen balloons with plans to take a sabbatical and stay aloft for a year. He will not say a word until he is able to share his story with the Western American Explorers Club in San Francisco. Of course this sets the country into an frenzy of curiosity, and he is delivered posthaste to the club, with all the fanfare of a hero's welcome.

Oddly, the author follows little rabbit trails among the non-essential details of the preparations for the celebration, the miniature colorful hydrogen balloons that are arranged along the boulevard, the children who snag a couple and play with them until the game goes awry, the dome of the Explorers building that floats away carried by decorative balloons, becoming a hut for a Native American Indian chief. Finally, we come to the part we've been waiting for, Professor Sherman's lecture.

He begins his story to the enthralled audience.

The balloon adventure goes wrong near the outset, and he crash lands on the island of Krakatoa. To his surprise, it is inhabited by a group of Americans who have set up a little hidden paradise there. They haven't "gone native;" to the contrary, they have transplanted their customs, dress, fashions, culinary favors, and architecture to the jungle island. And they have improved these, in a steampunkish sort of way. There is a hidden source of treasure on the island, so no one has to worry about money. There is a lot of utopia fantasy in the story of the lives of the Krakatoans, which makes up the bulk of the book. They share in common, devote a lot of their lives to pleasure, fine dining, amusements, recreation, and for some, invention.

Of course, it all ends when the volcano explodes. and if this were a plot driven book, there would be excitement, danger, close calls. If this were a character driven book, you'd see the Krakatoans realize how shallow their lives had become, being cut off from the rest of humanity; they would be come flesh and blood, not the paper dolls whose well-laid plans for escaping disaster nicely come about.

I think this book would be most enjoyable to the young readers who enjoy letting their imaginations be taken on different turns with odd, far-fetched inventions that somehow seem like they COULD work, without letting a story get in the way.

I bought this book at Goodwill for $1.49.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

1932 - Waterless Mountain

When a book about another culture is written, you want to know that the writer speaks with some authority. If the novel is about a farming family, you want to know that the farm things are accurate. If the story takes place in Australia, you want to know the author has either been there or has done good research. If the tale is about the Navajo Indians of the American Southwest, especially if the tale involves the philosophy and spiritual life of the people, you want someone like Laura Adams Armer, the author of Waterless Mountain.

Laura Adams Armer spent the last half of her life learning about the Navajos, spending time on the reservation, painting and drawing the beauty she found there, studying their folk lore and psychology. She was granted the unprecedented right to draw and paint their sacred sand paintings before they were ceremonially destroyed. And this knowledge helped her write a book so heavily immersed in the Navajo spiritual life without drifting into "roll your eyes sentimentality and mystical-ness."

Waterless Mountain is written contemporary with the time, which means no evil US soldiers massacring women and children, no Indian tribes raiding settler's cabins. Elder Brother likes to hunt with a gun, Younger Brother enjoys his skill with a bow and arrow. They ride ponies and herd sheep; an occasional roadster or automobile shows up. Mother weaves rugs and blankets; Father is a silversmith.

One way to describe this book is as the coming-of-age tale for Younger Brother. He knows he is destined to be a medicine man, like Uncle. He sees meaning and significance in the small things that happen around him, and he has insights and visions that set him a little apart from the more earthly-minded members of his family. The gentle and respectful handling of Younger Brother's spiritual communication with his world by the author is to be greatly commended. However, the book's timespan of Younger Brother's growing-up makes it hard to focus on one or two prime events or crises that cause revelation and change. In fact, there aren't many cliffhangers in this book.

I really enjoyed the fine details of Younger Brother's life at home on the sheep ranch with his family, washing their hair with the suds of the yucca root, cooking a 15' diameter corn cake in a ground pit for a ceremony, taking his first visit to the trading post. I can accept the inevitable bit of patronizing that is present in a book of this type, written by a white person. I felt like I gained understanding of the spiritual heart of the Navajo. But what I found myself dissatisfied with was the lack of a standard novel structure, you know, where the main person gets in danger and escapes a few times, and then the Big Moment comes where things hang in the balance, and anything could happen, and then it is resolved, either making you happy or reflective or angry at the author for letting you down in what you WANTED to happen. I found myself ready for the book to end several chapters before it really did.

If you enjoy books of Plains Indian children, one of my very favorite books is Chi-Wi, written by Grace Moon at about the same era. It is charming, well-written, exciting, and has all the right elements for a great book.

Waterless Mountain is a library book that I checked out.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

1925 - Tales From Silver Lands


Tales From Silver Lands is one of the earlier Newbery Award books. Over the years, the world changes, children change, meaningful topics that people care about change, leading authors to find new topics to write about, but one thing that never changes, and that is the love of a good myth or fairy tale.

When I was a kid, I read every collection of fairy tales in our little library. My children were the same. We came across books of Japanese fairy tales, Irish, English, and Russian fairy tales. Many contained the same basic stories, only altered in some way to reflect that society. It was always fun to come across one that was new and fresh to me, totally different from any standard tale or origin myth. Tales From Silver Lands was like this.

Charles Finger, the author of Tales From Silver Lands, traveled around South America, the continent of the "silver lands," collecting tales from the Indians he met there. He mentions some of the countries there; Uraguay, Honduras, Tierra del Fuego, Guiana, Brazil, and the area around Cape Horn. He presents himself as a wanderer in the area, sometimes with a companion, happening upon an individual or coming upon a small village. And there is always a story that is handed to him, as a gift of hospitality is given to a stranger who appears and is welcomed.

The telling of the story is oral --never mind the fact that the words are printed up in this old hard-bound, well-worn library book. Mr. Finger tells us about how he rode into a little town on his donkey, how he lingered over into the evening because the day was hot and the people companionable. And he tells us how the old woman was persuaded to tell him the story of When the Rat had a Tail Like a Horse. Then he lets her words come through his pen and to our ears.

These tales are fun and mysterious. I think the one that caught my fancy the most is "The Cat and the Dream Man." The cat is sinister. Even from the beginning, when all creatures were created harmless; the jaguar did not hunt, the snake had no venom, the bushes had no thorns-- "the cat was of evil heart and unmerciful and a curse to the world, for she went about teaching creatures to scratch and to bite, to tear and to kill, to hide in shady places and leap out on unsuspecting things." The cat is dealt with, bound by a wise man, but even the wise man can not account for the worst mischief of the cat, the fox-faced man who is the cat's dream that walks among the men.

Witches are prevalent in the stories here, and though they are not universally horrid like the European tales, most are. They are clever and very strong. When a male is the villain, he is usually a stupid giant or monster. A person could ponder on that one for awhile.

This is a wonderful collection of tales that could still be read and enjoyed today. It looks like is has been reprinted recently, so there is a chance I might actually come across it to buy for my own collection.


Monday, July 23, 2012

1943 - Adam of the Road

The other day I swung by the library, and while I was there skimmed through the aisle of youth fiction, scanning for Newbery Award books. Handily, the spines display the ribbon logo and description "Newbery Award," so it's easy to pick them out. I selected a few that I was unfamiliar with and might not come across in the thrift stores. One of these was Adam of the Road, by Elizabeth Janet Gray.

Adam is an 11 year old minstrel boy, the son of a minstrel. He's been left with the monks at the Abbey of St. Alban for a bit of schooling while his father is on the road. The year is 1294, and Adam is not-so-patiently waiting for the return of Roger, his father, so they can be together again. He sings and plays his harp, turns cartwheels and practices other tricks to get the attention of folks who would be inclined to give an ear to the stories and songs of the wandering minstrel. Soon enough, Roger comes to collect Adam, having left him alone with us just long enough for us to get to know him a little bit and find out the four things that matter the most to him in the world: his dog, Nick, his father, Roger, his best friend, Perkin, and his craft, minstrelsy.

There is nothing astounding or hard to believe about the plot of Adam of the Road; Adam loses some of the ones he loves the best and must find them and be reunited. But that is actually a strength of this book. There are no special effects, i.e. faeries and magic, or overly dramatic plot lines, i.e. murder, evil and fanatical monks, to distract one from following along Adam's journey and marveling at the different world of 1294. The reader can settle down into the world of the early English middle ages with some of the best descriptions and evocative details of that era I have come across in children's literature. This work is a fine example of "show it, don't tell it" in writing. Adam experiences the roasted capon, the smells of London, his worn out leather shoes, the silky feel of Nick's coat, and the reader experiences it also.

The pen and ink illustrations by Robert Lawson are detailed and charming.

I especially enjoyed understanding just what a minstrel's lot was. He had a right of entrance, to offer his entertainment to the occupants. I realized how the people must have appreciated the skills of a minstrel. There were no movies, folks usually couldn't read, the church was the source of most community music. And people really appreciated "the right sort of minstrel."

I liked this part, I quote, when Roger and Adam stopped at an inn for the night. Roger was performing the story of Murray the king and his son Horn.

"When he reached the fight between Horn and the pagan knight, he stopped in the middle of the sentence. 'Good friends,' he said, 'give me some reward for my art, and I will continue.' Adam snatched off his cap and went with it from one to another. One merchant put in one silver penny; the other hesitated, but when Adam made Nick stand up and ask for it, he laughed and threw in a penny."

Toward the end, I became so impatient for Adam to find what he was looking for, I was tempted to rush, but I made myself slow down, to stay in that world a little longer.


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

1990 - Number the Stars

Lois Lowry just seems to have the gift of writing novels of great ideas and depth with a spare hand, drawing young (and old) readers, into her stories without lots of superfluous pages. Number the Stars is historical fiction at its best—it is the story of two Danish girls, one of Jewish ancestry, and of their families who are trying to cope with the Nazi invaders of their country, Denmark.

Annemaire is the middle sister; she also has a little sister Kirsti, annoying, like little sisters can often be. Her older sister Lise is dead, and her parents won’t talk about it. Ellen is Annemarie’s best friend, and when the word slips out that the Nazis intend on collecting and relocating the Danish Jews, Annemarie’s family moves to help Ellen’s family. There are many secrets, most kept to protect the children or other participants in the resistance movement. Annemarie, as she becomes involved, is entrusted with some of those secrets, and faces her moment of  courage when the outcome of the mission rests on the success of her actions.

Even though this book, in total, is a work of fiction, enough of the details are from real historical events that it seems like a work of reality. Lowry chronicles the facts in a short afterword.

I enjoyed this little 132- page novel quite a bit. The story is told from the child’s viewpoint so the story isn’t cluttered up with a lot of explanations about Hitler and Fascism or even what the Jews were actually facing; it just tells how Annemarie experience the events  and how she perceived the crisis from the words and actions of her family.

I bought this book from Goodwill for about a dollar.

Monday, June 18, 2012

1998 - Out of the Dust

I’ve had Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse for a year or two, just sitting on the shelf, unread. I never was in the mood for what I assumed the story would be. I figured it would be another one of those, “Poor Okie Kid” books, suffering her way through poverty, hard times, the Great Depression, and possibly a tragedy or two before, hopefully, coming to a good place in life, or possibly, ending in disaster, like many books who mess with your emotions. And in some ways, that’s what this book is—but not.

One disconcerting detail you’ll notice about this book is that, while it is a novel, it is not in a strict novel format. Out of the Dust is written in free-verse poems, each one advancing the storyline, each one with a date at the bottom to help the reader keep track of the passage of time, covering about two years of 14 yr old Billie Jo’s life. Billie Jo tells the story in her own words, in a spare, sometimes stark, honest, yet elegant and eloquent way that is fully believable as a young teen’s voice. In a way, this style kept me from skimming or rushing through less interesting sections in way which I am used to doing in many novels. As you follow the story, there aren’t clouds of words to bathe your mind in; each word is important, and you want to read each word, understanding her life.

Billie Jo is a farmer’s daughter; he is trying to raise wheat in Oklahoma during the mid 1930’s, the time of the Dust Bowl. Billie Jo has a lot to think about, her parents becoming increasingly tense because of the drought, her baby brother about to be born, boys, and her passion for music that lifts her and gives her hope for a future out of the dust.

When some really bad things happen that threaten everything, even her relationships, then you get to the part where you can’t put the book down. As the days pass, and she makes choices, Billie Jo begins to understand her own heart and realize her own strength, leading to an ending that is not pat or necessarily anticipated.

Out of the Dust has won many awards, and I can see why. It is obviously a book that elementary and middle schools would require their students to read, to be inspired by a heroine who learns about courage, truth and sorrow, and to gain understanding about an era in our nation’s past.

I picked this book up at a Goodwill for under about a dollar.

Monday, February 20, 2012

1973 - Julie of the Wolves

Julie of the Wolves is one of the books that all school-age children seem to have been required to read. It was written while I was in high school, so it wasn’t until my own children were in school that I heard of it. I wasn’t sure it would be my kind of book, but the magic Newbery seal brought it into my hands.
Although the girl’s name, according to the title, is Julie, for the first third of the book, we only know her as Miyax. Miyax is an Eskimo girl, about 12 years old, who lives in the northern region of Alaska with her father, a man skilled in the old Eskimo ways of living. But at first we are only given hints of Miyax’s life and the crisis that compelled her to flee and cross the tundra to civilization. At the start of the book, Miyax is lost and knows that she will starve to death if she cannot learn the ways of the nearby wolf pack and get them to accept her. As Miyax learns, so do we, about the individuality of the pack members and the relationships they have formed with each other. The girl finally becomes a sort of cub to the wolves and finds, with that acceptance, life.
Part two takes the reader back to Miyax’s former life in the hunting village of her father, Kapugen. The life Miyax has known and loved comes to an end when Kapugen is forced to send her to her aunt’s house to go to school where she also learns modern ways. Now, the Eskimo girl Miyax becomes Julie. But soon, events conspire that make her living situation intolerable. She runs away, believing that it is within her abilities to make it on her own to San Francisco to join her beloved pen pal, Amy. She packs a small amount of food and other supplies and leaves; she is now the Eskimo girl, Miyax again.
Miyax continues her struggle to cross the tundra as autumn approaches, her wolf pack always near. As she struggles on towards her destination, she is forced to consider and reconsider all she has known and been, and what riches of traditional Eskimo life she will claim for herself.
At the time my children read Julie of the Wolves, they did not like it, because it was “meaningful.” Often they preferred light-hearted, exciting books that were amusing and entertaining, but were quickly forgotten. But the books that affect you, make you think, stay in your mind, change you—those are the books that are like nourishing real food, not a fluffy dessert. That type of book marks a Newbery Award book, and that describes Julie of the Wolves.
I bought this book for under a dollar at the thrift store.