Wednesday, July 17, 2013

1950 - The Door in the Wall

The Door in the Wall, by Marguerite de Angeli is a slim, inviting book of only 121 pages, but it uses those few pages to open a world of knights and monks and medieval life through the character of the boy, Robin.

Robin was the son of a nobleman, born to a life of the higher class, and he was on the verge of taking the first step into his own manhood, at the age of ten being sent away to live in the household of another knight. There he would serve his liege lord and learn all the ways of knighthood. His father was off to fight the Scots, and his mother was leaving to assist the Queen, who was in ill health. Unfortunately, the day after they left and before he left for the knight's household, a malady struck the boy, which left him sick, his legs paralyzed and his back bent. Arrangements were further complicated by the plague, which made communications spotty.

Into this situation, a traveling monk, Brother Luke, arrives and takes the boy with him back to St. Mark's, where he can be cared for until other arrangements can be made. Robin is a little sulky, a little uncooperative, and a bit of self-importance rests upon him, but he is also bright and energetic, and he rises to the challenges of learning how to navigate the world with a bent back and useless legs. The monks are patient and understanding, treat him respectfully but help him understand some of his situations from a higher point of view

What Robin worries most about is, what now is his place in the world? How can he become a knight with useless legs? Will his father be ashamed of him when he returns and sees what has become of his boy?

Because this tale takes place during the time of castles and fortressed quarters, protective walls rise across the way one might want to go. Robin is assured by Brother Luke that one only needs to follow the wall long enough, and a door would appear. Robin finds this to be true literally, when he effects a daring mission to help rescue the besieged holding where he is staying, and he also realizes it is true in regards to his own physical condition. As he came upon and walked along the wall of his limitations, he looked for and found the doors that opened into new meaning and purpose for his own life.

This is a heartwarming story with plenty of excitement and adventure. At first, I felt a little annoyed at how thoughtlessly Robin acted in his self-importance, but I realized that first off, he's just a boy of ten, and that's often the way kids are. And that was certainly the class attitude of the times, so I appreciated the realism. Robin did grow in his maturity and humility, but kept the self-confidence of his status.

The cover art was obviously updated for this edition, and I don't care for it. In fact, that was one reason I'd put off reading it. Somehow, the boy looks like a modern youth, and the monk and the minstrel are depicted comically, giving you the impression of a completely different sort of story. The interior artwork, by the author, fits the story better.


I bought this book at the thrift store for a buck fifty.


Sunday, July 14, 2013

1945 - Rabbit Hill

In a way, it was an positive experience to read a Newbery Book that made Gay Neck and Onion John seem like gripping thrillers, but in another way, reading Rabbit Hill made me feel as if I had wasted 45 minutes of my life. Yes, 45 minutes. Or maybe it was 30. I skimmed. Which was really easy to do and not lose much of what was going on.

Let me give you a synopsis. (Possible spoiler alert, if that can be possible)

All the animals of the meadow, who get along in good harmony, carnivores included, find out that "Folks" re moving to the old deserted farmhouse. Will they be good Folks who plant, or bad Folks who do not? Yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak, etc. (Yak is a substitute word for all the inane, boring, high-falutin', dialect, anthropomorphic, tedious, chatty discussion all the critters have amongst themselves while they wonder.)

Yay! The Folks are good Folks! They plant, and don't harm the animals! In fact, they nurse Mother's darling bunny, Little Georgie, back to health after they run over him! (While this part of the story may seem like it has excitement potential, trust me, the tedious animal conversations and reactions ensure it never gets much momentum.)

And the coup de gras of the tale, the Folks erect a statue of St. Francis of Assisi in a clearing, ensuring the message of the book is not lost in the story.

In my opinion, this would have worked tolerably well for a much shorter children's picture book. I expect that for some, this might be a much beloved book from their childhood past, but for me, I can't see it.

I got this book from the thrift store for probably less than a buck.


Thursday, July 11, 2013

2006 - Criss Cross

I did know that Criss Cross, by Lynne Rae Perkins, was surely going to be a good or worthy book because, Hey! It's a Newbery Book! But I just kept putting off reading it. There were others in my stack of Newbery books to read first, books that looked more exciting, more escapist, more interesting. I'm not an adolescent having growing pains and worrying about boys and love and stuff, so I didn't know how well I would enjoy it. But I shouldn't have worried.
Criss Cross covers a span of couple months or so in the lives of a group of friends and acquaintances, most around 14 years old. Although the reader is let into the thinking of most of the characters, the focus is mostly on Debbie and Hector. They both have what most 14 year olds have on their minds. Who am I? Will I find love? Why can't I feel more confident? But this is not a novel wallowing in angst, this is a sweet, subtle observation of the changes and growing up that the teens experience.
Criss Cross is the name of the friends' favorite radio station. When it comes on, they pile into Lenny's parents old truck, turn on the radio and enjoy it together. Criss Cross is also how the friends' lives and various activities connect and cross with each other. The narrative bounces around from kid to kid, telling events from each one's point of view, second person. Unexpected changes of pace, from ultra-short chapters to chapters told mostly in pictures keep the story lively.
One thing I found strange and a little hard to figure out was, why would the author place her story in the late 60's - early 70's? It isn't a "look back," from an adult remembering her youth in those days. There are bell bottoms, polyester, Promotional encyclopedias from the grocery store, and tanning sessions in the back yard. They aren't the point of anything, just the setting. So I wondered why not put your characters into a modern setting? Because it was more familiar to the author? Because it had a better chance of remaining relevant to kids if it was way old rather than 10 years old? Puzzling to me. I had to re-check the copyright date.
Usually, I find multiple viewpoints in the same book to be a flaw for my tastes. But it works for this book. While I don't think it is the best Newbery on the block, I think it is indeed very worthy, and would recommend it.
I picked up Criss Coss at Goodwill for $1.49.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

1996 - The Midwife's Apprentice

I try not to judge a book by its cover, but how could you look at the cover of The Midwife's Apprentice and not instantly know that you would LOVE this book? Illustrated in the style of the Renaissance Dutch masters, a young woman in a starched and pleated wimple looks out at you with a kind face, secretive smile, and eyes that have seen hardship. She is grinding herbs in a mortar while an orange tabby cat rests one paw on the pestle.

We are introduced to Beetle in the first page, sleeping in a composting dung heap to keep from freezing to death over the cold night. This is during the days of villages and superstitions, saints and devils, market fairs and no safety nets for orphan children. She is discovered by the local midwife, who pulls her out of the heap and away from the taunting village boys, not out of kindness, but because she accepts Beetle's offer to work for her for bread to eat. This is the midwife, and she needs a young, strong helper, hungry and willing to work hard.

The midwife is not a particularly nice person, not very nice at all, but we have to live within those times as we read the book, and go along with Beetle's happy acceptance of food, a place to sleep, and a purpose in life.

And Beetle does come to find her own place in life. A major turning point for how she begins to see herself and value herself is when she changes her name from Brat, and Beetle, to a regular name.

She is not a super-strong powerful clever girl. She is very normal, and many would identify with her halting efforts for confidence and courage, which bring their rewards in the end.

The Midwife's Apprentice is written by Karen Cushman. I bought this school library book discard at the thrift store for under a dollar.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

1960 - Onion John

Finally I couldn't put off reading this book any more. It did not seem like it would be that interesting to me, and sure enough, it wasn't! In fact, I couldn't wait to get finished with it. I skimmed at times, thinking, Get on with it!

Onion John, written by Joseph Krumgold in 1959, is on the surface a story about a boy's relationship with the local eccentric, "Onion John," so called because he is fond of eating raw onions. But gradually you realize the real relationship being explored is the one between the boy, Andy, and his dad, a hardware store owner who never got over his unrealized dreams of going to MIT and becoming an engineer. He is unrelenting in trying to slot Andy into fulfilling his own lost chances.

I found the interaction between Andy and his father the most interesting part of the plot, but that is only developed in the latter part of the book. The rest is taken up by lots and lots of Onion John's eccentricities, his bizarre customs and superstitions he performs to ensure good luck and fertility to the town of Serenity. Andy, as the only one who can understand what he is saying, is his main helper, to the dismay of his father, who harps on him about maintaining a scientific mind.

The details of the incantations, fasts, marches, smokes, and gestures were tedious to me. I couldn't warm up to Onion John. I couldn't get a clear picture of Andy's friends, or any of the other folks of Serenity. The tale is told in the first person, Andy's voice. I can't say why the telling didn't really appeal, even though I do like first person. I think it was because it seemed to be told in the perspective of Andy's present, but it seemed, at the same time, to be an older, wiser voice, more adult.

I bought this book at Goodwill for $1.49. It has the markings that show it was a school book, with a level of 4.5 and AR points of 8.0.