Monday, January 27, 2020

1987 Honor - A Fine White Dust

I wasn’t sure that I wanted to write a review on Cynthia Rylant’s “A Fine White Dust.” I had picked it up (at a thrift store), read it, put the title and cover picture in the blog as a draft, and then just left it alone for a long time. Wasn’t it a good book? After all, it received the Newbery Honor prize. For one thing, it wasn’t my style of enjoyable reading. It was very “meaningful,” and felt a little disturbing to me. But as I told my kids when they were in school and sometimes resisted those sorts of book assignments, wanting to stay in the fast & fun novel category, I said that it was the “meaningful” books that they would remember. 

“A Fine White Dust” is a short little book, coming in at just over a hundred pages and can be read in under an hour. The subject is religion, but the theme of the book is about betrayal and a sensitive adolescent boy’s efforts to find meaning in life and work out his value system.

Pete is a spiritual boy who connects with that part of himself through going to church and feeling love for Jesus. It disturbs him that his parents are not church-goers, even though they put no obstacles in his way for attending, and that his best friend, Rufus, is an avowed atheist, even though Rufus doesn’t mind Pete being religious. In the middle of Pete’s growing concern over the state of their souls, the Preacher Man comes to town to hold a revival, consisting of evening evangelistical church services held over several days. 

The Preacher Man is a charismatic guy with a compelling and enthralling personality. Pete first sees him at the side of the road, hitchhiking, and he feels an instant reaction, imagining him to be an axe murderer. When Pete attends the church meeting and sees that the hitchhiker is actually the revival preacher, that intensity of feeling turns into an infatuation, a crush on the man. Pete throws his loyalty, affection, and sympathies to “The Man,” as he internally refers to him, going into full-blown hero worship, turning away from his best friend and his parents who create conflict with his new-born feelings. 

The Man, however, is a charlatan, and Pete himself is betrayed. The people who are real in his life, his parents and Rufus, are there to support him as he recovers from his personal trauma. Pete learns that he can’t take any of them for granted, and that they love him by choice, and that they will stick by him.

One thing I was reminded of, in reading this book, is that communication can be difficult, especially for a child or adolescent. Pete finds it hard to communicate his spiritual feelings and growth to his parents and Rufus. Parents should know or remember how shy and squirmy kids can be about initiating or responding to conversations about religion, inner feelings, sex, dreams and goals, and embarrassing things. One thing in the book that is alluded to, but never explained is some past and personal experience Pete’s parents had with church or religion. Perhaps if that had been a conversation they had been able to initiate with him, some of Pete’s problems might have been avoided.

A word of reassurance, even though the Preacher Man seems a little creepy in his attention to Pete, there is no overt reference to “that sort” of an inappropriate relationship.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

1949 - King of the Wind

The author’s name, Marguerite Henry, is a familiar one. At a young age I read Brighty of the Grand Canyon, multiple times, and I was familiar with some of her other books. For some reason, “King of the Wind” had never crossed paths with me, so when I saw it in Goodwill, and that it had a Newbery sticker on it, I grabbed it.

King of the Wind is the story of the Godolphin Arabian, the origin of the line of racehorses that brought us Man ‘O War, Seabiscuit, and War Admiral. This book is a “historical novel,” part truth, part fiction, and begins with an introductory chapter of Man ‘O War’s match race against Sir Barton, the pride of Canada. After winning the race, Man ‘O War’s owner ponders the story of the Godolphin Arabian, the ancestor of this dynasty of racehorses, which began 200 years ago as the little orphaned colt, Sham.
Sham was born in the royal stables of the Sultan of Morocco, cared for by the little stableboy, Agba. Agba remembers the words an old storyteller told him when the mare, Sham's mother, was ready to foal, “When Allah created the horse, he said to the wind, ‘I will that a creature proceed from thee. Condense thyself.’ And the wind condensed itself, and the result was the horse.” Sure enough, the little colt grows up to be unusually fast. The Sultan decides to send a gift of six of his young steeds to the boy-king of France, Louis the XV, to better their line of horses and curry favor from France. Stableboys are sent with the animals, and Agba is chosen to accompany Sham.

Things go wrong from there. The horses arrive in terrible shape, the king and his advisors do not appreciate the fine-boned size of the Arabians, and Sham is set to work as a carthorse. None of his owners can manage him properly because of his high spirit, and so he is relentlessly passed on from one owner to the next, at the mercy of rough men and their ignorant handling. All the while, Agba stays with Sham, one way or another, caring for him as best he can, understanding him, and believing in him. 
Finally through a mishap during a breeding session at the Godolphin Stables, Sham covers the visiting mare instead of the chosen sire. And when the resulting colt proves himself unusually fast on the racetrack, Sham is brought out to finally live in the glory he was destined for, as the Godolphin Stallion, the sire of famous racehorses, that live on to this present day.
I enjoyed the book, and several of the scenes stuck with me, but towards the end, the rough owners began to blur together, and I just wanted to get to the end where Sham is finally recognized for the great horse he is. So there might have been a bit of skimming.

King of the Wind is a very nice horse book, and it will bring to mind Anna Sewel’s Black Beauty. But of course, when I finished it, I had to know; what was fact and what was fiction? So I looked it up. 

Agba, the little Moroccan stableboy was fiction. He is a well-placed device to give continuity to the story, and for SOMEONE to know Sham’s history during the book. Black Beauty didn’t need an Agba, since his life was told in first person.

Sham was actually foaled in Yemen, not Morocco, in about 1724. 

The breeding mishap was not as dramatic as the novel conjectures. In reality, Sham was used as a “teaser stallion,” a stud used to judge receptiveness of the mare. When Roxanna, the broodmare, rejected the intended sire, they went ahead and let Sham breed her. But the core of truth in the novel is plain; it was a serendipitous match that brought about a whole dynasty of racehorses. 

Thursday, November 14, 2019

1939 - Thimble Summer

I hadn't been looking to pick up new Newbery Books lately, since I already had a handful in my library that I haven't done reviews on yet. But there I was in Goodwill, skimming through the titles and came across "Thimble Summer" by Elizabeth Enright. I did not remember seeing that one in the lists that I go over every now and then. The cover fooled me, as covers do, in thinking it had been published in the last dozen or so years. It had a sort of "modern look" about it, though I thought the subject matter might be perhaps, say, set in the 50's. But a page into it, I could tell it had been written in a more old fashion style. I checked the copyright, and it was written in 1938, and set in its time, I'd say.

The quaint interior illustrations, by the author,  clearly show the time period the book was written.

It is interesting to me to consider how the style, feel, and content of children's literature has changed over the last hundred years. The whole "Life was simpler then, blah blah," is definitely one factor. Thimble Summer is well-written, and not boring, but the big climax of the story is the county fair, when Garnet takes her pig in to see if it will win a ribbon.

There are other gentle enjoyments of the story. Perhaps the one with the most tension to a modern-day mom like me is when she gets mad and takes off hitchhiking to a town some distance away, staying most of the day there. Of course, kids did that then. My own mother tells me about doing that when she was a kid.

Garnet's family are farmers. It was hot and the rains wouldn't come. The bills were coming though, and her dad was plenty worried if they could make it, if everything shriveled and there were no crops.  While out playing in the creek with her brother, Garnet finds a silver thimble and feels that there might be magic in it. That night, the rains come.

That summer brings a lot of good things to Garnet and her family, a new family member, a new barn, adventures with her portly friend, Citronella. The thimble reappears later, but strangely is not referred to much during the story.

When I looked up the Newbery winners before and after Thimble Summer, I saw that the honor books bookending it were Ingalls Wilder's "On the Banks of Plum Creek," and "By the Shores of Silver Lake," which gives some context to the tale-telling of the era.
This was a decently good book, and it would be enjoyed very much by a reader who doesn't demand action-adventure and has an interest in some bygone ways.
I got this used at the thrift store for about 2 bucks.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

2000 Honor - Getting Near to Baby

What a mysterious title! And what sad (thoughtful? dreamy?) expressions on the two girls, rendered in a soft, yet stark black and white cover illustration! And what are they doing, sitting on a roof? I picked up Getting Near to Baby, by Audrey Couloumbis off the book rack at the thrift store and bought it. I let myself find out only that the family's baby had died, and then I began reading it.

Willa Jo is already on the roof as the story begins. Little Sister has already followed her up there as the morning breaks, and folks begin to discover them perched up there. Willa Jo tells this in her own voice, letting the story unfold gradually. She has a lot on her mind. She and Little Sister have been sent to stay with their Aunt Patty and Uncle Hob for a while after Baby died. Their mother was affected to the point she had difficulty caring for them, and Aunt Patty swooped in to take the two sisters in.

But Aunt Patty and Willa Jo are at odds from the beginning. They are both brash with strong personalities. Aunt Patty is not only trying to navigate having two children suddenly living with her, but she has never had children and doesn't always know to relate. Willa Jo is frustrated with suddenly having so much control over her own life taken away, such things as having to buy and wear new clothes she hates and having her aunt try to manage her new friendships. And underneath it all is the deep sad minefield of Baby's death.

How did Baby die? How can the family come together again? Can they help each other through this? And why did Willa Jo decide to go on the roof and hang out?

Finally, near the end of the book, we have Willa Jo's complete narrative of the event that led to Baby's death. And the reader understands why they are on the roof. Through the filter of Willa Jo's words, I did not care much for Aunt Patty. But that is the way it is when you have one side and that persons feelings influence all the description. When Willa Jo grew in her understanding, Aunt Patty became a more sympathetic figure. And it didn't hurt when Aunt Patty finally joined the girls on the roof!

In this book, I especially enjoyed the pages spent on Willa Jo's growing friendship with the neighbor girl and her eccentric family. I appreciated how firmly she was able to claim her own friendship in spite of Aunt Patty's strong disapproval.

Don't let the inherent sadness in the topic put you off this book. It is worth reading!

I paid about 2 bucks for this at Goodwill.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

1962 - The Bronze Bow


Sometimes I wonder how it is that the same authors win the Newbery Award multiple times. Are they champions in the world of children's literature? Are there actually just few writers of children's literature? Is there a familiarity with these names in the higher reaches? I don't know enough to make a guess. But if you are familiar with the interesting and excellent Newbery Winner, The Witch of Blackbird Pond (1959), then you are familiar with Elizabeth George Speare, who also wrote this award winner, The Bronze Bow.

The first time I started to read this book, I was put off at first by realizing that it was a story about young people interacting with Jesus and his ministry. I put it away for awhile while I examined my feelings about a book of this nature being part of the Newbery Award platform. I had to consider how I would feel if it were about the origins of Islam, promoting that way. Or, like The Cat Who Went to Heaven, a clear pitch on Buddhism. I didn't want to dismiss it, just because it might belong to the category of propaganda or tracts. It did win the award, after all. So I picked it up again and dove in.


Daniel is a young man, 18 years old, who has chosen to live a life in hiding, in the mountains with Rosh and his band of zealots. He has a sorry past of pain and loss at the hands of the occupying Romans, and he has turned his life over to revenge and hate, and future glory when they overthrow the hated overlords and Israel reclaims its land and autonomy. He looks to Rosh as a father figure and is proud and grateful when give the chance to participate in raids against traders on the road. We are allowed to see that Rosh is an uncouth and selfish leader, who cares nothing for the men in his band except what they can do for him. But Daniel is blind to that.


After Daniel makes some friends from the town, while they were out exploring the hills, he begins to spend some time down there. He visits the hut of his grandmother and sister, Leah, who is suffering from mental disorder from the earlier trauma to their family. He stays, he goes, he comes back; he can't stand to be there, but he feels guilty for not being there for them. He develops his friendship more deeply to the pair he met in the hills, and then enters into intrigue and spying and plans for revenge and helping to bring about the revolution, trusting in Rosh to carry through on his part.


Daniel hates the Romans, deeply. Stupidly deeply. Spitting at them, insulting them, seemingly not able to control his actions. Hate and anger, anger and hate. Selfishness. Mean to his sister. He's nice at times, but is so selfish he cannot care for her or her needs beyond a pretty low bar. Jesus is kind of a sidebar to the story, really. You just get a brief inclination of what he was all about. But it feels that the story is leading to a redemption of Daniel and his awful nature, even if that nature is mixed in with sincere concern for Jewish freedom. He struggles a little with some of the ideas Jesus has communicated, such as loving your enemies and his coming kingdom, but manages to shrug most of it off.


Even though Jesus is a real person in this book, he has been cast in a mystical glow, as he speaks and heals the sick. You will have guessed already that Daniel is indeed redeemed and changed from his former self, but unsatisfyinly so. I did not like the character. He did not have my sympathy, especially for the way he treated his family, and for his rage and surliness. I could have invested more of myself in the story if I had been allowed to see more of his change of heart, his reactions to self-revelation, his regret over past actions. But the author waited until the last couple pages to handle that, and I only know Daniel's character as the young man I spent 250 pages getting to know and dislike.


Bought this book at the thrift store.

Friday, April 7, 2017

2017 - The Girl Who Drank the Moon

The kindly witch of the forest did not mean to feed the baby moonlight. She had only intended to satisfy the infant with drops of honey-sweet starlight to keep her happy on the journey to the free cities, where the formerly doomed child could be raised with love and happiness and sunshine. But she wasn't paying attention. She let her mind wander. Maybe you will feel that she did it "accidentally on purpose." But in any rate, the deed was done--the child was now enmagicked, and Xan must raise Luna as her own, teaching her the ways of magic and loving her as her own "granddaughter."


Where did these abandoned babies come from, one each year? Xan didn't know, but she did know that if she did not rescue them, they would be devoured by wild animals. The truth is, they were the annual sacrifice from the gloomy village, to sate the evil witch of the forest, according to their myth. But the truth was even more horrible than the depressing loss of the youngest child of the town each year. An evil existed that was beyond their knowledge, and almost beyond Xan's, perhaps the only one who could help their world from being destroyed.


The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill is lyrical, mysterious, tucked with magic and mysterious creatures, but grounded in the reality of a good story well-told. The threads that run through the pages eventually come together. And while you know what you want to happen, you cannot trust that it will. This is that sort of book.


I really enjoyed every one of its 386 pages. But unless you want to find yourself staying up late because you don't want to put it down, don't get too close to the end of it at bedtime!


I bought this hardbound version (brand new 2017 award) from Amazon.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

2015 Honor - El Deafo

I loved this book!

I wanted to get some more contemporary Newbery books in my collection, rather than flip through the old classics always present at the thrift store. I did some research online and came up with a few books to order, this being one of them.

El Deafo, by Cece Bell, is an autobiographical graphic novel of her life from age 4 until about 18. The illustrations are very very fun. Everyone is a sort of animal, my best guess is rabbit. That makes it less about who is pretty, who is not, what ethnicity are they and what does that mean, etc. It's all about, what are they like? What is their personality and way of interacting with their friends? And it's all about the people. No swirling background scenes to distract from the interactions and from the inner life of Cece, the main character and star.

At 4 years old, little Cece was stricken by a severe case of meningitis, which left her without most of her hearing. A hearing aid helped. And that was good. Except that you can imagine what it was like starting school with a bulky device strapped to your body and wires in your ears. What do these kids think about you? Are they staring at you? Are they making fun of you? Cece shares her thoughts, fantasies (which can be very funny, and will also strike a chord if you can remember your childhood fantasies) accomplishments and regrets as she goes along with her life.

And then, when she realizes her superpower, well, that is very empowering. Could the teachers have guessed that having a microphone around their necks so as to communicate clearly with their hearing-impaired student would enable said student to hear what they were doing throughout the school grounds?

I found her relationships with her different "best friends" to be somewhat hilarious. You can think back on different school friends you have had, and name some that match up to these girls! And I totally get the eye-hearts when Cece is thinking about her crush.

I remember being like Cece, who found it difficult to say out loud what what she really thought about things. Watching her grow in the ability to assert herself was rewarding.

Honestly, if you have a kid who is about 4th grade, or a little below, or a little above, get them this book! Or if you are like me, and just have that appreciation for middle-school level literature, get it anyway. And then share it with the kids you know.