Thursday, August 25, 2022

1954 - …And Now, Miguel


This book, written by Joseph Krumgold, is one of the older Newbery Award books. It was written several years before I was born, but would have easily been present in my school or hometown library. Indeed, it is an old library discard, because the old usually has to make way for the new. I try to imagine myself reading it, possibly in the 4th grade, and wonder how well I would have enjoyed it. And did I enjoy it now, almost 70 years after it was written? Kinda, sorta.

Miguel is an 11 year-old  boy in a large family of sheep ranchers in New Mexico. He is not the youngest child, and not the oldest one, but in the middle, and he is trying to find his place and his role in the work and in the family. He is not a little boy any more and yearns to be regarded as a valuable worker along with the men and his big brother, Gabriel. Miguel’s biggest goal, his dream is to be allowed to go with the other men to take the sheep up into the Sangre de Cristo mountains for the summer. 

This book is like a mini-documentary, following the work of raising sheep, seen from a boy’s perspective. From spring lambing time, shearing, finding a lost herd, Miguel describes everything he does and sees, and how he tries to prove his worth. But he is disappointed when his dad says, “No.” He is still too young. Desperate, he prays to the patron saint of his town, San Ysidro to find a way to let him go with the sheep and the men of his family to the summer grazing fields. 

When Miguel’s father calls to him and says that the boy will go with them after all, he is ecstatic and proud—until he finds out how his prayer was answered. His brother Gabriel has gotten a letter from the draft board calling him up, and now, in spite of his youth, Miguel will be needed with the sheep. Miguel is close to and looks up to his big brother, and feeling guilty, he prays to take back his request, but San Ysidro does not answer this prayer. 

Miguel and Gabriel have a deep discussion about the role of the saints and prayers, and why things work the way they do. Even though their conversation is emotionally taxing, Gabriel says that he is glad that they could have the talk. The reader could feel a deeper connection between the two of them after that. Almost like an epilog, the journey up to the grazing grounds is told, and they arrive safely. 

The author spent time with the real Miguel, and the book recounts his real life story. It is told in the first person, and the manner of speech must be similar to what Krumgold picked up from him. If Krumgold’s name is slightly familiar, that is because he is the one who wrote another Newbery Award book Onion John (which I have previously reviewed on this blog).

I can see why this book was a contender for the prize, but I can also see that it is not the subject and style of what youth today would be interested in reading. I found it in a Little Free Library at Turtle Bay Park.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

2007 - The Higher Power of Lucky

It was a pretty little book with a puzzling title and a delicately sweeping image of a young girl in a red dress, clutching a object, with her hand open to the sky. Her face, lightly sketched, was wistful, peaceful. Plus that gold seal that calls to me, A Newbery Award winner! I plucked “The Higher Power of Lucky” by Susan Patron off the thrift store shelf, looking forward to discovering what it was about. 

A book doesn’t have to sock you in the first couple pages to insure you don’t get bored and set it down. Sometimes it just has to intrigue you or ask a question or make you curious about what is going on with the character. The first couple paragraphs did that for me. I’d wondered about the title. Did it mean, being lucky gave the character power? Nope. “Lucky” is the name of the character.

Lucky is crouching behind the dumpster with her ear to a hole in the wall of Hard Pan’s Found Object Wind Chime Museum and Visitor Center. She is listening to Short Sammy tell the story of how he hit rock bottom, quit drinking, and found his “higher power.” She has heard lots of rock-bottom stories at all the twelve-step meetings behind that wall; gamblers, alcoholics, smokers and overeaters, but Short Sammy’s is her favorite. He had drunk a half gallon of rum listening to Johnny Cash all morning in his parked ‘62 Cadillac, then fallen out of the car when he saw a rattlesnake on the passenger seat biting his dog, Roy, on the scrotum.

Do tell.

Lucky is always a little disappointed with the stories. Because the people never say HOW they got their higher power. And that is what she needs to know, since she needs a higher power and has no idea how to get it. Gradually we learn that Lucky has a guardian, and that the story of her parents is very unfortunate. Stability for a kid is so important, and Lucky knows that even though things seem fine, you can’t trust they will stay that way. She thinks:

“…let’s say her Guardian just gave up and quit because Lucky did something terrible. The difference between a guardian and an actual mom is that a mom can’t resign. A mom has the job for life.”

The little hardscrabble desert town of Hard Pan is where Lucky lives. Her world is populated with interesting characters including her best friend, Lincoln, who is obsessed with knots; tying them, learning new ones, talking about them. Bridgette, the Guardian, is from France, and Lucky is worried that she will decide she has had enough of Hard Pan and Lucky and fly back home, leaving her with no other option but to go to an orphanage somewhere. 

A little better communication would have helped stave off the inevitable crisis, but in reality, that is what happens. People don’t share the whole story or the plans with the kids, not realizing how deeply their minds are trying to process what’s going on, how maybe the kid thinks they have to do the work of controlling the very scary situations that seem to loom in their lives. And you cannot count on the child confiding their fears and conclusions to the grown-up in charge.

Lucky takes some lessons from the twelve-step stories she has been eavesdropping on and starts looking for signs for when she should act upon her secret plan. By now she is convinced that Brigette is going to leave her, and the best way to gain control over her life is to leave first. She is going to run away. The emotions Lucky goes through as she makes her running-away plans are plaintive. She cries as she imagines how everyone will miss her. And the next day she begins looking for the signs. 

I really liked this book. It was gently funny in surprising little situations. Her budding awareness of Lincoln as someone she wanted to impress, as a pretty girl, was humorous. Her patience with Miles, the annoying little boy who always came over for cookies, added a layer to Lucky’s character. 

I got this book at Salvation Army for about a buck. 

Thursday, February 25, 2021

2013 - The One and Only Ivan

I decided to review “The One and Only Ivan,” by Katherine Applegate when I saw a Facebook post by my teacher friend, who had just finished reading it aloud to her 5th grade class. It sounded like a moving experience for her, and when I realized it was a Newbery Award book, I put it in the “Newbery Project,” and requested it from the library.

I’ve been doing a lot of digital books from the library, and while they don’t have the sensory advantages of paper and binding, their accessibility makes up for it. I had no idea of the length of the book. By touching the screen here and there, you can kind of figure that out, but I usually just start reading. I was really glad that the book was longer than I first thought and took the time to tell the story well. The characters were able to reveal themselves gradually, rather than the plot just zipping right along.

Ivan is a fully grown, mature silverback lowland gorilla. He is one of the star attractions of a cheesy little circus-mall at an interstate offramp. Ivan lives in a cage with a jungle scene painted on the back wall. And as he puts it, the waterfall doesn’t flow and the flowers don’t smell. Ivan is a survivor, and one way he survives is to put the best spin he can on his life circumstance. He refuses to refer to the enclosures as “cages.” They are “domains.”

Ivan’s neighbors, Stella the elephant, and Bob, the stray dog are like his family. Emily, the custodian’s daughter has a special relationship to Ivan because they are both artists. At night, Emily sits in front of his cage painting and drawing, and slipping crayons and sheets of paper through a hole in his glass wall.

But business isn’t going so well. Ivan isn’t a cute little gorilla anymore. Paying customers like baby animals. When Mack, the owner and operator of the circus-mall buys and brings back a baby elephant to boost sales, things begin to change for Ivan. He begins to remember events in his life that, for his survival, he’d had to set aside. And along the way, he makes a promise that seems impossible to fulfill.

The book has many many chapters. Some are longish, some are only one sentence. But these “chapters” are points of significance to Ivan, who tells the story. Some of them recount what’s happening in his daily life, some are memories or reflections or decisions.

I’d already come to the conclusion that it is wrong to keep as pets exotic animals who should be in their natural environment. And there is absolutely no ethical way to justify taking baby animals from the wild for the pet trade. “The One and Only Ivan” is a sensitive and well-written book to introduce children to that concept. 

Fun Fact: Katherine Applegate and her husband co-authored the enormously popular "Animorph" series books.

Friday, January 8, 2021

1994 - The Giver


Reviewing “The Giver,” by Lois Lowry has been on my list for a long time. But I have put it off. I think one reason is because it is such a significant book for its ideas and its precedence in dystopian literature for youth. I had to do justice to the teachers who required reading it and the children to whom it was assigned. And also, I wasn’t sure how to cover it properly. I didn’t read it as a child, but only as an adult. I couldn’t decide whether I enjoyed it all or just parts of it. So I let it sit. And then picked it up and read it again for fresh perspective.

Here is the warning: Spoilers ahead. I’m not just going to hint at the events and then say, “Go read this!” If you want that, you can read the back cover.

It’s a short little book, only 180 pages, and the messages aren’t complicated. When a civilization gives the authorities permission and power to make life fair, equal, safe, and predictable, the end result is that choice is taken away. And the unfolding of what that really means is why the book is gripping.

Jonas is an eleven-year-old boy in a family group. He has one little sister. That is what is allowed. It matches the available food supply and ensures a stable population. One boy and one girl. They have an enviable manner of relating to each other, the parents kind and nurturing, understanding and guiding. Jonas is nearing his 12th birthday, his coming-of-age ceremony, when he will be treated like an adult in the community. He will be assigned his job, the one he will do for the rest of his life. But he is worried. What if he doesn’t like his assignment? Soothing assurances that he will are very believable. His youth has been spent trying out all possibilities, and the elders have been paying close attention. Who wouldn’t want to have someone slot you into exactly what is right for you? Who doesn’t remember the agony of having to figure out “what I want to be when I grow up?” The reader accepts this. And continues to find out all the other choices that have been taken away from the people with the goal of peace and comfort and equality. 

Spouses are carefully matched and then assigned. Their purpose is to become a family group. After the children are raised, there is no purpose to their union, so they each go their separate ways to live in community with other childless adults. The babies are likewise applied for and assigned. This situation ensures that there are no connections, no memories passed down through generations, as if the present is all there is.

At his (and all the other 12 year-olds) birthday ceremony, Jonas finds out that he has been selected for a very rare position, a Receiver of Memories, to eventually replace the current Receiver, who is old. These memories, his own plus the collective memories of the entire community only exist in his head, and he must pass them on to the next Receiver before he dies. The memories might be vital for important decisions the elders might need to make, though apparently being summoned for advice is exceedingly rare. When Jonas asks his name, what he should call him, the man replies, “The Giver.”

Over their sessions, Jonas learns about pain, love, death, beauty, and family, things that have been traded away in exchange for security and equality. He would like to share what he has found out, see if anyone else would rather have choices. But it is forbidden to speak of what he learns, and when he tries to carefully broach the subject, he is rebuffed. No one is interested in a seeing things a different way. 

There is a sinister element that winds around their lives, clouded by a euphemism. “Released.” Such a pleasant term, such a good exchange for when it's time to give up life in the community. Or when someone just doesn't fit in. Of course, the reader knows what that really means, and Jonas’s turning point comes when he realizes it. And when it comes so close to home that he is horrified and repelled, he must act. He must leave. 

It can be seductive to consider the offer of peace and comfort in exchange for control and self-autonomy. It can start small. And some of these exchanges are necessary for societies to function. If, after the tipping point, one could turn around and view what’s been lost, then perhaps they would protest, rebel and take back their free humanity. But if the memories are gone, if the experiences aren’t there, to remember what “snow” is, or “grandparents” are, then it won’t happen. 

I wasn’t happy about the ending. There is no other way to interpret it than it is ambivalent. And of course we want to know, what really happened‽ (My favorite punctuation—the interrobang) There is apparently a sequel that seems to take care of that, but I think the most honest way of explaining an ending is to just use what is provided in the book. And if I had to pick the optimistic or pessimistic ending, I’m afraid I’d have to go with the sad ending. But you can choose the other if you wish! 

I got this book at the thrift store. It was a school library discard with the pocket and the check-out card still in it. It was charming to see the signatures of all the children who had read it over a four year span. 

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.