Sunday, August 21, 2011

Dicey's Song

Dicey's Song is a beautiful coming of age story of a 13 year old girl from a poverty-stricken background, who (along with her three younger siblings) has just come to live with her irascible grandmother in a dilapidated farmhouse on the edge of a small town on the Chesapeake Bay.

There isn't much action in the story, and there is a lot of self-reflection - so some teenagers (especially some boys) may not be very interested in it. The cover doesn't help much in this respect. I kept picking the book up and then moving on to a different book, because it just looked.....gloomy. Like a stereotypical "Newbery winner", I guess (though there really isn't any such thing), and I thought it would be full of angst, depressing events, and beautiful language

It wasn't until I had just a handful of Newbery winners left to read that I reluctantly picked Dicey's book up again.

Well, there is angst, and there is undeniably some tragedy (and beautiful language, too) in Dicey's Song, but it was really stupid of me to put off reading it, because it is also wonderful, and I loved it. The characters seem so real - so complex and interesting - that I can't wait to read more about all of them, starting with Homecoming, the book that precedes Dicey's Song in the "Tillerman cyle". The sibling relationships are fascinating, and Gram (aka Ab Tillerman) is one of my favorite characters in a kid's book since Richard Peck's Grandma Dowdel (in A Year Down Yonder). Ab isn't just eccentric and fierce, though - she has secrets, and we learn about some of the choices she made that have influenced the whole family in Dicey's Song.

Quite a few thought-provoking issues are explored in Dicey's story, which does put it squarely in "stereotypical Newbery"-winning territory. The meaning of family, sibling relationships, school and dealing with teachers, learning disabilities and differences (particularly in the ways different kids learn and different kinds of talent and intelligence), being an outsider, and finally, dealing with loss  - all are important parts of Dicey's Song. Unlike some of the other Newbery winners, though (like Summer of the Swans, which covers some of the same terrain), Dicey's Song is rather timeless, and isn't really linked to any specific happenings in the late1970's- early 80's. You can figure out when the story's set by thinking about the technology (pre-Internet but post-Vietnam, and plane travel isn't extraordinarily rare), but it could almost as easily have taken place in the 1930's or the 50's. The emotional stresses of worrying about a brother who gets into fights, wanting some time away from the rest of the family, dealing with financial problems and prickly characters and aging - into adulthood and "the golden years" - are all pretty interesting as Voigt describes them, anyway - and still relevant in 2011.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Moon Over Manifest

This book was most deserving of the 2011 Newbery Medal.  With dual narrative lines set in 1917-1918 and 1936, it's the story of a small town in Kansas called Manifest (modeled after the real town of Frontenac, where author Clare Vanderpool's grandparents grew up).

In her Newbery acceptance speech, Vanderpool stated, "I knew I wanted to write a story about place and about home from the perspective of a young girl who didn’t have a home." (*42)  She later added,
"I came across a quote from Moby Dick. 'It is not down in any map; true places never are.' That’s when the wheels began turning. What is a true place? What would a true place be for someone who had never lived anywhere for more than a few weeks or months at a time? What if it was a young girl during the Depression? A young girl named Abilene Tucker." (*44)

Twelve-year-old Abilene is sent in late May, 1936, to the town of Manifest by her drifter father Gideon, the closest place to a home in her father's stories.  She's supposed to stay with a preacher named Shady.  She arrives just in time for the last day of school, where she meets Ruthanne and Lettie, her playmates for the summer.  She also meets Miss Sadie, a Hungarian woman who runs a "divining parlor."

Throughout the book, Miss Sadie tells Abilene a story about Manifest in 1917-1918, that mysteriously ties in items from a cigar box Abilene found hidden in Shady's home.  The cigar box also contains letters from 1918 from Ned Gillen, a boy adopted by the local hardware store owner from the orphan train.  Ned wrote the letters back to a boy named Jinx, after he helped Ned join the army (underage) to fight in World War I.  Both Jinx and Ned (and Shady and a few other local people still alive in 1936, such as Hattie Mae and Sister Redempta) are in Miss Sadie's stories.

On the audiobook, actress Justine Eyre voices both Abilene in the first person in 1936, and the third-person 1917-1918 stories of Miss Sadie.  Besides these alternating narratives, there are also excerpts from Ned's letters (voiced by Kirby Heyborne) and from "Hattie Mae's News Auxiliary," a column in the local newspaper in both 1917-1918 and in 1936 (read by Cassandra Campbell). 

It all works together to create a novel with an intriguing plot, compelling characters, and a lot of heart and soul.  And Vanderpool does an excellent job in creating her setting, not only in time and place, but also in the details of historical events and community life.  I could feel the heat of the hot, dry summer, but I also felt the excitement of the bootlegging shenanigans, the immigrants' fear of the Klan and the mine owner, and the dread and sadness brought by Spanish influenza.

According to Vanderpool,
"Moon Over Manifest is about home and community, but in many ways it became a story about storytelling and the transformative power of story in our lives....Abilene would call this a universal—this need for story....And of all the places for her to end up in her drifting: Manifest, Kansas, the stopping point for immigrants and refugees from around the world. Displaced people just like her. People with stories of their own but whose stories become hers.... Through the people of Manifest, Abilene experiences the power in a story." (*44-45)
So does the reader. 

This book has an 800 Lexile score and measures at grade 5.3 reading level on Accelerated Reader, with an interest level of grades 4-8.  The main characters are 12 (Abilene and her girlfriends) and 13 (Jinx), at the upper end of that grade range.  With the mystery subplot and Jinx's cons, I think the story would appeal to both boys and girls.  An author's note at the end addresses what's real and what's not in the book, and suggests further reading.  There are plenty of opportunities to tie this book in with lessons on social studies, English language arts, and even science.

(*Vanderpool, Clare. "Newbery Acceptance Speech," The Horn Book Magazine, Volume 87, Issue 4, July-August 2011, pages 39-45.)

© Amanda Pape - 2011 - this review also appears on my blog, Bookin' It.

[This audiobook and a hardbound copy of the book were borrowed from and returned to the Dick Smith Library at Tarleton State University, Stephenville, Texas, where I also accessed Vanderpool's speech through the EBSCO Academic Search Complete database.]

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Up A Road Slowly

Up A Road Slowly by Irene Hunt was one of my favorite Newbery books. And I know why! This coming of age story was of a girl who grew up right before I did. It was a world I was familiar with and made my memories of these times just flow back!

The novel takes place in the 60s (I am guessing) perhaps and begins with Julie's mother dying when she was seven years old. Julie is the narrator and finds herself and older brother Christopher shipped off to spinster school teacher Aunt Cordelia's house. Their father just cannot take care of them. Initially horrified, Julie comes to love the life in the country where her Aunt lives. The story follow her growth and development from elementary school in a one room class to graduation from high school and heading to college. While I didn't go to a one room school house - I knew that they existed when I was growing up.

The story is also filled with wonderfully outlandish characters such as her alcoholic Uncle Haskell, the bad boyfriend, the good boyfriend, and a wide variety of girls who can be very nice or filled with pride and envy. Julie navigates her life with these people, learning lessons along the way - happy and sad lessons. In the end, Julie learns that her Aunt usually knows what is best for her and knows that it is through her guidance she is an adult.

Allison's Book Bag has a great review of the book as well - with some comparisons to Anne Of Green Gables. In some ways, it also reminded me of Little Women. Still I wonder if this book would still have appeal with young girls who might find it too simple.

TITLE: Up a Road Slowly
AUTHOR: Irene Hunt
PAGES: 197
TYPE: fiction
RECOMMEND: I loved this little book.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

Pages: 351
Ages: 10+
First Published: Oct. 12, 2010
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Genre: children, historical fiction
Rating: 5/5

First sentence:

The movement of the train rocked me like a lullaby.

Acquired: Borrowed a copy from my local library.

Simple perfection. When I see that Newbery sticker on a book, this is what I expect. A book that truly is a wonderful story that will appeal to kids. A story that catches your attention from the first chapter. One with characters who are interesting, unique and you either love from the start or they eventually win you over at some part. I truly enjoyed every minute of this book and was sad when it came time to close the book on Abilene, Jinx, Miss Sadie and all the rest of the characters in Manifest, Kansas.

Set in 1936, Abilene Tucker, who has grown up as a vagrant train rider with her father, is upset when he sends her to Manifest, a town he spent a spell in his youth to stay with a friend for the summer while he supposedly works a job, not appropriate for a young lady to be around, now that Abilene has turned twelve. Here Abilene makes two friends and finds a hidden cigar box with mementos and letters from 1918 under the floor boards. One is a map of Manifest, there is mention of a spy and the girls set about to find out who the spy was in their town back during WWI and if they are still here. They also come upon the legend of "The Rattler" who wanders the dark forest at night. Is the Rattler the spy, or someone/thing else?

As the girls read the letters we are transported back to 1918 on the war front in France as the letters are from a local boy to a friend named 'Jinx'. We also are taken back to 1918 on the home-front through Miss Sadie, a diviner, as she tells Abilene stories when she comes over to work her garden to repay a large pot she broke snooping about one night.

The story switches perspective between the present, 1936, through the first person narrative of Abilene and the past, 1918, through Miss Sadie's stories, a newspaper column and the letters. A rich engaging story that while not directly linked to any historical events does place one smack dab in the past and creates a good vision of living in a small town during the depression and during World War I, along with an impression of what it was like for a young soldier in the trench warfare of France. Topped off with a large cast of eccentric characters this is a gem of a story. This will be one of the rare modern Newbery's that I think will still be read decades down the road like perennial favourites "Caddie Woodlawn" and "Sounder".

Hitty: Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field

Choosing chapter books to read aloud to my girls is not something I've ever really given much thought or planning. Instead, I just pick up whatever I see that looks interesting or that I've recently read a review of, etc. Lately, though, I've been thinking about how I should probably be a little more intentional about what I read, at least occasionally. (How's that for noncommittal? ;-) ) What I mean is this: I don't think think our read-alouds have to always be educational or challenging, but because we are home educators and because I consider reading aloud a very important part of our school day (although the girls don't even realize that we're "doing school" while we're reading), I should get in as much good literature as I possibly can. If you scroll down a bit and look over in the sidebar, you'll see a list of our read-alouds for this year. You'll note that Nim's Island was our third chapter book of 2011, but you'll also note that there's no review of it linked. I meant to review it, but I ran out of time. However, I think I can sum it up in one sentence: a fun read, but nothing that challenged us in any way. It's one of those books that I think Lulu could've read on her own, even at the tender age of six. In thinking about our read-alouds, I'm moving toward consistently choosing books that are harder than my best reader could tackle on her own. I'm sure I won't always do this, but I prefer it this way.

Okay, now that all that preliminary business is out of the way, let's get on to the real matter at hand: Hitty: Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field. Published in 1929 and awarded a Newbery Award the following year, Hitty is definitely a book that fulfills the requirement I explained above. It's not one of those books I could've continued reading after I'd come a hairsbreadth from reading myself to sleep, somehow managing to keep one eye open enough to read the text, brain on autopilot. (Please tell me you do that, too, at least sometimes!) No, Hitty requires diligence and concentration on the part of the reader. The plot is detailed and the sentence syntax is unlike that of our day. However, I never once grew tired of this story; on the contrary, I was eager each time I picked it up to find out what Hitty was going to experience next. My girls seemed to love it as much as I did. The story is rather simple, actually. It is simply the story of Hitty's hundred years of existence. Hitty is a wooden doll made of lucky mountain-ash wood, and at the story's beginning she belongs to a loving little girl named Phoebe Preble. When Phoebe's family goes aboard a whaling vessel, Hitty goes along, too. It's after this that almost all of the adventures begin. She is shipwrecked; she is taken as an idol on some uncivilized island somewhere in the middle of some ocean; she becomes the possession of a missionary child, a Quaker child, and a slave; she meets the poet John Greenleaf Whittier and sees Charles Dickens; in short, she has no end of adventures. Hitty's adventures are interesting, but what makes the story so absorbing is Hitty's voice. I just came to love her. This little wooden doll speaks with such intelligence and warmth. Although I wouldn't say that this is a funny story, there are moments when Hitty's wit shines through. I think that reading stories like this to my girls, young though they are, has immeasurable benefits. I've noted before how reading the Little House on the Prairie books has expanded my girls' vocabularies; I can't help but think that reading sentences that are more complex that we're accustomed to speaking will have a similar effect. I think it's funny that a couple of my blog readers and fellow bloggers commented about our reading Hitty when I mentioned it last week, and they had opposite opinions. Carrie said that she had to read it when she was twelve or thirteen and that she hated it. Catherine, on the other hand, said that she has already read it to her very young daughter twice, she loved it herself so much as a child. I wonder if this is one of those books that adults think children should love. (This is an opinion that is often bandied about when award-winning books are discussed.) I don't know. I do know that when I closed the book this little doll had come to mean so much to me that I had tears in my eyes. I also know that Lulu immediately grabbed the book and declared that she wanted to read it for herself. I know this is one story we'll be revisiting. Highly, highly recommended. (Please note that since this book was written in 1929, there are many elements in it that are non-PC today. See some of the reviews here for more about this.) Rachel Field also wrote a Caldecott Award winning book, Prayer for a Child, which is a Five in a Row book we own but that I don't think I ever read with my girls. She also wrote another juvenile chapter book that I have a copy of on our schoolroom shelf: Calico Bush. I think I need to pull both of these out and share them.

This review was also published at my blog, Hope Is the Word.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Moon over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool is the 2011 Newbery Medalist and it does not disappoint. While I'm not sure it's a book that would hold the attention of most children in its target age range, it's a book I greatly enjoyed. Here's the CIP summary from inside the book:
Twelve-year-old Abilene Tucker is the daughter of a drifter who, in the summer of 1936, sends her to stay with an old friend in Manifest, Kansas, where he grew up, and where she hopes to find out some things about his past.
That one sentence summary covers the plot, more or less, but it by necessity leaves out what makes this book engrossing: mysteries in spades, compelling characterization, and lots of heart. In Manifest, Abilene Tucker stays with a preacher/bartender (yeah, you read that right) named Shady, and under a floorboard in her room she finds a box. Inside it is a small collection of treasures: various trinkets, a map, and some letters. She thinks that this must surely be a link, somehow, to her father, Gideon, and what unfolds is an at times convoluted, but very compelling series of flashbacks (told by a would-be fortune-teller, Miss Sadie, who is much better at telling the past than the future) and "flashforwards" to the present. These episodes are punctuated by related editorials from the town newspaper, a device that I found somewhat annoying at times because it interrupted the flow of the story. Both the past story and the present story are set in Manifest, and they're connected, somehow. The past story is about a young man, Ned Gillen, who befriends a boy named Jinx who shows up in town, obviously running from something or somone. Ned and Jinx get into all kinds of mischief (some of it righteous mischief) and manage to become heroes. Abilene hears Miss Sadie's stories as she works off a debt she owes the "diviner" (in a sort of Jem/Miss Dubose relationship like in To Kill a Mockingbird), and as she does, she gets closer and closer to her father and his story. I'll admit I had some reservations while reading this book about some of the characters. Take Miss Sadie, for example. She's a fortune teller? A diviner? I'm not sure that's something I want my upper elementary aged student (if I had one) reading about. Then there's Shady, the bartender/preacher. Sure, he's a remarkable fellow, both kind and principled, but I can't quite figure out how to even get a handle on a bar that doubles as a church. (Yes, I know it's being done nowadays, but I don't quite know what I think about it.) Too, there's a bit more about bootlegging in the story than I feel comfortable with. By the end of the novel, though, I was mostly satisifed by Vanderpool's resolution of these various issues, to the point that I would have virtually no hesitation in giving this novel to a sixth grader. I think it would take a strong reader who really enjoys historical fiction to persevere through its 350 pages, though. I really like this book, but I'm not sure I think it's better than Turtle in Paradise (linked to my review), which won a Newbery honor for 2010. I think Moon Over Manifest is a much more complicated story, with all kinds of plot twists and many, many seemingly disparate threads to be tied up in the end, but Turtle in Paradise is much more polished. Interestingly, both are set during the Great Depression. An expanded version of this review was previously published at my blog, Hope Is the Word.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Waterless Mountain

I finally decided to read Waterless Mountain, by Laura Adams Armer, on a cold March morning. Somehow reading this timeless, rather mystical coming-of-age story about young boy in the desert Southwest - with bumblebees collecting pollen and eagles soaring and the sky like a giant turquoise bowl - seemed rather appealing when it was drizzling on piles of dirty snow outside, with that pathetic grey late-winter Michigan light coming in my window. 

There are some quite beautiful descriptions of the natural environment of northern Arizona in Waterless Mountain, and of the traditional Navajo way of life, complete with lambs, weaving, corn, pinon nuts, pack rats, snug hogans, ancient skeletons buried with pottery eroding out of the ground, and sacred tobacco. There's also quite a bit of the poetry of Navajo ceremonies and their unique cultural perspective.

Songs like the following are scattered throughout Younger Brother's story:
From the house made of dawn,
On the trail of the dawn,
He is coming to us;
     He is coming.

Now the Bearer of the Day,
     Sends a beam from the blue.
It is shining on us,
     It is shining.

To the house made of night,
     On a trail made of night,
He is going from us,
     He is going.

Now the Bearer of the Day
     Sends the stars to the sky.
They are watching above,
     They are watching (p. 84).

"House made of dawn" is such a beautiful phrase. Native American author N. Scott Momaday used it for the title of his 1969 Pulitzer prize-winning book, and it is part of a traditional Navajo ceremony that has been widely reproduced because of the beauty of the its language. I think Laura Adams Armer did a pretty good job of portraying a Navajo boy in the 1920's or 30's (for an outsider, anyway), and the details of Navajo life and culture seem authentic, but it would be interesting to see what Navajo people today think about Waterless Mountain. Armer also mentions some important Navajo history, like the genocidal Long Walk, and the destruction of the Navajo peach orchards in Canyon de Chelly (p. 195-6, popularly blamed on Kit Carson).

Unfortunately, Younger Brother's narrative isn't exactly action-packed. It's mostly reflective, with calm acceptance of a few exciting events, drowsy moments thinking about legends, and then there's feelings of quiet happiness and content, followed by some zen-like attention to the moment. I found it refreshing, and liked reading about people whose religious philosophy includes the directive to "live in beauty", but I know that my son (who likes fiction like James Patterson's Maximum Ride series, for instance), would agree with the Amazon reader who said that it was "the most boring book I have ever read."

A few parts were awkward, if not "painfully condescending", as Amanda quoted in her post (from a 1993 Horn Book review), like when the Big Man (a white neighbor whom Wendy accurately sums up as the "all-knowing, kind, wise, Great White Trader" in her review) took Younger Brother up in an airplane, and when Younger Brother's family went to a movie during their trip to California. Interestingly, the "water-developer" is seen as another positive character, responsible for bringing more water to the family's livestock, and not someone stealing a precious resource for far-away golf courses or cities, as many communities in the Southwest would perceive him today.

A couple of random notes: Navaho is the old-fashioned spelling for this Native nation. Navajo is usually used today, and the people call themselves the Diné (or the Dineh).

This was one of my favorite sentences in the book, which I couldn't help reading aloud to my kids. Think no more about it, my children!
He knew that Mother was always right about everything so thought no more about it (p. 42).
I was truly surprised by how much I enjoyed Waterless Mountain, since I expected to plod through another "a boy's life in another traditional culture" story like Dobry or ...And Now Miguel. Instead, Armer's book left me longing to return to the Four Corners (ne Arizona, nw New Mexico, sw Colorado and se Utah), where I'd like to eat some fry bread, smell the sagebrush after a summer rain, and listen to the silent songs that Younger Brother describes. As the Big Man notes on page 137, "It's great stuff, this tying up fiction with facts."

Monday, February 7, 2011

Bridge to Terabithia - 1978

by Katherine Paterson,
read by Robert Sean Leonard

This classic, dealing with themes of death, friendship, and imagination, won the (well-deserved) Newbery Medal in 1978. Ten-year-old Jesse Aarons befriends the new girl at school, his next-door neighbor Leslie Burke. They deal with a school bully and their families (Jesse's family is rural, poor and rather uneducated; Leslie's parents are wealthy writers escaping the big nearby city of Washington, DC, and trying to live the simple life. Both of them desire parental and adult love and approval).  Jesse and Leslie create an imaginary world they call Terabithia* near the creek in the woods behind their homes. Then there is a tragic accident.

At the end of the audiobook, Michael Conroy with HarperAudio interviews Katherine Paterson and her son David, sometime in 2006. Katherine explains that "when [David] was seven and eight years old, his best friend was a girl named Lisa Hill, and the summer they were both eight, Lisa was struck and killed by lightning." Katherine said she wrote the book "to try to make sense out of a tragedy that didn’t make sense."

"I figured that David had a right to say whether or not he wanted the book published, because although he was not actually Jesse Aarons, all of his buddies at school would think he was... So I read it to him before I sent it even to my editor, and the only thing he said when I finished was...'I wanted it to be dedicated to me and Lisa,' so that’s why the book is dedicated to both of them."  In a 2007 interview, David says there are "a lot of similarities" between him and Jesse, including being "in love with his music teacher" (the guitar-playing Miss Edmunds in the book).

The songs Miss Edmunds sings with the kids, and Leslie's no-TV, call-me-by-my-first-name parents are among the few clues that the book is set in the 1970s; otherwise the setting feels rather timeless.  Katherine continues in the HarperAudio interview, "There’s some quality in this particular book … that opens itself up for people to bring their own lives to it in a very powerful way so that the story becomes their story, and I have people write to me, long long long letters, explaining how this book is their book and how it is their life that I am telling about. But that’s the reader’s response, it’s not something the writer can consciously do. It’s a magical thing when it happens, but it doesn’t always happen."

I think this is because nearly everyone grew up with a Terabithia, an imaginary world to play in.  David said, "One thing that I found so amazing is everyone remembered Terabithia, but they all remembered it differently. The gift that her book gives the reader is she allows them to imagine, she guides them to their own imagination. But the funny thing is, people remember this so vividly, and ... Terabithia takes place in just a very small amount of the book – I believe it’s 12 to 14 pages – and yet, that’s what people remember. They remember these wonderful, wonderful experiences that Jess and Leslie went through, whereas most of it they made up in their own minds.”  Katherine said, “Terabithia is the creation of the reader, not the writer."

The book is also a classic because it's about a child dealing with the death of another child, his friend.  In the same HarperAudio interview, Katherine states, “Everyone will have to go through death, their own and the death of those they love, ... and a book in which a child dies is sort of a rehearsal for that. We hope the child will not have to go through it as early as David did, but it gives them a chance to go through those emotions vicariously."  On her website, she adds that "though I was not fully aware of it, [I wrote it] to help me face my own death," which I think adds to the book's appeal to adults.

David pointed out, “I think that one reason the book has been so resoundingly successful throughout the years is that it was, when it first came out, one of the first books to really address... the death of a child, and the death of a friendship, and it still resonates today because it introduces the concept at a young age for young readers, which is also why it’s banned a lot of places, because adults don’t feel that children can handle issues such as this."  Katherine added, “I even had a letter from someone who said death is not age appropriate for a ten-year-old. No, it’s not, but it happens.”

Indeed, in a 2002 interview, Paterson notes that the book has been challenged for more than being "not age appropriate" in discussing death. "Initially, it was challenged because it deals with a boy who lives in rural Virginia, and he uses the word 'Lord' a lot, and it's not in prayer."  (Katherine taught for a year in a rural Virginia school, and on her website, she notes that "Jess and his father talk like the people I knew who lived in that area. I believe it is my responsibility to create characters who are real, not models of good behavior. If Jess and his dad are to be real, they must speak and act like real people. I have a lot of respect for my readers. I do not expect them to imitate my characters, simply to care about them and understand them.")

"Then there are more complicated reasons. The children build an imaginary kingdom, and there was the feeling that I was promoting the religion of secular humanism, and then New Age religion." Additionally, Jesse's family only goes to church at Easter, although the Bible "s'bout the only book we got around our place" (page 109).  Leslie's never been to church before, and there's an amusing yet thought-provoking scene after she accompanies Jesse's family at Easter.  I imagine this scene is likely to offend some fundamentalist/conservative Christians.

Actor Robert Sean Leonard (best known for playing Dr. Wilson on the TV show House) does a fine job narrating the audiobook. All in all, this is a wonderful book for about age 10 and up, and I highly recommend it.

*On her website, Katherine explains, "I thought I'd made up "Terabithia."  I realized when the book was nearly done, that there is an island in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis called Terebinthia. I'm sure I borrowed that unconsciously, but, then, so would Leslie who loved the Chronicles of Narnia. And, by the way, Lewis got Terebinthia from the Biblical terebinth tree, so it wasn't original with him either."

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[This audiobook and a print copy for reference were borrowed from and returned to my university library.]

Monday, January 24, 2011

Newbery Covers

I've mentioned the covers of the Newbery winners more than a few times in my reviews here. Usually when the new covers are worse than the originals, or the covers are misleading (they made me think the book was going to be awful, and it was great, or vice versa).

Here's a blogger who is designing new covers for all the winners, starting with The Story of Mankind in 1922. He's up to 1928 now (Gay Neck), and it's pretty interesting looking at the book with a modern YA-ish style.

I can't wait until he gets to some of the more recent and/or classic ones! There are a few that I think cannot be improved upon. What do you think?

Monday, January 17, 2011

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Title: When You Reach Me
Author: Rebecca Stead
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
Language: English
ISBN - 10: 0385737424
ISBN - 13: 978-0385737425
Rating:  5/5

It was my love of puzzles that made me pick this one up, and the blurb itself was intriguing:

"By sixth grade, Miranda and her best friend, Sal, know how to navigate their New York City neighborhood. They know where it’s safe to go, like the local grocery store, and they know whom to avoid, like the crazy guy on the corner.

But things start to unravel. Sal gets punched by a new kid for what seems like no reason, and he shuts Miranda out of his life. The apartment key that Miranda’s mom keeps hidden for emergencies is stolen. And then Miranda finds a mysterious note scrawled on a tiny slip of paper:

I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own.
I must ask two favors. First, you must write me a letter.

The notes keep coming, and Miranda slowly realizes that whoever is leaving them knows all about her, including things that haven’t even happened yet. Each message brings her closer to believing that only she can prevent a tragic death. Until the final note makes her think she’s too late."
I loved everything about this book! From the amazing cover design that I talked about here, which already piqued my interest on its own, to the title, and of course, to the story it held. It was fresh, snappy and fast paced, something an impatient reader like me loves.

I finished reading this three hours since I started. The author definitely knows how to capture the reader's attention. The story is not too predictable, and if you're like me who loves mysteries, you'll have an idea for an answer to the mystery, yet when the answer is revealed, it bowls you over that you were right, but not in the way you thought you would be. The book is filled with fun twists that everyone can understand, from tweens to the older readers. It just never gets boring.

The story is not very heavy on drama, but the few ones are fraught with emotion, but never becoming too mushy. Even then, it never drags and the reader is treated to lots of welcome surprises. Most times, reading felt like riding in a speedy motorcycle, with all the thrill and exhilarating speed, but without the uncomfortable and bumpy path, without the threat of crashing looming constantly overhead. The description of each scene and the dialogue are economic, to the point, with no digression, hesitation, or affectation. The author definitely knows what she's writing about.

The characters' personalities are well-established, no contradictions but not too dull or stereotypical, with the young characters' outlook innocent, yet clever. The relationships are realistic, there are no impregnable best-friends-forever vows, no I-totally-hate-you stuff, but the loyalty and respect for each person are present. The children act their age, as do the grown-ups. Very realistic, but never unimaginative. There are no minor characters - everyone is an essential part of the book, just as there are no minor details - everything is significant. As the story advances, the characters show growth and maturity in their roles, and every change is welcome, though some are a bit sad, they are nonetheless authentic and practical.

In the story, A Wrinkle in Time by Madelaine L’Engle was Miranda's favorite book. As for me, this book, Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me is now my very own new personal favorite. I tell you, this book will never disappoint. No wonder, it's the winner of the 2010 John Newbery Medal.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Door in the Wall by Marguerite DeAngeli

The Door in the WallTitle: The Door in the Wall
Author: Marguerite DeAngeli
Pages: 128
Published: Yearling 1990 (orig. 1949)
My Rating: 3 stars

Perhaps the pickings were slim in 1950, or perhaps the Newbery's were simply in a period of highly valuing the simple, moralistic type of book, but The Door in the Wall was slightly disappointing to me.  I loved the choices from the late '40s, and again those from the late '50s, but some of these guys in between leave me frustrated.  (Ginger Pye in 1952, and The Light at Tern Rock, 1952 Honor, felt similarly moralistic and boring to me, although all the honor choices in 1953 were fabulous: Charlotte's Web, Moccasin Trail, The Bears on Hemlock Mountain, Red Sails to Capri.)

The Door in the Wall is not without value, my 11 year old son quite enjoyed the historical aspect of it, but when compared to other Newbery winners that deal with the Middle Ages (Adam of the Road, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!) this one falls short.  The medieval dialect is surprisingly readable, (though some of the vocabulary is a bit difficult to understand,) and the way of life is vivid. Although it remains rather boring during the first half, the pace does pick up toward the end, and is overall quick to read.

If the moralistic aspect doesn't bother you, then definitely give this one a shot.  Otherwise, read Adam of the Road and Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! instead.

Monday, January 10, 2011

2011 Newbery goes to...

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool.

The Honor Books are:
Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer Holm,

Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus,

Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night by Joyce Sidman, and

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, which also won the Coretta Scott King Author Award.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

Title: Kira-Kira
Author: Cynthia Kadohata
Publisher: Atheneum
Language: English
ISBN - 10: 0689856393
ISBN - 13: 978-0689856396
Rating:  4/5

According to the Blurb

"Glittering. That's how Katie Takeshima's sister, Lynn, makes everything seem. The sky is kira-kira because its color is deep but see-through at the same time. The sea is kira-kira for the same reason. And so are people's eyes. When Katie and her family move from a Japanese community in Iowa to the Deep South of Georgia, it's Lynn who explains to her why people stop them on the street to stare. And it's Lynn who, with her special way of viewing the world, teaches Katie to look beyond tomorrow. But when Lynn becomes desperately ill, and the whole family begins to fall apart, it is up to Katie to find a way to remind them all that there is always something glittering—kira-kira —in the future."


Katie and her family's life is anything but kira-kira — the life of Japanese Americans in the 1950s was anything but glittering due to the "Anti-Japanese sentiment" across America. Katie could see reality: no one wants to make friends with her at school, not even with her sister Lynn, despite her natural charm and brilliance at schoolwork and her father had to work back-breaking hours to provide for his family. On the other hand, Lynn, despite also seeing reality, chose to be the optimist and was the one who taught Katie to see things differently, that all things are kira-kira.

The author has drawn perfectly believable characters, from the humble, hardworking father, to the sweet, adoring little brother. Their voices are clear and their words are accurate. Katie describes her world with the simplicity and practicality you would expect from her age, and a natural awe for her older sister. Added to the mix are interesting characters, Uncle Katsuhisa and his family, Amber, and Silly, who provide the necessary humor and perspective that turns the plot from an otherwise depressing narrative to a hopeful, coming of age story of a young girl and her family.

Winner of the 2005 Newbery Medal, this novel, though sad, will not disappoint. It is a story of hope at its core, convincing the readers to find the kira-kira in little things, reminding everyone to keep dreaming big, and appreciating the world for all its flaws.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Amos Fortune: Free Man

by Elizabeth Yates,
read by Ray Childs

This book won the Newbery Medal in 1951.  Mistakenly classified as nonfiction, it is really a biographical novel or, more accurately, historical fiction.  Amos Fortune (c. 1710 - 1801) was a real person, but very little is known of his life.

Indeed, in an interview in The Writer in March 1998, author Elizabeth Yates said she was inspired "when I was standing by the stone that marked the grave of Amos Fortune in the old cemetery in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. Reading the eloquent though brief words about a man whose life spanned from Africa in 1715 to America in 1801, I wanted to know more, to find the story within those lines."

About all that was available was Fortune's homestead (now private property) and some documents at the Jaffrey Public Library, such as his will (written and signed in 1801), some receipts (for loans, medical services, and purchases, including those that bought the freedom of two wives), two letters of apprenticeship of young men to Amos the tanner, and an unsigned letter of manumission for Amos, written by Ichabod Richardson in 1763.  Yates adds another owner and another wife for Amos, as well as a king father and lame sister in Africa, but there is no evidence for any of these.

This book wasn't thrilling, but it wasn't boring either.  It provided insights into life in colonial New England.  Descriptions of the processes of bark tanning and the vendue of the poor were particularly interesting - the latter was something I'd never heard of before.  The audiobook narrator Ray Childs' bass was perfect for Amos Fortune, but not so good for the female voices.

This book has received a lot of criticism, particularly since the early 1970s, for being racist and/or white-supremacist.  In "A Submission Theology for Black Americans: Religion and Social Action in Prize-Winning Children's Books about the Black Experience in America" (Research in the Teaching of English, May, 1990), Ann M. Trousdale states, "The book is clearly an attempt to pay tribute to a historical character whom Yates found admirable. She portrays Amos Fortune as an honest, respectable, even noble man" (p. 124).  But (pages 126-127):
The problems with Yates' book do not lie with her conscious intent, which surely has been to portray Amos as an admirable, even saintly figure. The problems lie with her perspective, which has been shaped by her own cultural heritage, and with the selective tradition which informed it. An underlying assumption of white supremacy permeates the book in spite of its casting Amos as a noble figure.

In keeping with trends in biographies for children at the time, Yates presents an idealized view of Amos. She also presents an idealized view of slavery. Amos' own owners are model slaveholders; his first owner wants to set Amos free before Amos himself wants to be free. Slavery is presented as a practice that was of ultimate benefit to the Africans who were enslaved; it resulted in their being brought to live in a superior land and to practice a superior religion.

It is Amos' Christianity that has caused him to recognize the benefits of slavery. Christianity also informs the model of social action by which he lives in America. This model reflects some values which are non-racist in tone: honesty, industry, generosity, and loyalty. But Christianity also involves for Amos an attitude of racial submission, acceptance of mistreatment at the hands of white people, and forgiveness of white oppressors. In Yates' book, Amos Fortune is, in essence, the stereotypic "good Negro" - submissive, non-threatening, respectful of white people. The implication that it is God who has shaped Amos' character to be so is added leverage for what is basically a white supremacist view of the appropriate role and attitudes for blacks in American society.

In "Challenging the Pluralism of Our Past: Presentism and the Selective Tradition in Historical Fiction Written for Young People (Research in the Teaching of English, May, 2003), Chandra L. Power cites Amos Fortune: Free Man as an example of readerly presentism, "a reader's perception that a book written in or about the past is, for example, racist or sexist" (p. 426).  While she feels books like Amos Fortune are
seriously flawed, I am not suggesting that they are flawed because the main characters do not resist the hegemony of their day. Rather, they are particularly problematic because they are so often advanced as the accurate and authentic representation of their era, yet they do not present the complexity of their respective eras. Instead, they reify a particular perspective (p. 449).

The crucial issue here is in how these titles continue to be advanced and winners of the prestigious Newbery Award, these books are virtually guaranteed a long shelf life and continual selection by libraries and teachers. Therefore, the cumulative effect of what these critics say about the lack of choices or the lack of alternative voices in any given era serves to deny that there were oppositional voices, voices of resistance, or alternative ways of life, belief, and thought within a given time period (p. 450).

I am not advocating censorship in any form; yet as long as these books continue to be presented as exemplary in major textbooks in the field and continue to be reviewed favorably, they should be presented along with titles that offer a competing perspective on those historical eras to prevent the omission of alternative points of view and the continuation of the selective tradition dismissing an inclusive and pluralistic past (p. 456; emphasis mine).
Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find a good list of suggested titles to present along with Amos Fortune, Free Man.  While I have not yet read these books, I suspect that suggestions by Sandy D in her review of this book of Paula Fox's The Slave Dancer, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and Christopher Paul Curtis' Elijah of Buxton as alternatives are probably good, while Julius Lester's To Be A Slave, a Newbery Honor Book in 1969, would be another possibility.

In the same 1998 interview mentioned above, Yates tells of a question from a group of fourth-graders:
"Have you ever regretted anything you've written?" came the next question. Again, I sent my mind back over the years and their books. The answer was at hand, and it was No, for I have had a rule with myself that nothing ever leaves my desk unless it is the best I can do at the time with the material I have. Then I go back to Amos Fortune as an example.
The idea that took hold of me as I stood by that stone in the old churchyard and that became the book Amos Fortune, Free Man was written in 1949 and published a year later. All the pertinent, reliable material that I could find went into the book and became the story. It could not be a biography but an account of a man's life, with facts assured and some imaginative forays based on the temper of the times. The research, the writing, was done long before the Civil Rights upheavals of the 60's. I might today write a very different story, but that was then.

It would be quite interesting to read a different version of Amos Fortune's story, written to address the concerns of Trousdale, Power, and others.

© Amanda Pape - 2010