Sunday, December 30, 2012

Island of the Blue Dolphins - 1961 Medal

by Scott O'Dell,
read by Tantoo Cardinal

In this survival and adventure story, the tribe of twelve-year-old Karana is moved off its "Island of the Blue Dolphins" (the most remote of the Channel Islands off California, San Nicolas).  Karana leaps off the ship to get her younger brother, who has been left behind.  He dies soon after, and she spends 18 years alone on the island.   Karana makes weapons and hunts, builds a shelter of whale bones and a canoe, fights wild dogs, and explores the island.  There's also a lot of information about the animals of the island and surrounding ocean, such as sea elephants and otter.

Author Scott O'Dell's note at the end of the book states that Karana is based on a real person, the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island, later baptized Juana Maria, who lived alone on the island from 1835 to 1853.   According to his website, O'Dell came across her story while researching his 1957 adult book, Country of the Sun: Southern California, An Informal Guide.   More information about the Lone Woman was uncovered in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and in 2012, a Navy archaeologist found a cave on San Nicolas that may have been hers

O'Dell, obviously, wrote his book before much of this information became available, and it was likely based on the prevailing legends of the time.  A number of these stories were published in popular magazines in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  The Lone Woman was unable to communicate with anyone, so no one really knows how she ended up on the island alone, especially since she died of dysentery only a few weeks after her rescue.

In 1976, O'Dell wrote a sequel, Zia, about Karana's 14-year-old niece by that name, who believes her aunt is still alive, and helps bring about her rescue by George Nidever.

Island of the Blue Dolphins has come under some criticism over the years, for stereotyping of Native Americans.  On the other hand, it's also been praised for having a female minority protagonist (at a time, 1960, when that was not common), and for its environmentalist message.  "Island of the Blue Dolphins," O'Dell wrote, "began in anger, anger at the hunters who invade the mountains where I live and who slaughter everything that creeps or walks or flies."

Native American actress Tantoo Cardinal's reading of the audiobook is lovely.  However, this is a book that might be better "read" in print, to appreciate its beautiful metaphors and imagery.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[The audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my university library. This review also appears on Bookin' It.]

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Witch of Blackbird Pond - 1959 Medal

by Elizabeth George Speare,
read by Mary Beth Hurt

Sixteen-year-old Katherine "Kit" Tyler, an orphan since age two, must leave her beloved Barbados when her grandfather dies.  She surprises her aunt (her mother's sister) and uncle and their two daughters, her only living relatives, in the town of Wethersfield in the Connecticut Colony.  The year is 1687.

From the very beginning, Kit can't seem to do anything right.  She jumps in the river to save a child's doll (this comes back to haunt her later), her clothes are too flamboyant,  her spirits too high.  She doesn't fit in with the strict, dour Puritans of Wethersfeld--but manages to attract the most eligible (and wealthy) young man in town, who everyone expected her cousin to marry.  This causes strife with her family members, who are frustrated with her lack of useful skills.

Kit ultimately becomes friends with another outcast, Hannah Tupper, a Quaker expelled from Massachusetts who lives near Blackbird Pond.  When an epidemic hits the town, the trouble begins.  The ending is a little predicatable, but Elizabeth George Speare makes excellent points about bigotry, tolerance, and the nature of love.

In her 1959 Newbery Medal acceptance paper*, Speare said she developed the characters first, then "was compelled to find a home for them."  She goes on:

I chose Wethersfield, the town in which my husband and I have lived for twenty years, because it is one of the oldest towns in New England, one of the first of the Connecticut settlements, because it was once a bustling river port with all the romance and color of the old sailing ships, and because the girl I could now see quite clearly [Kit] seemed be at home in the quiet and lovely Wethersfield meadows that still lie for undisturbed stretches along the Connecticut River.  I chose the year 1687, arbitrarily because the story of the Connecticut Charter was irresistible, a perfect little vignette, revealing in miniature all the powerful forces which, nearly one hundred years before the Revolution, were moving America irrevocably toward independence. (pages 73-74)

Speare did a marvelous job incorporating details of life in this era, as well as the historical context, into her novel.  For example, there really were a Goody Johnson and Goody Harrison (page 182 in the text), both tried for witchcraft in Wethersfield.  I love the way Speare describes her historical research:  "I should hesitate to dignify by such a scholarly term the haphazard, indiscriminate, greedy forage in which I indulged.  History, geography, town records, genealogies, novels set in the same period - I gulped all these down with, at first, little thought of anything but my own enjoyment.  There were fascinating bypaths from which I had to drag myself back - Quakerism for one, and the early development of education in New England." The latter was another topic addressed in the novel, as Kit and Mercy run a school for a while.

I've been trying to experience most of these Newbery Medalists as audiobooks - this one (pictured above) was released in 2002.  Actress Mary Beth Hurt does a fine job as narrator.  Unique voices are created for all the major characters.  Kit's voice is a little more British (for lack of a better term) than the others, reflecting her recent arrival from the Barbados.

I can't believe I didn't read this book when I was a child.  I loved the character of Kit and really identified with her.  The book has something to say about fitting in; how one needs to adapt yet also stay true to oneself.  I think my 9-year-old self would have loved this book, especially since it has a little (but not too much) romance.  I think it would also be excellent as supplemental reading in social studies or history.  Highly recommended

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[*Elizabeth George Speare, "Newbery Award Acceptance," in Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books: 1956-1965, edited by Lee Kingman, The Horn Book, Inc, Boston, 1965, pages 72-77.   The audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my university library. This review also appears on Bookin' It.]

Friday, December 28, 2012

Up a Road Slowly: 1967 Medal

by Irene Hunt,
read by Jaselyn Blanchard

This is a coming-of-age story, narrated by the protagonist.  Julie Trelling is seven when the story begins with her mother's death.  She is sent to live with her mother's older sister, her spinster schoolteacher Aunt Cordelia, out in the country.  The story covers the next ten years in Julie's life, until her high school graduation at 17.

It's hard to pinpoint the setting for this quiet tale, especially temporally.  There are references to sweeping dresses, gloves, no central heat in Cordelia's home, a one-room schoolhouse with a coal stove, the idea that girls wearing pants is less acceptable, stationery, later rural consolidation of schools, telegrams, and a time when a long-distance phone call was "still considered an extravagance" (page 174).  I was ten years old when this book won the Newbery, and I can remember most of these things. so I think the book was probably set in the 1950s or early 1960s.  It seems to be post-World War II and definitely pre-Vietnam, but could be as early as the 1920s or 1930s (author Irene Hunt was born in 1907).  In a way, the book has rather a timeless feel to it.  Ditto the physical setting - it could be most anywhere, but is probably the Midwest.

There's no thrilling plot, but the book touches on a number of issues unusual for children's books of the time period.  Julie has a classmate who is mentally retarded, dirty and smelly.  Her uncle is an alcoholic liar.  A neighbor's wife is insane. Julie learns some life lessons from her encounters with these characters.  Julie also has to deal with the marriage of her beloved older sister and her father's remarriage, as well as a bad boyfriend who nearly leads her astray, and a friend's teenage pregnancy.  All of these are handled without being preachy.

In her Newbery acceptance speech, entitled "Books and the Learning Process" (Horn Book, August 1967, pp. 424-429), Hunt noted (page 425),

Teachers are beginning to realize that children are not created fully equipped with such values as courage, compassion, integrity, and insights into the motives and needs of themselves and of others.  These attributes...are often learned from the behavior of the characters who people the books they read.  We adults may preach the values we wish to instill, and the children will turn away from our sermons; but a book, a fine book that mirrors life accurately and honestly - there is the effective substitute for our ineffective sermons.

Often children are troubled and in a state of guilt.  One can say to them, "You are not unique."...It is in books that an identification can be made...Julie, in Up a Road Slowly, is not set apart by virtue of her high-mindedness or moral values.  But for a watchful family she might well have stepped into the same trouble in which some of her young readers may find themselves.  (page 426)

Some of Irene Hunt's inspiration may have come from her own life.  She was seven when her father died, and she and her mother moved to the nearby farm home of her grandparents.

The book is well-written and full of wonderful vocabulary - scintillating, impeccable, pedestrian, propitiated, and hackneyed were just some of the words I wrote down.  Julie aspires to be a writer, and is telling her story looking back at her past, so this is very fitting.  Julie also quotes Shakespeare and poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Sara Teasdale.

Actress Jaselyn Blanchard was excellent as narrator Julie.  Her youthful voice often trembles and quavers with emotion, at just the right time.

I think this book would still appeal to a quiet, thoughtful young lady, and I highly recommend it.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[The audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my university library.  This review also appears in Bookin' It.]

Friday, November 16, 2012

Strawberry Girl - 1946 Medal

by Lois Lenski,
read by Natalie Ross

Strawberry Girl, winner of the 1946 Newbery Medal, was the second book in Lois Lenski's American Regionals series, 17 books about the lives of children in different regions of the country, published between 1943 and 1968.

This story takes place in Polk County, Florida (in the center of the state, east of Tampa), in the early 1900s (according to the author in her foreword, although that could mean the first half of the century).   It centers on two Cracker neighbor families, the Slaters, squatters who raise cattle on open range, and the Boyers, newly-arrived landowners who want to raise strawberries and oranges.  The main characters, ten-year-old Berthenia Lou "Birdie" Boyer and twelve-year-old Jefferson Davis "Shoestring" Slater, epitomize the conflicts and (sometimes) cooperation between the two families.  The conflicts include killing each others' animals, and setting a fire hoping to burn the neighbor out.

In her Newbery acceptance speech*, Lenski said, "Because these are true-to-life stories, I have included...certain incidents which...authors, perhaps following some unwritten taboos, have not often used in children's books...We have not often put drunken fathers or malicious neighbors into a book for children.  I have done this, and I would like to tell you why.  These incidents are...true and authentic.  They have happened not once but a hundred times in this particular locality, and have been experienced by the children as well as the adults.  To leave them out and to pretend that such things never happen would be to present a false picture" (page 284).

Lenski spent two winters in Lakeland, Florida, meeting the people who would become characters in her book, and experiencing their lives.  She also did extensive research, as she did with her earlier historical fiction, including Newbery Honor Books Phebe Fairchild (1937) and Indian Captive (1942).  Much like the "lightning artist" in her story, Lenski carried her sketchbook with her in Florida.  "Always a crowd of children gathered, eager to watch a drawing grow on a sheet of paper - and eager to tell me many things I wanted to know...My drawing helped, as nothing else could, to break down the barriers of suspicion.  Drawing is a universal language which everybody understands" (page 281).

Lenski used local dialects in her American Regionals books, to provide authenticity.  Some reviewers, past and present, have criticized this.  In her acceptance speech, Lenski said, "Speech is so much more than words--it is poetry, beauty, character, emotion.  To give the flavor of a region, to suggest the moods of the people, the atmosphere of the place, speech cannot be overlooked...In the simplest of words, with only a minimum of distortions in spelling, this is what I have tried to convey.  There may be some children who will find it difficult reading.  But I am willing to make that sacrifice, because of all that those who do read it will gain, in the way of understanding 'the feel' of a different people, and the 'flavor' of a life different from their own" (pages 286-287).

An audiobook is an excellent way to experience this story.  Narrator Natalie Ross was outstanding with the dialect, and even did a little singing.   In the foreword of The Life I Live, Collected Poems, dated December 1964, Lenski said, "During the writing of the early Regionals, 1943-1949, I made a special study of American folksongs, in which I had long been interested, as well as a study of local dialects, and quoted some of these songs in my books."

The audiobook has two other positive features. At the end, Kathleen Horning, director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, "talks about the context in which Strawberry Girl was written, and how the problems and conflicts we see in the book relate to our world today." Also, the audiobook clearly indicates the beginning and end of each disc with banjo music, and even has some overlapping text at each end.

The dialect might be hard for younger children to handle on their own, so for most elementary students, I'd recommend this book as an audiobook or a read-aloud.  Lenski's descriptions are so good that I felt I did not need her illustrations to picture the action and setting in my mind.    

I really enjoyed this book.  I learned a lot about life in central Florida in the early twentieth century, with its underground lakes, sinkholes, and artesian wells, scrub oaks and pines, and palmettos.  Not to mention the variety of critters they eat (like cooters, a soft-shelled water turtle) and encounter (alligators on the road, grasshoppers on the flowers, robins in the strawberries). Daily life on the farm (and the range) is described, as well as life in town - I loved Miss Liddy noting (on page 61) that "the millinery business shore is lively - you got to lend money, tend babies, make wax flowers, and stop dog fights!" And "quarrels did not keep people away from frolics" (page 82) - cane grinding led to candy pulling, while a drunk Sam Slater's shooting off his chickens' heads led to a chicken pilau feast.

The only thing I didn't like was the ending.  I've never been one for preacher-worship, and Sam's sudden conversion and swearing off drink seems too easy to be believable to me.  Nevertheless, I would like to read more of Lenski's American Regionals.  We have Cotton in My Sack and Shoo-Fly Girl in my university library, and I'd like to get a copy of Texas Tomboy, set in nearby San Angelo.

I can certainly see why Strawberry Girl won the Newbery.  Anne Scott MacLeod, in Twentieth-Century Children's Writers (1989), said, "Unusual, particularly for the 1940's and 1950's, is her focus on the poorer levels of American society. In all of [her regional works] Lenski presents patterns of life often invisible in children's books. For the most part, she does so with neither condescension nor sentimentality."  Taimi M. Ranta, in Dictionary of Literary Biography (1983), stated, "In the development of realism in children's literature, Lenski's work is an important point of departure on the way to the stark realism of the late twentieth century."

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[*Lois Lenski, "Seeing Others as Ourselves," in Newbery Medal Books: 1922-1955, edited by Bertha Mahoney Miller and Elinor Whitney Field, The Horn Book, Inc, 1955, pages 278-287.  This book, as well as the Strawberry Girl audiobook and a print copy, were borrowed from and returned to my university library.  A variation of this review appears on my blog, Bookin' It.]

Monday, October 15, 2012

Dead End in Norvelt - 2012 Medal

Dead End in Norvelt
written and read by Jack Gantos

This is a semi- autobiographical historical fiction tale, with a little bit of mystery thrown in. It won the 2012 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction  as well as the 2012 Newbery Medal.  It’s set in the summer of 1962 in the real town of Norvelt, Pennsylvania. Jack is 12 and has been grounded (partly because he’s caught between the conflicting wishes of his parents), but he’s allowed to help an elderly arthritic neighbor, Miss Volker, to write her obituaries as the original settlers of Norvelt slowly die off.

Sounds rather grim, doesn’t it? But Gantos combines fun fiction with (sometimes crazy) truths (according to the author),  such as spending part of his childhood in Norvelt, Miss Volker’s character (not her real name), his childhood tendency for frequent nosebleeds that “spray out of my nose holes like dragon flames" (page 8), and a dad who had Japanese souvenirs from World War II and won a Piper J-3 Cub airplane in a poker game. This creates a book where, as he explains in a video interview included on one of the audiobook’s CDs, "one of the prime motivations…is this notion that history, our history, is so vastly important."

Norvelt (named for Eleanor Roosevelt) is a real town with an interesting past. According to Miss Volker (page 214-215),

Jefferson believed that every American should have a house on a large enough piece of fertile property so that during hard times, when money was difficult to come by, a man and woman could always grow crops and have enough food to feed their family. Jefferson believed that the farmer was the key to America and that a well-run family farm was a model for a well-run government. Mrs. Roosevelt felt the same. And we in Norvelt keep that belief alive.

In his Newbery Medal acceptance speech (Horn Book Magazine, July/August 2012, page 45), Jack Gantos noted:

The "obit'" is a very tidy literary form and one that Dead End’s Miss Volker generously stretched to also include some meteoric moment in history that intersected with the life of the deceased in order to point out how, in life, we might feel like but a speck of dust on the planet but in truth we are all tied together in one massive hand-holding of humanity—for better or for worse. 

These obituaries, Miss Volker’s “This Day in History” feature in the local newspaper, and Jack’s fondness for Landmark history series books, combined with the comedy and humor, reinforce the message that (as Miss Volker says, page 214), “if you don't know your history you won't know the difference between the truth and wishful thinking," and (as Jack realizes near the end of the book, page 340) “the reason you remind yourself of the stupid stuff you've done in the past is so you don't do it again."

Unlike Amy @ Hope Is the Word, I liked the end of this book (and I’m not sure why it changed her attitude about Jack’s dad). I do agree with her that this book was deserving of the Newbery. Aimed at students from ages 10-14, grades 5-8, I think it will especially appeal to boys. I found myself wondering as I read it how my son would have reacted, 12-16 years ago.

The audiobook is fantastic! It made me laugh (and sometimes cry). Gantos is perfect as the narrator. His somewhat whiny voice fits a 12-year-old boy. In a Booklist interview, Gantos acknowledged boys’ frequent preference for male readers: “I think there is a sense that if a man is reading the book, then it is entirely cool to sit and listen to it. It’s a man-to-man relationship around a good story. Perhaps it’s like sitting around a campfire and hearing a good tale.” The audiobook makes a good alternative for younger or struggling readers who might have difficulty with its fifth-to-sixth-grade reading level.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[A slight variation of this review appears on my blog, Bookin' It.]

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Jack Gantos is an author who has been on my radar for a while, at least since 2001 when his Joey Pigza Loses Control won a Newbery honor. I was never compelled to pick up that book because honestly, a book about a boy with A.D.H.D. always seemed a little too flavor-of-the-month to me. Dead End in Norvelt, his latest novel which garnered him a 2012 Newbery Medal, might convince me to give his other books a try. Although Dead End in Norvelt isn't the sort of book that causes warm, fuzzy feelings in the heart of its reader, it is most definitely one that pulls the reader along, demanding that she get to the end of the story. Quirky, weird, and even absurd are words that come to mind when I think about the whole tale. Rather than write my own synopsis, a difficult task for a book this odd, I'll borrow from the author's website:

Melding the entirely true and the wildly fictional, Dead End in Norvelt is the story of an incredible two months for a boy named Jack Gantos, whose plans for vacation adventure are suddenly ruined when he is grounded by his feuding parents for what seems like forever. But escape comes where Jack least expects it, once he begins helping an elderly neighbor with a most unusual chore—a chore involving the newly dead, molten wax, twisted promises, Girl Scout cookies, underage driving, lessons from history, obituaries, Hells Angels, and countless bloody noses. Endlessly surprising, this sly, sharp-edged narrative is the author at his very best, making readers crack up at the most shocking things in a depiction of growing up in an off-kilter world where the characters are as unpredictable and over-the-top as they come.

I have such mixed feelings about this book. Parts of it actually caused me to laugh out loud. Gantos the author actually seems to be Jack the kid (which should go without saying, I guess, except when I read his biography I realize that it and this story don't exactly line up). He captures the thoughts and feelings and pure, unsuspecting innocence of a kid in a way that is both entertaining and refreshing. My favorite scene in the whole book is when Jack goes to Ms. Volkert's house (the "elderly neighbor," who happens to be the town coroner and obituary writer) to find her "cooking" her hands in a pot on the stove. Seeing the scene, which turns out to be the innocent home-remedy of an arthritic old woman, from Jack's perspective is hilarious. The villain in the story, an elderly man who attempts to woo Ms. Volkert at every turn, is creepy in an almost-funny sort of way--he rides his gigantic tricycle all over Norvelt and behaves reprehensibly to Jack, all the while trying to (apparently) win Ms. Volkert's heart. There are countless other episodes throughout the novel (many involving Jack's perpetually-bleeding nose) that are just so perfectly the picture of a bookish and eager adolescent boy.

The story also reminds a bit of some of those 1990s television shows like The Wonder Years that were set in the 1960s. Although Dead End in Norvelt is not retrospective, it feels that way: Jack's dad constantly talks about the Commies and sets Jack to building a bomb shelter in the back yard. His mother is sort of hippy-ish in that she's mostly concerned with caring for her elderly neighbors and wants to barter for whatever they need because the family is broke. (This is actually a nod to Norvelt's beginnings, which you can read about in here on this bastion of reliable information, Wikipedia.) The story is sort of complicated and very clever, with Ms. Volkert writing original and entertaining (and pointed) obituaries for the original inhabitant of Norvelt who are dropping like flies. Ms. Volkert's obituaries are often as much social commentary as they are condolence. There's also a mystery in this already heavily-laden story, but the mystery sort of sneaks up on the reader. I didn't realize there actually is much of a mystery until the climax of it, actually. Dead End in Norvelt is a bunch of things: coming-of-age story, mystery, social commentary, historical fiction. It's an entertaining read.

Still, though, the thing that finally killed the book for me is the ending. I usually don't react that strongly to what I read, especially children's literature. This time, though, I was enjoying this story right along, thinking it was quirky but extremely well written, when bam! Out of the blue the story ends with a scene that moved his father from being a somewhat caustic personality to someone I genuinely don't like. To avoid spoilers, I won't go into any more details, but it really just don't like the place the ending leaves Jack. Maybe it's more like real life than any other imagined ending, but I still don't like it.

Bottom line? I like the book but hate the ending.

Is this one Newbery material? Yeah, I think so. It's not what I think of when I think of Newberys, for sure. (Well, okay, maybe a little like When You Reach Me in tone and subject matter, but not what I'd really consider classic material.) No doubt about it, though--Jack Gantos is a talented writer.

This is the second of the children's ALA picks I've read so far. While my vote would've gone to Inside Out and Back Again for the gold, I think they are both outstanding stories. This one is more outstanding for its sheer artistic weirdness, but it's still outstanding. Now I need to get my hands on the third of this year's Newbery designees, Breaking Stalin's Nose, and my mission will be complete.

This review was also posted on my blog, Hope Is the Word.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

2012 Newbery Goes To...

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos.
The Honor Books are Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai, and Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin.