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Monday, September 30, 2013

The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery by Steve Sheinkin

This is my third Steve Sheinkin book and while I thought it was interesting I didn't get swept up in the story as much as his most recent books, "Bomb" and "Lincoln's Grave Robbers." Sheinkin does such a marvelous job describing places and characters by pulling in the senses and revealing internal changes in characters. Benedict Arnold's actions on the battlefield brought out the best in him; he was courageous, inspiring, and brave. Off the battlefield he had a ferocious temper, was materialistic, and had an inferiority complex that led to him betraying his country. Even the unwavering support of George Washington who worked diligently to give him credit for his actions in the war was not enough for him. Benedict Arnold believed that switching from the American to the British side during war would end the American Revolution and he would be seen as a hero by both sides. It is mind boggling that he did not think of himself as a traitor. His wife who had sympathies with the British seemed to have had a great influence on him and he also seemed to need money to live a wealthy lifestyle.He was not an idiot, so why he embraced this idiotic notion is one Sheinkin tackles quite well in his 300 page book.

I found the sections covering different battles interesting because they highlighted the contrast of Arnold's on and off-field behavior. He was obviously difficult to get along with but he was brave in battle. He craved attention and was a daredevil taking on assignments that no one else would because they were dangerous. When his troops were dealing with particular hardships he inspired and rallied them. Off the field he spent too much money, craved attention from the government, and felt mistreated by many he believed were jealous of his successes. While some were jealous, others had been mistreated by Arnold's wicked temper.

Sheinken reveals Arnold's earlier years growing up in a wealthy family with a father who was a successful ship Captain. When his dad lost his business, he became a drunk and disgrace to the family. This scarred Arnold in a way that makes the reader see why he never seemed to get enough attention and why he was angry and insecure even when he should not have been. Sheinken also follows the story of John Andre, the British soldier hanged by the Americans for spying on the British. His is a tragic tale that reminded me of Nathan Hale, the American soldier hanged by the British for spying on the Americans. The subplot of Andre is so strange and full of what-if's that it makes for a fascinating read.

I did lose interest a bit during the section when Arnold was governor. Of course, he was making bad choices left and right. What was fascinating was George Washington's belief in Arnold and his attempt to show gratitude for what Arnold had done for the country, but Arnold could not get enough attention. Washington went out of his way to support Arnold and even showed his trust by letting him command West Point. Why Arnold turned on him shows how twisted his mind was and how angry he was at the government's court-Marshall.

Obviously historical writers can't cover everything in history. I enjoy coming across other people and places that I want to research more on my own. I was intrigued by the Native Americans helping the Americans and the British. One was the female Jacataqua, an Abenaki Indian, who guided the Americans on a treacherous journey into Canada. Most of the men died on that trip because of the harsh conditions. Another mention of the Mohawk Indians helping the British piqued my interest. Last, but not least, was the larger-than-life Daniel Morgan. His exploits in war bordered the fantastical. The end has plenty of "Source Notes" for me to research on my own. Enjoy this read!

4 Smileys
Young Adult

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Sasquatch Escape (The Imaginary Veterinary #1) by Suzanne Selfors

What kid doesn't like stories about Bigfoot or dragons or snake-haired witches? Ten-year-old Ben thinks his summer is ruined because he has to spend it with his grandpa in a small town where nothing happens. When the cat literally drags in a baby dragon, things change in a hurry. Ben discovers a fantastical world with mythological creatures who are cared for by a Veterinary Doctor. When Ben and his friend, Pearl, deliver the dragon they accidentally set a sasquatch free who is being treated for foot fungus. Tabby, the assistant to the Doctor, gives them a kit to catch it and off they go as it wreaks (or reeks - its smells awful) havoc on the town. Funny how people see what they want and describe the sasquatch as a sloth or big dog. An enjoyable read for younger kids, but one that doesn't rise above the pack of middle grade books. I can see myself forgetting what it is about as I trek through my usual mountain of books this year.

The plot is solid and the book sets up for a series. The characters don't change much internally. Ben's parents are struggling with marital problems and Ben deals with it by "telling stories" that are basically lies. When he is with his grandpa he decides to not tell stories which shows it is probably good he is separate from his arguing parents. Pearl is always in trouble because she's usually bored and trying to make her life exciting. She doesn't change and influences Ben to take risks like she does. The two form a friendship from their unique experience. Victoria and her mom are the villains. They are the busybodies who feel important if they know everything. None of the characters have great depth and the divorce issue isn't really delved into except that Ben feels bad his parents fight. The simple plot makes it an easy read and straightforward adventure.

Many questions I had were not answered such as how the creatures get to the doctor, who Tabby really is, how come the veterinary clinic came to a small town, and why Victoria and Pearl are enemies over some revealed secret. Quite a bit is unbelievable and should be funny to the young reader such as the deaf seniors who feed the sasquatch pudding and can't smell his horrendous odor. I'm not sure a senior would like the stereotypical portrayal. My daughter's grandparents played sports with her so I have a completely different image of seniors in my head. Actually I find it hard keeping up with my husband's parents. They are a bottomless well of energy. Perhaps I'm noticing stereotypes in literature more because there was an interesting discussion about it on Rutgers listserv. Whatever the case, Ben's grandpa takes naps and goes to the senior center that allows Ben to do what he wants with Pearl. The plot can move forward with a grandpa like him.

The sasquatch is not scary but friendly. This is contrasted with the dragon that breathes fire and almost burns Ben or the Doctor who is missing fingers and has scars on her face and neck from presumably battling dangerous creatures. For the most part, the tone is light and there is humor sprinkled throughout the story. When the Doctor takes the two on as apprentices the plot starts to become more interesting and I felt that I would get more answers to my questions, but this happens at the end of the book setting up for the following books in the series. The author has some questions and connections to subjects in an afterward. If teachers want to use it as a read aloud, there are activities that can be used in the classroom. I liked the information on Wyverns and the differences between Asian and Western dragons in literature. If you are the type of reader who likes more of a realistic setting with a touch of fantasy, then give this one a go. Personally, I felt the unanswered questions made it seem incomplete.

3 Smileys


Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan

I decided to read this after reading a Goodreads reviewer said they liked it as well as "Code Name Verity." Not that the two books have similar plots. They don't. They are charged with emotion and strong protagonists, but "The Weight of Water" is written in verse about a Polish girl who struggles as a newly arrived immigrant in England. This well-deserved Carnegie nominee is for older students with layered messages regarding friendships, boyfriends, bullies, divorce, English language learners, infidelity, abandonment, and more. Pretty amazing that the author pulls it off in just over 200 pages using precise word choice that conveys so much depth in a short amount of space. When Kasienka describes her parents fighting, "Together they are tuneless; /The sounds they make are ugly,/ Like knives being sharpened/ Against stone./ Together they are waxwork statues;/Recognizable/But lifeless," she knows that her mom unfairly blames her for their problems.

Kasienka loves both her parents but knows that her mom needs her more than her dad. When she is given the choice to live with one or the other she feels guilty even thinking of deserting her mom. Even though her mom is depressed, does not listen to Kasienka, does not help her with issues at school, she is loyal to her and loves her. The book shows how Kasienka deals with her problems by swimming and making choices that are opposite of how others have treated her. She represents goodness and is easy to sympathize with and root for in situations. Many chapters could be read as a stand alone if a teacher wants to discuss themes such as prejudices, bullies, or sports as a positive outlet. 

The verse on water is particularly beautiful as a symbol of silence for Kasienka and being free from her troubles. Even though she has the weight of water on her shoulders, she can lose herself in a sport that she excels at above all others. She gains confidence through the course of the novel from her boyfriend, William, her friend, Dalilah, and swimming that allows her to stand up to a class bully and gives her some measure of control in a life buffeted by uncontrollable adults.

I work overseas and think students will be able to relate to some of the issues Kasienka is dealing with - I know that I can relate to being an illiterate foreigner. I, too, have my stories of prejudices whether it is someone refusing me service because I am Caucasian to a teacher kicking me out of language class because she was embarrassed by my horridly slow progress. While Kasienka was dropped only one grade I would have been dropped many more if the roles had been switched. Learning languages for me is like mixing oil and water. I had great sympathy for Kasienka who was bored being in a grade level that was too low. 

The chapter called, "July 7" confused me. I should know that it is England's "September 11" but I am not the best with dates. I assumed it was some bombing and the fact that Dalilah was Muslim, but the chapter confused me as to who was speaking to whom. I had to reread it. The gist is that Dalilah is now being bullied instead of Kasienka. There's always a new victim by intolerant people. There are also the silent ones who don't say anything. Kasienka thinks on how she ignored that new kid in school when she lived in Poland and had her own friend. I found the Chapter, "Group Work," spoke to my conscience as a teacher and how I group students or separate them in a way that can be insensitive to their needs. 

The author has many messages but I particularly liked how she captures the complex nature of bullying from the main person picking on someone to the victim and bystanders. Kasienka observes, "Claire stands in the center/ surrounded by thick circle of girls/ I can feel the desperation/ The thirst for admission /It is a dance for popularity/ Swapping places every day/ Knowing that tomorrow any one of them could be out./ Maybe it's lonely for Claire there in the center/ Directing the dance./ She ignores me again,/ Which is better than being bullied./ Dalilah and I stand together side-by-side./There is no one in the center,/ We're just looking out/ In the same direction/ Not desperately at one another/ Fearing betrayal." Learning to stand independently and with confidence is hard enough when growing up, but take away the language, culture, and familiar surroundings, and courage is exposed at its best.

4 Smileys

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Mr. Tucket (The Tucket Adventures #1) by Gary Paulsen

Here's a humdinger of a present. Fourteen-year-old Francis gets a rifle for his birthday as his family heads west on a wagon train to Oregon. Can you imagine good ole dad giving you a rifle? Things were a bit different as the western frontier grew in the United States. Wherever I work as a librarian ...in Taiwan or Spain or the plains of North Dakota, students of all ages are fascinated by weapons. Shucks, I am too. I remember wanting to see what it would be like to shoot a rifle so I signed my husband and me up for a summer biathlon. He thought it odd until I explained I wanted to write a murder mystery and thought firing a gun would be inspirational. "Let's give it a shot," I deadpanned. He laughed and said, "Why not?" True love. That was about 25 years ago. I still haven't written a mystery but the experience was a blast. We ran a 10K and shot with rifles at 5 targets in a prone and a standing position. Each station had an expert who walked me through the shooting process. I laid on my stomach, lined up the target, and pulled the trigger watching the empty cartridge shell fly out of the chamber. "Cool!" I said to the expert next to me. "Look at the smoke trail!" He smiled at my giddiness. Francis gets his gun, has the same giddiness as me, heads out to practice, and winds up captured by Pawnee Indians. Yikes!

The action adventure never lets up as Francis escapes the Pawnees with the help of a mountain man, Mr. Grimes. The two travel together and Francis learns to trap and shoot a rifle. Mr. Grimes won't use his first name, but always calls Francis, "Mr. Tucket." This signifies Francis becoming a man and growing up into a man. He not only learns to use the rifle to take an animal's life, survives blizzards, Indian attacks, and more, he learns that he is more comfortable with the farming life he grew up in with his family versus the trapper life Mr. Grime's exposes him too and its different set of rules.

This story is less than 200 pages and loaded with action. There isn't much depth to the Native American issue, but the author does make it clear that Native Americans' such as the Pawnee warrior, Braid, didn't attack white settlers in wagon trains until they started to take their lands. Mr. Grimes says that he doesn't side with the whites or the Indians, but his actions at the end show he has adopted more of the Indian culture than he first let on to when talking with Francis. He's an interesting character and I wished the ending hadn't been quite so abrupt. This is the first of a series so perhaps Mr. Grimes makes an appearance in later books and maybe Francis elaborates more on his actions.

I find it hard to recommend Western books to young readers that are not too hard. Carolyn Lawrence has "The Case of the Deadly Desperados" but it is 100 pages longer than "Mr. Tucket." "The Gentleman Outlaw and Me" is probably the closest I can come to "Mr. Tucket" but it's a murder mystery versus an adventure. "Little House on the Prairie" is on frontier life but it has over 300 pages. There are not many books I can round-up in the same vein as this one and I'm glad Gary Paulsen is such a prolific writer. Readers can giddy-up into this terific series.

Reading Level 5.0
Fountas and Pinnell: U

4 Smileys

Monday, September 23, 2013

Charlie Joe Jackson's Guide to Not Reading (Charlie Joe Jackson #1) by Tommy Greenwald

I have great empathy for parents who are baffled by their bloodlines being sabotaged with the appearance of a non-lovin-reader in the family. "Charlie Joe Jackson's Guide to Not Reading" not only addresses the child who hates reading, but it has the adult humor for the parent of a nonreader. Charlie Joe is clear at the get-go that his book will show you how to get out of reading and it will be a nice easy book. His first tip is to make sure you choose a book with short chapters; that way when your parents say to read three chapters and each is only one page versus ten pages then you can blow through three pages instead of plodding through 30. Next he explains how he has always hated reading and that it got him into some big whomping trouble in middle school. Directly afterwards he writes apologetically: "I just looked at the previous chapter and realized it was way too long. I just ignored Charlie Joe's Tip #1! Sorry about that. Won't happen again." It's darn funny and the author seems to be having a hey-ho time writing it. The reason I grabbed this book was because some grade 5 boys said, "If you liked 'The Strange Case of Origami Yoda,' YOU GOTTA read, 'Charlie Joe Jackson's Guide to Not Reading!' It's super funny." Bingo. 

Charlie Joe has been paying his friend Timmy to read books for him the past two years. He doesn't pay him cash but buys snacks for him after school. Ice cream sandwiches seem to do be the favorite. When Timmy blows the whistle on their arrangement, Charlie Joe is determined to find someone else to take his place because he doesn't want to read for the huge end-of-the-year project. His elaborate plan involves the school nerd going out with a popular girl and its effect on cliches at school. When things backfire he comes up with a new plan for not reading. Let's face it. Charlie Joe ain't ever gonna love reading. No way. No how. Not ever.

Ya gotta hand it to him, Charlie Joe is creative. I've never seen a character come up with such unique ways to avoid reading. He hates it so much he is willing to give up a collector's Beattle's album cover. Charlie Joe will read the beginning and the end of a book. He'll memorize notes of friends who summarize the book for him. It's obvious he's smart and his tips poke fun at reading in a way that will have all readers laughing such as "if you want girls to like you, don't read" or "never read a book by someone whose name you can't pronounce. Let's face it: chances are you wouldn't be reading this book if it were called 'Venedkyt Styokierwski's Guide to Not Reading'" or "The Library Can be Your Friend." He explains how you can pick up a girl at the library by pretending to read which goes against his other tip but hey, he's a middle schooler - they are meant to vacillate. He then launches into the library as your enemy sarcastically but honestly saying how he knows he should get sucked into the story but can't. He looks at the people reading newspapers and wonders what he is doing with these reading martians.

Tommy Greenwald's choice of the unreliable narrator is what makes this book more funny than if it would be if it was just a straightforward narration. Literature is full of unreliable narrators. According to Wayne C. Booth in his book, The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961), a reliable author works within the norms of the author; whereas, the unreliable author is misleading or presents the opposite of the author's views. In this case, the unreliable author makes for great irony, but also gives empathy toward those who truly do not like reading. Charlie Joe is a smart kid. He just doesn't like to read and will go to great lengths to not do so. Of course the one part where he has only read 18 pages in two hours would make me hate reading too. The author even says he wrote the book for his sons, Charlie, Joe, and Jack who do not like to read, (even the title is full of irony). I wondered if Charlie Joe had a reading problem, but the author doesn't introduce or hint at that. Instead the boy hates to read and will go to great lengths scheming to get out of it. The nonreaders at my school are the hard ones to hook. This might do the trick.

Fountas & Pinnell: S
Reading Level 5.4
4 Smileys

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda (Origami Yoda #1) by Tom Angleberger

Dwight is an extremely weird 6th grader who makes an origami puppet of Yoda from "Star Wars" and uses it to dole out wise advice to his friends. The students are convinced Yoda is magical because they know Dwight is a fool and idiot. Or is he? Tommy desperately wants to know if Origami Yoda is real or a hoax. He puts together "case files" that document Origami Yoda giving advice that has kept other students from making fools out of themselves. Can't say I've ever come across a premise like that in a book! Not only does the author pull off the goofy kid with a puppet, he gives the characters depth along with plenty of belly-laughs. Diary of a Wimpy kid lovers need to give this one a go.

 *spoiler*
Several different points of view are presented from boys and girls as incidents are revealed where Origami Yoda helps students with different problems. Mike is frustrated with baseball. He strikes out every time and cries. He asks Origami Yoda to help him hit the ball and Yoda says, "Let go of your feelings, Mike. Hate and revenge to the dark side only lead." Next time Mike is up to bat he tries not to get mad and strikes out. Afterwards he charges up to Dwight and asks, "Well?" Yoda said, "Cry you did not." Mike doesn't learn to hit the ball, but he does learn to stay positive with himself at the plate and as a result get walks. Dwight gets Mike to focus on effort versus outcome that leads to him not being so frustrated in P.E. class when they play ball.

Angleberger captures the unique voice of middle schoolers and summarizes chapters with funny comments from Harvey and Mike. This cleverly reinforces chapter points helping the reader who is working toward fluency. The doodles and sketches throughout are great visualizations and also add to the humor of the story. The Principal, Mr. Howell, does look like Jabba the Hutt. I liked the voice of the character, Kellen, as he tries to tell his story. He begins, "All right, uh, this is Kellen here...Uh, Tommy asked me to, uh, write down what happened with Origami Yoda, but I, like, hate to write things down. That's too much like homework, having to write a bunch of stuff down. And make complete sentences and all that. I'm like no thanks, dude. So I'm just going to record it on this ...uh...recording thingy and let Tommy write it down. So...uh...I guess you can edit out where I say ...uhhh... and stuff like that." Oompah-pah. I'm glad Angleberger didn't do the whole chapter like that. It would have been hard to read. He puts in the right mix of slang and lets the different personalities of the kids emerge through the dialogue that is well-done.

Dwight is a doofus, which is why his friends can't figure out if Origami Yoda is real or not. He does things like accidentally knocks a girl's drink on the dance floor only to lay on top of the puddle scootching across it on his stomach. He jumps up and continues his herky-jerky dancing with a wet stain across his shirt. Not cool, Tommy thinks. But that's Dwight. He wears shorts with his socks pulled up over his knees, picks his nose, and does other odd things that label him a loser. When he invents his alter ego in Origami Yoda, he teaches others to accept him for his eccentricities and stop calling him names. Throughout the chapters, Dwight or Origami Yoda, point out when the others are being mean and because they are so desperate for Yoda's advice they apologize and slowly start to change their behavior toward Dwight. By the end when Dwight is dancing with a girl who might become a girlfriend, Tommy, Kellen, and Harvey realize not only did Origami Yoda give him attention from others who used to ignore him, but he played matchmaker to many other students, and did many good things for others.

Dwight represents the light side of the Force from the movie, "Star Wars" that has ideals of acting wisely, being positive, and living in harmony with the world rather than being angry, negative, and judgmental. Dwight helps students deal with problems whether that is finding a solution after accidentally breaking a teacher's Shakespeare head to covering up a spot on your pants that looks like pee to dealing with girls, dances, and friendships. Harvey, on the other hand, represents the dark side of the Force focusing on negative emotions such as aggression, fear, and anger. He spews negativity preying on self-doubts that keep Tommy from taking a risk and asking a girl to dance, complaining about Dwight's Yoda as being fake and him being uncool, and calling people names and being mean to others. The slow change in Tommy and other students accepting Dwight for his unique ways is a lesson in tolerance. Harvey can't tolerate Dwight because he can only focus on how he is scamming everyone versus how he is causing good and helping others. This message makes the book stand out from other funny books giving it depth and making it memorable.

Fountas and Pinnell Service: T
Reading Level 4.1

5 Smileys

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Son of Sobek (Kane Chronicles) by Rick Riordan

This captures the successful formula and best aspects of Rick Riordan's writing. He starts his stories with some outrageous life-or-death statement from a wise-cracking hero before moving into nonstop action that immediately sucks the reader into the story. The humor, fast pacing, and strong characters are what have made me read every single one of his books. I don't love 'em all the same but I am always entertained and get my mythology fix. And I'd like to know when Riordan is gonna do a series on Norsk mythology? Uff da! He'd have a ball with all those monsters. This less than 30 minute read brings together Carter and Percy as they fight an Egyptian monster, Petsuchos, or Son of Sobek. Percy calls him, "pet suck-o," in the familiar Riordan mnemonic for remembering god names. The two must learn to trust each other in order to defeat the giant crocodile terrorizing New York suburbia. 

It helps to have read both series in order to understand the two characters superpowers and the mythological backdrop of who they represent. Egyptian mythology seems to be more complex for my students than Greek mythology and I find readers working toward fluency have an easier time with "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" series than the Kane Chronicles. I'm not sure if that is unique to the school I'm a librarian at or if it is a unique demographic feature. One aspect missing with the giant croc is it doesn't talk. Riordan creates some hysterical gods that take on the characteristics of real myth. I liked the weather god who was slightly insane from trying to predict the unpredictable weather. The croc god is just big and scary with relief from the tension coming from the banter going on in Kane's head and with Percy. If you like Riordan's books, you'll like this short story. 

5 Smileys

Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein

I went into a convenience store this morning and there on a stool was an African Gray Parrot bobbing in circles as it waited for its owner to check out at the counter. I live in Taiwan where it is common seeing dogs in grocery stores, restaurants, or pushed in baby strollers dolled up with bows and human clothes, but I've never seen a parrot. I found myself sitting on the stool next to it asking the gorgeous creature if it knew English, then feeling silly. It probably isn't a talking parrot. It strutted about whistling and clicking before stopping to poop on the stool. "Not the answer I expected," I laughed. The owner made a scolding noise and came to clean it up. In Mr. Lemoncello's high tech library there are robot geese that can imitate "Walter the Farting Dog." These six mechanical geese with a showcased Mother Goose tell other stories but Walter's unique sound effects make him the most memorable. From holograms to automatons, this is  one Disney-like library that would get any kid excited about reading. Kids would get excited about the unpredictability and beauty of an African Gray pooping parrot too.

A new 500 million dollar library is opening in Alexandriaville by a billionaire maker of cardboard and video games, Mr. Lemoncello. Twelve students at the local school can write an essay to spend a free night locked in the library. Kyle decides at the last minute to write his essay and doesn't seem to know what a special library this is going to be. I didn't understand how Kyle completely missed the importance of the essay because there would have been quite a bit of media hoopla and his best friends all wrote essays - but no matter. It's just one of many questions I had regarding the characters and plot. Kyle quickly writes an essay and emails it to Mr. Lemoncello shortly after the deadline. This allows the author to send the message of not giving up even when the situation looks hopeless.

Kyle gets chosen as one of the twelve students who gets to spend the night in the library playing video games, reading books, and playing games. His best friends are with him and once the night is over, Mr. Lemoncello introduces a new game where the students have to figure out how to escape the library. This winner will be a spokesperson for his company. The race is on to win the game and this is the fun of this book; the mystery of solving different games. The characters don't change internally and the tension comes mainly from one boy, Charles, who is one-dimensional and manipulates others in order to win the game. Charles has no code of honor and is willing to cheat, betray, and steal to win.

People who are competitive want to win games and while Charles wanted to win-at-all-costs, Kyle's team knew how to honor the game and learn from their mistakes. Mr. Lemoncello gave bonus points when the players chose character, such as being responsible or helpful, over winning the game. Characters were also kicked out when they tried to cheat. Kyle's team chose effort over outcome, whereas Charles only thought of winning at the expense of those around him. The ending might have been more powerful if something happened to Charles and Kyle's team let him win in order to show character is more important. Sports and games are about life lessons and how to be a better person and what it means to lose. Once Charles was out of the picture I thought the tension dropped too many notches. The story was still fun, but it lost momentum for me at that point. 

3 Smileys


Friday, September 20, 2013

A Girl Called Problem by Katie Quirk

In college I had to read the adult book, "Things Fall Apart," by Chinua Achebe that tackled the theme of modern changes clashing with traditional Nigerian customs. The main character lost his high status within the traditional culture as the villagers embraced western ideas. His identity was so dependent on traditions that he "fell apart" as the world he knew changed around him. "A Girl Called Problem," also deals with changes in traditions except the villagers are not influenced by western culture; instead the President of Tanzania who defeated white colonists wants them to join other villages and practice collective farming. When the villagers of Litonga are asked to be the first to merge with the Nija Panda village, the elders decide it will be good to have education and medicine. Shida's grandfather, Babu, is the most respected elder and speaks to the villagers about it stressing that their President asked them to lead this "revolution." When Shida hears of this change she wants to embrace it for her family is an outcast in the village. Her widowed mother is considered a curse because her husband died young and she suffers from depression. Shida wants to be a nurse except girls are expected to marry. She knows that going to the new village will give her the opportunity to have a career as a healer.

Shida is persecuted at school by some of the boys and one of the teachers for being a girl and wanting to be educated. She's a strong character who knows when to stand up to a peer or seek an adult for help. This type of storyline is always great for tension and emotion. I was swept up in Shida's struggles and the author does a nice job of having the grandfather mentor them through their difficulties. While Shida can be in-your-face, she has the gentleness that makes her excellent at healing others. She soothes scared children and talks them through having shots or taking bad-tasting medicine. When she has to deal with a death of a patient she treated, the reader grieves with her.

I'm not sure I buy the villagers patriotic reasons for leaving their village. If there had been a crisis of some sort I would have believed it more - not that I need a Boston Tea Party. I reread the beginning because I thought maybe the villagers needed medicine because too many were dying of fever. Nope. Not the case. They do die of fever but there is no malaria epidemic. I thought maybe their water hole dried up and they needed water. Or their crops failed. Again, nope and nope. The main reason is patriotism; the President asked them to move their village to another, to educate their children, improve their health, and farm collectively. Their President freed them from white colonizers and the population of Tanzania worships him; therefore, him asking them to move was powerful enough for the village to uproot themselves. Babu assures the villagers that they can bring their traditions. They complain, but they go. This didn't sink in on my first read. I needed more emphasis on their President as a symbol of worship. Or I needed to slow down with my reading.

I kept thinking of the book, "A Long Walk to Water," that shows the impact of building a well and how it draws villages together in Sudan and allows children the opportunity to go to school. That book explains how the boys watch the cattle and the girls spend the entire day walking to the watering hole. A pump eliminates the long walk to water letting them go to school. A pump is mentioned in Shida's new village but I'm not sure about how they got water in their previous village. It seemed different in Tanzania. I couldn't get a picture in my head of what work the children did versus the adults. Shida seemed to do it all - work in the fields and get water - because her mother had depression. All I gathered was that the adults worked more to pick up the slack of the children being in school and the collective farming made it possible. Either I read too fast and missed the details, which is quite likely since I read the book while tooling on an elliptical machine with music blasting in the gym or maybe my background Sudanese knowledge was messing me up. Or maybe there needed to be more historical background given. I'm not a careful reader so take this as you will. And do not let my meandering thoughts keep you from reading this book with its terrific characters and unpredictable plot. Make no mistake it is a great read.

Quick does a great job working religion into the storyline in a way that supports what Babu says about them keeping their traditions. The villagers and protagonist believe strongly in witches and curses. They try to balance their beliefs with medicine and the new knowledge they have gained. This made me think of how people balance the scientific facts of evolution and Christian religion in a way that is acceptable to them. Shida begins to realize how others call women witches as a way to treat them unfairly and make them as outcasts in society. The villain uses these superstitions to his advantage and she thinks about how public opinions are manipulated as a result. This would make for great discussions on unfair treatment of minorities. These themes add authenticity, depth, and believability of characters. This is an emotional story and so many of my students love this type of book. The ending has a satisfying resolution and the struggle to adjust to changes in life is a timeless message that all can relate to in any culture.

4 Smileys

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Ghoulish Song (Zombay #2) by William Alexander

This sequel to "Goblin Secrets" is a simpler read at 166 pages. The plot is a straightforward adventure in which a girl, Kaile, plays a flute that separates her from her shadow. The flute was given to her by a troupe of goblins that she invited to play at her mother's bakery. Her superstitious family thinks she is dead and has a funeral. Kaile attends the funeral and says she's alive and well but they ignore her thinking she's a ghoul. She sets off for answers by finding the owner of the flute to understand its history. The flute is made from a bone and she doesn't know if it is human or not. A series of mishaps and adventures propel her to find answers that she doesn't always wants to hear. When the river threatens to flood Kaile is afraid for her mother and realizes she must listen to the river if she wants to save her mother and the town.

Alexander has unusual plots that are not very predictable. While I struggle a bit with visualizing this author's settings because he doesn't do much world building, he has interesting characters and a dreaminess or creepiness to episodes that create a strong mood. At times this book seemed like it was going to get violent such as Kaile getting tossed into a furnace, but then the author pulls back on the tension making it less scary for younger readers. The theme of teamwork is played out in a unique way. Kaile is bossy with her shadow and doesn't respect its feelings. The shadow is afraid of the dark and is disagreeable most of the time. The two don't get along and it isn't until they work together that they can play the flute in harmony.

The overarching theme is about listening to each other. Kaile's mother doesn't listen to her. Kaile doesn't listen to her shadow. The townspeople don't listen to Kaile. When people don't listen to each communication breaks down and people get hurt. In the end Kaile learns to listen and her mother learns to stop and notice Kaile. Alexander shows change in characters but it is subtle and might be missed by readers. For instance, the goblins are prejudiced by the other townspeople and while the theme isn't explored in this book like the first, it is still evident and Kaile is outraged by her parents treatment of them. Kaile also doesn't want to take responsibility for her part in causing the problems in her family and her life. She does at the end but only when her Shadow admonishes her for not admitting her part in causing the Inspection to fail and resulting in her mother's punishment.

Sometimes I felt like there were so many themes and ideas that I wished more were explored in depth. The story about the girl drowning and getting separated from her shadow felt rushed. The tragedy is explained but I can see readers might confuse it with the river ghoul's story. The ghoul is made up of people who drowned for other reasons such as murder or suicide and it is revealed so close to the other girl's drowning that some might not realize they are separate. I might be being too picky, but I wished there was a clearer separation between the two because it's such an important revelation in the plot.

This is the only steampunk writing I've ever come across and am not very familiar with the genre. The odd gearworks and how they are worked into the storyline is not for everyone. I've had many students not particularly care for it because it is so different. Even my fantasy lovers don't always like it. I still am trying to figure out who to recommend this book to when I do book talks. Maybe its best for my hard core fantasy lovers or science fiction readers. Maybe it requires an older reader even though it is written for younger. Maybe it's more of a sixth grade level book. I'll be interested in how this second book fares because it seems less confusing than book one. We will see...

3 Smileys

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, Louis Slobodkin

I just read a picture book, "Each Kindness," by Jacqueline Woodson that is basically "The Hundred Dresses" plot except without the redemption or forgiveness part. I've been trying to read more classics because so many have blipped off my brain's aging radar screen. In the forward, Eleanor Este's daughter explains that her mother wrote this book because she was ashamed of herself for not standing up for a Polish girl who got teased for her unusual name and for wearing the same dress every day at Este's school. While in this story the tormented girl, Wanda, forgave the characters, in real life Este was not able to tell the girl she was sorry because she moved away in the middle of the year. Este's book attempts to right a past wrong and heal a mistake that troubled her well into adulthood. This story allows her to forgive herself for a poor choice and resolve to find the courage to stand up to those bullying others. A timeless message that will entertain both adults and children.

*spoiler*
It took me 30 minutes to read this short page turner that appears simple but is psychologically complex as it deals with issues of friendships, minorities, bullying, and classroom dynamics. Peggy and Maddie are best friends who take no interest in Wanda Petronski, a Polish classmate who lives in the poor part of town and comes to school every day in the same faded, clean blue dress. She sits on the fringe of classroom with the other poor students. When another classmate comes in a new red dress all the girls in the class circle her "oohing" and "aahing" at the red fabric. Wanda is standing next to Peggy and says that she has a hundred dresses. The girls immediately assume she is lying and Peggy cruelly teases Wanda every day about her dresses. Maddie is bothered by Peggy's teasing but is afraid to say anything because she takes Peggy's hand-me-down dresses and thinks she might become the target of ridicule if she tells Peggy to knock off the constant tormenting of Wanda. While Maddie doesn't mock Wanda like other students she protects her status with peers by not saying anything. When Wanda moves, the two discover that she wasn't lying about the hundred dresses, but had drawn them for a class contest.

The teacher reads a letter from Wanda's parents saying that they moved because of the cruel treatment of students toward their kids. Peggy and Maddie feel so bad they go to Wanda's house to apologize. When they can't find her they write a letter. Maddie decides to never "stand by and say nothing again" as she realizes that she was more at fault than Peggy for not telling her to stop teasing, because Peggy didn't really see her actions as wrong until she saw all the gorgeous drawings Wanda made displayed in the school. Maddie, on the other hand, was bothered by it long before the contest. When the two write Wanda a letter they don't actually write they are sorry. Instead they tell her she won the contest and her pictures were beautiful. It is hard to say sorry and I thought this was very authentic.

Wanda responds to their letter and it is obvious she forgives Maddie and Peggy. She leaves them two pictures of dresses she drew and Maddie realizes the faces on the pictures are hers and Peggy's. She can't believe it because Wanda drew them when they were teasing her. Rather than hating them as Maddie thought she would, Wanda shows through her present of the drawings that she chose to not hate but be kind even in the face of the girl's meanness. Wanda's grace toward them is a more powerful response then anger and makes Maddie even more determined to change and behave differently in the future. 

I wasn't sure about the plot choice to tell the reader right away that Wanda had left the school, but Este's cleverly flashbacks and unfolding of clues as to why the girls tormented Wanda and why she left school kept the action suspenseful versus preachy. The technique allowed the reader to explore Maddie's psychological turmoil as she tries to process Peggy's teasing of Wanda every day. Maddie comes up with excuses for Wanda deserving the ill-treatment and shows how difficult it is to stop injustices by speaking out. Peggy is the most popular girl in school and Maddie gets clothes from her. Maddie has much to lose by angering Peggy and she struggles with saying or not saying something. In the end, she chooses to not say anything and the result is shame for her behavior. This is the kind of situation happens not only in school, but the workplace, families, and societies.

The subtle message about classroom dynamics and how the teacher who doesn't build a classroom community is one that spoke to me as an educator. Wanda sat in the back of the classroom with the rowdy boys who didn't "make good marks on their report cards." The teacher has relegated those with muddy shoes or learning problems to the back of the room. Wanda is forced to read in front of the class which she can't do because she most likely doesn't know English well enough. When the teacher scolds the class for the letter from Wanda's dad that says they moved because of the students teasing his kids, I thought she was being hypocritical. While the teacher wasn't out at recess and can't monitor unsupervised places such as walking to school, she can control what happens in her classroom and her nonverbal actions show she was just as much at fault as the other kids. In that regard the author's message is not only for children, but it is for teachers as well. We all can take a hard look at ourselves and take stock of how we are treating each other human beings.

5 Smileys

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Call Me Oklahoma! by Miriam Glassman

The search for identity is a universal theme found in all literature. Closely linked to that is the power of a name in shaping self-identity. In fantasy, the name can be so powerful it shouldn't be named out loud such as in Diane Duane's wizard series, Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea series, J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, and J.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit," to name a few. Ah yes, and don't forget Rumpelstiltskin. In fantasy, to reveal your true name means giving another power over yourself allowing them to work magic on you from a distance. While this book is realistic, it too, deals with the power of a name in controlling and shaping one's destiny.  Paige is frustrated with her name and self-identity. Viveca is a classmate who seems to be able to control Paige by belittling her and bossing her around. She teases Paige about throwing up at the Third-Grade Poetry Slam. When other kids call her names, "Hey, Paige Turner, turn the page", Paige doesn't like it and feels her name is shaping her into a shy and scared person; hence she picks a new name. One with pizzazz. One that says, "don't mess with me." One that says, "I am not afraid." Paige picks the name, Oklahoma! She wants to be a strong wind sweeping or cartwheeling across the plain. Now Viveca can't control her. Now she won't be afraid. But when she finds out her new name brings out a new side to her personality that gets in the way of her being best friends with Gavi, she isn't sure she wants this lassoing, go get-'em gal she's embraced in Oklahoma. Funny, poignant and sweet, this is a great read aloud for grades 3-4.

Paige announces she has a new name at breakfast which her older brother calls dumb: "You actually want to be named for the forty-sixth state, with more man-made lakes than any other?" This line is repeated throughout the book in funny situations. Paige sticks to her guns and dons her red clogs (that she pretends are red boots), a bandana looped around her neck, and cargo shorts where the velcro makes a satisfying, "zwip" sound. Do you know how many students thwack the velco straps on their tennis shoes while I'm reading during story time at school? Last week a kindergartener had a velcro beat from his nonstop strap-zwipping. A second kid by my feet liked the sound and starting pounding his hands on the floor like it was a drum. I tried to shift the story into a rap song but it didn't work and we ended up giggling at our silliness. Needless to say I thought Paige funny when she didn't want to hear Viveca brag so she "zwipped" her Velco pockets loudly. Miriam Glassman throws in terrific details such as this that make it easy to picture scenes.

Paige is starting grade 4. Her new teacher got married and has a new name just like Paige wants a new name. It is refreshing to read a book where a good teacher is portrayed in an authentic way and  the curriculum presented in the plot is programs that can be found in any school. When the kids start name-calling Paige the teacher "rose to her full grizzly-bear height. 'Room three, hush!" She pauses as silence slices through the classroom admonishing them that it is perfectly okay to choose a different name. Then she offers wise advice. "'Each one of you...has many possible selves inside you. And discovering those possible selves is an adventure that will last you a lifetime. Take joy in your discovery!'" This is what educators call, "a teachable moment"  where the teacher can show the students how to be kind and respectful toward each other. The good teachers build classroom communities this way. Glassman captures not only characteristics of a good teacher, but the classroom dynamics are well done too. This adds an authenticity that is often lacking in realistic school settings.  Add in some humor and you have one excellent book.

Cordelia is the spoiled cousin who comes from California to visit Paige. She cartwheels in the house and climbs the door frame so she can perch at the top. Paige's mom gets disgusted but doesn't say anything to Cordelia or her mom who is her sister. She does make Cordelia wash her dirty foot marks off the frame. When Cordelia cartwheels in the living room and breaks a tea pot Paige's mom finally says something to her sister. Paige often refrains from saying what she wants to say in situations where she is dealing with conflict. Not only does the mother show an adult version of Paige's issues, she too, finds the courage to speak up even though it makes her uncomfortable. I used to do cartwheels all over the house and climb the door frames like Cordelia. Although I usually did it because my older brothers were chasing me and if I climbed the frame they couldn't reach me. I'd park myself up there for a long time. I too, remember my mom handing me a washcloth, pointing to the dirt I had tracked up the sides snapping, "Clean it!"

Many novels show the emotional suffering that comes from an identity crisis with the character unable to overcome it. In the poem,“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot, the narrator is trapped between knowing and not knowing his identity resulting in the inability to move forward in life and be happy. While Paige is just a kid, she too is deciding what to do with her life. She's trying to decide what to embrace as true and false. What type of friends she wants and what type of person she will be. Paige spends the entire book trying to figure out her "self" and how her choices determine that identity. Like many stories about identity crisis, this one shows how conflict between two people, in this case Paige and Viveca, drives Paige to change her nature. At the end when she decides she likes her real name, Paige, it shows that she has accepted her shy side as well as her newly confident side. Her transformation shows a young girl with the spunk to change herself, embrace herself, and face her fears.

If you liked this book try "Starring Jules (as herself)," by Beth Ain

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke

I just had a conversation with a colleague about grandmother names. She told me I had to think about it now that I'm going to be one. Anna Hibiscus, the protagonist, nicknamed hers, "Granny Canada." I love it. I thought of "Granny Taipei" but that sounds like "Granny Type A" which is plain ole' weird. I'm open to suggestions. "Granny Dumpling?" "Granny Foo-Foo?" "Granny Ding-Dong?" Word choice doesn't seem to be my strong suit tonight - fightin' a cold. Ah well. Anna comes from a multicultural family with a mother who is Canadian and father who is African. Africa is Anna's home with so many extended family members she can't even count them. In a series of episodes, Anna learns some lessons in growing up and having parents from two different cultures. It is hard to find books for third world kids and its especially hard to find excellent transitional readers. You get both of that in this winner of a book.

Anna has twin baby brothers called, Double and Trouble who are oodles of work for her mom and dad, especially when they are "Awake and Angry." When Anna's parents decide to go on a vacation to the beach just by themselves, her mom is looking forward to some time alone. She grew up as an only child in Canada and finds the life on a family compound a bit overwhelming. When the babies wear everyone out, Anna's dad starts to bring his family members out to the beach house for extra hands and help. Anna's mom seems to have had a change of heart regarding being only with her family and welcomes the relatives with open arms. In the next episode the family worries about Auntie Comfort who is coming to visit from America. Will she have forgotten all their customs and traditions? Will she wear "tight-tight" jeans? The next chapter shows Anna learning about class structure and how poor those are around her family compound. In the last episodic chapter, she gets a letter from Granny Canada inviting her to visit. Anna writes back and asks if she can visit during the winter because "Snow you are so sweet-o."

Atinuke is a professional storyteller which makes her books great as read alouds given the terrific sentence rhythm and word choice. Her made-up snow song in the last chapter is precious. I would love to hear her speak. This type of writing is like poetry where it is always special to hear the author's own voice in the character of his or her creation. Anna is likable and means well even though she might not make the best choices or not realize the consequences.  The illustrations capture a young cheerful girl who has a life full of loving adults and relatives. My favorite page is Anna waiting for her letter to go and come back from Granny Canada. She has her fingers crossed as she watches a gecko and insects. She has her fingers crossed when her aunt braids her hair in corn rows and pony tails. My fingers are crossed that the students will like this book as well as I did.

Reading Level 3.6

4 Smileys

Friday, September 13, 2013

Twelve Kinds of Ice by Ellen Bryan Obed

Life with ice. Black ice can mean doing a 360 with the car at a stop sign screaming with your daughter as it becomes a whirly-bird. Regular ice can mean your feet being swept out from underneath you levitating your body so that it is parallel to the ground before squashing you like a bug on the cold, hard asphalt. January ice can mean tossing a bucket of water in the air and watching it freeze before it hits the ground. That was in 1996 when temperatures were almost -60 degrees fahrenheit. February ice can mean stepping outside with damp hair that turns into icicle wind chimes. I felt like the ice goddess on those days. Medusa had snakes. I had ice shards. I'd show up at school and show off the latest Minnesota hair fashion. Ice can mean creating a toboggan run that goes down your backyard hill at speeds that frosts your breath onto your skin in a ghostly face mask. Ice is fun. Ice is hazardous. Ice is mysterious. Ellen Bryan Obed captures this magic in her 61 page book that focuses on the transformation of ice in the surrounding landscape. The nostalgia and beauty of Obed's writing makes for a beautiful piece that can be used in "writer's workshop" to teach small moments; a nice read aloud to show atmosphere, setting, and sensory details; or a warm snuggle with a magical book.

When fall comes the ice slowly transforms from a thin sheet on the top of an ice pail to a solid block freezing streams and lakes. When the narrator describes the transformation of the ice rink in the back yard I was transported to the past of skating in my purple parka with my 4 siblings. We didn't have shows like the author describes or pump music outside over a loudspeaker but they did do that at some of the city parks. We would break off icicles and lick them like ice pops. Of course we didn't think about what we were licking as we broke off the beautiful shapes that formed from condensation dripping down sun-warmed, slanty roofs. Yum - bug and tar flavored ice pops. Obed describes twelve stages of ice and ends with dream ice. This ending captures the magic of ice and the possibilities. As you can see I haven't talked much about the book because my own memories keep cropping into the sentences sidetracking me.

I have noticed when I write book reviews I give 5 stars much more easily with fantasy than realistic books. I think the unbelievable factor makes me more forgiving of elements that aren't realistic in fantasy; whereas, I'm more critical if a book is "real." I also like fantasy as a genre most and must have an unconscious bias towards it. Guess I'm writing this because this could be a five star. I just thought there was a lull in some spots, but I'm such a jet pants I also like lots of action. This book requires more patience. That's my disclaimer anyway. I did enjoy the nostalgia of ice in this book and delicious writing. I confess as an adult I think now of how uncomfortable ice skates are, how many times I've frostbit my toes, and how hard it is shoveling mountains of wet snow. This is a good reminder of the joys of winter as a child. The magic of the ice rink, playing hockey with my brothers, pretending with my daughter we were Olympic ice figure skaters, racing across the ice and sliding on our seats, flipping into snowbanks going full speed, playing broom ball, and more. I need to keep that child alive inside me, and this book certainly does that well.

Reading Level: 4.6
4 Smileys

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Five Children and It (Five Children #1) by E. Nesbit

Ever read a book that you know is supposed to be funny, but you didn't find it so? I chuckled once in awhile but for the most part I got tired of the children's adventures that inevitably went wrong. Nesbit does a nice job capturing the nature of these children. They are loyal to each other and squabble at the same time. Maybe it is because I'm an adult. Maybe I've read too many genie-in-a-bottle stories and its become clich├ęd for me. Or maybe the adult narrator with comments on being a child didn't charm me. Or maybe the lack of internal changes as the children keep making the same mistakes over and over got tedious. Yes, they learn to be careful for what they wish for in the end, but I don't think they gained any long-lasting wisdom. Or maybe I'm just exhausted from a ridiculously busy work week. Written around 1900, readers might find the stereotypes of Indians and servants offensive. Many have talked about the charm of Nesbit's books, but this one felt tarnished.

Five children are at a summer house outside London being watched by servants because their parents have been called away on urgent business. Mostly unsupervised, the children explore a gravel pit and uncover a Sand-fairy that will grant them a wish a day. They wish for beauty, money, wings, etc. Each wish materializes in an unexpected way resulting in missed meals and misunderstandings with adults. While the siblings quarrel quite a bit they also stick up for each other. They have a code of honor so that even when they steal some food they leave a note explaining why and that they didn't take any pudding. That was an instance where I should have laughed but didn't think it that funny. While there is plenty of imaginative play going on, I couldn't slip into the magic of the story. It is based in the real world and perhaps that explains why - I wanted an escape from the real world. There is no world building and it is basically the magic of the wishes that only the five can see and the adults can't. I kept waiting for more to happen and when it didn't I felt let down.

Sometimes the children accidentally make wishes that created some tangled situations, such as when they wish everyone would love the baby more than anyone else resulting in every person that saw their baby brother trying to kidnap him. The gypsies in that episode are stereotyped too which drained the humor out of the scene for me. The children make wishes that deal with wealth, looks, or fantasies like flying or sword fighting, but nothing comes out right. Honest, I really wanted to like the book. But I couldn't. Uff da!

3 Smileys

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Oz #1) by L. Frank Baum

It seems that the 1939 "Wonderful Wizard of Oz" film starring Judy Garland is more popular today than the book. Shown regularly on television, I know that I have watched it at least a dozen times over the decades. Now that my daughter is grown I haven't seen it in ten years. Now that I'm going to be a grandma, I'm sure it'll make a comeback in our family. The book is similar and different than the movie. While the book's prose is surprisingly simple, the appealing characters and well-constructed story make it a fun read for both children and adults. Baum doesn't write with great tension nor does he drag out episodes in too much detail. If anything, I kept thinking to myself, "she's already in munchkin land? ...the witch is already dead? ...I didn't know about the adventure in china town, although I just saw it in the newest Oz movie... and so on." The action is quick and the secondary characters keep the story from becoming so allegorical that they are unrelatable to the reader; their struggles with self-doubt is a universal emotion that humanizes them. Add to that the strong wizard theme that magic comes from within and not without in the real world and you can see why this story has survived since its first publication in 1900.

Dorothy is an orphan who lives in the gray world of Kansas when a tornado picks up her house and spins it into the alternative world of Oz. She finds herself in the land of munchkins and discovers her house has landed on the Wicked Witch of the East killing her. The witch's silver shoes (not red like the movie) are given to Dorothy who doesn't realize they have special powers. Nor does the Good Witch of the North know about their powers. In the book, Glinda, the Good Witch of the South doesn't show up until the end of the story with her knowledge of the shoes. Dorothy wants to get back to Kansas and is sent to the Wizard of Oz in Emerald City because she is told that Oz is the only person who can help her. Following the yellow brick road, she makes friends with a Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion who all have problems that they think the Wizard of Oz can fix.  When they meet Oz, he tells Dorothy to kill the Wicked Witch of the West and then he will help her get home.

Dorothy's character didn't interest me as much as the Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion. Perhaps that's because she doesn't really change but just has to find the courage to get home. The secondary characters change more and their self-contradictions add depth to their personalities. The Scarecrow thinks he needs brains but on their ensuing adventures he is the planner or "brains of the operation." He is also thoughtful when dealing with others. He is the primary person who looks after Dorothy's well-being in terms of food and rest. The Tinman wants a heart so he can be more kind, but cries when he accidentally squashes a bug on the road and tries to not step on ants. He is the most emotional of the group and Dorothy is continually wiping tears off his face so he won't rust. The Lion wants courage not realizing that doing something dangerous to protect others even though he is afraid, is courage at its best. He does this several times when their lives are in danger. Dorothy must not give up in her quest to get home and must show courage when facing the Wicked Witch. I must say that I didn't particularly think the ending wrapped things up well. The movie actually frames the story better showing more growth in Dorothy's character than the book as she realizes that the Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion are all people she knows in her life.

When the group seeks the the Wizard of Oz to answer their problems, they find an ordinary man who can't grant them the magic they thought he could. I like how they find him behind a curtain using ventriloquism and stage tricks to create the illusion of magic. This is what fantasy and fairy tales do... they transport the reader into a make-believe world where monkeys can fly and witches melt. When Dorothy and the three others encounter the harsh reality of their dreamlike world, it is as if the curtain has risen suddenly from the stage. The theater lights are on and it is back to real life. For me, Oz becomes a symbol of the entertainment industry in general, as well as, the concept of stories being a magical escape from reality. When Oz tells Dorothy's group that they have had the power within themselves all along to make their goals come true, it is a reminder that true character comes from within. A timeless message.

5 Smileys

Alice in Wonderland (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland #1) by Lewis Carroll

I didn't get into this story until the goofy Queen of Hearts splashes the pages with her contemptuous shouting, "Off with her head!" I had a week at work that made me tempted to squawk the same thing. Not with the students, mind you, just the adults. What a hysterical character and witty satire on the history of British royalty. The Queen of Hearts uses her power to command heads be chopped off for any minor offense. She is humored by the self-important King and sycophant soldiers but heads aren't generally chopped off. The king pardons the offender or influences the Queen such as when she wants to cut off Alice's head by reminding the Queen that Alice is "just a child." Even the soldiers pretend to obey the Queen shooing away an offender once the Queen has turned her back. The Queen wouldn't have anyone to rule if the powers-that-be followed through on her constant beheading requests. She is the most fearful tyrant in the cast of the characters, but just another obstacle in Alice's quest to get to the beautiful garden. While I admire the writing, I didn't love this book. It sort of hurt my brain... especially the logical fallacies. Logic is not my strength. Nor my passion. The book is a quick read and I should really reread it, to do it justice. I will. Some day. I did like Carroll's satire and while I have no clue who many of the characters are that he alludes to since it was written in the 1800s, I did like their characteristics such as the Mock Turtle.

Alice falls down a rabbit hole and ends in the alternate world of Wonderland. She sees a luscious garden through a small door but can't pass through it because she is too large. She takes a potion to shrink, but gets too small. Then she eats a cake and grows too big. Frustrated by this jack-in-the-box growing and shrinking and never being the right size she eventually cries a river of tears down the hallway when she is giant-sized that later sweeps her away like a current when she shrinks to the size of a mouse. Several other animals get swept down the tear-produced river and end up with Alice on some bank. The Dodo bird decides to have a Caucus-race and the odd party runs in circles. Confused yet? I was. Carroll's creation of Alice's dreamlike world is discombobulating at times. However, I did chuckle at the image of a political caucus that bustles about for no reason like the animals running in circles with no ending.

Alice's adventures continue with meeting a caterpillar using a hookah (don'tcha love that word), a Duchess, a Mad Hatter, a Cheshire Cat, the Queen of Hearts, and more. Of course I liked the Mock Turtle who has a conversation with Alice that is full of puns and misunderstandings. The Mock Turtle is "melancholy" because he wishes he was a real turtle like in the old days before he ended up with a cows head, tail, and back hooves. According to Kent David Kelly who wrote a reflection that came with the book, Carroll is poking fun at a popular Victorian dish called, mock turtle soup, that was made out of those parts of a cow. Alice tries to talk to Mock Turtle about her school, the institution, but he thinks she is talking about a school of fish. When she asks what course he took at school, Mock Turtle replies, "Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with... and then the different branches of Arithmetic - Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision." Ha! That captures my sentiments for math. Well maybe not "ambition" but definitely the last three. More puns come with Latin and Greek being "Laughing and Grief" which made me think of a Shakespeare comedy or tragedy. Then there is the classics master who is an old crab. You get the drift. Pretty funny.

The beauty of this book is its appeals to adults and children. This is one of those books that if I was a Victorian book reviewer, I would wonder if child readers would get all the adult references. Duh. Obviously they do. "Alice in Wonderland" is just as wildly popular today with adults and children as it was in 1865. When Alice takes a potion to shrink she has to stop it or she might go out "altogether, like a candle. I wonder what I shall be then?" The idea of shrinking captures the imagination of a kid while the adult might consider the concept of non-existence. Not that I came up with that idea on my own - no sirree- my friend, Mr. Kelly who does a nice job interpreting sections of the book pointed this out. He also said that this theme becomes even more important in book 2, "Through the Looking-Glass." 

The book is a warehouse of symbolism, homonyms, rhymes, word plays, mathematical references, puns, nonsense, and more nonsense that makes it impossible to write about it all in a short review. I find the nonsense most inspiring or cathartic. Let your brain choose its own stack of favorites - interpretations are numerous and varied. I have not come across a book quite like it except maybe "The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland" - that author loves words like Carroll.  It is a marvel that Alice was created 150 years ago as Lewis Carroll spun the tale while rowing on a river with his friend's three children. I think I need to quit as its hard concentrating with stereo surround sound sports as my husband is blasting the Twins baseball game on the iPad in my left ear and the Gopher football game on the TV in my right. You try writing when the Minnesota Rouser is reverberating in your apartment. Where's the Queen of Hearts when you need her? "Off with their heads!"

5 Smileys

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett

This story addresses the adult more than the child and shows the history of the late 1800's when children's literature was not its own separate entity. It was emerging but this is a good example of the lines being blurred for its message is for the greedy adult who needs redemption as contrasted by a pure and innocent child. Frances Hodgson Burnett's "The Secret Garden" and "A Little Princess" have more childlike aspects with imaginative play, friendships, and toys than this one, but it is still entertaining. Seven-year-old Cedric Errol is not your typical developmentally immature first grader although he does spell like one and has the wish-fulfillment of that age. Cedric can talk politics, is unselfish, and wise beyond his years. Or wise beyond belief depending your outlook. Not that it matters. He's more a symbol of a child's goodness. The result is the story grabbed me less than the other books because the character development concerns the grandfather and not the boy.

Cedric lives with his mother whom he calls, "Dearest," in a shabby house in New York. He is friends with a grocery store owner and shoeshiner. Cedric is so popular, well-loved, and sees the best in people that he's quite unreal. When he wins a foot race with some neighborhood boys he makes the loser feel like he won. When his mother is grieving for his father, he comforts her. When the adult neighbor comes to visit he makes a point to visit with her. When a lawyer shows up from England telling Cedric he has inherited a fortune and is now Lord Fauntleroy who can get anything he wants, he first help his friends not thinking of himself. The lawyer is charmed and Cedric and his mom go off to England to live with the grandfather, the Earl of Dorincourt. A lonely curmudgeon, Cedric enchants the Earl and thinks only the best of him. Loving the novelty of being a "good" guy for once in his life, the Earl spends his money to help others. Cedric idolizes and adores him. When another son claims to be Lord Fauntleroy, Cedric must give up all his newfound wealth.

Cedric innocently thinks his grandfather is a benevolent man and that perception is never altered through the course of the novel. The grandfather learns through Cedric how to be compassionate and kind and is changed as a result of the child. Cedric unintentionally teaches the Earl that a noble heart comes through generosity; that a family is strong when they love and trust each other. The story does not have much action in the beginning and spends quite a bit of time telling the plot, not showing. It picks up once Cedric gets to England but many readers might find it slow. I did find it interesting how Cedric is always positive no matter what the situation. While the story didn't wow me, I was getting slammed with the ugly side of human nature at work and the reminder to stay positive was the shot in the arm I sorely needed.

3 Smileys

Friday, September 6, 2013

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

This reads like a fairy tale with a flawless protagonist and a happily-ever-after ending, and even though there is no magic, the wish-fulfillment theme in Sara Crew's rags-to-riches story is quite similar to Cinderella's. Sara's childlike innocence is in stark contrast to the greedy and horrid Miss Minchin showing that a noble heart can overcome a cruel one. This romantic view came at a time when children's literature was becoming its own separate field moving away from the didactic 18th century juvenile texts. Written in 1905, A Little Princess, has the hallmarks of romanticism literature that produced children's books full of fantasy, adventure, fairy tales, and realism that are still popular today. Burnett's character, Sara Crewe, celebrates individualism, does not listen to authority in the likes of Miss Minchin, and follows her own conscience. Sara knows Miss Minchin only likes her for her money. She sees right through her and respectfully disagrees with her in front of others. When Sara's father dies suddenly and she falls out of favor with Miss Minchin, Sara uses her imagination to cope with the abuse of being overworked and starved. Sara uses the model of a princess as a way to bear the meanness of those around her and rise above her desperate poverty having faith that everything will turn out right. The singular "A" in the title reflects that anyone can be a princess if they have a good and kind heart. In today's world of children's literature and realism that reflects more the "knowing child" versus the "innocent child"; some might find this too sappy for their taste. I think the story works because it is rooted in the "childhood experience" and Burnett captures that nostalgia through imaginative play, doll playing, making friends, dealing with classmates, and having the courage to stand up for what is right.

Seven-year-old precocious Sara Crewe, who has grown up in India with her wealthy father, has arrived at a boarding school in London. Her mother died when she was young and her father is worried about Sara catching "jungle fever" or malaria because cases have increased as of late in India. Sara's father indulges her every whim but she is not spoiled by it. She is level-headed, kind, and generous making friends with classmates and servants. She's practically perfect - an ideal no one can achieve (maybe you can, but I can't); her character is a symbol of uncorrupted, childhood purity. When Sara arrives at the boarding school Miss Minchin is jealous of her cleverness and money, flattering Sara's father because his wealth brings credit to the boarding school. Sara knows this immediately and recognizes Miss Minchin's two-faced greediness. There is a scene where Miss Minchin asks Sara if she knows French but won't let Sara answer interrupting her in the middle of her sentence because it is taking Sara too long to explain. The French teacher comes in and finds Sara a fluent speaker causing Miss Minchin to unfairly scold Sara for not telling her. Adults oftentimes don't let children explain themselves because they are impatient or jump to wrong conclusions. It is easy for the reader to empathize with Sara who is not in control of her daily routine and is at the mercy of an abusive authority figure.

At school, Sara gets a doll, Emily, that helps her deal with homesickness. She talks to the doll and pretends it is her best friend. Sara fantasizes that Emily comes alive when she turns her back on Emily; prancing about the room and doing her own thing in secret. She says that dolls pretend they aren't alive because if people knew that, they would make them work. Sara is a great storyteller and it is through this gift that she makes friends with the other students at the school. Her stories help her cope with not giving into the misery of her situation or complaining. She keeps control of her attitude and anger. She is patient when teaching her friend who is slow at learning and helps the younger girl who misses her mother throwing temper tantrums. She embodies the ultimate goodness of humanity and innocence of a child. She doesn't have any flaws and is meant to point out the waywardness of Miss Minchin who at the novel's end takes stock of her nature by listening to her sister's diatribe as she expresses regret for not standing up to her cruelty. This book's audience shows how the lines were still blurry as Victorian authors wrote not only for children but for adults as well.

A Little Princess reflects the changing landscape of children leaving the work force and going to school as labor laws went into effect during the early 1900s. Sara Crewe's situation mirrors societal issues and outcries against child labor resulting from industrialism. Middle class was on the rise and the demand for safe conditions and removal of overworked children in industries where supervisors bullied children to work harder and assigned them to dangerous, exhausting or degrading jobs was one of many historical problems being addressed during Burnett's time. The premise that Sara was of privilege and deserved more is revealing in contrast to Becky, the scullery maid. While Becky deserves better conditions, she is never offered education. She is always a maid and the premise that it is up to nobility or an upper class to treat her well, shows a support of the existing class system that did not see education as a way out of poverty. Becky never thinks of not being a maid, but Sara can because she is rich. Becky ends up working for Sara in the end. The notion of education advancing a person's employment wasn't on Burnett's radar. The strange dichotomy of Burnett's support of the establishment; yet, challenge to the elite to deal with hunger and abuse with generosity and kindness made for a fascinating contrast. Add to that the imperialistic view of taking Africa's diamonds to gain wealth and the Indian servant Sara called, "a slave," and you have much discussion for a book club.

Hopefully I got the gist of romanticism and children's literature correct. These were my resources:
Norton's Anthology of Children's Literature
Keywords in Children's Literature by Philip Nel

4 Smileys