Drama 101

Newberys Read This Year: 15

Newberys Left for Goal: 0

Newberys Left for Total: 14

 

Book: How To Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction

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When I read nonfiction, I tend to read about English royalty, the American Revolution, women’s history, and reading itself. This is the second book about reading that I read this year, and, sorry to say, both were a disappointment.

Samantha Ellis is a British playwright who grew up with a rich tradition of reading. She and I loved some of the same books (Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, Gone with the Wind, to name a very few) and took great joy in immersing ourselves in the stories. So this book exploring her relationships with the heroines of these books should have been a slam dunk for me.

Yet it so was not.

In retrospect, I should have been on my guard, at least, seeing the name Cathy Earnshaw in her list of chapters. I suppose I figured that we are all entitled to our guilty pleasures, so I just let it go. Now I see that I should have viewed it as foreshadowing.

There was trouble in paradise early on in the book. In chapter 2 titled “Anne Shirley”, Miss Ellis rejoices in the spunky, unconventional spirit the child Anne embodies. She goes on to express her disappointment in Anne as she grows up throughout the 8-book series. Miss Ellis laments that Anne gave up pursuing a career in writing to become a wife and mother, that Anne loses her penchant for romance and drama, and that Anne becomes a background character. To all this, I say, “Miss Ellis, did you actually read the books or are you relying on the Megan Follows televised series?” because Miss Ellis is either flat-out wrong or totally misses the point.

In the books, Anne does not express a desire to have a career as a writer, something that occurs in the television version. The written Anne ventures a few times into the world of publishing with varying degrees of success. She is crushed by her rejections and elated by her successes, and she enjoys writing, but she never is determined to pursue writing as a career. As for Miss Ellis’ assertion that Anne’s character changes, I couldn’t disagree more. Anne matures as she ages. She always has a romantic nature and is always quite different from other people in general. She grows out of her slight drama queen existence, but her essential character remains intact. Yes, she does become a background character, but Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote for child audiences. Her protagonists needed to be children. Kids don’t really want to read about adults, so Miss Montgomery connected new kid characters to a known and beloved one who grew up. Besides, if all the adventures Anne’s children and their friends experienced had been given to Anne (on top of her own), she would have lost her believability and authenticity.

In that same chapter about Anne, Miss Ellis rips apart another childhood heroine we share, Jo March. The short version of her complaints are that Jo gave up writing to marry and run a school and that the March girls in general buckle under and give in to the contemporary expectation that wifedom and motherhood were the highest ambitions for women. Miss Ellis spends considerable time and energy denouncing the March sisters (and their creator, Miss Alcott) as non-feminists. I think that, again, Miss Ellis misses the point. She needs to recall that the March sisters were products of the 1870s, not the 1970s. Jo leaves home and seeks adventures and writing opportunities in New York. Miss Ellis doesn’t see that as a woman doing what she wants instead of what society expects? Marmee, who doesn’t have the unlimited time and resources of a rich woman, devotes her time to social causes. This was common in American Victorian society? Meg refuses to make a rich match that will ensure her family’s comfort in order to marry a man she loves. That conformist! Miss Ellis makes the mistake of viewing the March women with modern eyes and therefore out of context.

She also makes the mistake of confusing the characters with their writers. Anne and Jo were certainly inspired by the lives of their creators, but they are not literary versions of Maud and Louisa, respectively. It is an error to see Anne of Green Gables and Little Women as romans à clef; an error often made and incidentally repeated by the producers of the Winona Ryder version of Little Women.

And all this was in Chapter 2. Things tended to get better for me, as far as Miss Ellis’ analyses of her heroines, although in her discussion of Scarlett O’Hara I once again wondered if she was referring more to the movie than the actual book. But things got worse for me the more Miss Ellis talked about her own life—a natural thing for her to do since the book was about how the heroines influenced her. But as I learned more about Miss Ellis, the more I realized that I didn’t like her. Turns out she is a self-confessed, full-fledged drama queen. And as I have no patience or respect for drama queens, it was also a natural thing that I quickly grew disenchanted with Miss Ellis. (Side note, this was the same reason why I didn’t care for that other book about reading, The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller—I didn’t like the author who was writing about his own life.) The only positives I got from finding this out about her was that it explained a couple of things—why she was disappointed when Anne Shirley grew out of her slight drama queen ways and why Cathy Earnshaw was on her heroines list.

So in Miss Ellis we have a drama queen who confuses print stories with visual stories, who doesn’t want to see characters mature over time, who refuses to see characters in the context in which they were written, who blurs the lines between author and character, and who admires both Cathy Earnshaw and her romance with wife-beater Heathcliff. Small wonder that I, who prefers to live in a drama-free zone, was not enamored of Miss Ellis’ work.

100% Valued

Newberys Read This Year: 15

Newberys Left for Goal: 0

Newberys Left for Total: 14

 

Book: Spork by Kyo Maclear

Audience: C

Genre: Fantasy

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Ordinarily, I regard a spork as a rather useless utensil. They are plastic, usually provided by a fast-food restaurant, and something I automatically throw away, choosing to use my own spoon or fork as needed. After reading this book, however, I just may treat the spork with a little more respect.

In this story, our character Spork has a spoon for a mother and a fork for a father. His parents think him perfect as he is, but others do not really accept him. The forks think he’s too much like a spoon, and the spoons that he is too much like a fork. When he tries to be more fork-like, he actually alienates the spoons, and vise-versa when he tries to be more spoon-like. Poor guy just cannot win, and he never gets invited to the table because he’s just too different and no one really knows what to do with him. When a baby arrives on the scene, a baby who cannot really use either a fork or spoon, Spork is just what he needs. The baby brings Spork to the table, making the mixed utensil feel useful and happy.

Usually, I am somewhat skeptical of “message” picture books. Either the message is too heavy-handed, or the “story” used to impart the message is too forced (or uninteresting), or the author tries too hard to make the reader go “awwwwww…” None of those scenarios were present here. In fact, I wished this book had been around over 25 years ago when I started my teaching career.

In 1989, I was a first-year teacher in a predominantly black school. That year I had Brianna, a lovely second grader with a black father and a white mother. The following year I had Amber, also with a white mother and black father. To my untrained white-girl eye, I did not recognize Brianna as biracial until I met her parents. Amber, however, was different. Her skin was golden, her hair was dark but “white” in appearance. In the following years I had Edward (Brianna’s brother), Brian, and later his sister Lindsay, all of whom I instantly recognized as being of multiple races. There are likely others, but these are the kids that stand out in my memory. I don’t remember any of them being treated differently by the other kids, but I could have just been unaware of it.

Eventually, I had Rosa, a sweet, light-skinned black girl who shocked me one day by wearing a shirt that said “100% Black Child.” My first thought when I saw that shirt was about the biracial kid I had in my class (I think it was the year I had Edward) and how hurtful it must be for him. I respect Rosa’s right to wear the shirt and I respect her being proud of her heritage (although, to be honest, she was so light-skinned it’s likely that the shirt was actually not true in her case), but it saddens me that her pride in herself likely came at the cost of another child’s self-esteem. Edward would never have been mistaken for white, and here was someone else indirectly telling him he wasn’t really black either. I suppose it was the first time I truly realized that multiracial kids probably feel that they don’t belong anywhere.

How I would have welcomed Spork on that day! In a sweet and non-preachy way, Miss Maclear, herself Asian and white, teaches us that we all have value, that we all want to belong and be accepted, and that being all of one thing is no better than being some of one and some of another. Fortunately, being multiracial is far more prevalent now than 25+ years ago and acceptance is likely greater today than it was then. But there is still a ways to go, and I have no doubt that Spork will help many children feel good about themselves. But for Brianna, Edward, Amber, Brian, Lindsay, all the multiracial kids that followed, and for Rosa, I dedicate my appreciation of this book to you.

Everybody’s All-American

Newberys Read This Year: 14

Newberys Left for Goal: 1

Newberys Left for Total: 15

 

Book: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Audience: G-U

Genre: Realistic Fiction

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Last year I read When Books Went to War, about the country’s efforts to put books in the hands (and pockets) of American servicemen during WWII. It was a wonderful read and made me prouder than ever to be a librarian and ALA member, as both were instrumental in the project. One of the ideas that stayed with me was the overwhelming popularity A Tree Grows in Brooklyn had for the troops. Wanting to know what drew them to the book inspired me to read it.

Well, that and I vaguely remember my mother trying to get me to read it when I was growing up, without success. She also tried to get me to read Anne of Green Gables and again I refused—but the joke was on me since I read it, finally, when I was in college and now cannot count how many times I’ve read the whole series (in fact, I’m currently rereading it as I write this). Since Anne worked out so well for me, I thought maybe Tree would, too (and it did—right again you were, Mum). Although, I did have to wonder why so many servicemen loved this children’s book.

Turns out, it is not a children’s book.

At best, it is a YA novel, but I tend to believe that the target audience is adults. I think it’s a common mistake to think of this as a children’s book because the protagonist is a young girl. We experience the world through Francie’s eyes, and, clearly, it is an adult world. I did love that as Francie matures and sees more than a child or teenager should, she remains age appropriate. But her story is meant for adults to experience, not children.

So what is her story? Francie and her younger brother Neely live with their parents Johnny and Katie Nolan in various apartments in pre-Great War Brooklyn. Johnny is a handsome dreamer, a talented singer (when he works it is as a singing waiter) with no ambition and a drinking problem. Katie is the realist. Drawn into her marriage by her physical attraction to Johnny, Katie quickly realizes that she must be the breadwinner. Her dedication to supporting her family leaves her little time to be affectionate with her children.

Despite Katie’s best efforts, the family remains poor and Francie’s life is marked by the many moves her family makes within the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. From an early age, Francie uses after school schemes to contribute to the family finances, whose meagre state (exacerbated by Johnny’s death due to alcoholism) eventually compel Francie to leave school as a young teenager to take an actual job. Francie thrives at the Clippings Office where she ultimately lands and is in time able to combine work and schooling, at last becoming a college girl.

I identified with Francie in several ways. As a child, her favorite place is the library (the fact that I became a librarian should make that connection crystal clear); she dreams of becoming a writer (the fact that I created my own writing opportunities with this blog illuminates this next connection); she likes learning for learning’s sake (and the fact that I have 2 college degrees, flirt with the idea of getting a third, and love investigating things just for the sake of knowing about them completes the trilogy). But perhaps the biggest way I felt a kinship with Francie is in the way that her own strengths contribute to her troubles.

When Francie starts earning fairly decent money, she dreams of being able to use it to finance her education. Katie nixes this idea, telling Francie the money will be used to pay for Neely’s schooling. Neely, who doesn’t even want to go to school. Katie tells Francie her reasoning for this; Francie is independent and determined enough to find another way to keep up her education, but without Katie forcing Neely into school, he will be content to give up on learning. So because Francie is competent, smart, responsible, and a hard worker, she has to pick up the slack for someone else’s benefit. This is such a familiar story for me. I have worked in three places at three careers—teacher, curriculum writer, and librarian. At every situation I have been given additional responsibilities—responsibilities that should justly belong to others—because I “handle it so well.” In other words, since I am competent, smart, responsible, and a hard worker, I have to pick up the slack for someone else’s benefit. I feel your pain, Francie!

But through it all, like the metaphor of the book’s title, Francie thrives—she more than thrives, she blooms. She is the charming underdog who inevitably succeeds due to her own personal qualities. She is the ultimate American success story, which is why she resonated so strongly with me and, I suspect, with those American servicemen fighting the Axis powers.

On a side note, I had one, and I think very great, advantage over those servicemen that greatly added to my enjoyment of the book. Brooklyn itself is intrinsic to the story. Put Francie’s story in a different city and it just wouldn’t make sense. To help make Brooklyn essentially a character in her story, Miss Smith gives great detail about the geography of the borough—streets, addresses, and landmarks. Thanks to the wonderful advancement of Google Maps, I was able to physically, albeit vicariously, follow Francie’s story. It was no end fun to actually see Francie’s neighborhood instead of just reading about it. It’s a shame the ALA couldn’t provide Pocket Maps to go along with those Pocket Editions of this wonderful book we all relished so much.

Inconsistent Rebel with a Cause

Newberys Read This Year: 13

Newberys Left for Goal: 2

Newberys Left for Total: 16

 

Book: Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction

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I inherited my interest in things related to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor from my Nana. In reading about this famous pair I encountered other people (who were indeed characters!) of their acquaintance. Among them were the Mitford sisters. Combine their circle of friends with the fact that they are a group of six sisters and I didn’t stand a chance—I was bound to be hooked.

A few years ago I read a biography of all six sisters. I identified most with Nancy, the smart-mouthed writer, and Decca (real name Jessica) the greatest rebel. I’ve since read several of Nancy’s novels (The Pursuit of Love is by far the best) and earlier this year read this autobiography of Decca’s. I found Decca to be a capable writer, so I won’t spend any time on her skills. What was most remarkable to me was her actual life and some of the people in it, so I’ll focus on that.

Decca was the 5th of the 6 sisters (the girls also had a brother) born into the British aristocracy of the early 20th century. The family was both extraordinarily privileged as well as highly eccentric. The girls’ mother, Lady Redesdale, believed in educating her daughters (to some extent) but not allowing them to go to school. As a result, the girls grew up rather wild, supremely self-confident, and with varying degrees of rebellion against the prescribed, aristocratic lifestyle their parents embodied and embraced.

Combine this rebellion with too much unsupervised time and essentially enough money to do what you want and you can get some pretty out there results (passion for animals and hunting, secret languages, endless pranks). For three of the girls, as they became adolescents, this rebellion took the form of extreme dedication to various government systems. Two of the sisters, Diana and Unity, became zealous fascists (something I cannot even begin to understand). Decca, however, turned to communism. In part because of this strong belief in communism she was powerfully drawn to a somewhat distant cousin, Esmond Romilly, who eventually became her first husband.

Of all the rich, famous, poor, unsung, stilted, creative, or just plain wacky people Decca encountered in her life, Esmond was, understandably, the most important to her. Yet he was the one I liked the least. Through her lens of extreme affection and very early widowhood (Esmond was killed in WWII when he was only 23), Decca clearly sees Esmond as her hero. I saw him rather differently. He seemed so full of good ideals about fighting for what was best for the common good, yet several times in his life he was quite self-serving. He was not above breaking the law upon occasion when it suited him and then justifying it with very selfish reasons. He was rather ignorant, childish, and trusting with money, often looking for easy and somewhat shady ways of getting ahead, only to have the schemes rather blow up in his face. Decca seemed to find it all very endearing, while I just wanted to shake him.

Why did this man whom I’ve never met who died so much too young bother me so? I think because he ultimately struck me as a hypocrite. He talked a good game about communism, but he never really left his aristocratic roots. It’s not that I am a supporter of communism (for the record, I think it is a utopian way to live but that human nature prohibits it from being an effective government system), but I do think that if you are going to be an activist and a bit in-your-face about a cause (as both Esmond and Decca could be) then you need to support it with consistency. Inconsistency undermines credibility and ultimately undermines the cause. Here, it made Esmond and Decca seem like rich dilettantes with nothing better to do. I don’t think that is actually an accurate picture, but that is how they can come across.

I quite enjoyed reading about Decca’s childhood with her sisters. They were quite a mischievous bunch and their antics could be quite amusing (when they didn’t occasionally border on the cruel). I admired Decca’s independent spirit, particularly when she deliberately chose to defy her fascist sisters. I sympathized with her sorrows (her parents disapproved, of course, of her relationship with Esmond, not to mention the miscarriages and death of an infant she had to endure) and delighted in her joys (she and Esmond were very happy together in America and she eventually gave birth to their healthy daughter). I found much to like about Decca (perhaps not quite as much as JK Rowling, who idolized Decca to the point of naming her first daughter Jessica after Decca’s given name), but I also found myself so disappointed by the end because I so did not like Esmond. So mixed feelings make for a mixed review about an interesting person who was such a mix of her aristocratic background and her communist convictions. It’s all in the mix.

The Awful Truth

Newberys Read This Year: 13

Newberys Left for Goal: 2

Newberys Left for Total: 16

 

Book: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Audience: G-U

Genre: Realistic Fiction

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You might think that as a Lifetime member of JASNA (the Jane Austen Society of North America) I love all things Jane Austen. You would be wrong.

I certainly love all her works. I own all her novels—multiple copies of several of them. I have read many biographies and commentaries. Some I loved, some not so much. I have JA figurines, salt-and-pepper shakers, T-shirts, puzzles, games, and cards among other things (again, don’t question the crazy). I have seen and/or own several movie adaptations, again, loving some and not quite feeling the love for others (BTW, this spring’s Love and Friendship was phenomenal!). I have encountered several modern retellings of her works (Clueless, great; Bride and Prejudice, OK; the very loosely-based Bridget Jones’ Diary, hilarious). This retelling, however, of the best of Miss Austen’s works, was just plain awful.

Awful.

Did I mention that it was awful?

While reading this book I struggled with the reasons for my dislike. Did I abhor it so intensely because it did terrible things to my favorite book, or did I just think it was an awful book? Turns out, I despised it for both reasons.

At first, I didn’t like what Miss Sittenfeld did to the characters, particularly the Bennet sisters. Again, I am an extremely character-driven reader. One of the biggest reasons I love Pride and Prejudice so much is because I totally love Elizabeth. She’s intelligent, witty, intrepid, and spirited, but she is also very flawed, willing to acknowledge when she is wrong, and willing to change. I admire her because I want to be Elizabeth Bennet. Short of that impossibility, I’d love another impossibility and have her as a friend. She’s the type of person you like despite her flaws, such as being judgmental and holding a grudge.

I so did not want to be Miss Sittenfeld’s Liz Bennet. I found her gossipy, mean-spirited, rude, and extremely judgmental. Not to mention that her affair with a married man totally made me lose respect for her. Toward the end of the novel some of her better qualities came through, but not to the extent that I could overlook the so many things I dislike about her. I also didn’t like Miss Sittenfeld’s re-imagination of the other Bennet sisters. Her Jane was too wimpy, her Mary too prickly, and her Lydia and Kitty downright gross.

So initially, I didn’t like how Miss Sittenfeld made the characters almost unrecognizable from Miss Austen’s work. I certainly expected changes, but these were so extreme. Then I realized that it wasn’t just the fact that the characters changed so tremendously, it was the fact that the characters we ended up with were just so unlikeable. What I’m trying to say is that if I read this book without having ever read Pride and Prejudice I would still have thought it awful since the so many of the characters were so dreadful.

And it’s not just the characters who were so disagreeable. I also didn’t like how hard the author worked to write a contemporary novel. There were so many “trendy” topics covered in the story, such as a fiancé who turned out to be gay, pregnancy by artificial insemination, eating disorders, Cross-Fit, interracial romance, paleo diet, transgender characters, and reality television just to name some. None of these elements on their own are off-putting to me in a book (with the possible exception of the reality dating show), but all of them? It’s like Miss Sittenfeld thought, how many ways can I show that this is a 21st century novel? When you can see the effort the author puts into the craft it draws attention away from the actual story she is trying to tell. Maybe that was what Miss Sittenfeld was going for since the actual story is not hers. At any rate, I can honestly say that this objection has nothing to do with the Pride and Prejudice connection: again, I would hate the book for the extreme contemporizing even if I had never read the original. What is ironic, though, (and just like another book I commented on a few weeks ago, not in the good Jane Austen way) is that by throwing in so many en vogue issues, Miss Sittenfeld created a very dated retelling of what is actually a timeless classic.

I had other problems with the novel, but I have to admit, I’ve had it with this awful book.

Did I mention that this book was awful?

The Quiet Cause

Newberys Read This Year: 13

Newberys Left for Goal: 2

Newberys Left for Total: 16

 

Book: Hitty: Her First Hundred Years* by Rachel Field

Audience: C

Genre: Fantasy

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Book: Strawberry Girl* by Lois Lenski

Audience: C

Genre: Realistic Fiction

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In my rota of alternating protagonists, I read these two books when I was due for a female main character. I made a connection between the girls I read about, so it seemed fitting to discuss the two together.

Hitty was the winner in 1930. The eponymous title character is actually a doll. She is made of mountain-ash wood (extremely sturdy, brings luck, and has power against witchcraft and evil) for little Phoebe Preble in early 19th century Maine. Hitty seems prone for adventures. While in Maine, she gets left behind in a church, snatched by a crow, and hidden in a tree. But that is nothing to what she experiences later. Among other things, she survives a boat sinking, becomes an object of worship for island natives, shares a basket with a snake (the accompanying illustration was far too life-like for my snake phobia), gets stuffed away in an attic, becomes a wedding gown model, goes overboard a ferry, and eventually becomes a collector’s item in an antique shop. Along the way she has several owners, some who cherish her, some who are indifferent to her, and some who are mean-spirited.

Sixteen years later, Strawberry took the prize. In this story, Birdie Boyer and her family are newcomers to the Florida backwoods around the turn of the 20th century. Birdie’s family are kind, loving, and friendly, but they bring progressive ideas their more unenlightened neighbors deride, fear, and eventually violently resist. Good triumphs over all, however, and in time the Boyers become welcome citizens in the community.

Two very different stories, two very different characters, but they do share a common trait. Both Hitty and Birdie may appear to be in traditional female roles, but both show that there is more to them under the surface. Hitty has great respect for propriety and enjoys the traditional feminine pursuits of sewing, nurturing, and homemaking. However, as the title implies, we follow Hitty’s journey for one hundred years, and along that journey we see her adapt with the changing times. Hitty always stays true to herself, but I got the feeling that she did not have an anachronistic spirit. If we were able to follow her journey into the 1920s, it is likely that she would be scandalized at flapper attire, but she would also likely support their right to vote. She’s hardly a radical, but I do think she would be open to progressive views.

At first glance, Birdie is simply a loving child who enjoys being a part of her family, helping out with the family farm. Like Hitty, we see her in traditional female roles of cooking, gardening, and taking care of her siblings. But we also see a girl who loves going to school in a community that does not entirely embrace education for anyone, let alone females. When the Boyers are bullied by Birdie’s classmate’s family in general and the classmate in particular, several members of the family, Birdie very much included, both stand up and reach out to him. We see Birdie break the traditional role of female bystander and instead be an active participant in her family’s life story.

So the trait that Hitty and Birdie share is feminism. This is a word that has gotten a bad rap over the years. Generally, when people think of the terms feminism and feminist they think strident, bombastic, loud-mouthed, radical crusader who is inspiration for the term “feminazi”. So not true. Wikipedia says that the goal of feminism is “to define, establish, and achieve political, economic, personal, and social rights for women that are equal to those of men.” There are so many different ways to express and work toward this goal. In their quiet ways, both Hitty and Birdie show young female readers that they can be who they want to be, regardless of what traditional society expects of them. Sometimes a cause needs a Gloria Steinem or a Betty Friedan out there fighting and leading. Sometimes it needs a Hitty or a Birdie, peacefully modeling. I’m just glad that the Newbery committee knows this just as well as I do.

Professional Courtesy

Newberys Read This Year: 13

Newberys Left for Goal: 2

Newberys Left for Total: 16

 

Book: The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer

Audience: C

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: One Book.jpg

The celebrity culture we live in today is a pretty sorry thing, in my opinion. Sometimes it can be rather innocuous, such as populating cooking shows on my beloved Food Network and Cooking Channel with celebrities rather than professional cooks. Sometimes it can be rather terrifying, such as having a misogynist, racist, uninformed, egomaniacal celebrity bully as a major political party’s nominee for president (yes, my Republican friends, I’m taking a swipe at Donald Trump) rather than someone who understands the political process. Sometimes it’s merely frustrating, such as when celebrities without a gift for writing get published rather than people who actually know how to write.

This final example is, of course, what I’m talking about with this book. Chris Colfer may be able to sing beautifully, and maybe he did a great job on Glee (admittedly, I lost interest in the show after the first season), but he is not a writer. At least, he is not a skilled writer of children’s books.

His premise for this book is intriguing. Twins Alex and Connor have recently lost their father in a car accident, and as a result spend little time with their mother who must work double nursing shifts to make ends meet. Alex is a whiz at school, reveling in reading, especially her beloved fairy tales. Connor struggles in school, but more due to lack of interest rather than poor ability. After a disappointing birthday, Alex becomes intrigued with their gift from their grandmother, The Land of Stories, a book that is a collection of fairy tales. Much to their surprise, the kids literally fall into the book. They meet several fairy tale characters as they collect items for The Wishing Spell, the only way they can get back to their own world.

Interesting premise aside, the execution is rather abysmal. When I first began reading it, the word that kept coming to my mind was amateurish. You know, not bad, but just not polished. By the time I was done (and I was so thankful to be done with this book) I knew it was worse than that. It was just bad writing.

How do I dislike thee? Let me count the ways.

First of all, there is the description. There is entirely too much of it. Not that there are long, flowery passages, but rather just about every thing and every action has a modifier. This is actually what made me think the work was amateurish. At first the over-description was annoying, then tedious, and finally just plain awful. Most people do not think and talk with so much attention to detail, so reading writing like that made me think that too much effort was put into the how of the writing than the actual storytelling.

Speaking of too much attention to detail brings me to my second point. There is also too much attention to time. What I mean by that is that it seems like just about every waking minute of the main characters’ time is accounted for. We as readers don’t really need to know every action the kids do, especially when the actions don’t advance the plot or character development. Edit, people! All that results is a book that is much too long, much too tedious (again!) and much too fussy.

And that fussiness brings me to my next point. Kids, in general, are not fussy. They’re messy, they’re disorganized, they’re off-kilter in many ways. Neither Connor not Alex are like that. How they speak and act do not resemble, well, any kids I know. The adults in the story are also just off-balance when it comes to the way that most grown-ups act, especially when dealing with kids. The thought I kept having was that the author either doesn’t really know kids, is not comfortable with them, does not really spend much time with them, or some combination of all of these. This may not be true of Mr. Colfer, but that is the way his writing comes off. Mr. Colfer chose a third-person unlimited point of view to tell his story. Usually, when an author does this the reader still gets the feeling that the “narrator” is a part of the story. Here, I felt that the narrator was detached. That is not the best way for an author to engage readers in his story, particularly child readers.

I suppose what Mr. Colfer does to engage his readers is to try to submerge them with exciting action. Except if that is what he was doing, using such a plethora of television/movie clichés might not be the best way of going about it. There are so many that I cannot recount them all, but the two that stand out most are the tree-trap and the underwater drama. You know, the tree trap. You’ve seen it hundreds of times when the good guys are walking through a forest, step on something, and trigger a huge net to sweep them up and leave them hanging from a tree. And the underwater drama—when two characters are trying to sneak somewhere by swimming, dive under some type of barrier, and one of them gets caught on it and is saved by the other just in the nick of time. These are images we’ve seen over and over and get another opportunity to experience them in Mr. Colfer’s book.

Side note—I mentioned that the clichés are from movies and television. Because of this, I felt like I was watching the story rather than reading it. Certainly when I read I visualize the story, but it doesn’t feel like I’m watching TV program. I consistently had that feeling when reading this book. I did not enjoy the juxtaposition of media.

The final point I want to make about my dislike of this book is its take on bullying. This has become sort of a hobbyhorse of mine, and I don’t mean to harp on it, but bullying is so prevalent in kid society, and when I see what is likely well-meaning writing that inadvertently adds to the problem I can’t seem to keep quiet. The Evil Queen, unsurprisingly, is a bully. After an intense conversation (a conversation in which she imprisons, tortures, and manipulates) our main characters feel sympathy for her. They realize that she had to deal with some horrible things in her past which caused her evilness. This was even foreshadowed in the prologue of the book. I get it. Bullies are often made. But in the real world, simply having sympathy for a bully doesn’t undo the pain and humiliation they cause. Ideally, showing sympathy and compassion for a bully will lead to the bully having remorse and deciding to change her ways. When writing for kids, you need to represent life like it is and realistically model what it can become. This has the potential for such power when dealing with bullying. But here, the bully shows no remorse. The fact that she physically cannot (she turned her heart into stone many years ago) does not matter to me. A huge takeaway from this book about bullying is: victims, feel sorry for your tormentors and bullies, we know it’s not your fault so it’s OK. However, it’s not OK. Whatever horrible things have happened to you does not excuse the choice you make to take it out on others. If it were OK, in our stories why don’t our good-guy characters who are bullied (who have horrible things happen to them) end up as bullies themselves? Right—because it’s not OK.

Okay. I’m getting off the hobbyhorse and getting out of this review. This is a terrible book. It’s amateurish, cliché-ridden, and has a horrible message. It only got published because the author is famous. The publishing profession does not have the courtesy to care more (or at least equally) about the quality of its products than the quantity its profits.

Rude.

From Dusk to Dawn

Newberys Read This Year: 12

Newberys Left for Goal: 3

Newberys Left for Total: 17

 

Book: Born Survivors by Wendy Holden

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction

Rating: One Book.jpgOne Book.jpgOne Book.jpgOne Book.jpgOne Book.jpg

Priska. Rachel. Anka.

Three very different women with different life stories. But they do share one amazing commonality: they all defied The Final Solution and gave birth while imprisoned by the Nazis. In even greater defiance, all three of those children are still alive today.

These three ladies share additional facets of their lives. All were middle class Jews in Eastern Europe. All were happily married. All were captives in Auschwitz. All suffered greatly at the hands of the Nazis. All had several family members murdered by the Nazis. All survived the war. All became war widows. And while we should never minimize or forget their tragedies, it is their triumphs that are most memorable.

Mrs. Holden takes us through each of their stories with very readable prose. We learn of their childhoods, their courtships, and their marriages. We learn how they dealt with growing Nazi oppression and terror. We learn of their arrests and journeys to Auschwitz. And that is where we can find great inspiration amid great cruelty.

The cruelty in this book affected me more deeply than I had anticipated. I am no stranger to Holocaust literature. I have read survivor accounts before and have been horrified at the things humans can do to each other. However, reading what these women went through (in the ghettos, in Terezin, in Auschwitz, in the Freiberg factory, in Mauthausen, and in the transports themselves) was by far more grueling than anything I’ve encountered before. The brutality was just so relentless. I don’t think Mrs. Holden went out of her way to shock or horrify or to deliberately have this effect on her readers, which made the whole experience all the more powerful. There were times when reading about these women’s experiences was so difficult to bear; I cannot imagine actually having to live them.

But as I mentioned earlier, there was also great inspiration. Once imprisoned, all three women managed to find protectors willing to do whatever they could (lightening the work load, sharing food) to help. Along the way, all three women met with acts of kindness, some by friends, some by strangers. The most moving of all these acts came toward the end of their ordeal.

After evacuating Auschwitz, the three ladies were sent to a factory in Frieberg. On the one hand, the ever-present threat of the gas chambers was removed in the factory. On the other, as it became apparent that the war was grinding to a close, some of the Nazis amplified their cruelty, and some of the prisoners were worn down into their baser instincts, making the time at Frieberg just as fraught as at an extermination camp. Right before the factory was abandoned and the prisoners sent to another camp, Priska gave birth to Hana. On the train itself, Rachel became mother to Max. Prisoners on the train were not provided for—occasionally the smallest amount of food and water for some, no provisions for sanitation, no consideration for fresh air in the closed cars, no protection from the elements in the open cars—so the death toll was high. When the transport stopped at Horní Bříza in Czechoslovakia for a few days, however, the train was under the jurisdiction of the station master, Antonin Pavlíček. Mr. Pavlíček replaced the open cars with enclosed wagons, and organized the citizens of Horní Bříza to operate a canteen to provide some food for the starving prisoners. When he found out that there were newborns on the train, Mr. Pavlíček tried to arrange a local doctor to care for them, but was prevented from doing so. The doctor and his expectant wife were disappointed and instead gave away their own baby clothes (and recruited some others to do the same) to the new mothers.

While the actions of the people of Horní Bříza were the most supreme examples of solidarity and kindness toward others, they were not the last. A few days after the train reached its final destination, the camp Mauthausen, the prisoners were liberated. By this time, Anka had delivered Eva. Hana, the first of the three to be born, was close to death due to the squalid living conditions and the lack of nutrition and proper care available to her. American medic LeRoy Petersohn took one look at her and immediately got his superiors involved in order to perform the surgeries that would save Hana’s life.

The actions of Mr. Pavlíček, Dr. Roth and his wife, and Technician Fifth Grade Petersohn may have been on the greatest scale, but so many others also rose to the occasion and performed equally noble acts. One of the many things I loved about this book was that Mrs. Holden noted when Jews, non-partisans, Germans, and even Nazis stepped up to do the right thing. She didn’t limit the acts of kindness to the good guys. Likewise, when anyone from the aforementioned groups was cruel, indifferent, or selfish, she noted it. Mrs. Holden didn’t make all of one group of people the heroes and all of another group the villains. She illustrated that there is good and evil among and within all of us.

The genocide perpetrated by the Nazis has to be among the human race’s darkest hours. This book documented that. The organized groups and selfless individuals who offered up resistance to the systematic, mass murder of Jews shine a light on the triumph of good over evil. Mrs. Holden tells an inspiring true story that takes us from the dark and into the wonderful light.

Hot Air

Newberys Read This Year: 12

Newberys Left for Goal: 3

Newberys Left for Total: 17

 

Book:The Twenty-One Balloons* by William Pène du Bois

Audience: C

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: One Book.jpgOne Book.jpgOne Book.jpg

Sometimes I choose which Newbery to read next based on the last one I read. For example, if I just finished one with a female main character, I might choose an animal or male protagonist for the next. If I’ve just completed a fantasy novel, I might choose historical fiction next, and so on. No such considerations went into choosing my reading of this novel, since I had absolutely no idea what it was about. And now that I’ve finished it, I have to say it somewhat defies classification. The protagonist is definitely male, but the genre is a bit murkier. I chose fantasy, but if I could, I would create a new genre, whimsical.

In October of 1883, Professor William Waterman Sherman is rescued from the Atlantic Ocean by an American freighter, and is found surrounded by 20 balloons. The professor, a devoted (if honorary) member of Western American Explorer’s Club, gained a bit of press 2 months earlier when he began his attempt to cross the Pacific Ocean (leaving from San Francisco) by means of one hot air balloon. He refuses to tell his story to anyone other than the members of his club. Once he finally returns to San Francisco, he happily regales the club, the press, and the readers of this book, with his account of his adventures.

And such adventures they were. After designing and constructing a balloon, complete with a house containing a mattress, porch, and library (!), planning his route and gathering his provisions, the Professor leaves San Francisco in August. But on the seventh day, catastrophe strikes: approaching an island, he is greeted by a swarm of seagulls who manage to puncture his balloon. Realizing that landing on the island is his only option for survival, the Professor strategically unloads the contents of his balloon to lower his altitude in time to relatively safely crash-land on the volcanic island of Krakatoa.

There he unexpectedly meets a whole colony of people. They are very structured, very organized, and very committed to their way of life. They decide to allow Professor Sherman to join their society, which he happily does, although he is not personally pledged to remain with them forever. That becomes a moot point, however, when the volcano on the island erupts and the settlement is forced to employ their evacuation plan, which ultimately leaves the Professor stranded alone in the Atlantic with those 20 balloons.

Earlier, I said that wanted to create a new genre called whimsical for this book. I say that because the Professor is a bit of a whimsical mix of politeness, extreme self-confidence, misanthropy, and inventiveness. He is the stereotypically stuffy Victorian but is just odd enough to be likeable. The Krakatoans share his sense of propriety and his oddness, albeit their oddness is of a slightly different kind. All this whimsy is intriguing, especially since it disguises the fact that this is arguably a science fiction novel.

One of the trademarks of science fiction, a particular subset of fantasy, is the use of future technology, and that is the element that is questionable here. I’m not sure if the methods the Krakatoans used to build their houses or if some of the features of their houses were technologically possible at time in which the story is set. The element not in question is the existence of a utopian/dystopian society, which the Krakatoans most certainly are: each member was specifically chosen to be part of the society, the family structure is identical (father, mother, son, daughter), each has a specific function within the community, and each member puts the needs of the community above the needs of the individual. This is classic sci-fi. The Krakatoans also specifically chose to cut themselves off from the rest of the world, have a distrust of strangers (including the Professor), stipulate that the Professor join their group according to their rules, blithely insist that their way of life is the only one worth living, and inform Professor Sherman that he cannot leave on his own volition. Very classic sci-fi.

Yet it is sci-fi hidden under all the overly polite manners, the congenial eccentricities of the characters, and the Victorian, formalized way of speaking. In other words, secreted under the whimsy. So deep under it all, that I didn’t see it as sci-fi until after I finished the book and just started thinking about it. To me, this just shows how clever Mr. Pène du Bois is. He uses the outsized personalities of his characters and the utopia/dystopia motif to be critical of society (a standard theme of sci-fi), all the while setting up affable characters and absurd situations that young readers are bound to enjoy. I suppose he created his own new genre, whimsical sci-fi.

As for me, I only enjoyed it to a certain extent. When I read it, I thought it was OK, but not really a story for me. No wonder, since I don’t really care for sci-fi. This might have been, however, from what I can tell by perusing the winner’s list, the first sci-fi book to capture the Newbery, and a rather clever one since it’s so subtly done. The story may have had too much hot air for me, but, after all, it’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow some good.