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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Let the Game Begin

Newberys Read This Year: 11

Newberys Left for Goal: 4

Newberys Left for Total: 18

 

Book: Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman

Audience: C

Genre: Realistic Fiction

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

 

Hello. My name is Amy, and I am a book nerd.

If there was every any doubt about this fact (who am I kidding, I was born knowing it), Mrs. Bertman’s book did away with it forever.

As part of Children’s Book Week in May, my reading specialist sets aside the last 30 minutes of the week as DEAR time. I didn’t have a class in the library at the time, so I took this book into my friend (and Laura Ingalls Wilder travel companion) J’s first grade classroom and began reading it. By the time I left to get ready for dismissal, I was hooked. At the beginning of the book are the rules for a game called Book Scavenger. I didn’t know much about the characters or plot at that point, but more than anything else I wanted to join the game.

So what is Book Scavenger, the game? It’s kind of like geo-caching with books. I am familiar with the geocaching thing (where people from all over publish clues about a location which is the hiding place for a container, and when the geocache-er finds the location she is supposed to take something from the location and leave something of her own) because this is something my brother’s family has done for years. So how much cooler is this now that the clues are literary and the items taken and left in the container are books? Sign me up!

Right, the actual book. Mrs. Bertman gives us fellow book nerd Emily, her older brother Matthew, and their parents who are moving to San Francisco. They have moved multiple times in Emily’s life as her parents are trying to live in every state. It may sound adventurous, but Emily is tired of having to make new friends so often. The only good thing about San Francisco is that Garrison Griswold, publisher and inventor of Book Scavenger, is about to reveal a tantalizing new twist to the game.

However, just before Mr. Griswold can announce the twist, he is severely mugged and ends up unconscious in the hospital. Emily and her new puzzle-loving friend James get drawn into discovering what truly happened to Mr. Griswold, complete with clues about Mr. Griswold’s announcement, old books, shady characters, and newly discovered editions by a famous author from the past.

Mrs. Bertman manages to weave good characterization with good mystery. Emily is likeable, but not perfect. Her relationship with James is strong and able to weather the inevitable frictions (some small, some not). The grown up characters (for the most part) are believable. I think what I like best about this blend of characters and mystery are some of the adult characters that come Emily’s way—are the allies or nemeses? For some of them I kept guessing about this until the end, which says much about Mrs. Bertman’s ability to craft both of these story elements.

I mentioned earlier that the story involves new discoveries concerning a famous author, in this case Edgar Allan Poe. In general, I’m not a huge fan of mysteries-surrounding-actual-historical-people-or-artifacts books or movies (Chasing Vermeer, The Da Vinci Code, National Treasure) because the historical stickler in me does not usually let me buy into the premise. Fortunately, that was not a problem here. I’m not sure why I sometimes have problems with this and sometimes not. Is it that the premise is too hokey? Do I know too much about the actual historical people or events to the point where I can’t let things go? Whatever the reason, I’m glad it was not here so I could simply enjoy the story.

If I enjoyed it so much, why only a 4-book rating? Well, there was one characteristic that I had a hard time getting past—the reliance on coincidence. I’m not sure I subscribe to Gibbs’ rule about there being no such thing as coincidences, but when there are so many or some that are so obvious it does tend to impede my enjoyment of a story. In this book, it wasn’t that there were a lot, but the ones that existed were kind of big. The most glaring offender concerned Emily’s brother and his favorite rock band. The reliance on coincidence was not debilitating to the story, but noticeable enough to be a minor annoyance.

While I was disappointed to discover (thanks to the several interesting and edifying notes Mrs. Bertman supplies at the end of the book) that Book Scavenger the game does not exist, that fact did not dull my enjoyment of the story. Nor did it change my status as an out loud and proud book nerd. There are so much worse things to be addicted to instead of books. No 12 Step program needed here, just a few more books.

A Merry War Betwixt**

Newberys Read This Year: 10

Newberys Left for Goal: 5

Newberys Left for Total: 19

 

Book: The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt

Audience: C

Genre: Fiction

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

“War…what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!”

In my heart of hearts I can’t say I always agree with that sentiment. While wars come at an incalculable human price, they can lead to good things—the foundation of this country, the abolition of slavery, and the toppling of an empire created and run by a genocidal madman immediately come to mind.

And again, when it comes to literary wars, that just might not always be the case. Well, it was when I read The Chocolate War (a sorry sight of a book for young people, good riddance to it!) in my YA Lit class library school. It wasn’t exactly true when I read The Lemonade War (nothing wrong with it, I had just hoped that it would consist of sterner stuff) earlier this year. And certainly not in the case of Mr. Schmidt’s delightful offering.

In my mind’s eye, I envisioned that this book had a greater circulation in my library. I chose to read it because I like to keep abreast of what is popular with my patrons. Turns out that it has an incredibly low circulation, and if I hadn’t read it would be in danger of weeding. I approached the book with some trepidation, I think largely due to its cover (and, yes, the old adage comes to mind and is entirely appropriate here) because something about it reminded me of The Chocolate War.

At any rate, this book and I turned out to have a marriage of true minds as it contained so many craft elements I love (admirable yet flawed characters, authenticity of plot and situation, relatable conflict, and realistic character growth for starters) and combined them with general things I love, such as Shakespeare, a crafty teacher, and characters that unexpectedly come through for each other.

Our protagonist here is Holling Hoodhood, the only 7th grade Presbyterian in a 1967 Long Island school that sends the Jewish kids to Hebrew School every Wednesday at 1:45 and the Catholic kids to Catechism 10 minutes later. As the only kid with nowhere to go, Holling must spend his Wednesday afternoons with his English teacher and antagonist, Mrs. Baker, whom Holling is convinced is devoid of the milk of human kindness and hates him.

And so the Wednesday wars begin. They involve rats and cream puffs, Mickey Mantle and the Vietnam War, and eventually William Shakespeare. In October, Mrs. Baker decides that she and Holling have been “wasting their opportunities” and that they will spend their Wednesdays reading The Merchant of Venice. Holling is about as enthusiastic as you might imagine, but toads, beetles, bats! he unexpectedly discovers that he enjoys the experience, and when Mrs. Baker assigns a new play each month, he is receptive to the idea.

Throughout the year, Holling strives mightily through The Tempest, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and Much Ado About Nothing (the best play ever). Each time the play never fails to affect him in some way, whether providing him with new language to use, courage to try a new experience, strength to endure paper bullets of the brain hailed on him by the other students, integrity to remedy an injustice, or conviction to stand up for what he believes.

Along the way, Holling discovers that far from being his enemy, Mrs. Baker is a worthy ally with method in her madness as she coaches him through literature, cross country track, and life itself. But lest you think she is too much of a good thing, rest assured that she is not perfect: their relationship suffers the occasional setback through faults and missteps on both their parts, and she has some trying personal situations of her own that she must navigate. All in all, she is just the authentic type of heroine I love to find in a story.

So while parting is such sweet sorrow as I wrap this up, just know that I ended up racing through the last pages, so eager to see how it all turned out. I also ended up a bit of a sobbing mess as you might if you read this worthy book. Know that you might also end up laughing oneself into stitches and wishing that this merry war could serve as a model for the real thing.

 

**Bold phrases are credited with being coined by Shakespeare. Some are adapted to fit tense and person reference.

Magic

Newberys Read This Year: 8

Newberys Left for Goal: 7

Newberys Left for Total: 21

 

Book: The Crossover* by Kwame Alexander

Audience: C

Genre: Fiction (Newbery)

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

Book: Last Stop on Market Street* by Matt de la Peña

Audience: C

Genre: Fiction (Newbery)

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

 

For the past 10 years or so I’ve been pretty good about keeping up with the current Newbery winner, but for some reason I missed last year’s. So when the 2016 winner was announced, I decided to read 2015’s victor first.

I was blown away.

Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover tells the story of identical twins Josh and Jordan Bell. The boys (better known as Filthy and JB) are middle-school basketball superstars, taking after their father Chuck, a superstar player in Europe who got drafted into the NBA. An injury, however, kept Chuck from realizing his hoop dreams.

The boys are close, but when JB gets a girlfriend, things start to fall apart in Josh’s world. Plus there is the annoyance of having his mother as his principal and the scary uncertainty of his father’s health. Josh has to cope with change and intense new emotions that he is unsure how to handle.

Telling the twins’ story in free verse, Mr. Alexander immediately drew me into their world. I felt Josh’s frustration with his father’s child-like denial of his health issues and his brother’s long-held grudge. I empathized with Josh’s loneliness and feelings of envy and abandonment when his best friend grew away from him because of the influence of someone else—someone whom Josh himself was interested in. I sympathized when Josh was cut off from basketball, the only thing he had left of his identity. In short, although I am white, female, in my forties and not the least athletic and Josh is black, male, a preteen, and a basketball star, I totally identified with him. That is the magic of Mr. Alexander’s writing.

The spell continued through the end. Mr. Alexander may have made use of a tired sports cliché, but it worked, coming where it did in the chronology of the plot. We are given a dramatic blow, hope which blinds us to the reality of the situation, that cliché, and then the final blow with its devastating implications. Mr. Alexander weaves basketball as a metaphor and an identity throughout his tale that if it doesn’t tug at your heartstrings then I have to question if you have a heart.

And I don’t even like basketball.

Immediately after reading this powerhouse of a story, I read Matt de la Peña’s Last Stop on Market Street. Every Sunday CJ and his Nana take the bus to Market Street where they volunteer, helping those less fortunate than themselves. CJ isn’t in the best of moods this particular Sunday and along the way he envies some of the people and situations he encounters—people with cars and iPods—and artlessly wonders why some people and things are somewhat lacking. In a very gentle way, Nana admonishes CJ’s somewhat negative outlook, pointing out the beauty in the broken-down, the contentment found in having what you need, and the magic of friendship and helping others.

I thought this was a lovely and charming story, but I did wonder why it won the Newbery. This is actually a picture book, and to my knowledge the only one that has won the award. I could see it as a Caldecott winner (it was an Honor book), but the Newbery? A few years ago Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a large chapter book, won the Caldecott, but I could totally see that as the first 42 pages had no words and so much of the story was told in the pictures. Its message is lovely, but that alone should not merit the award. A book club of my fellow library professionals is meeting in a few weeks to discuss this book and I will be very interested in their take on the subject.

So now I’ve read all the Newbery winners from 1956 to 2016.  Nana talks about the magic of the everyday and Mr. Alexander embodied it in his book. And as I continue to work my way through the older books, I can only hope that some of that magic continues.

Mining the Mettle

Newberys Read This Year: 7

Newberys Left for Goal: 8

Newberys Left for Total: 22

 

Book: The Bronze Bow* by Elizabeth George Speare

Audience: C

Genre: Fiction

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When I was a college freshman I took a children’s literature class. It was there that I first encountered the Newbery-winning The Witch of Blackbird Pond which immediately became (and remains) one of my all-time favorite books. Later I discovered that its author, Elizabeth George Speare, is in the small company of authors with more than one book on the Newbery winner list. For some reason I thought the other book was The Sign of the Beaver, one of the few books I did not finish because I couldn’t stand it (chalk it up to my abhorrence of the survivalist genre). When I discovered my error and realized The Bronze Bow was Miss Speare’s second winner, with absolutely no real basis I assumed that this book was another survivalist tale and dreaded reading it. Turns out that what people say about assumptions is unquestionably true in this circumstance. Not only is Bow not survivalist, I found myself in great admiration of it, although admittedly it comes up short against Witch, but then most books do.

Our protagonist here is Daniel, a semi-orphaned Jewish boy living in exile with a group of other outlaws just outside his former home village of Ketzah, near Capernaum in the Holy Land. Daniel is in exile because of an offence he committed against the occupying Roman forces. Rosh, leader of the outlaw men with an ambiguous sense of morality, intends to stage an uprising against the Romans and is therefore Daniel’s hero.

Daniel by chance meets up with an old acquaintance of his, Joel bar Hezron, along with Joel’s sister Malthace. Although Joel is the son of a prominent rabbi, he shares Daniel’s anti-Roman sentiments and envies Daniel’s place in Rosh’s troop. The news that Joel brings of Daniel’s ill and elderly grandmother and emotionally disabled sister Leah bring Daniel back into his village for a visit. While there he comes across another old friend, Simon the Zealot, a blacksmith, just as Daniel was training to be before his exile. Simon was well-known for his opposition against the Romans, but now Simon is turning his back on his rebellious ways. The reason? Simon has become a follower of the radical thinker and speaker, Jesus of Nazareth.

While Daniel is disappointed at the change in Simon, he finds himself at a gathering with Jesus and is both intrigued and moved by Jesus’ words and message.  In time, as Daniel plots his own rebellion against the Romans he becomes increasingly conflicted between his desire for revenge and his attraction to Jesus’ teachings. There eventually comes a time when he must choose: vengeance or forgiveness?

This book won the award in 1962, 20 earth-years and several light-years after the incredibly pedantic The Matchlock Gun. Like Gun, this tale tells a lesson, but the tone and style Mrs. Speare chose to impart that lesson could not be more dissimilar from Mr. Edmonds’ heavy-handed instructiveness. This time our hero (and all characters, for that matter) has flaws, this time he is not the obedient model child designed for readers to emulate. This time he must think for himself. This time the author used finesse to flesh out her characters.

The conflict structure of the two books could not be more different, either. In Gun, the conflict was man (white settlers) against man (Native Americans) as well as man against himself (could Edward find the courage and physical strength to follow his mother’s directions?). Here in Bow we also do have man (Jews) against man (Romans), but the inner conflict of the protagonist is not about the courage and muscle to be obedient, but the courage and morality to know right from wrong and then to actually follow the right path. Mrs. Speare respects her child readers enough to give them a thoroughly human hero they can relate to. She put him in uncommon circumstances but gave him the most common of dilemmas—can he man up enough to do the right thing?

Mrs. Speare has crafted the type of historical fiction I like best: the protagonist is not an actual historical figure, but becomes caught up in actual historical events and interacts with actual historical figures. She made him human and relatable, and gave him the classic struggle of the human condition. No wonder her Bronze story took home Newbery gold.

Girls of a Feather

Newberys Read This Year: 4

Newberys Left for Goal: 11

Newberys Left for Total: 25

 

Book: The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

Audience: C

Genre: Fiction

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

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I am drawn to sister books. The March, Mitford, Bennet, Ingalls and countless other sister combinations are among my favorite novels and works of nonfiction, holding some kind of charm for me. I can add the Penderwick sisters to that list.

Like the March sisters, there are 4 Penderwicks. Rosalind the eldest looks after the three others, especially since the death of their mother. Next-in-line Skye is all about sports and math. Jane is the romantic who dreams of authorship, and little Batty is shy, has an unusual affinity for Hound, the family dog, and is generally charming in a 4-year-old way. For three weeks, the girls and their botany professor father are spending their vacation in the guest house on an estate in western Massachusetts. This of course means that the girls will have all kinds of adventures.

Again, as with the March sisters, I found ways to identify with each sister. Meg March may long for splendid things, but she finds great pleasure in the comforts of home and hearth—I’m a bit of a homebody as well. Rosalind develops a crush on older boy Cagney, only to realize that he regards her as a kid—been there. Jo March wants to leave her mark on the world as a writer and is just a bit different from the rest of the girls—I would love to be a writer and I’ve never been quite like the typical popular girl set. Skye shares this quality of being different from other girls with both Jo and me. Beth March plays the piano and loves music, as do I, and Jane writes stories (as I did as a kid) and loves reading (as I did and do). And finally, Amy March, Batty Penderwick and I are all the youngest in our families, the ones that others feel a need to take care of, whether feel we need them to or not.

Obviously, as I read this book, I was reminded of Little Women. Both books encompass alliance and rivalry, home spirit, adventure, secret sister societies, befriending a lonely neighbor boy, and wanting to grow up while also wanting to never leave childhood. Yet The Penderwicks is its own story, not a retelling of Miss Alcott’s classic. Characters and plots are vastly different. Rather, both books capture the same spirit of innocence and growing pains, sisterhood and individuality. They are gentle and realistic but without the over-the-top sensationalism that is so often used because “it sells.”

For all their charm, the Penderwicks do have a drawback or two. I know their father is a professor who encourages their intellect and speaks Latin to them quite a bit, but the sisters seem a little too articulate for girls of their age. This makes their dialog occasionally sound contrived. I’m not sure if child readers would pick up on this, but it did stand out at times to me.

But this is a small criticism for an otherwise enchanting book. And just as Miss Alcott followed up her masterpiece with two sequels, Miss Birdsall has written additional Penderwick adventures. I look forward to being charmed by them as well.

Having Fun Storming the Castle

 Book: As You Wish by Cary Elwes

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction

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When I was a junior in college, my suitemate Polly and I attended a local math conference. It was held at an independent school about an hour away in Orange, VA. While there, we met one of the math teachers and struck up a conversation with him. A few weeks later the three of us met at the theater in our college town to see a new movie. While I don’t remember much else about the guy other than his name, I vividly remember the incredibly charming movie we saw—The Princess Bride.

It was amazing to Polly and me that this movie wasn’t more popular than it was. Thank goodness for videotape. When released on video it became a cult classic, and deservedly so. I remember seeing it multiple times at the dollar movie and often watching it when I visited my sister. One of her roommates had the video. In fact, he was so enamored with the film that one Halloween he and his girlfriend (now wife) dressed as Princess Buttercup and the Dread Pirate Roberts, the twist being that he was Buttercup and she was the pirate. It’s one of the many movies my friends and family love to quote from. So I was ever so pleased when my sister gave me this memoir of the filming of the movie, written by the Dread Pirate himself.

In very accessible prose, Mr. Elwes chronicles his entire Princess Bride experience, from his initial meeting with director Rob Reiner and Mr. Reiner’s producing partner Andy Scheinman to the film’s 25th anniversary celebration at the New York Film Festival. He recounts his meeting and working relationship with Robin Wright (Princess Buttercup), and the seemingly endless hours he and Mandy Patinkin (Inigo Montoya) trained, practiced and prepped for The Greatest Swordfight in Modern Times. He takes us on set to experience the fun, the exquisite takes, the mishaps, and the camaraderie. He introduces us to all his costars and their excited anticipations and trepidations about bringing William Goldman’s favorite of all his stories to life.

What is missing from Mr. Elwes’ narrative is onset drama and angst. Actually, I don’t think it’s missing at all—it is simply not present. I don’t think Mr. Elwes was seeing his Princess Bride episode through rose-colored hindsight. Rather, the cast and crew truly got along, truly had a wonderful time, truly enjoyed their time on set together. For someone who prefers to live her life in a drama-free zone, this was incredibly refreshing.

To bolster my claim that the Bride set was an harmonious one, I cite the many sidebars peppered throughout the book. These are comments from Mr. Reiner, Mr. Scheinman, Mr. Goldman, and several cast members. Some of these are funny, some are thoughtful, some are enlightening, and all add greatly to the reader’s enjoyment.

As for my own personal enjoyment, I think my favorite anecdote was one involving Mandy Patinkin. I have been in awe of Mr. Patinkin’s talent ever since I first heard the Evita soundtrack (when I was in middle school, I think) and he put his indelible mark on the role of Che Guevara. And as a supremely talented person he has gained a reputation (I have no idea if it is deserved or not) of a somewhat temperamental artist. However, according to Mr. Elwes, Mr. Patinkin has shared that he is asked to recite his most famous Bride line (“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die”) on nearly a daily basis, and that he does. Hardly the actions of a temperamental artist, but rather actions that immediately gain my respect. It shows that Mr. Patinkin is grateful for such a career boosting opportunity, as, it indeed seems, are all the people involved in this classic movie. It was wonderful to learn that a movie that is an incredible experience to watch was also an incredible experience to make. Anything else would have been inconceivable.

My Happy, Golden Adventure

Book: Pioneer Girl by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Audience: Fans

Genre: Nonfiction

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Every two years I take a trip—a jam-packed pilgrimage to a site of literary importance to me. I’ve been to William Shakespeare’s birthplace, the Chawton house where Jane Austen wrote 4 of her masterpieces, Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House (which she used as a setting for Little Women), and Green Gables, the reconstruction of the house from the Lucy Maud Montgomery books. This was a trip year and it was a doozey. Instead of visiting one site particular to an author, a friend of mine from work and I visited five, logging over 2,000 miles of driving between sites. Who was the author who inspired this adventure? That would be Mrs. Laura Ingalls Wilder.

In preparing for this trip, I tried to remember what came first in my life, the books or the television series. The television show actually started with a made-for-TV movie that premiered in March of 1974, when I would have been in first grade, and I remember watching it. I know I did not read the books in strict order. I know I read Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, and On the Banks of Plum Creek first. I remember reading a chapter from Plum Creek (“The Day of Games”) aloud during literature time to my third grade class. I remember reading These Happy Golden Years also while in third grade and having some moments of confusion (due to the fact that I skipped some books and that I was eight years old reading a book written for an older audience). I want to say I watched the movie because I was familiar with the books, but I am not positive. What I have recently realized, however, is that when reading the books, in my mind Laura and Mary never looked like their television counterparts. They looked like the Garth Williams illustrations I grew up with. This makes me more confident that I came to the books first.

And while I LOVED the television show, so much so that my best friend Carrie had her mom audiotape the proposal episode (these were pre-VCR days, baby) because we had a meeting to go to that Monday night, it was not as important to me as the books. How important were they, you ask? Let me count the ways.

First of all, they were an incredible source of imaginative play. Carrie and I would spend hours playing Little House—she was Laura and I reluctantly was Mary (I gave in because I thought TV Mary had the cuter husband). This would be at Carrie’s house, my house, and our favorite place, Grandma and Popeye’s (Carrie’s grandparents) basement. Didn’t matter when or where. This continued for several years, likely long after imaginative play had been abandoned by our peers.

Secondly, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have the complete set. These were the books I rescued from the donation boxes—my biggest act of adolescent rebellion. How dare my mother give them away? I wasn’t done with them yet! Fast forward 30+ years, and I’m still not done with them. I’ve had to replace them because my originals wore out, but I still own a complete set of the series.

Thirdly, I’m pretty sure these were the first historical books I ever read. Considering that my passion for the past continues into my present, these books must have appealed to my imagination in a far more significant way than any books that came before.

Fourthly (but likely not really finally), I think these were the books that inspired my desire to be a writer. I remember marching into my parents’ bedroom and announcing to them that I was going to write a book about what Laura Ingalls Wilder meant to me. OK, so that book never materialized, but I have written multiple works of fiction (some completed, some not, and none published). Not to mention that for the past two-and-a-half years I have written in this blog. Published or not, I am a writer of sorts, and LIW was my original inspiration for that.

So, after a 668 word intro, I can at last get to the subject of this “review” as well as an account of my trip. Again, to prepare for the trip, I read an annotated version of Mrs. Wilder’s memoir, Pioneer Girl. This memoir was what she used to pen the fictionalized version of her life she immortalized in the Little House series. I had read excerpts from the memoir before in some biographies, but it was great to read it in total. What made it most fascinating was the actual annotations. Admittedly, I didn’t read all of them. The ones that commented on the kinds of flora and fauna didn’t hold my interest. The amazing ones were the remarks that illustrated Mrs. Wilder’s process as an author.  In reading those notes I got to see the deliberate choices Mrs. Wilder made between what actually happened in her life and what she wrote about in her fiction. Choices to maintain reader clarity, theme, characterization, pacing, and historical context illuminated just how much work goes into good writing. I often hear people say, “I could write a children’s book better than that.” Chances are those people are wrong. Chances are those people have no idea the work that is actually involved in writing. Chances are those people are yet unpublished.

Another wonderful thing about the annotations was that, for me, it put to bed the question of the actual authorship of the Little House series. Growing up, I unquestioningly believed that Mrs. Wilder was the author. Over the years, I have read theories that the books were in fact written by Rose Wilder Lane, Laura’s famous author-journalist daughter. The school of thought is that Laura, having never graduated from high school, lacked the ability to craft fiction, so she and Rose worked together to create the series with Rose being the actual author. The annotations debunk that theory. They contain excerpts from letters between the two ladies where Rose offers suggestions and Laura accepts or rejects them and gives her reasons. I have no doubt that Rose was a hand-on editor of her mother’s work and that the true authorship belongs to Laura.

So, having read this memoir, my friend and colleague J and I set out on a LIW journey. We flew to St. Louis and then rented a car (covered wagons not available). Over the next 8 days we trekked over 2,000 miles in 6 states. We saw the hotel that the Ingalls family ran in Burr Oak, Iowa (an experience Mrs. Wilder did not recount in her fiction). We wandered through what is left of the Big Woods of Wisconsin and visited a replica of the little house there (built to the description in the memoir, not the fiction). We stood in the remains of the dugout site and followed the banks of Plum Creek in Minnesota. We rode in the car for 10 minutes to get from Walnut Grove to Tracy, a journey that took a train carrying the Ingalls women an entire morning to complete in 1879. We stood in the actual surveyor’s house and the first schoolhouse the girls attended in South Dakota. We admired Pa’s handiwork in the final house he built in town. We were mesmerized by the size of the trees he planted on the homestead over 100 years ago and marveled at the size (bigger than I expected) of the sitting room in the homestead house (a replica) where I played the pump organ. We were awed by the house Mr. Wilder built in Missouri, where he customized the kitchen to fit his wife’s diminutive size, and by the stone house Rose had built for her parents’ retirement. We geeked out at the artifacts in the Mansfield, MO museum (OK, perhaps I geeked out a bit more, obsessive fan that I am). We paid our respects at the gravesites of the Ingalls-Wilder family members in both South Dakota and Missouri. We had a thoroughly wonderful time on an incredible trip, one that was all the more meaningful and enjoyable to me since I had a companion as interested in every aspect of the family as I was.

So that was my adventure this summer. J and I ended the trip with a few days in St. Louis, going up the Arch and having high tea in the swanky Central West End district, but the LIW site visits were the realization of a dream. In visiting these historic locations I was also, in a sense, revisiting my childhood and the multitude of happy hours I spent in Laura-world. It was wonderful, it was awesome, it totally rocked!