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.

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.

Not Much Ginger, Not Much Spark

Newberys Read This Year: 11

Newberys Left for Goal: 4

Newberys Left for Total: 18

 

Book: Ginger Pye* by Eleanor Estes

Audience: C

Genre: Realistic Fiction

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

Earlier this school year one of the 5th grade teachers told me that she had a group of kids who would be reading this book. I was enthusiastic as I knew that I would be reading it as part of my Newbery quest. After reading it, I was noticeably less enthusiastic.

Not that I thought this book was horrible. I just didn’t see what was so wonderful about it. We have two siblings, Jerry and Rachel Pye, who see a puppy for sale and decide they want him. They are told they only have until Saturday at 6:00 to buy him, since someone else is interested in the puppy, and they make the money and time goal with little to spare. They name him Ginger and he proves to be the most loving, clever, and puppyish puppy on the face of the earth.

Interwoven with Ginger’s amazing adventures, such as following Jerry to school to bring him a pencil, there is the specter of the Unsavory Character with a yellow hat hanging around waiting, Jerry insists, to steal Ginger. When Ginger goes missing at Thanksgiving, Jerry’s suspicions prove to be justified after all. The family suffers Ginger’s loss greatly and refuses to give up on him. Their loving faithfulness is ultimately rewarded at the conclusion of the novel.

The plot itself is fairly basic and nothing particularly original. (Of course, the definitive story of earning money for your dog is Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows, but that book was actually written later.) The kids and their relationship are exemplar, but that was typical of the times. As I stated earlier, there was really nothing wrong with the book, but I’m not sure what was so right with it. To earn the Newbery a book has to make the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature that year. I suppose I’m searching to see what makes this book so distinguished.

I’ve come up with some possibilities. Miss Estes made a conscious style choice of repetition.  For example, the kids hear footsteps in relation to the person they think is stalking their dog. Forevermore, the phrase “mysterious footsteps” is used whenever referring to them.  The stalker is always referred to as Unsavory or Unsavory Character in the yellow hat. Whenever Miss Estes describes a person or event, she always describes that person or event using the exact same wording. To me, that denotes a deliberate choice, creating a specific style for the novel. So perhaps this distinct style was in the Newbery committee’s mind.

Or, perhaps it might have been what could have been behind the style choice. That repetition was a little reminiscent of how children in the target age group think, which again, I think was deliberate. I’ve not yet read all the Newberys that came before it, but in looking at the list, it seems to me that Ginger Pye is the first, or one of the first that seemed to be written for early middle readers that was more for them and about them. We don’t have true anthropomorphic characters (more on that later) here, we don’t have an historical novel, we don’t have a romance or adventure, and we don’t have the overly pedantic tone so prevalent in earlier children’s books. Maybe this was a novel style for a children’s novel (pun intended) and therefore noteworthy to the Newbery committee.

Another possibility I’ve come up with is the perspective the novel takes. Miss Estes uses an omniscient point of view, including, upon occasion the POV of Ginger himself. Other novels have had animal characters and have utilized a first or third person point of view for the animals, but these were anthropomorphic characters, which Ginger truly is not. He doesn’t communicate in English to any other character, and he doesn’t have any human characteristics other than his thought process. But as Ginger makes his way to Jerry’s school to deliver the pencil, we as readers are in his head, understanding why he is on his quest, how he fights off distractions of other animals and interesting scents along the way, and how he figures out how to do what he must. With the possible exception of King of the Wind (which I read a while ago and don’t fully remember) and Gay-Neck, Story of a Pigeon (which I haven’t read yet) I’m not sure if this technique (which Beverly Cleary perfected in the wonderful Socks some twenty years later) was much in use or in use at all.

This was a cute little story, with cute little characters, a cute little problem, and a cute little solution. Ginger the puppy may have earned his name with his spunky personality, but the book does not. The story itself is not Newbery-worthy. The craft must have been the reason why it earned the award, whether for my suggestions or something else. But from my perspective, as a distinguished work of literature, this one rather fizzles.

 

Misnomer

 Newberys Read This Year: 11

Newberys Left for Goal: 4

Newberys Left for Total: 18

 

Book: All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction

Rating: One Book.jpgOne Book.jpg

 

Before I read this book, when I saw this title and read the blurb, it spoke to me. During my reading of this book, as a single lady I expected that it would also speak for me. After I had finished this book, I sadly realized that while at times it did, overall it did not even speak about me.

First of all, this book, in general, was not what I anticipated. I thought this would be a look at single women through history and their accomplishments. Indeed, the beginning of the book did touch—briefly—on that. But overall, this book was about the increasing number of single women in America, some of the reasons why that number is on the rise, and how society traditionally and contemporarily looks at single women. After reading it, I came to see this book as a work in defense of single women, celebrating the choice to remain unmarried and leading an untraditional yet full life.

Yet the title itself seems to oppose this mission of the book. It’s highly likely Mrs. Traister chose the title because its connection to the Beyoncé song will attract readers. Admittedly, that’s how the book came to catch my eye. Yet the lyrics of Mrs. Knowles’ song are about a woman who is out of a relationship because it did not lead to marriage (“Cuz if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it.”). The song’s narrator is single because her man would not commit to the traditional relationship, not because she chose to be so. While reading the book I felt that at least part of the author’s purpose was to empower single women, but Mrs. Knowles’ song (one I totally enjoy) is not about the empowerment of choosing to be single. The narrator’s power comes from making the man regret what he gave up, not from choosing her own destiny, rendering the title ironic. So Mrs. Traister resorted to a marketing tactic to make her book sell. I’m not disappointed in myself for falling for the tactic, but I am disappointed in Mrs. Traister for stooping to it.

But the irony doesn’t stop there. In fact, I found this book to be chock full of irony, and not in the good Jane Austen sense. In addition to the title reference being ironic, so is the title itself: All the single ladies. This book does not represent all single women. As I mentioned, this book is an advocate for women who choose to be single or to delay marriage. I do not actively choose my long-time singleton status, it’s just the way my life has unfolded thus far.  So this book really doesn’t represent me. The book seems to define single women as those who have never married. My good friends D and R are each divorced. They certainly consider themselves single, but apparently Mrs. Traister does not, so this book does not represent them. Another good friend of mine, N, has never married. She has been in a long-term, (more than 15 years) committed relationship with her boyfriend J. She does not consider herself single, but Mrs. Traister would. In addition, Mrs. Traister dwells a bit on single mothers—unmarried women who have given birth, in her definition. What about women like my friend D who chose to be a single mom through adoption? I’m well aware that it would be impossible to give equal time to all the ways of being single, but if you are going to write about all the single ladies, spare a little more time and ink for those beyond your main focus group.

So what does Mrs. Traister spend her time and ink on? For one thing, a plethora of statistics: the average age for first marriages among all women, among white women, among black women, among college graduates, among those with incomes above a certain amount, among those with incomes below a certain amount; single women in serially committed relationships, in short term relationships, in casual relationships, in encounters that cannot really be considered a relationship of any kind; single women who have children early, who wait to have children, who freeze their eggs, and the varying degrees of fertility of some of these groups. I won’t go on, but the book does.

The thing is, in the words Mark Twain famously popularized, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” All those numbers didn’t impress me. Anyone can find numbers to strengthen the points she wants to make, and rather easily so in this highly digital age. Mrs. Traister herself points this out. She reveals that the long accepted and “oft-cited” statistic that 30% of women between 30-35 will get pregnant after trying for a year comes from French birth records spanning over a hundred years  from the 17th to 19th centuries. With all those numbers, isn’t it likely that she uses at least some of them to support her point of view rather than for the purpose they were intended? To her credit, she does provide notes and a selected bibliography so anyone could research her original sources and see the actual context for her statistics. But she could be doing as Mark Twain did actually say, “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.” Mrs. Traister’s excessive use of numbers likely had the opposite effect she intended—they turned me off and made me question the authenticity her of claims.

Mention of her claims leads me to another issue I had with this book. Now I realize that this is ultimately a work that justifies Mrs. Traister’s opinions concerning single women. And as such, her personal bias and conclusions she has drawn are de facto elements of the book. It’s just that when she draws rather outrageous conclusions that I have to pause. For example, Mrs. Traister presents excerpts from a speech President Obama made in which he commented about having an absent father. He scolded men who abandon their duty as fathers, and he stated that single mothers need support. He opined that the best kind of support is “another parent in the home.” Mrs. Traister then states that “Obama is not alone in his conviction that single mothers are bad for kids.” So thinking that being raised by two parents is best for kids means that you think single mothers are bad for kids? Did I miss something? That’s like saying since I think chocolate peanut butter ice cream is the best that must mean that I think chocolate ice cream is bad. That’s ridiculous, as is the conclusion that Mrs. Traister drew from Mr. Obama’s comments. When she leaps from A to B to J she flies in the face of logic and makes me question her credibility.

I also question the quality of her equality measures. Mrs. Traister spends a bit of time addressing hooking-up culture: men and women connecting simply for sex. She compares the traditional view of this phenomenon (boys will be boys and the sluts they bang) with the contemporary view (boys will be boys and the maybe-they’re-not-quite-sluts girls who have sex with them). She states that more women engage in this behavior, making it more socially acceptable, making slut-shaming on the decrease. The change in this view is of course supported by some of her many statistics. She lauds this as a step toward equality, and I suppose quantitatively it is, but I find it rather depressing from a moral point of view. I do believe that men and women who engage in hooking-up culture should be viewed equally, and that slut-shaming needs to be eradicated from society. I find it disappointing that as a society women are sinking to the level of men to close the gender equality gap, rather than men rising to the perception of women.

So with her surfeit of statistics (in overkill mode), her illogical conclusions, her discouraging moral outlook, and her irony without humor, Mrs. Traister (and how is that for irony?) failed to gain my admiration for her book. I admire her purpose, but not her book. I suppose in the end I am glad that Mrs. Traister misnamed her book. If this how she thinks of single ladies and how she supports their cause it’s a good think I am not a part of the all.