12.31.2008

A Drowned Maiden's Hair: A Melodrama, by Laura Amy Schlitz, 389pp RL5


A Drowned Maiden's Hair is by Laura Amy Schlitz, winner of the 2008 Newbery Medal for her book Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices From a Medieval Village, which is a collection of monologues and dialogues. She has written a moving work with her first young adult novel which was published in 2006.

On a Spring morning in 1909 we first meet Maude Flynn, eleven years old and locked in the Barbary Asylum for Female Orphans outhouse singing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." What unfolds from there is a deliciously long but fast paced story with characters as intricate as unfolding origami. Maude is one of the most layered, convincing child characters I have read in a long time. Orphaned at a young age, she is separated from her older brother, Samm'l, and infant sister when an older couple arrive to adopt a strong boy to help on the farm. They are enchanted enough by beautiful baby Kit to adopt her too, but have no interest in Maude. Maude begins to believe that she is unlovable and the Superintendent of the asylum for girls she is moved to after the Catholic orphanage closes convinces her that she is impudent as well. She develops a brittle exterior to go with these beliefs, but these can be overlooked by Hyacinth Hawthorne.

Hyacinth, though middle aged, is the youngest of the three Hawthorne sisters of Hawthorne Grove. Hyacinth is beautiful, well dressed and charming when she chooses to be. Judith, the eldest, is stern and religious. Victoria, who lost a special gift when she betrayed it years ago, is sensitive but also resigned to her fate as a woman of a certain class who is quickly becoming impoverished because she is a woman of a certain class and therefor cannot work. The three women have found a way to earn money and keep their home, it is somewhat respectable, but definitely not honest. Hyacinth passes herself off as a spiritual medium and the sisters hold seances at which tables rise, thumps are heard and chandeliers sway. In an effort to please a client and earn enough money to pay off the mortgage on their house, Hyacinth convinces her sisters that they should adopt a child. Maude is to live inside the house in Hawthorne Grove, never leaving it, and learn the secrets of the trade as well as everything she can about Caroline Lambert, the dead daughter of their wealthiest client, whom she has been trying to contact in the years since her death. Mrs Lambert has offered $5000 to any medium who will allow her to see her daughter one more time.

Maude, so desperate to be loved, accepted, well dressed and fed and, best of all, well read, goes along willingly, even holding herself aloof from her brother when he pays a surprise visit before moving across the country with his adopted family. This is one of the most well written scenes in the book in terms of Maude's character. As the meeting with her brother progresses, Maude has flashes of memories and emotions ebb and flow with them. Samm'l tries to apologize for going along with the adults on the day of his adoption and leaving Maude behind and asks for forgiveness. As Maude considers and shares her memories of that day the inconsistency of memories and our brain's desire to make sense of things is revealed. Maude remembers throwing a tantrum and has always assumed that is why she wasn't adopted. Samm'l tells her that she didn't throw the tantrum until after the Vines had made their decision. Maude had always thought that her undesirableness had been because of her anger, not the mere fact of who she was. But, as an eleven year old child she cannot really begin to grasp this and instead steels herself against Samm'l's offer to return for her when he is an adult in a few years. She has a home and she is wanted, Maude tells him. That basic, primitive, childhood need has been satisfied for Maude, for now. But things will change.

My favorite character in this book, after Maude, is the deaf, mute cook and housekeeper the Hawthorne sisters have employed for so long they cannot even remember her name, only the nickname that Hyacinth gave her because of her fear of spiders - Muffet. At first, with her limp and her odd grunts and shrieks, Muffet seems to be a minor character. However, as she and Maude begin to interact, Muffet drawing her requests and questions on a pad of paper always in her pocket, an idea occurs to Maude. Using a cookbook, Maude begins to teach Muffet how to read. Despite the fact that Maude is the teacher and Muffet the student, the roles of child and adult are never reversed for these two. Muffet is always caring for and watchful of Maude, even though she does no know or suspect what the Hawthrone sisters are up to. The progression of the relationship between these two is very moving, especially at the climax of the story when both Maude and Muffet, unknowingly, try to rescue the other from a disaster. By the end of the story, despite the lack of verbal communication, it is clear that Muffet loves Maude and that Maude is capable of returning that love. As the story progresses, Maude sees more of Hyacinth's inconstancy and is hurt by her but continues to yearn for her attention. Maude also inadvertently meets the mother of the dead girl she has learned to impersonate after she has snuck out of the house and a whole other story begins to unfold. The fabric of the tale and the characters themselves unravel and come together again in a satisfying but bittersweet way.

This is such a wonderful book for a young girl. While aspects of the plot and unsavory characters may seem mature, this book is definitely in the tradition of Lucy Maude Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables. And, while I love Anne Shirley, I would rather read a series of books about Maude any day.

Source: Purchased

12.29.2008

Soupy Saturdays with the Pain and the Great One by Judy Blume, pictures by James Stevenson 108pp RL 2



Soupy Saturdays with the Pain and the Great One is a second grade level chapter book with characters who first appeared in a picture book, The Pain and the Great One by Judy Blume. The Pain and the Great One was originally written as a poem for the book that accompanied the album and television special that aired in 1974, Free To Be You and Me.

The picture book version of The Pain and The Great One, still in print, is the story in verse of two siblings, a girl, The Great One, a third grader, and her brother, The Pain, a first grader. Although short on text, the words and illustrations combine to depict sibling rivalry and the different perspectives kids have on their siblings and how their parents treat them. In 1974 the bare expressions of jealousy and hatred this brother and sister have for each other was probably pretty revolutionary. After all, Judy Blume was the spearhead of the movement that presented real experiences and emotions felt by children and preadolescents in children's literature. Today, in the world of Junie B Jones and other outspoken sassy characters in books, television and movies, this book might seem like old hat. Nevertheless, I think that there is plenty of room for The Pain and The Great One in the world of second grade level chapter books.

Abigail, the Pain and Jake, the Great One, are introduced in alternating chapters in the first few pages of the book. The characters are sometimes a bit too precious and precocious, like when the Pain wears earmuffs to his visit with Mr Soupy, the barber, and won't let him get near his ears. However, most of the book is made up of stories and qualities that ring true. There is a great chapter titled "Soccer Doc," starring Jake, that addresses the problem of playing a team sport with a coach (and Dad of a friend) who makes playing less fun. This dilemma is resolved nicely and there is a good balance of adult presence and kid autonomy in the stories. My favorite chapter in the book is titled, "Party Girl" and stars Abigail. Because her real birthday is on July 4th and always celebrated with family rather than with her friends, Abigail yearns for a real party with pink (not red, white and blue) cake, a sleep over with friends and the absence of her brother. Her parents allow her to celebrate her half-birthday and have the party of her dreams. Falling in January, the day is a snowy one one. Jake wakes up sick and can't go to grandma's as planned. Sasha's mom won't let her come because she gets asthma from every little cold. Kaylee is sick, too. That leaves Emily, who has never slept at a friend's house before and doesn't like pink. However, she agrees to give it a try and the party goes well until bedtime. Abigail copes admirably and manages to enjoy her pink cake as well.

As their names suggest, there is quite a bit of fighting that goes on between this brother and sister. I never fought with my brother that way and my kids don't really fight like the Pain and the Great One do, probably because their ages are so spread out, so I didn't appreciate those passages as much I wish I could have. My two boy usually result to physical violence pretty quickly, of which there is none in this book. If the Pain would just head-butt the Great One, causing her to squeal like a stuck pig once in a while, that would have felt familiar to me. But then it wouldn't have been the well-written, worthwhile book that it is.





12.26.2008

From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler by EL Konigsburg, 168pp RL 5


From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler written and illustrated by the amazingly gifted EL Konigsburg is the stand-out book from my childhood. It is the book that left a lasting impression on me as an eleven year old and sparked (or maybe fueled an already existing) love for stories that unfold in and are shaped by New York City. I am sure this explains my adolescent obsession with JD Salinger and the handful of books he authored. Or, maybe this fascination really begins with my father, who grew up on Long Island and, when I pried hard enough, would tell me a little bit about his childhood there and visits to NYC. As a fourth generation (Southern) Californian, this all sounded so exotic, enthralling, intellectual and arty to me as a child. After all, Claudia decided to run away to it because it was "elegant; it was important; and busy." I don't know if I was thoughtful enough to long for an experience that would leave me different the way Claudia Kincaid did, but I was restless and anxious enough for new experiences and also always looking for a way to stand out among my peers, so much so that I was intrigued by Claudia, Jamie and their adventure.

If Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone had be published when I was ten or eleven, I have no doubt that I would have been consumed with it (even more so than I am as an adult.) As it was, I was a reader in a world of children's literature where there were no series that told one story over the course of several books. That's not entirely true. I read the superb, semi-autobiographical Great Brain (sorry for the link to Wikipedia but it was the best reference I could find) series that I wish more people knew of and I began Madeleine L'Engle's Time Quartet that starts with A Wrinkle in Time, written in 1962 and winner of the Newbery Award the following year. And, while Meg Murry left a lasting impression on me with her mousy appearance and bad temper, unheard of in girl characters even thirty years ago, my parents weren't scientists and would never discover a tesseract that would carry me to different dimensions. But, like Claudia, there was a remote chance that I could run away and hide out in a museum. And I did have a younger brother who was stingy. While fantasy writing for children was mostly dormant during my childhood, the visits that Claudia and Jamie made to Horn and Hardart's Automat in NYC were as magical to me as anything found in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry today. If you and your kids are interested in automats, visit this amazing site that is affiliated with Storycorps, an independent, non-profit project whose mission is to honor and celebrate one another's lives through listening and can be heard on nrp.org, to listen to a Sound Portrait of the last day of operation for Horn & Hardart's on April 9, 1991.

Reading and writing about this book today, I am tempted to label it a fantasy considering the ways in which our world has changed in the forty plus years since it was first published in 1967. If you have never read this book, I highly recommend you seek out the 35th Anniversary edition with an afterword (because, as she says, she never reads forwards until after she has finished reading a book) by EL Konigsburg reflecting upon the changes in the world and NYC since she wrote her book. There is also an interesting aside about an incident in 1995 that has amazing similarities to Konigsburg's book, written almost thirty years earlier. The basic plot of the story follows twelve-year old Claudia Kincaid who, feeling unappreciated and undervalued by her parents, decides to run away. Being a thoughtful, particular child with specific ideas about the ways in which things should be done, she decides to bring her nine-year old brother Jamie along because he "could be counted on to be quiet, and now and then he was good for a laugh. Besides, he was rich." Her meager allowance, one of her main reasons for running away, combined with her love of hot fudge sundaes, has left Claudia without the funds she needs to carry out her plan. Jamie is good at saving money and Claudia knows he will keep her from squandering their combined savings.

Claudia plans their adventure with an mature preciseness. She has thought through how the children will pack their supplies (instrument cases) where they will stay (the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was free in 1967) and how they will go unnoticed while there (hide in the bathroom stalls - feet up - at opening and closing time and joining touring school groups during the day so as to go unnoticed while roaming the museum.) This in and of itself could take up 162 pages, but Konigsburg adds another layer to the story. While Claudia and Jamie are hiding out at the Met, a new exhibit draws record crowds. The museum has acquired at auction for the low, even in 1967, price of $225, a marble sculpture that may have been sculpted by Michelangelo. Claudia decides that solving the mystery of this statue, referred to as Angel, will be the thing that allows her to return home (because she knows from the start that she will be going home eventually) different and make her efforts worthwhile. That is where Mrs Basil E Frankweiler, previous owner of Angel, and her mixed-up files come in adding yet another layer and a twist to the story. I am almost 100% positive that I missed the nuances of this plot thread when I read the story as a child, but I enjoyed it immensely nonetheless. As an adult reader, the framework of the story, the narration of the events by Mrs Frankweiler and her frequent asides to her lawyer, Saxonberg, who, by the end of the story is revealed to be the grandfather of the missing Kincaid children, adds an emotional depth and richness to the story that makes it even more meaningful.

There is a really moving event near the end of the book that I won't reveal, but I will say that Konigsburg is brilliant at creating fully formed child characters. Reading as a child, Claudia did not seem real to me in the way that she reminded me of myself or one of my friends, but real in the way that she was like me, but a better me. I wanted to have her attention to detail, her grammatical knowledge that she was constantly wielding over her brother, her sense of self direction and her sense of importance. Both Jamie and Claudia seemed to see things and think about things in ways that seemed just that much better than what I was up to as eleven-year old and that is why, despite the uniquely creative story line, this book stuck with me as I grew.

EL Konigsburg has written sixteen novels, two of which are out of print, and two short story collections. I have read six of her books and plan to get busy reading and selling the rest. I think she may be the most prolific, talented writer of realistic fiction for kids and I hope she has a few more books in her because they keep getting better. Two other books of hers that center around works of art are The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place and the mysterious edge of the heroic world.

Other authors of late have begun taking up the "missing/mysterious work of art/artist" theme in one way or another. They include two fabulous books by Elise Broach, Masterpiece and Shakespeare's Secret. Blue Balliett has added to the genre with Chasing Vermeer, The Wright 3 and The Calder Game.



12.25.2008

The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place by EL Konigsburg, 296 pp RL 5


EL Konigsburg is a master at pulling together seemingly disparate threads to illuminate what will become a milestone event in her characters' lives. An author of a fantasy novel has the luxury of using fantastic plot elements, like a boy who is born with wizarding powers and suffers years of cruel treatment at the hands of his guardians, treatment that allows him to shine that much brighter when he is given the chance, not to mention his abilities with a broomstick, to detail the specialness of her characters. EL Konigsburg's stories, rooted in reality, manage to take commonplace childhood events, like being sent to camp and mean girls and mix them, like an artist mixes paint colors, into a rich, revealing story that allows her characters to shine and glow in their specialness while also standing squarely in a firm plot of reality that might possibly be inhabited by any reader at almost any time.


Like From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler and the mysterious edge of the heroic world, The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place centers around a work of art (or two). However, unlike the other two books, which mention imaginary works by known artists, Outcasts revolves around an imaginary work of Outsider art that brings to mind Watts Towers which were built between 1921 and 1954 by an Italian immigrant named Sabato Rodia. The outcasts of the title are Hungarian immigrants, brothers Alex and Morris Rose, who bought their house and began constructing the towers in their back yard some forty-five years before the story begins in the summer of 1983. Konigsburg sets the stage for this period with a time capsule from sometimes narrator, twelve year old Margaret Rose Kane, who tells us that this was the year Sally Ride became the first woman in space, the year Ma Bell was broken up into several independent, low-cost phone companies and also the year the FCC authorized Motorola to begin testing cell phone services.

Margaret, who adores her great uncles and spends large amounts of time with them, is sent to summer camp for four weeks while her parents, both professors at Clarion State University in Epiphany, go on a dig in Peru. Margaret is shocked not to be included in the trip and equally surprised that she has not been given the option to stay with her beloved great uncles. In light of this, she puts all her efforts into selecting the best camp. Despite her efforts, she ends up at a camp run by a tight laced woman who refers to herself as "we" and "us" and in a cabin with six alums who decide to pull every prank they know on her. This leads Margaret to respond, "I prefer not to," to every activity, winning her the name Bartleby, from the Herman Melville story "Bartleby the Scrivener." The name is awarded by Jake Kaplan, camp janitor and handyman who is also an artist and college age son of the camp director. His sympathy for Margaret and her plight grows when he sees the way his mother treats her and her Uncle Alex, who comes to retrieve her. Jake offers to drive them back to Epiphany out of kindness and is awed by the towers and anxious to spend more time with the family and their works of art, offering to paint a rose on the ceiling of Margaret's room on his days off. Thus the cover of the book - the painting of the rose, done by Konigsburg herself, with the shadow of the towers on top of it.

When Margaret accidentally discovers that her uncles have lost a three year battle with their neighbors and the Home Owners Association, she enlists her mother's childhood friends Peter and Loretta, who's families once lived on either side of the uncles, to help her save the towers. The uncles have lived in their house long enough to see their downtown neighborhood go from working class families to slum to yuppie gentrification. The new home owners consider the towers a useless eyesore and, being lawyers, they know how to go about removing them. However, Peter Vanderwaal is now the curator of an art center and Loretta is a lawyer and executive for Infinitel, one of the newly created long distance phone companies that have sprung up in the wake of Ma Bell's demise. Jake and his mother, as well as the devious campers who caused Margaret to pursue her course of passive resistance, come to the aid of the towers with some passive resistance of their own. After a great showdown that garners national attention, Loretta saves the day when Infinitel offers to buy the towers and move them to a nearby hill that over looks the college because they realize they can kill two birds with one stone. They have publicity they didn't have to buy as well as artwork that can serve as cell phone antenna towers. The book ends wonderfully with Margaret, now a college student, looking back on the events and providing updates on the major players in the story.

This book is so well written, the characters so complex and interesting and their dilemmas so compelling, that it feels like a book for adults. I'm sure it would be it the main character wasn't twelve, but the beauty of the book it how important it is that the main character is twelve and we see the story mainly through her eyes. She is invested in different ways than the adults and has a perspective that allows the reader to learn a bit about life, love and loss in ways that an adult narrator couldn't have pulled off.

12.22.2008

The Second Mrs Giaconda by EL Konigsburg, 138 pp RL 5


Written in 1975, The Second Mrs Giaconda is an imagined explanation of how Leonardo da Vinci came to paint his famous work, La Joconde, or the Mona Lisa. As fascinating story, it doesn't have the same immediacy of character or flow that other works by Konigsburg posses. However, it is steeped in fascinating details from the historical period and, though it is a bit harder to connect with and find likable the characters of the story, Konigsburg pulls the threads of their various lives and personalities together in a satisfying ending that begins with the commissioning of the famous portrait.

Obviously the result of much research, Konigsburg begins her story with details from the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci concerning an apprentice named Salai. A noted thief, Salai was also left a piece of property with a house on it in Leonardo's will. Konigsburg takes these facts and runs with them, beginning her story with a young, possibly ten year old Salai, cutting the purse from a companion of Leonardo's as they walk down the streets of Milan. The young boy with the golden curls becomes an apprentice in Leonardo's workshop as well as a companion and the sketch from Lenoardo's notebooks that graces the cover of Konigsburg's book is meant to suggest what Salai might have looked like. Several other works of art are represented in the back of the book, including a finished portrait as well as more notebook sketches by Leonardo as well as works of art by other artists representing other historical figures who appear in The Second Mrs Giaconda.

The relationship between Leonardo and the boy Salai is given an explanation and a framework by the presence of Beatrice d'Este, child bride of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, also known as Il Moro, or the Moor, because of his dark skin. Beatrice is wed to the Duke of Milan when he misses his chance to marry her older, more beautiful and witty sister, Isabella, by two weeks. Besides being second choice, Beatrice must also compete with the Duke's long time mistress, Cecelia Gallerini, who has been immortalized in a portrait by Leonardo. When Beatrice, who is only a few years older than the now thirteen year old Salai, mistakes him for a dwarf sent from Mantua by her sister, who breeds them, in a effort to cheer her up, he plays along and they become fast friends. This fact, along with her shinning personality, also leads to a friendship with Leonardo, who finds Beatrice intelligent and in possession of an artistic eye. Soon the three of them are spending evenings together and enjoying themselves so much that others are drawn in and Beatrice becomes the center of a lively, intellectual group of thinkers and artists.

As her happiness grows, so does her attractiveness and the Duke soon takes notice of her and eventually falls in love with her and she with him. When this happens, she and Salai begin to see less and less of each other and Beatrice is gradually changed by her new status. Instead of letting her inner beauty and wit shine through as she once had, Beatrice begins to pile on the jewels and elaborate gowns, ultimately in an attempt to win back her husband's straying attent
ions. In one exchange, while viewing a grand sculpture of a horse that the Duke has commissioned as a memorial to his father, Beatrice explains her dissatisfaction with the piece by pointing out to Salai the importance of his presence in Leonardo's life. Salai does not care about art, does not take it seriously the way the rest of the courtiers do, it is his "rudeness and irresponsibility" that gives Leonardo a "wild element," that something that "leaps and flickers." She goes on to explain that Leonardo is too self-conscious to bring that wild element to his work on his own. He is too serious and too much the perfectionist and it is up to Salai to keep that element present for him. In turn, several months later, Salai is able to offer Beatrice some advice and insight while viewing Leonardo's work in progress at St Marie delle Grazie, his painting of The Last Supper. Wanting to know her opinion of the work, Salai observes that Beatrice is not as happy as she once was, that her "gaiety is too loud. And so is [her] dress. Both are covering up something." To which Beatrice replies, "You were more fun, Salai, before you learned to think."

The story takes a turn after this exchange, at which point I began to realize that, while there was much talk of Leonardo painting Beatrice's portrait and why she would not allow it, and much insistence and begging on the part of her sister, Isabella, for Leonardo to paint her portrait, there was no mention of Mrs Giaconda of Mona Lisa. But, like I said above, Kongisburg finds a way to bring Signor and Signora Giaconda into the story that puts the relationships of Leonardo, Salai and Beatrice into perspective. Whether true or not, Konigsburg has written a fascinating work of historical fiction that introduces children to the multiple geniuses of Leonardo da Vinci as well as the aspects of life during the Italian Renaissance.

For readers who liked this book, I suggest Daughter of Venice by the excellent teen writer, Donna Jo Napoli. Set in 1592, it is the story of Donata, born to a noble family at a time when only the first born daughter marries and all other daughters are sent to live in convents. The story is rich with description of the life of a girl during this time, as well as a superb plot line that takes Donata into the Jewish ghetto disguised as a boy. Also, for younger readers, there is Mary Pope Osborne's Monday with a Mad Genius, Magic Tree House #38, which follows Jack and Annie as they visit Florence, Italy during the Renaissance and have the good fortune to bump into Leonard da Vinci and serve as apprentices as he works on his lost painting, The Battle of Anghiari, for the Hall of Five Hundred in the Palazzo Vecchio, opposite a work that was to be completed by Michelangelo, the only time the two ever worked together. Michelangelo abandoned his painting when he was summoned to Rome to build the tomb for Pope Julius II. Leonardo's was lost due to new techniques he employed during the painting, describe in Monday with a Mad Genius.







My 100th Review and a Request for My Readers

Friday will mark my 100th review since I began writing in August.  Coincidentally, I had planned to post a review of EL Konigsburg's Newbery winning book, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler on that day.  This is a coincidence because, as I re-read this book, I realized that it is one of a handful of books from my childhood that I can actually remember reading and being influenced by, so it seems appropriate that a book that has been so important in my life will also have the honor of holding the mini-landmark title of "100th Review."  And, while I am reviewing this book on Fairy Tale Friday and it is not, technically speaking, a fairy tale, it kind of reads like one.  Although it was written in 1967 and is a story based in reality, so many aspects of it are now inconceivable that it may as well be a fantasy story.

Something else I realized as I was writing this review is that, while I considered myself a voracious reader as a child, there are only a few books I actually remember the details of some thirty years later.  I read or re-read every book that I review and I am sure I have read three times as many children's books in my adult life than I did as a child.  However, re-reading books from my childhood as an adult, reading any book for children as an adult, implicitly implies a certain perspective that I did not possess as a child reader.  As an adult, I was moved to tears by a certain aspect of "Mixed-up Files" that involves the main characters who have run away from home and their doting grandfather, who also turns out to be the lawyer of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler, narrator of the book, and is addressed directly by her often throughout the novel.  Looking back on my childhood memories of the book, I have no recollection of noticing this aspect of the novel or even registering that Saxonberg, the lawyer, was Claudia and Jamie's grandfather.  It didn't lessen my childhood enjoyment of the book at all, and it was an added layer that enhanced my appreciation of the book as an adult reader.

As I pondered this childhood oversight, I wondered if others might have done the same thing.  I greatly appreciate all of the comments that you, my handful of readers, have submitted over the last four months.  I genuinely value what you have to say and it helps shape my perspective and well as my choices in what to read and review.  I would love to do a post of adult reflections on books that were childhood favorites written entirely by my readers.  And, if you have recently re-read you favorite book from childhood, all the better.

So, PLEASE all thirty-seven of you out there - write me a little piece on your favorite book from childhood (chapter book, please, as those seem to be more influential and personality shaping) and I will put together a post, with cover art, sharing all of your thoughts.  And, thanks again to all of you for reading and commenting on my reviews.  I really love every minute I spend reading, thinking about and writing them!

12.18.2008

the mysterious edge of the heroic world by EL Konigsburg, 244pp RL 5


Like William Faulkner and his Yoknapatwpha County, EL Konigsburg is adding to the books set in her mythical Epiphany, PA and sister city of St Malo, Florida. Along with The View From Saturday (1996), Silent to the Bone (2000), The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place (2004), the mysterious edge of the heroic world (2007) is set in St Malo with roots in and nods to Epiphany, PA. And, like Outcasts and From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler, mysterious revolves around works of art. In her most ambitious work yet, Konigsburg weaves aspects of the Nazi invasion of Holland, persecution of modern artists, homosexuals and gypsies as well as with Jews, the Stockholm Syndrome, Austrian Amnesia and questions of moral ambiguity throughout the novel.

The story begins with Amadeo Kaplan, named after his grandfather, who has just moved to St Malo, Florida after spending his whole life in New York City. Amadeo is the child of Loretta Bevilaqua and Jake Kaplan who met some thirteen years earlier in The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place. It is Amadeo's greatest wish to discover something in his lifetime. The combination of moving to a new house next to the eccentric Mrs Zender and her impending move to Waldorf Court, an assisted living community, provides the opportunity for him to do so, with some selfish maneuvering and manipulation on the part of Mrs Zender, also known as Aida Lily Tull. When Amadeo befirends William Wilcox, son of Dora Ellen Wilcox, the estate liquidator in the employ of Mrs Zender, he is granted entry into her house, which is full of amazing antiques and secrets.

As with her other books, adult characters are given as much space on the page as children characters, if not more. Aida Lily Tull, or Mrs Zender, is a largely (and large) unlikable character. She is self centered and ego driven, which is explained somewhat by her past. She was pushed into the profession of opera singer by her ambitious Italian mother, then, when her career seemed to be over, pushed into a marriage with Mr Zender, a worldly, elegant Austrian with a mysterious background. Peter Vanderwaal, childhood friend of Loretta Bevilaqua and Nadia Landau (mother of Margaret Rose Kane, star of The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place and supporting character in Silent to the Bone, which takes place some 10 - 15 years after the first book) is one of the many adults in the mysterious edge of the heroic world. Peter is important to the story as the curator of the Sheboygan Art Center, which is about to host a exhibit of Degenerate "Art." Degenerate "Art" refers to the sixteen thousand works of art confiscated (stolen) by a committee formed by Joseph Goebbels in an effort to rid the world of works that were unacceptable. Six hundred and fifty of these pieces were exhibited in a Munich warehouse in a show called Entartete "Kunst," or Degenerate "Art," the quotes meant to inform viewers that this, according to Hitler, was not really art. Peter is also important to the story because, early on in the book after his father's death, his mother (the same Mrs Vanderwaal who provides the security pass that allows Margaret to read transcripts of a city council meeting in Outcast) gives him a box containing his father's handwritten autobiography and some important documents.

Really, this book is part historical fiction. Between flashbacks of Peter's father's childhood in Amsterdam during WWII, where he was being raised by his older brother who ran an antiques and art shop with his partner Klaus, and Mrs Zender's reminisces of her family's history in St Malo and her travels as a performer in pre-WWII Europe, as well as the activities of her husband, much of this book takes place in the past despite being set in the present. As William and Amadeo help Mrs Wilcox dismantle and parcel out Mrs Zender's life as well as her life story, the sad history of Peter's father Johannes and his brother, Pieter unfolds alongside it. And the paths of these lives intersect. I won't reveal how they cross and crisscross because that is part of the discovery that Amadeo pieces together, but I can say that Konigsburg has done a remarkable job of highlighting aspects of the Nazi invasion and the atrocities committed as well as the secrecy and culpability of participants after the war was over. I think that, along with the very understated and still current theme of persecution of homosexuals, the aftermath of Hitler is an important part of history for our children to learn. While it is done very subtly, so subtly that I may be wrong, I belive that the character of Peter Vanderwaal is gay, which, even though it is never mentioned in the story, adds a layer to the plot that gives it depth.

In addition to the history that Konigsburg packs into the story, there are many mentions of artists, from Picasso and Matisse to Klimt, Modigliani and Chagall as well as writers (Harper Lee, Simone de Beauvoir.) She also has the charcter of Amadeo recite some really great short poems by Phyllis McGinley about art and artists. I love any book, but especially a children's book, that refers to other books and works of art, as well as historical figures and events. I think this kind of reference is such a great way to self-educate and I am sure that it accounts in part for my love of reading. And, after all, we want our children to read and to love reading because we want them to learn to think for themselves and educate themselves so that they have the desire to spend their whole lives learning and growing.


12.12.2008

The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame, illustrations by Erhest H Shepard, 58 pp RL 3

 
 Kenneth Grahame's classic, The Wind in the Willows, was a staple of my childhood. I still consider Mole, Ratty and Badger personal friends. If you are the parent of a thoughtful child with a good attention span, I beg you to give up 20 minutes a night for a month or two to read The Wind in the Willows out loud to your child. Like AA Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh, another integral part of my childhood, the Kenneth Grahame's language takes a little getting used to, but it is also totally charming once you have gotten the hang of it.

In fact, as I was reading The Reluctant Dragon for the first time, I kept flipping back to the cover to make sure I wasn't reading an AA Milne book. At 58 pages, The Reluctant Dragon reads like a very long picture book. In the fantasy saturated world that is children's literature today, this story won't rate much more than a nostalgic blip, however, in 1898 when it was first published I'm sure it was a novel idea to have a dragon who describes himself as a counfoundedly "lazy beggar" and continually fails to grasp the severity of his situation in a cave upon the "wide ocean-bosom of the Downs" where he has set up his abode. The language of this story is at turns poetic and humorous and the Boy of the story is a prototype of fictional boys to come in that he has a mind and interests of his own, but he is also eager to see a good knock-down, drag out fight between a dragon and a knight. His very liberal parents, being a shepherd and a homemaker, find it an equal division of familial labor when their son spends his time reading and acquiring book-learning, "which often came in useful in a pinch," and they take on the more practical tasks. And, in fact, this tactic does come in useful when the father encounters a dragon on the Downs and his son is offers to sort things out, having read much about this species.

The dragon is a creative sort with artistic sensibilities and can't be bothered to fight, despite his reputation to the contrary. He would rather lounge in the grass and recite his writing to the Boy and listen to the Boy's own works. However, the villagers are a rowdy bunch who are always looking fora fight. They are also the biggest story tellers around and soon enough they have spread tales of the supposed destruction and devastation wrought by this sensitive dragon. St George shows up to fight the dragon and save the villagers and a very funny, clever, resolution is devised by the Boy, St George and the Dragon. There are some salient points about not judging a book by it's cover, prejudice and herd mentality that can be drawn from this book if you feel the need to make it into something more than the entertaining story that it is, but really, I think it is best read as just that. Of course, more illustrations and color illustrations by Shephard, along the lines of the work he did for the 1931 edition of The Wind in the Willows would definitely have been a welcome addition. 


I think this book would definitely be a fun read out loud and a quick read for anyone hovering around the third or fourth grade reading level. And, for other dragon lovers looking for some lower level stories, I highly recommend Bill Peet's How Droofus the Dragon Lost His Head.
Cover ImageHOW DROOFUS THE DRAGON LOST HIS HEAD

The brilliant illustrator of Spiderwick Chronicles fame, Tony DiTerlizzi, has himself penned an homage to The Reluctant Dragon in the form of an animal story with nods to Kenneth Grahame, called Kenny and the Dragon.

Kenny and the Dragon by Tony DiTerlizzi: Book Cover


12.07.2008

Welcome to Elise Broach Week!

Welcome to Elise Broach Week here at books4yourkids.com!  Elise Broach is an author who has been dancing around the periphery of my kid's books world for a while now.  I am thrilled to be able to post reviews of three of her outstanding books for you this week!

First up is her picture book, When Dinosaurs Came with Everything, illustrated by the exceptional David Small.  Before I post that review, I'd like to give you a little personal and professional background on how I decide what I like in a picture book and, especially, what makes it worth buying for me.


I love picture books. I have my favorite picture books from my childhood. I bought picture books while I was in college. In addition to having read picture books out loud to one or more of my children for the last fifteen plus years on a daily basis, I read for the story time at the bookstore where I work three times a week. And I am shocked to say that I am running out of good books to read.  Since my four year old is my third and last child, I have become more discretionary with my picture book purchases and I now buy only three or four hardcover picture books a year.  I have read all of the picture books in my house, over 500 I'm sure, more than three times each, and I am always looking for new books to read and buy, but very few meet my standards.  I do go to the library about once a week with my son and we always come home with a bag full of books and once in a while I'll find one I end up buying. But, mostly, the books are good for one reading and that's it.  There are very few picture books that I don't mind reading over and over again.

And, here is a secret about chain bookstores: when a new book hits the shelves, it has three months or less to sell enough copies to keep it on the shelf.  If it doesn't sell, it goes back to the publisher to make room for other, newer books coming out.  I see at least ten to twenty new picture books a month.  Rarely do I see them a year down the road and, even more rarely do I see them make it to paperback.  I have a larger selection of picture books, hard cover and paperback, at home than the bookstore where I work has on the shelf.  That makes me sad. Especially at story time.  I end up reading the same handful of books over and over again because there aren't any new books I like and want to read out loud - occasionally I will let the kids pick the books and I'll read something I wouldn't normally like.  Ok, I'm really picky, too. I'll admit that.  But still, why are there so many poorly written, badly illustrated books out there???

So, this leads me to When Dinosaurs Came With Everything.  This book is worth buying and reading over and over again!!!  I hope you will seek it out if you have little ones at home after you read my review.  You will find this book on the shelves of your local bookstore (and library) because it has staying power!




When Dinosaurs Came with Everything by Elise Broach, pictures by David Small

Little kids love dinosaurs. I don't understand the attraction, but I think it has something to do with the same reason kid's love fairy tales - something about the strong representations of good and bad in the world of dinosaurs and the simplicity of their existence. Dinosaurs looked for food and tried not to get killed. Dinos are perfect subject matter for kids books, but they don't always lend themselves to interesting stories. Jane Yolen and Mark Teague's How Do Dinosaurs... series is great, but more of a poem than a story. Patrick's Dinosaurs by Carol Carrick, illustrated by Donald Carrick is a good story with great illustrations. But those are the only dinosaur books worth mentioning I can think of right now. I am sure there are lots of other great dinosaur books that have a solid story and energetic illustrations and I hope you will point them out to me, but for now, When Dinosaurs Came with Everything by Elise Broach and illustrated by Caldecott winner and editroial illustrator David Small is kind of lonely at the top of my list in this category for a few good reasons.

First off, this story has kid and adult appeal. It's errand day with mom. What could be worse from a kid's point of view? What could be more familiar to a parent that the eye rolling and complaining that accompanies this announcement? But, this is not your typical errand day. This is the day When Dinosaurs Came with Everything! At the first stop, the bakery, a sign clearly reads, "Buy a Dozen Doughnuts, Get a Dinosaur." Mom thinks this MUST mean a toy dinosaur, but when the counter lady trots out a triceratops the boy is beside himself with glee. Next stop, the doctor's office and a stegosaurus. With a shot, you get two dinosaurs. The boy begs the nurse for a shot and that extra dino, but it's a no-go. The dinosaurs gladly follow the boy and his mother down the street, where the boy excitedly greets other kids and their free dinosaurs. At the barber's, Mom tries to make sure that balloons are always the freebie, but is greeted by the barber and a pterosaur, his tail being held like the string of a balloon.

Let me stop here to say that, Broach's writing is fantastic in this story. And, like all superb picture books, the text and the illustrations work together, supporting each other and sharing the stage. David Small's cartoonish sketches are also paintings that have a depth and expressiveness that adds to the story in dramatic ways. Neither the text nor the illustrations talk down to children, either. There is nothing adorable about these dinosaurs. They are big and kind of dangerous looking. Ok, the baby hadrosaur is very cute and I would probably let my kids keep him.

The story continues with Mom deciding against visits to the shoe store, movie theater and diner for lunch where she sees a girl leaving with her T-Rex. They hustle home, after a quick snack for the dinos from the back of a garbage, and pick up a baby hadrosaur on the way. Maybe he just followed their car, maybe he was following the doughnut the boy was dangling out the window. Who's to say? Once home, Mom goes for a cup of tea and a lay down and the boy sets out showing his new pets around - where to do their business, which mean dogs to stay away from and so on. When they are playing in the back yard and the pterosaur retrieves the frisbee from the rain gutter Mom pops her head out the window to see what's going on out there and a light bulb goes on! The book ends on a happy note with an unforeseen twist, a quality I love in a picture book.

Elise Broach has also authored the picture book, Wet Dog! illustrated by another prolific illustrator of kid's books and editorial cartoonist like David Small, David Catrow.







Don't miss Elise Broach's excellent chapter books, Shakespeare's Secret and Masterpiece.

12.05.2008

Mrs Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald, 119 pp, RL4


I am worried that the singularly remarkable works of Betty MacDonald, first published in 1947, are not as well known and read as they once were. I was lucky enough to grow up in a home with a copy from my mother's childhood and have read and reread these hilarious stories over and over to myself and then to my children, each one in turn, with the older ones listening in. What is so marvelous about Mrs Piggle-Wiggle? Well, she was way ahead of the curve when it comes to Super Nanny and Nanny 911. And, in retrospect, she was also probably a tiny twinkling spark that influenced the generation of dedicated, child centered (indulgent?) parents we have become. Mrs Piggle-Wiggle is no Mary Poppins. There are no rules at her house. In fact, the rules at her house are to make any and all children as comfortable, secure, well fed and highly entertained and acknowledged as possible. I WANT a Mrs Piggle-Wiggle to play with my kids so I don't have to! I want a Mrs Piggle-Wiggle to teach them to enjoy doing dishes and eating vegetables and sharing! Actually, what I really want is to be 8 years old again and walk down the street to Mrs Piggle-Wiggle's house and play dress-up with her wardrobe and make cookies and drink tea with her. So, I have totally revealed myself. Mrs Piggle-Wiggle brings up some serious wish fulfillment fantasies for me, as a parent and as a child. And, when you read even one of these books, you will want her to live down the street from you, too!


Betty MacDonald had a true gift for names. Just reading one of her stories out loud is a treat in and of itself. Let me share some of her brilliance with you - Charles Dickens, move over - Paraphernalia Grotto, Cormorant Broomrack, Harbin Quadrangle, Wetherill Crankminor, Pergola Wingsproggle, Calliope Ragbag and Gregory Moohead. The Quadrangle family also a dog named Mr Pierce and ababy named Old-Timer who says,"Googlewhopshinogrit," which still cracks my kids up when I say it. The more outlandish names are reserved for the minor characters, the ones who are not problem children. Which brings me to the basic set-up for every story, most of which are under ten pages and have one full and one half page illustration. A child have a behavioral quirk. The mother calls all the other mothers she knows asking if their children have a quirk like this. The other mothers all insist that their darling child is perfect, but one mother eventually suggests Mrs Piggle-Wiggle as someone who might have a solution to the problem. Mrs Piggle-Wiggle, while in no way (not the Harry Potter way, anyway) capable of magic, has a common sense "cure," and occasionally a powder, pill or spray (precursors to homeopathy???), that, if instructions are followed, will cure the darling child of his or her quirk.


Here are a few of the story titles, "The Won't-Pick-Up-Toys Cure," "The Answer-Backer Cure," "The Selfishness Cure," "The Never-Want-To-Go-To-Bedders Cure," "The Heedless Breaker Cure," "The Thought-You-Saiders Cure," and, one of my favorites, "The Radish Cure." The radish cure is for Patsy, who has suddenly decided that she can not take a bath, no matter what. Mrs Piggle-Wiggle suggests that her parents allow her to go unwashed. When she has a nice layer of top soil on her body, they should sneak into her room at night and plant radish seeds all over her. Once the radishes are ready to harvest, there should be a change in her attitude towards baths. These books were written in the fifties and the parental discussions reflect that. The reserved, matter-of-fact way that they deal with their children is intentionally humorous and makes for entertaining reading for adults.



There are four, now five, Mrs Piggle-Wiggle books. The most recent, Happy Birthday, Mrs Piggle-Wiggle, contains an unpublished story by MacDonald and notes for stories that her daughter, Anne MacDonald Canham, completed. Because I loved Mrs Piggle-Wiggle so much as a child, I can't bring myself to read it. I am also deeply distressed that Harper Collins, the publisher, has ditched the crisp, evocative, expressive illustrations of Hilary Knight, of Eloise fame. This is especially curious at a time when Robin Preiss Glasser, illustrator of Fancy Nancy who's frilly pinkness is currently saturating the world of children's picture books, is so clearly influenced by Hilary Knight's distinctive style. If you do want to purchase these books to read to your children, I beg you to seek out the older editions illustrated by Knight. These include Mrs Piggle-Wiggle, Mrs Piggle-Wiggle's Magic and Hello, Mrs Piggle-Wiggle. A fourth book, Mrs Piggle Wiggle's Farm was originally illustrated by none other than Maurice Sendak. For me, as a child, though, Mrs P lost a little of her charm when she left the suburbs for the country and I never finished reading this particular book.

But, whatever format you read these in, please read them to your children, even if it is only one story. These books are meant to be shared and read out loud and they are about things that kids and parents can relate to and will undoubtedly make for some good discussions later afterwards!