Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH made a serious impression on me when I was a child. Probably because I thought that somewhere in this world rats and mice might really be up something like this. Having re-read it as an adult, I see now that Robert C O'Brien's realistic and unsentimental writing style makes it all seem possible. Even though I knew the ending, I still found myself drawn into the story from start to finish and completely won over (again) by the rodents of the title.
Mrs Frisby, wife of the recently deceased Jonathan Frisby and mother of four finds herself in a desperate situation one winter morning. Her youngest and most frail and thoughtful child, Timothy, has come down with pneumonia. Mr Ages, a neighboring mouse who is also a doctor, provides Mrs Frisby with three days worth of medicine and instructions that Timothy must stay in bed and warm all three days or he may not heal and find himself weaker than before. This would not be a problem except for the fact that Mrs Frisby's winter home, a mostly buried cinderblock that makes a cozy, but dark, two room dwelling, is right in the path of Mr Fitzgibbon and his plow. She cannot move Timothy to their summer home near the riverbank until he is well, but, when she over hears the farmer talking to his sons she knows that she only has a few days before he will plow. Through a lucky encounter with a crow named Jeremy, Mrs Frisby has the chance to take her dilemma to the wise owl living in the dead tree in the forest. The owl listens to her predicament and tells her that she has no choice but to wrap Timothy as warmly as she can and move him, hoping he will not grow worse. As she is leaving, the owl asks her her name. When he learns that she is the widow of Jonathan Frisby, he tells her she must ask the rats for help and to ask for Justin and Nicodemus. Mrs Frisby knows of the rats but has never had any interactions with them and is troubled by this suggestion. The rats seem strange. Just the other day she saw six of them moving a large piece of cable into their hole under the rose thicket. However, to save the life of her son she takes the owl's advice.
From there the story of the Rats of NIMH and the fate of Mrs Frisby and her family unfolds. Twenty of the original rats in the colony are escapees from a scientific laboratory. While imprisoned they were given injections twice a week and, over time, taught to read by the scientists. They also discovered that they were gaining in strength and could move and lift things beyond their abilities. With this in mind, they devised an escape plan and took some ab mice, Mr Frisby and Mr Ages, along with them, however Jonathan chose not to reveal any of this to his wife. The story of the time between their escape and their home on Fitzgibbon's farm involves an empty summer house with a well stocked library - and a great story about a "Mrs Jones" and her acquisition of a vacuum that ultimately draws her into the "Rat Race" of working, buying, wanting, working, buying that never ends. A nice story for America today.... They also find the abandoned truck of a tinker that is filled with all of the equipment and supplies they need to start their colony, which they do. But, the story of the rat race is never far from Nicodemus' thoughts and eventually he convinces the colony that they should not steal from the farmer and be reliant on him but should establish their own self-reliant colony. Jenner, one of the original rats, thinks this is ridiculous and, with six other rats, leaves the colony, eventually meeting his end in a hardware store and almost causing the end for Nicodemus and the rats who stayed behind with him.
Mrs Frisby, not the shrinking violet she seems to be at first, finds a way to help the rats as they help her move her home to a safer spot and manages to procure information that will allow most of them to move to their new colony in Thorn Valley where they plan to start a farm before disaster strikes. One of my favorite aspects of this novel is the character of the brave and dashing Justin, an original lab rat who befriends Mrs Frisby and rescues her when she is trapped in the Fitzgibbon's house. Justin is one of the rats who stays behind to trick the scientists who return to find him and he may have been one of the two rats who did not survive. O'Brien never tells the reader with any certainty. However, he ends the novel on a sweet note with Mrs Frisby finally telling her children about their father, his history, how he died and all about the rats and their new colony in Thorn Valley. Her son Martin insists that one day he will find the crow Jeremy and they will fly to Thorn Valley and he will find out if Justin lived.
This book is a wonderful mixture of Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson and The Fog Mound series by Susan Schade and Jon Buller. Mrs Frisby and The Rats of NIMH, with its pen and ink drawings by Zena Bernstein, looks and feels like Rabbit Hill. The animals work together and are aware of but keep their distance from the humans - the two worlds do not mix and the humans are never aware of the interactions and communications that go on between the animals. A running theme in Mrs Frisby is the repeated surprised utterance by one human or another, "Rats can communicate?" And, like the animals of Fog Mound, living in a world deserted by humans, the smartest of the bunch were once laboratory experiments. Having been written in 1971, this is still largely a very innocent book. There is no violence or anger. The biggest threat, outside of the scientists, is Dragon the cat. And, through his characterization, O'Brien makes sure that the reader comes to love his rats and mice and root for their survival.
The first time I read Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game, I think I was in fifth grade and it bowled me over. The characters seemed so much more vivid, real and odd at the same time, and there were so many of them that I felt like I had become the member of a new family by the time I finished reading the book. When I read it again as an adult, I cried like a baby at the ending. It's that kind of book, where, as an adult, you are so happy/sad about the bittersweet nature of life that you get a little teary, or more. Much like I did at the end of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. I'm not sure what kids reading today will make of this book. It does feel a little dated, however it is also contemporary in that Raskin is not afraid to show her adult characters, who out number the kids in this book, in an unflattering light. In terms of being a mystery, I think it will keep kids reading. It's not as complicated, plot wise, as Blue Balliet's Chasing Vermeer, although like Chasing Vermeer, it does involve the delivery of letters that sets off an exciting chain of events that includes, tricking innocent people, manipulation and adult characters of questionable moral fiber...
Published in 1978 and winner of the 1979 Newbery Medal, The Westing Game has a great cast of characters. Under somewhat questionable circumstances, the six units in the newly built Sunset Towers are filled by the very same people who are called to the reading of the will for Sam Westing, a paper industrialist and owner of the mansion on the hill that faces Sunset Towers. One of the things that makes the characters so vivid are the various backgrounds they all have. There is a doctor, an intern, Chinese immigrants who own a fancy restaurant on the top floor of Sunset Towers, Greek immigrants who own a coffee shop on the bottom floor, a seamstress, an judge on the Appellate Division of the Wisconsin Supreme Court who is also African American, a secretary, a cleaning woman and a sixty-two year old delivery boy. As for the kids, there is a track star, a brat, a good son and a disabled son in a wheelchair with a good pair of binoculars. They are all drawn together first through their work and domiciles in the Sunset Towers and then at the reading of the will. In all, there are sixteen of them. The will suggests that Mr Westing's life has been taken and, working in teams of two that are assigned at the reading of the will, they must race to solve the mystery and claim the inheritance.
As the story progresses and the teammates begin to befriend each other, clues are revealed. It turns out that most of the people living in the Sunste Towers have a connection, some of them a very close connection, to Sam Westing in one way or another. While the mystery is the framework of the story, the ending is not a huge surprise. The heart of this story is its characters and how they change and grow over the course of the book. They all have some pretty crazy personality traits, from kicking people in the shin, to decorating and using an unneeded crutch as a means of getting attention to setting off bombs. Despite this, they never seem too far off the mark. And, because this is truly a story about people, how they interact with each other and how they connect or disconnect, the last chapter of the book, which takes place five years after the will has been read and the race has been won, is ultimately more satisfying than winning any inheritance.
Sometimes Raskin's writing style is reminiscent of EL Konigsburg, especially From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler, which was written ten years before. Both authors are brilliant at creating fully formed characters who are not your typical kid's book fodder. Or at least weren't in 1978! As an interesting aside, I recently learned that, while bemoaning the lack of good mysteries for kids, Mac Barnettand his friend and agent, Steven Malk discovered their mutual love of The Westing Game. From this discussion came the seed for what is now a truly great young adult mystery and what I hope becomes a series, The Brixton Brothers: The Case of the Case of the Mistaken Identity! I love it when there are connections like that!
The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth and winner of the Newbery Award in 1931 is a jewel of a book. It may also be the shortest book to win the award since it was first given in 1922.
At it's heart, this book is a collection of Jataka Tales (explanation to follow) woven together by the external story of a poor young artist who sends his housekeeper to the market to buy food with the last of his money. She returns not with food, but with a cat. Angered at first, cats not always having the best reputation, the artist relents and says, "Sometimes it is good fortune to have even a devil in the household. It keeps the other devils away." And, upon finding that she is a tri-color cat, which is a sign of good luck, the artist agrees to allow the housekeeper to name her Good Fortune.
She proves true to her name when the artist is commissioned to paint the scene of the Lord Buddha's death for the village temple. If his painting is well received, the artist will never have to worry about going hungry again. If it is rejected, his career will be ruined. The artist meditates long and hard on his subject matter, first imagining himself as Siddhartha, the Indian Prince, in his final human incarnation before he attained Enlightenment and became the Buddha. In Buddhism, there is no heaven, but rather nirvana, which is the state of freedom from the cycle of birth-death-rebirth, freedom from the restraints of a corporeal body. Nirvana, a oneness with the universe, is the goal of enlightenment. As he sits, near death, the Buddha's disciples and the animals of the earth come to bid him farewell. However, the cat does not join them, refusing to pay homage. Remembering this, the artist thinks to himself, "and so, by her own independent act, only the cat has the doors of Paradise closed in her face." With his affection for Good Fortune growing, the artist is saddened by this fact.
However, he continues to meditate and paint, depicting the various animals did come to pay homage, Good Fortune always by his side, encouraging and offering her praise of his masterful work. With each animal he considers painting, the artist remembers a different birth story, or Jataka Tale, from the Buddha's many lifetimes, of which there are over 550. The stories illustrate Buddhist virtues, particularly those of charity, compassion and self-sacrifice, through the stories of the Buddha's various incarnations, both human and animal. Buddhists believe in reincarnation and karma, the law of cause and effect. The karma or one life sets up the next life, but does not determine the unfolding of that life. Good acts in one life make it possible to be be reborn into a life that allows you to continue practicing good virtues on the path to enlightenment. The traditional birth and death dates of Siddhartha are 563 - 483 BCE. The Jataka Tales are dated between 300 and 400 AD and are believed to have influenced Aesop's Fables and other traditional folktaled.
Although the book is only seventy-four pages, Coatsworth manages to fit in more than ten Jataka Tales, including that of the Banyan Deer. As he nears completion of his painting, the artist struggles with his love for Good Fortune and his sadness that he cannot paint a cat in his picture. Trying to find a way around this, the artist thinks of the tiger and how devoted it is to it's mate and cubs. He remembers the story of how Siddhartha won the hand of Princess Yosadhara by out performing the other contestants in a match for her hand. As he was led to the side of the Princess, her face hidden behind a gold and black striped veil, Siddhartha leaned in and whispered, "By you veil I know that you remember how once, in another life, you were a tigress, and I was the tiger who won you in open combat against all the others." The artist discovers that the fierceness in love and love in fierceness can been seen as a virtue, as a "narrow pathway by which the tiger reaches the Buddha." Looking at his painting after adding the tiger, the artist finds his "scroll of silk seemed scarcely large enough to hold all those varied lives, all that gathering of devotion about the welling up of love."
The artist imagines how his little cat feels, excluded from this scene, and tears come to his eyes as he imagines all the other animals receiving the Buddha's blessing. He hears the doors of nirvana close before Good Fortune and decides to add her to the painting. When the priest from the temple arrives the next day to view the finished painting, he rebukes the artist for painting a cat into the picture when he knew that the cat did not belong there. The priest says, "The cat must suffer for her obstinacy and you from yours. As one can never erase work once done, I will take the painting tomorrow and officially burn it. Some other artist's picture must hang in our temple." The artist thinks sadly of what this will mean for his life and the housekeeper weeps for bringing the little cat home in the first place. The artist meditates through the night and sees the sun rise. And our after dawn a commotion arises in the village as the priests of the Temple run to the artist's house, speaking of a miracle granted by the compassion of the Buddha. The artist finds his painting altered. Where the last animal, the cat, had been painted there is only white silk. The Great Buddha, whom the artist had painted with his hands folded upon his chest is now reaching out an arm in blessing. Underneath the Buddha's hand sits a tiny cat with "her white head bowed in happy adoration." Brilliantly, Coatsworth manages to take her story of the artist and the cat and turn that into a Jataka Tale as well, illuminating the virtues of charity, empathy and compassion that the housekeeper and artist showed for the cat upon bringing her into their home.
This story bears reading more than once because it is deceptively simple in it's many layers. It is easy, upon first reading, to get caught up in the Jataka Tales and gloss over the story of the artist. However, upon second reading, the empathy that the artist gains through his mediations in preparation for each stage of the painting are truly profound. He is not just remembering a story, but imagining himself to be each creature and human that he is thinking of. And, finally, there are the poems in the book, the eight songs of the housekeeper that tell her story as well. The illustrations of Lynd Ward and the wood block prints of Jael add yet another wonderful layer to this story. Simple as it is, I think that this story should be read in context with a discussion of the teachings of the Buddha, especially the virtues that the Jataka Tales illustrate.
For Jataka Tales you can visit:
The Baldwin Project, which is part of a great site that focuses on bringing "Yesterday's Classics to Today's Children."
New York Buddhist Vihara has a large selection of Jataka Tales to be read on line.
For books with collections of the Jataka Tales for children, you might like:
The Wisdom of the Crows and Other Buddhist Tales retold by Sherab Chodzon and Alexandra Kohn, illustrated by Marie Cameron. This collection contains Jataka Tales and Zen parables from Japan as well as Indian, Chinese, Burmese and Tibetan folktales that illustrate Buddhist teachings.
Once I Was a Monkey: Stories Buddha Told by Jeanne M Lee is a beautifully illustrated picture book with six Jataka Tales.
Buddha Stories, by Demi
Don't miss anything on any subject, by the marvelous, prodigious, prolific author and illustrator, Demi. This is a collection of ten of the most famous Jataka Tales told in picture book format.
For books that tell of the life of the Buddha:
Buddha, by Demi
Demi became fascinated with Buddhism at the age of three, when she chose a small golden statue of the Buddha at a five-and-dime store. At age twenty-one she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study art in India, where she walked in the footsteps of the Buddha. She has practiced Buddhism for twenty years, along with her husband, Tze-si Huang. In researching the art for Buddha, she drew from Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Burmese, and Indonesian paintings, sculptures, and sutra illustrations, particularly Pahari and Chamba Indian miniature paintings. For the story of the Buddha's life, Demi relied on her library of more than 82,000 books, most of which she has read. (biographical information taken from bn.com)
The Dalai Lama: With a Forwad by His Holiness the Dalai Lama by Demi
In simple language and iconic art, Demi tells the story of the life of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, capturing the beauty and the charm of the Tibetan culture. An important book, children and parents will find the procedure for selecting a Dalai Lama following the death of the preceding one very interesting.
Old Path White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha by Thich Nhat Hahn
At six hundred pages, this may be more than you want to take on, let alone consider reading out loud to your children, by Thich Nhat Han, to the Western world, is the most famous living Buddhist after the Dalai Lama.
Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
Published in America in 1951, Herman Hesses "biography" of the life of the Buddha is considered a classic. At 152 pages, and written in simple but flowing prose, it is an easy read that is a good entry for Westerners into the study and practice of Buddhism.
For parents interested in teaching their children Buddhism:
A Pebble for Your Pocket and Under the Rose Apple Tree by Thich Nhat Hahn
Thich Nhat Hahn presents the basic teachings of the Buddha and offers various practices that children can do on their own and with others. These books are written at a fourth grade reading level and are perfect for children to read on their own, but definitely deserve to be part of a discussion with mom and dad.
For Parents interested in parenting with a Buddhist perspective:
Everyday Blessings by Jon Kabat-Zinn and Myla Kabat-Zinn
The Kabat-Zinn's teach parents how they can enrich their lives and the lives of their children through mindful parenting. - honoring the fullness of the present moment and within it the inner beauty and potential that reside in ourselves and our children.
For websites to help you parent mindfully, check out:
Good books for those of you who are new to Buddhism:
Essential Buddhism by Jack Maguire is a great reference book for beginners.
Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Sounds like the title of a Dr Seuss book, but it changed my life and started me on the path of practice. This book focuses on the concept of "mindfulness." Listening to this on audio is great, also.
Thoughts Without a Thinker and Going To Pieces Without Falling Apart by Mark Epstein. For those of us who are firmly rooted in Western ways of thinking and looking at life, Epstein provides an accessible, intellectual explanation of why we think the ways we do and how that can work with (and against) Buddhist principles. Above all else, Epstein works to free us from the destructive thought processes and emotional patterns that keep us stuck in the cycle of suffering.
And, finally, picture books with Buddhist themes that I love:
Samsara Dog by Helen Manos, illustrated by Julie Vivas.
Samsara is the Buddhist concept of the cycle of birth-death-rebirth and ultimately the suffering that is a fact of human life (we all get sick, old and die, and that is suffering.) The dog of the story lives through various lives and deaths and experiences in each, both good, bad, brutal and tender. Finally, he lives a full life as the pet of a boy, dying of old age.
The Mountains of Tibet by Mordicai Gerstein is a beautifully illustrated story of reincarnation and karma.
Zen Shorts by Jon J Muth.
With lush watercolors as well as pen and ink drawings to tell the Zen parts of the story, Muth has created a classic. His second book featuring Stillwater the Zen Panda is a little bit more plodding, but still worth reading.
The Three Questions by Jon J Muth
Based on a story by Leo Tolstoy, Muth manages to imbue Buddhist themes into this gorgeous book.
Stone Soup retold by Jon J Muth
Set in the Asian countryside, this is a great version of the classic story.
Bill Peet: An Autobiography is a rare book in the world of children's literature. But, before I write about this book I must beg you to go out and read any one (or all) of Bill Peet's books to your kids. One of my favorite childhood memories is going to the library and checking out a different book by this prolific author and illustrator each visit. My favorites remain Kermit the Hermit, How Droofus the Dragon Lost His Head and The Whingdingdilly. But really, all of them are wonderful and I know them all so well, having read all of them over and over to my three children.
Like Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret which won the Caldecott Award for distinguished picture book in 2008, Bill Peet: an Autobiography is really a chapter book with illustrations that help to tell the story as much as the words do. Peet's text tells the story of his life, from his childhood to the start of his career as a children's book author and illustrator with the publication of Hubert's Hair Raising Adventure in 1959, as well as the twenty-seven years in between when he worked for Walt Disney Studios and was a key participant, usually as a story editor, in the creation of classic animated movies like Fantasia, Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, 101 Dalmations and Peter Pan. Once you know this about him, his illustration style definitely seems evocative of his years at the Disney Studios. And, while his descriptions of his tumultuous working relationship with Walt are interesting, what really grabs your attention are the details from his childhood that illuminate the subjects of his books. If you know Peet's work already, you know that he has three main themes that he visits: animals, trains and circuses. He is as adept at stories that feature farm animals (Cockadoodle Dudley, Chester the Worldly Pig, The Whingdingdilly) as he is with animals of the jungle (Zella, Zak and Zodiac, Hubert's Hair Raising Adventure, The Ant and the Elephant, Eli, The Spooky Tail of Prewitt the Peacock) and mythical animals, some of Peet's own invention (How Droofus the Dragon Lost His Head, Cyrus the Unsinkable Sea Serpent, The Pinkish, Purplish, Bluish Egg, No Such Things, The Kweeks of Kooatumdee.) What I love Peet most for, though, is the sense of dignity and, despite the characters being mostly animals and trains, humanity that he imbues his characters with as they struggle to survive and find their place in the world. How Droofus the Dragon Lost His Head, Buford the Little Big Horn, The Whingdingdilly, Huge Harold and Encore for Eleanor are perfect examples of this quality. And, to top it all off, Bill Peet was sharing his concern for the environment as far back as 1966 when he published Farewell to Shady Glade, the story of woodland animals in a race to find a new home when their old one is bulldozed. Peet even dedicated this book to Rachel Carson, author of the groundbreaking book of 1962, Silent Spring, in which she called for a change in the practices of agricultural scientists, the government and the way humankind viewed the natural world. Peet's book came out a year before Dr Seuss' similarly themed book, The Lorax, and was followed by The Wump World, published in 1970. The wumps, a fictional grass eating animal (who looks a lot like the capybara that Peet's son brought home from South America in the 1960s and the subject of Peet's other autobiographical book, Capyboppy) are forced underground when a civilization of consuming, wasteful aliens invades their planet after using up the resources of their own. Once they have used up the wumps' planet they move on, leaving the wumps to roam their now asphalt and concrete covered world where they find one edible sprig of grass growing through a crack in the pavement. Sounds a little like the Pixar -Disney movie Wall-e...
Being an autobiography, this is the kind of book that kid's probably won't pick up on their own. When they have to do a book report that is a biography or they have to read an award winning book, then they may find this small treasure that, despite covering adult themes like World War II and working life, is totally engaging and appropriate. Most kids have seen the Disney movies that Peet worked on and they will be delighted by the pages of his book that depict that era of his life, including some character sketches from 1947 for the mice and the cat Lucifer from Disney's animated Cinderella. It was Peet who thought up Gus-Gus and Jacques, the comic relief of the movie. As I said earlier, it is rare to have such a copiously illustrated chapter book in the cannon of children's literature, but it is even more rare to have a book in which a children's book author and illustrator shares the story of his life and career in a book that is specifically written for children. Don't miss this rare gem!
THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman wins the Newbery Award and The House in the Night illustrated by Beth Krommes wins the Caldecott Award for 2009
CALDECOTT WINNER OF THE AWARD
FOR ARTIST OF THE MOST DISTINGUISHED PICTURE BOOK FOR CHILDREN
The House in the Night
illustrated by Beth Krommes and written by Susan Marie Swanson
CALDECOTT HONOR WINNERS
A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever by Marla Frazee. Marla Frazee is definitely one of my all-time favorite illustrators. You can read me gush about her in a couple of places in my blog. But, besides this wonderful book, I HIGHLY recommend you read two other books she illustrated. Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman is a great story about families and food and Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers is a wonderful poem about all the things babies do and love accompanied by Frazee's illustrations that honor all kinds of families and all kinds of love. This one should be given along with Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Moon to every newborn everywhere. And, finally, Harriet, You'll Drive Me Wild, by the incomparable Mem Fox is the meticulously illustrated story of a mother trying to keep her cool as her child goes about her day making mess after mess...
How I learned Geography written and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz
A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams illustrated by Melissa Sweet, written by Jennifer Bryant
FOR THE MOST DISTINGUISHED CONTRIBUTION TO AMERICAN LITERATURE FOR CHILDREN
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. I can't believe that I have read a Newbery pick BEFORE it won an award! And, I loved this book so, so much. As I said in my review, Gaiman created an amazing character in the person of Nobody Owens and I hope we see him on the page again sometime soon. Gaiman has already posted an amusing account of the phone call he received this morning and what was going through his head (trying not to swear at a group of children's librarians...) in his online journal.
NEWBERY HONOR BOOKS
The Underneath by Kathi Appelt with drawings by David Small
Savvy by Ingrid Law. This is Law's first book and it I loved it. She brought together a brilliant plot device and wonderful characters who feel a little like your neighbors or friends. It is one of those books that, if you read it as a child at just the right age, you squeeze it to your heart and take it through your life with you.
The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle For Freedom by Margarita Engle
After Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson.
Woodson has won many, many awards for her work, among them Newbery Honors for feathers and Show Way. She has won a Caldecott Honor Award for her picture book Coming on Home Soon, illustrated by EB Lewis. She has also been a National Book Award nominee and finalist for her young adult books Locomotion and Hush.
The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, superb illustrations by Matt Phelan, was a hard book for me to read. Since it won the Newbery Award in January of 2007 it has garnered extra attention because the word "scrotum" appears on the first (and last) page of the book. In February of 2008, Julie Bosman explored the debate in her New York Times article With One Word, Children's Book Sets Off Uproar. Also, I think to some people, the choice of Patron's books over others published in 2007 was questionable. There has been some grumbling of late about the number of recent Newbery picks that have contemporary social issues as their subject matter. I am going to try to push all of this to the sides of my brain and write a review about this book and just this book.
Lucky, the main character of The Higher Power of Lucky, is a ten year old living in Hard Pan, California, population 43. It was 42 after her mother died, but then Brigitte came to take care of Lucky and it was back to 43. Brigitte is a French woman who was married to Lucky's father before he was her father. Not wanting to have a child, he is not much of a father to Lucky. And, while Brigitte is a loving guardian to Lucky, she knows that she misses her home in France. The meandering plot of the book follows Lucky as she works her job, sweeping up at Hard Pan's Found Object Wind Chime Museum and Visitor Center where she also finds time to listen through a hole in the wall to the discussions that go on during the twelve-step anonymous meetings that are held there. That is where she overhears Short Sammy tell the story of hitting rock bottom and deciding to quit drinking. His rock bottom involves his dog being bit on the scrotum by a rattle snake and his wife taking him to the vet in the next town because Short Sammy is too drunk to drive. His dog survives, but his wife leaves him and takes the dog with her.
The book is filled with quirky characters doing quirky things as well as Lucky's quirky way of looking at them and life. This book is almost like the young adult novel version of the 1990s television show Northern Exposure, which was about quirky people in a small Alaskan town. There is Lucky's friend Lincoln who, according to Lucky, has a brain secretion that makes him want to tie knots all the time. He is an expert at it and has researched it copiously, even though his mother wants so much for him to be president of the United States that she has named him after three of them. There is five year old Miles, being raised by his grandmother while his mother does time in jail on drug related charges. Lucky gathers this knowledge during a Smokers Anonymous meeting and keeps it to herself for most of the book. These are the only children in the story. The rest of the characters are adult like the Captain who sorts the mail, Dot who has a beauty salon and Short Sammy who lives in a water tank.
The climax of the book comes when Lucky, who has begun to suspect that Brigitte is planning to return to France, decides to run away during a dust storm. Her plans don't go quite as expected, but she does rescue Miles and remove a cholla burr from his heel as well as a moth that has flown into her ear and won't leave. Most of the town is looking for the two of them and when they find Lucky and Miles she takes the opportunity to turn it into a memorial service for her mother and scatters her ashes, which she has included in her survival kit backpack, while they all look on. The day ends with Lucky safe and cleaned up and ready for bed getting a big hug from Brigitte while she explains that the papers were out because she was planning to adopt Lucky. In the last chapter of the book, Brigitte is the owner of the successful Hard Pan Cafe and Lucky is still working at the Hard Pan Found Object Wind Chime Museum and Visitor Center where she has recently plugged up the hole in the wall with Fix-All.
As you may know, I am only lately coming to appreciate realistic fiction for young adults. Fantasy, science fiction and historical fiction are my preferred genres. Despite this, I think that The Higher Power of Lucky is an interesting book rich with unique details that will entertain readers, both girl and boy. However, I do feel that Lucky seems to think and act younger than the ten year old fifth grader that her character is. I am sure that, as an only child growing up in a small town with not many children and no television will allow a child to mature at a reasonable pace, unlike the media saturated "tweens" that roam the malls today. Despite this, it was jarring to me as I was reading along and found Lucky sitting in a fifth grade classroom but I am sure it would not seem out of place for a young reader.
Susan Patron does an intensive job getting inside Lucky's head and explaining her way of thinking and ideas regarding all sorts of things from ants to government cheese. The vivid words and descriptions that fill her writing brings to mind what the creations in the Found Object Wind Chime Museum must look like - jumbles of kaleidoscopic, colorful, jangly everyday things, or in the case of this book, words, dangling about in bunches. And, while I liked the abounding details most of the time, I found myself thinking often of Polly Horvath and her wonderful novels which are less cluttered and slightly less quirky, but rich with details nonetheless. My One Hundred Adventures, which was published in September of 2008, is the story of twelve year old Jane and is filled with interesting adults, just like the town of Hard Pan and is my favorite book by Horvath thus far. Actually, Polly Horvath's Everything on a Waffle which won the Newbery Honor in 2002 is more akin to The Higher Power of Lucky in terms of unique (and sometimes just flat out odd) adults and a child in a precarious family situation.
In March of 2009 Lucky and the inhabitants of Hard Pan are back with Lucky Breaks, again with magnificent, gently expressive illustrations by Matt Phelan. Lucky makes a new friend, Paloma, Miles invites the whole town to his sixth birthday party, and a wild burro visits Brigitte's Hard Pan Cafe, among other things...
If your reader liked The Higher Power of Lucky try:
Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath
On Monday, January 26, the American Library Association will announce the winners of the Caldecott Award which honors the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children in that year, and the Newbery Award, which honors the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. In honor of these momentous awards, I will be devoting the next week of reviews to Newbery winning titles and maybe an honor winner.
If you are interested, you can watch the awards being announced live at 7:45 AM MT when you click here. Be forewarned, there are about 10 other awards that get announced first...
For a list of past winners, visit the ALA home page.
I will not be making any predictions since the last few winners were news to me. I had not seen the winners on the shelf in the bookstore where I work before they won the medal, and, as usual, I did not see them until about four weeks after the award was announced as the publishers rushed to print enough copies to send out to all of the bookstores that were now happy to keep this heretofore unknown title in stock as long as it had a guaranteed sale sticker on it. I'm on the fence about all of the controversy swirling around this award. While I think it is wonderful that this committee can bring to readers a previously little known title that languished on library shelves, it also feels good to a regular old reader, adult or child, to champion a book that you read and loved and see it win. Sure, I'd love to see Laurie Halse Anderson's Chains win, but I don't think it will. Whatever books do win the gold and silver medals, I will be happy for the hardworking authors who are now assured of a permanent place on the shelves of most bookstores and I will be excited to get my hands on those books and see what the fuss is all about.
For a list of predictions made in October of 08 as well as lots of other interesting, related information, check out this post at a great site I just discovered, Wizards Wireless. More predictions can be found at 100 Scope Notes and in Elizabeth Bird's article at "Mock Newberys and Mock Caldecotts: Who Is Nominated the Most?" .
And, if you really have some free time on your hands, you might be interested in looking into these articles discussing the relevancy, readability and universality of the most recent Newbery picks. Anita Silvey provides a good overview of picks since the awards were first given in 1922 in her article "Has the Newbery Lost It's Way?" In an article for the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss takes these thoughts one step further when she ponders difference between the (usually unheard of until winning) Newbery picks and the quality of more popular books in her article "Plot Twist: The Newbery May Dampen Kids' Reading".
Finally, Melita Marie Garza writing for the Contra Costa Times on December 30, 2008 discusses a study on the lack diversity in the Newbery winners.
Urchin of the Riding Stars (Mistmanlte Chronicles #1) by M.I. McAllister, illutrated by Omar Ryan, 288 pp RL 4
I'll be honest, I don't think I would have picked up the Mistmantle Chronicles by MI McAllister if I didn't have this crazy idea to do a whole week of reviews of books with squirrels as the main characters. I read Brian Jacques Redwall and enjoyed it but was not compelled to read the rest of the series. Somehow, the troubles and triumphs of rodents in medieval England didn't pull me in. So, I was pleasantly surprised by Urchin of the Riding Stars and my inability to put it down. The fact that it is half the length of the average Redwall book and written at a lower reading level might have been a draw, but, the magical island of Mistmantle, the beautiful illustrations at the head of each chapter and the presence of hedgehogs kept me reading past my bedtime!
The Isle of Mistmantle is named so because of the dense mist that surrounds it, allowing visitors from other islands to come and go, but inhabitants, once they leave, can never find their way back through the mists. The book begins with a mother squirrel in labor and alone on a beach at night. I'll admit, this is definitely one of the stranger beginnings I have ever encountered in a children 's book and, having been through labor a few times, I found myself trying to empathize with this squirrel. The mother squirrel has stowed away on a boat bound for the Isle of Mistmantle because a prophecy (He will bring down a powerful ruler) has put the life of her child in jeopardy. She dies after giving birth and minutes later her baby is plucked from the shore by a hungry gull and carried high into the air. However, this is the night of the riding stars when wonderful, momentous events occur. Startled by a shooting star, the gull drops the baby, who lands in shallow water and is washed ashore. Thinking it is a shooting star fallen to earth, the gentle, simple minded squirrel Apple rushes off to find it. The fall is also seen by Captain Crispin and Brother Fir, both squirrels, and they the shore, reaching the baby first. Determining that he must be an orphan, because no mother would abandon her child like that, and that he must be from another island because of his pale coloring, the decide that they will give him to Apple to raise and keep secret the fact that he fell from the sky. He is "different enough from the other squirrels without them thinking he came tumbling down out of the sky on a night of riding stars," says Brother Fir wisely. Crispin agrees and asks if he can name the orphan Urchin, since he was found on the shore.
From here much tribulation and anguish occur before Urchin has the chance to fulfill his prophecy. Husk, a squirrel captain with ulterior motives and a touch of evil, begins to wield his influence over King Brushen and Queen Spindle after young Prince Tumble is found murdered after another night of the riding stars. The Royal Family are hedgehogs. Other inhabitants of the island include moles and otters. There is a saying among the animals of Mistmantle, "As bright as a squirrel, as loyal as a hedgehog, as determined as a mole, as valiant as an otter," and all of these animals, each with their own skill, work in the tower and serve the royal family. The day before the night of the riding stars, Crispin asked Urchin, who had been assigned to join a work party, to be his page instead. Cripsin has been a hero of Urchin's, even though he doesn't know the role he played in his rescue, and it has been his greatest wish to work alongside him. However, this doesn't last for long. Husk manages to frame Crispin for the young Prince's murder and sees him banished from the island. Urchin then becomes Captain Padra, an otter and Crispin's closest friend along with Brother Fir, page and together they work to keep Husk from increasing his control over the King and escalating his dastardly plans which include culling weak, undersized and less than normal infants as well as the work parties and the hours they must give to the king. Padra, Brother Fir and Urchin search for clues and form alliances while Crispin makes his way to an island where swans rule and the animals live undomesticated lives. He even finds a mate, Whisper, and they being a life together.
The treachery of Husk and the beautiful, duplicitous squirrel he marries, Lady Aspen, the Queen's dearest friend and lady-in-waiting, can be intense for young readers and listeners. The murder of Prince Tumble - a knife through the heart - is disturbing, as are the mentions of the cullings that Husk has performed. However, Captain Padra has discovered the location of the ancient Old Palace that all the other animals believe to be a myth. There he has set up a nursery where the infants he saves from the cull can be raised and visited in secret by their mothers. Also, there is religion on the island, the center of which is the Heart. The Heart cares for the island and created the Mist to protect it. The Heart also protects the helpless. Other than that, the mention of the Heart and it's place amongst the creatures of the island is spoken of only peripherally but reminds me of the religion in Frances Hardinge's Fly By Night, the center of which was the Heart.
As I said, I found this book very enjoyable and plan to finish reading the series. I have peeked at the plots for the next three books and it looks like some interesting things lay ahead for the creatures of Mistmantle!
*The pictures of the characters from the Mistmantle books are taken from the official British website for the books, which have a different illustrator, Gary Blythe, for the UK editions.