I believe that reading the right book can be a transformative experience. As a mother, former longtime bookseller and ardent reader of children's literature, I want to help kids start their reading journey on the right path. Insightful reviews and excellent suggestions of similar titles will ensure that readers are never without a good book in hand. My new job as an assistant to a literary agent is helping me to hone my critical skills and bring you the very best of the best in kid's books.
Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life is the first Wendy Mass novel I've read, but it definitely won't be the last. Where to begin? This book has so much going on in it, from the philosophical to the theosophical, from mutant candy and found playing card collections to peanut butter sweat and the H.O.J., I know I will leave out one of the many, many enthralling, unique, creative, unparalleled details packed into this young adult book that reads like an adult novel. I don't know the last time I read this kind of soul searching, not in a solopsistic navel gazing sort of way, but in an actively searching and enquiring way, in a kid's book!
Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life begins almost exactly where it ends - on July 22nd, the day of Jeremy's thirteenth birthday. What happens over the course of the 278 pages in between is an epic search throughout New York City for four missing keys that will open the box that contains the meaning of life. No, this isn't a fantasy. A box, bought by Jeremy's father who died in a car accident five years earlier, and inscribed with the words, "THE MEANING OF LIFE: FOR JEREMY FINK TO OPEN ON HIS 13th BIRTHDAY," arrives a month before Jeremy's birthday. The box also comes with a letter from Mr Fink's lawyer explaining that he is in the process of moving his offices and has lost the keys to the four different locks on the box. From the moment he opens the package containing the box, Jeremy and his lifelong, polar opposite best friend Lizzy are up against a closet full of secrets, their own as well as those of others, and a suitcase full of keys with only 30 days to find the right ones.
The story really takes off when, caught trespassing in the empty offices of the lawyer, Jeremy and Lizzy are assigned community service the requires them to work for the pawn broker, Mr Oswald. However, this job turns out not to be as bad as the two expected. They are picked up in a limousine and driven to work - at Mr Oswald's house - by James, the tight-lipped but friendly chauffeur. Mr Oswald is in the process of moving and needs the children to deliver a few things for him. These turn out to be items that were pawned decades ago, when Mr Oswald's grandfather, Ozzy Oswald, ran the shop, and make up my favorite part of the book. When Ozzy ran the shop he had his underaged customers fill out a form explaining why they were pawning the particular item and what they intended to use the money for. Then he would take a picture of them with the item. They return a sixty year old autographed copy of Winnie-the-Pooh, a Tiffany lamp and an old brass telescope, along with the original letters they wrote for Ozzy. These make up some of the most poignant, probing, profound conversations of the book as the two talk with the people, now well into old age. They learn about the value of friendship, the freedom that comes with intentional simplicity - as a student of it, I appreciated the subtle, unnamed aspects of Buddhism that Mass weaves into her story, and the cosmic implications of time travel. Jeremy is constantly reading books about time travel, hoping to go back in time and prevent his father's accident. Dr Amos Grady, owner of the telescope and now a prominent astronomer working at the Museum of Natural History, helps Jeremy to understand that all the known laws of physics make time travel to the future an impossibility. And, while time travel to the past might be possible, with no way to get back to the future, "there would be two of you in the past an none of you here in the present. Theoretically, of course. Very Messy. Quite impractical."
Jeremy and Lizzy also make a detour to Atlantic City where, more than thrity-seven years ago, Jeremy's father had his fortune told by an old Russian woman who predicted he would die at the age of forty. Jeremy thinks that his father believed the prediction and that this was a governing factor in his life and thus the reason he arranged for the box to be sent to him on his thirteenth birthday. After a visit to a church and another answer to the question, "What is the meaning of life?" the two manage to track down a fortune teller with a Russian accent. Although the accent is an act, the woman really is the granddaughter of the fortune teller who predicted Mr Fink's premature death. It turns out that she was run off the boardwalk for making this prediction repeatedly to her male customers because she got bored making the usual pronouncements. Hoping for a bit of good luck, the two ask Madame Zaleski, the younger, where the keys to the box his father left him are. Madame seems to go into a trance and responds, "You have already been very near to zhe keys vich you seek, You vil find zhem, but it vil take much vork."
The community service tasks and the impossibility of ever finding the keys cause Jeremy to begin to question everyone he meets on there definition of the meaning of life, in case he can't get his box open to find his father's answer. He keeps track of his thoughts and observations in a notebook given to him by Mr Oswald as a means of recording his hours of community service. When there work for him is over, Mr Oswald allows Lizzy and Jeremy to each pick an item from his home to keep. Jeremy picks a suitcase full of the "flotsam and jetsam" that Mr Oswald removed from the drawers and pockets of items people brought to him, half of which are keys. Jeremy and Lizzy find all but one of the keys before embarking on their summer visit to Jeremy's grandmother's bed and breakfast in New Jersey where he will visit the state fair and celebrate his birthday. Lizzy surprises Jeremy with the fourth key, which she found in the suitcase but kept secret from him, as a birthday present. Sitting in a boat the middle of a lake where he used to fish with his dad, Jeremy and Lizzy open the box.
What is inside the box is fitting and serves as a moving conclusion to the journey Jeremy and Lizzy have taken over the course of the book. However, this is not the end. There is a twist that I will not reveal here...
Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life is an amazing book, to say the least. And, like I said at the beginning of the review, there are so many details that I have not included here and wish I could. Because Jeremy is twelve going on thirteen in this book it is often categorized as a young adult book. However, I think that this is a great book for teens, who might be able to better grasp the gravity of the different meanings of life discussed in the book, younger readers will enjoy the hunt for the keys and the many, crazy places it takes Jeremy and Lizzy.
With discretion, I highly recommend, for older readers, I am The Messenger by Markus Zusak. This book will keep rolling around in your head for months after you finish it. The main character in the story is eighteen when he inadvertenly thwarts a bank robbery. That's when the first Ace arrives with instructions for him to follow. An unseen mentor sends him on a journey, guided by messages on playing cards, that leads him to a new perspective on life. There is adult language and a scene involving off-the-page sexual violence.
As you may know by now, I love it when one thing reminds me of another and I especially love it when I can link them into a week of book reviews! I should have known when I picked up Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life by Wendy Mass that I would end up reading and reviewing as many of her books as I could. In fact, Jeremy Fink is a perfect example of a book where one thing leads to another!
I still have A Mango Shaped Space, Heaven Looks a lot Like a Mall and the Twice Upon a Time books in my to-be-read pile and I can't wait to dig into them. But, for now I am very happy to be able to present you with reviews of Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, Every Soul a Star and 11 Birthdays this week. I look forward to your comments on these outstanding books!
And, if you are a kit lit geek like me, you will really enjoy Wendy's page of Author Pals which is filled with pictures of Wendy and other authors at different gatherings and events!
This was one of those books that I avoided when it first came out in January of 2008 because of the hype that surrounded it. It was tagged, as are most non-reality based kid's books published recently, as the next Harry Potter. I have become so weary of the constant presence of dragons and magic in books since Harry Potter and Eragon hit the shelves that I often don't even read the jacket flaps of most of the fantasy that is published these days. My mistake! For starters, Tunnels by British authors Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams does not have dragons, wizards or magic (at least not in the first book in the series...) and it is not fantasy! It is solidly science fiction, a brilliant mix of Jules Verne, Charles Dickens and a little Mark Twain all rolled into one fantastic, innovative, utterly creative plot that is so rich and detailed that I was on the edge of my seat for most of the book. I was also on the edge of my seat because I am a touch claustrophobic (I had to close my eyes and chant a mantra to make it through a twenty minute tour of the catacombs in Chiusi, Italy this summer) and the vivid descriptions in this book of the underground scenes left me short of breath and feeling like the weight of the earth was pressing on me.Tunnels, which has eerie interior illustrations by co-author Brian Williams, is a little slow going at first, but as the story gathers steam and explanations for the oddities are gradually revealed, the pace and tension build quickly. At fourteen, the aptly named Will Burrows is a pale skinned, fair haired boy living what seems to be the typical suburban life of a teenagers who is part of a dysfunctional family. His mother spends all day watching television, while at the same time recording the shows she is missing to watch late into the night. Will's younger sister, Rebecca, is his seeming opposite with her dark hair and adult ways. She is the one who keeps the family fed and organized, telling her father when the bills need paying, cleaning the house and keeping up with her school work. Will's father is a somewhat defeated archaeologist forced to take a job as a museum curator in Highfield, a part of London that was first settled during Roman times. When he is not "busy" working in the museum, rationing out his stash of chocolate and humoring the elderly townspeople who keep bringing him rotting and rusty finds from their cellars that they are sure the museum will want to display, he is active with excavations of his own. With Will in tow, the two spend their weekends at digs, tunneling so far underground they find a deserted subway station. This is a passion for both of them, Dr Burrows wanting to discover the artifact that will catapult him out of obscurity, Will enjoying the act of digging above all else, his beloved shovel which receives a better cleaning than he gives himself.
Unaware of the fact that they each have a secret site that they are digging individually, Will and Dr Burrows begin to make some startling discoveries that they keep secret. Will has enlisted Chester, a physically different outsider like himself, to help him with his dig near the city dump. There they discover a mystifying octagonal room, twenty feet high and made of bricks. Each brick has a person's named carved into it in Gothic script. At the same time, Dr Burrows makes a series of fascinating discoveries that lead him to believe there is a vast network of tunnels running underneath the city, tunnels that might have something to do with the strangely dressed, sunglasses wearing, musty smelling men he begins to notice around town. What Gordon and Williams have dreamt up is both magnificent and menacing to explain these mysteries. If you like a good adventure story with a main character who has only his wits, his loyalty to his friend and his bravery to defend himself with, this is the book for you. My only minor complaint is lack of female, let alone positive, characters in the book. Perhaps things will change in the second book, Deeper, but only Granny Macauley and her adult daughter, the mysterious Sarah, who I hope makes an appearance in the next book, stand out positive, but largely absent women in this story.
So, if you want to know about this amazing plot and don't mind me laying out all the spectacular details, READ ON!If you think you might read this book, really, don't read this. There are a few great twists and they are well worth the wait to be surprised by. Even if no one reads on, this book was so great I just have to write about it, sort of like when you see a really great movie and are compelled to tell your spouse, partner, best friend or nearest warm body the plot from beginning to end... (Incidentally, this book is being made into a movie)
What Will, and Chester, discover is an underground city, "The Colony," that was built over one hundred years ago by Sir Gabriel Martineau and is inhabited by pale skinned, fair haired people who, the majority of them, have never seen the sun or the "Topsoiler" humans who live above them. This city is run by the Styx Division, an ancient law enforcement team of people, all of whom have black hair and wear special military-like clothing. They are in charge of running the city and enforcing the laws that keep the society functioning. They have instituted a religion that teaches the people to hate the topsoilers and see them as the ruiners of the earth. When topsoilers occasionally stumble onto their secret civilization, they either sentence them to slavery or send them into the Deeps. There are tunnels and settlements that go even deeper than those where the Colony has been established. And, there are secrets there that will be revealed as the series progresses. A few weeks ahead of Will in his discovery of the Colony, Dr Burrows has already been sentenced to life in the Deeps and taken the mining train down the long track that leads to it. Will and Chester blunder into the city and immediately are taken into custody, having no idea how violently the citizens of the Colony hate all topsoilers. Will and Chester are treated horribly and eventually separated when it is discovered that Will is the missing child of Mr Jerome, an upper class citizen of the colony who's wife Sara made a daring escape with her two sons years earlier. She only made it out with her older son, Seth, whom she apparently had to abandon once above ground. Unbeknownst to him, Will is the adopted son of Dr Burrows and the birth son of the Jeromes, the missing Seth. When he is taken to his family home he meets his younger brother Cal, his Uncle Tam and his Grandmother Macauley, who shows him a hidden picture of his mother. He also meets Cal's cat, Bartleby. The best visual I could muster of this creature from the descriptions is that of a hairless, pink Great Dane who's purr sounds like an engine running. Definitely one of the most realistic, creepy creatures invented in a kid's book of late.
While Chester remains in prison, Will is put to work along with other kids his age digging. He finds he is actually enjoys having a shovel in his hands again, but his day of work also confirms in him the knowledge that he will rescue Chester from jail and escape the Colony, even though it is his birthplace. In a great scene that evokes the slums of an industrial era London, Cal and Will visit Uncle Tam and his friends at his local pub in the Rookery, the place where the colonists who are too sick, old or lazy to work, live. Instigated by a Styx who has been after Tam since he and Sara were rebellious teens, letting a barrel of frogs loose in the church right before a Styx sermon, insults are flung at topsoiler Will and Tam is drawn into a fight with a local bully. Tam wins handily but the happy hour is over. When Will and Tam meet again it is to plan his and Chester's escape.
While Will manages to get Chester out of jail, he is forced to leave him behind when they are caught at the last moment by the Styx, lead by Will's sister, Rebecca. Will is astounded to learn that the Styx, who have their people all over the world, above and below ground, placed her in the Burrows' family when she was an infant so that she could monitor Will as well as watch for the return of his mother. Now it seems she is really the daughter of Crawface, the Styx who has been after Tam for years. Unwillingly, Will is forced to bring Cal and Bartleby with him as he escapes to the surface using a map and supplies Tam has given him. They find themselves on the banks of the Thames near the Tate Modern as they emerge from their ordeal, which includes passing through the Eternal City, an amazing, enormous, ancient but festering place that has an eerie green glow to is and that I hope is part of the next book. Sick from the air in the Eternal City because he gave his mask to Cal, Will is feverish and almost delirious when they finally make to his aunt's home.
The boys recover there, telling Will's aunt nothing, saying that Cal is a cousin on his father's side. Although Auntie Jean is not much more functional than her sister, Will's topsoiler mom, she takes a liking to Bartleby and knits him a sweater and pants set to keep him warm above ground. Will knows that he must return to rescue Chester and find Dr Burrows, whom he still calls his father and feels a strong connection to. Using his auntie's food money, Will restocks his backpack and he and Cal begin the journey back to the Colony. This time the Styx are waiting for them when they reach the Eternal City. Attacked by one of their giant bloodhounds, Will thinks he is done for, but Bartleby rushes in and saves him. He and Cal run off, pursued by the Styx and desperately worried about the fate of Bartleby who is left behind. When they think they are done for, Uncle Tam and his friend Imago appear to save them. However, they fall into a trap set by the Styx and Tam is forced to fight the double scythe wielding Crawface to the death. Tam wins but sacrifices himself so that Imago and the boys can get away to a hiding place. Once there, they spend a day resting and tending to their wounds. Imago tells the boys that they are all on the run now and can never return to the Colony. If they go topside again, the Styx will hunt for them the rest of their lives. Imago shares with the boys a suspicion of Tam's. He believed that Rebecca was Crawface's daughter and now that he's dead she will want revenge. They decide to part ways, Imago vowing to Will that he will find a way to rescue Chester. Imago gives Will a wad of papers that was discovered in the Rookery. The papers turn out to be Dr Burrows' journal that he had been keeping since he went underground. Will is hopeful when he reads the pages, even if they don't reveal much information. A metal grate in the center of their hideout is opened and a set of tracks is revealed underneath. Imago tells the boys that a mine train to the deeps will be passing by soon and this is their best chance of escape and finding Dr Burrows. The boys agree to drop through the hole as it passes underneath them and happily find they have landed in cars full of supplies being sent to the miners, such as fresh fruit and light orbs. They also discover Chester, who is on his way to his exile in the deeps. Their situation begins to seem not quite so bleak to Will, as he and Chester sit amidst a pile of watermelons and pears, laughing with relief that they have found each other again.
Seems like a great place to end the first book, but there's more!!! We are treated to a bonus scene in which we see Rebecca exact her revenge upon Imago, who has gone topside...
I can't wait to dig into (pun intended!!) the sequel, Deeper!
Although it is two-hundred and fifty-six pages long, Rosemary Wells' Civil War story Red Moon at Sharpsburgreads more like an epic saga along the lines of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind in terms of the multitude of experiences the main character lives through over the course of the fours years during which the story takes place. Wells' main character and narrator, India Moody definitely fits the mold of the headstrong, sometimes willful, self-determined historical heroine who often rescues the men and boys of the story. She is also reminiscent of the subject of Wells' book Mary on Horseback. The real life Mary Breckenridge was a brave, headstrong woman who established health care for the poorest of the poor living in the Appalachian Mountains with her Frontier Nursing Service, founded in 1925.
A bit of back story at beginning of the novel reveals the incident that ties the main families in the story, the wealthy Trimbles, the hard working Moodys and Micah and Esther, black slaves freed by the Trimbles. From that point on their lives and fates are intertwined as they try to survive the war that rages around them in Berryville, Virginia. Beginning in 1861 when India is twelve, we watch as all the young men, and even the older, including India's father, join the army. As the days then years pass the Moodys and Trimbles suffer grave losses and severe living conditions. As the hardships increase, Wells' descriptions become more intense and vivid. You feel like you can see and smell everything that India experiences right along with her, from the stink of the unwashed soldiers to the chemical odor of the experiments she observes Emory Trimble conduct. Early on, India's dearest friend Julia and her wealthy Quaker parents move to Ohio to get out of the way of the destruction that is surely on its way. India misses Julia dearly, even though they are opposites, India being very studious and reading novels like Charles Dickens' Great Expectations outside of school for extra work and Julia loving clothes and boys, she considers traveling with Julia to her relative's home. However, her sense of responsibility to her mother, father, grandfather and baby brother is strong, especially after her father leaves to work in the ambulance corp. India manages to resist the knowledge, provided by Julia who now has a brother studying law there, that Oberlin College admits women and has a work study program that would allow India to pay for her tuition, but her desire to go there remains even during her darkest days.
India does get to spend time at Longmarsh, the Trimble's estate, when, very early on in the war, the town's teacher enlists and is killed. Emory, the youngest of the three Trimble sons, is asthmatic and cannot serve in the army and has been away at University studying medicine. He tutors India in the glass greenhouse, built to ease his breathing, that has become his laboratory for the study of chemistry and biology, particularly the causes of infection. Ready to teach India "scriptures, household economics, handwriting, declamation," as her mother insist, she instead proves to be insatiably curious about and adept at learning the sciences that Emory is studying. Gradually, India becomes indispensable to Emory, helping with his research and transcribing his notes. Through her friendship with Emory and his with a visiting German doctor, the Europeans notably ahead in the study of medicine and infection, specifically discovering this crazy thing called "bacteria." Southerners seem unwilling to entertain the idea that this invisible thing can make them sick and the town doctor, in a very medieval fashion, continues to suggest bleedings, leeches, maggots and other seemingly barbaric cures while refusing to acknowledge that the camp fever that many of the Confederate soldiers, including India's father, are suffering from could be avoided if the soldiers camped up river from their horses. Even the Northern medics seem to have better instruments and supplies while the Rebels end up seeming pigheaded and prideful. India's world continues to spiral downward until she and Micah and Ester discover a Northern soldier with a leg amputated at the hip. Their willingness, really Micah and Esther's insistence, that they nurse him back to health proves to be the turning point in India's life. While this act puts the three in grave danger, it also eventually allows them to head north to safety and reunion with loved ones.
The battlefield descriptions are descriptively blunt, but never gratuitous. Well's copiously researched novel, research that inspired her to write the gem, Lincoln and His Boys, is evident in her writing. When India travels to Antietam to take medicine to her sick father who has been forced back into service, she encounter spectators on a ridge watching the fight, garden chairs, binoculars and all. She also sees the thousands of fallen men, dead on the battlefield and hears of how the river ran red with blood at the height of the battle. Wells' doesn't pick sides, either. She is equal in her depictions of Norther and Southern cruelty and brutality.
Readers who enjoyed this book might also like this other story about a young woman determined to study medicine:
With Mary on Horseback: Three Mousntain Stories, Rosemary Wells, an important picture book author and illustrator, tells the story of an exceptional American figure from the perspective of children, just as she did with Lincoln and His Boys, illustrated by the painterly PJ Lynch. Once again, Wells is paired with another wonderful illustrator.Peter McCarty's moody drawings are evocative of early photographs and are well suited to the sometimes bleak lives of the people of the Appalachians. An accomplished picture book illustrator and author, most famous for her Max and Ruby books, Well's is a tireless advocate for literacy who has written a handful of young adult novels including Red Moon at Sharpsburg which is set during the Civil War and tells the story of India Moody and her fight to survive the war so she can attend Oberlin College, which accepts women, and study medicine.
As Well's acknowledges, the characters in Mary on Horseback are true to life, based on people from Marvin Breckenridge's documentary about her aunt and the Frontier Nursing Service that she founded in 1925, titled, The Forgotten Frontier, filmed in 1931. Wells begins the book with a brief description of Kentucky in 1923, listing all the modern conveniences of the time then noting that none of these, not electricity, running water or automobiles, are available to the people living in the Appalachians. The first chapter, "Mountain Medicine," tells the story of a boy who's father has his leg crushed while logging. Thinking that the granny-woman will have to amputate his leg, the family is surprised when Mary arrives and tends to him. When he is well enough, he is carried down the mountain on a stretcher and taken to the railway station where he will be put on a train for the hospital in Lexington. His son John, travels with the group, secretly at first. Mary takes him under her wing and allows him to stay with her and her nurses at her house in Wendover. The second chapter, "Ireland of Scotland" is narrated by Maggie Ireland, a nineteen year old who has answered Mary's newspaper adds and come all the way from Scotland to work with her. Maggie is up against an unfamiliar terrain and people who don't trust her and won't allow themselves to be given shots, even if it will save their lives. The final chapter is narrated by Pearl, a young girl who stops speaking after her mother dies giving birth to twins. Pearl's father brings the three of them to Wendover, telling Pearl to stay with the babies until they can come home. During this time, Mary, who has broken her back falling off a horse and can't go out to see patients, befriends Pearl and recruits her to help with her campaign to dress the girls of the Appalachians in denim overalls like their brothers. It seems that burn victims are most often girls, their dresses catching on fire as they tend to the wood stoves. Pearl speaks her first words when she delivers a pair of these overalls to a young girl. The book ends with a few pages on and a photograph of Mary herself, on horseback.
Wells manages to fill this short book with intense images and vivid characters who linger in your memory long after you finish reading. As with her book Lincoln and His Boys, the story she told made me want to learn more about Mary Breckenridge and her life. Even her niece, the filmmaker, [Mary] Marvin Breckingridge's entry in Wikipedia proved to be interesting. For these reasons, this book is a wonderful, gentle way to introduce readers to the joys and importance of reading non-fiction.
Readers who enjoyed this might like these other books with fictional characters who aspire to careers in medicine:
Unlike Rosemary Well's Lincoln and His Boys which takes documented historical events and imagines them through the eyes of Abraham Lincoln's young sons, My Brother Abe: Sally Lincoln's Story by Harry Mazer takes the few known facts about the childhood of Sally and Abe Lincoln and creates a rich and compelling story from them. Little is known of Sarah, or Sally as she was called, beyond her birth date, marriage date and the date two years later when she died at age twenty-one in childbirth. There is a quote in Candace Fleming's The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary Lincolnthat mentions how Sally begged her Pa to let Abe, two years her junior, but just as smart and always as tall or taller, come to school with her and how she cried until he ceded. And, while this doesn't happen exactly the same way in Mazer's book, Sally's love of Abe and desire to share with him is evident from the first sentence of the book when she talks of being five and teaching three year old Abe his letters in the dirt.
In Sally, Mazer has written a strong willed, emotionally conflicted narrator. The life of the Lincolns' is never easy. They are forced to leave Knob Creek, Kentucky when the government informs them and many of their neighbors that they are not the proper owners of their land. Tom Linclon, a carpenter by trade, heads off to what will become the state of Indiana with only his horse to scout out new land. Soon the family is packing their meagre belongings on their backs and heading to their new home in the densely forested territory of Pigeon Creek. Of course I was reminded of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her story as I read. The hardships and subsistence living is similar. However, Mazer endows his characters with more emotional depth and complexity than I remember from Wilder's books. Sally is forever being accused of having a loose tongue and is often standing up for Abe, who is the lightening rod of his father's anger. However, she always has her mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, to look up to. Much like Ma Ingalls, Nancy is gracious, selfless and subservient. As the house in Pigeon Creek is built by Lincoln and for one day his neighbors, wonderfully described in the chapter, "Dreaming About Our Cabin," Sally notices how her mother's requests go ignored. Finally, she decides that she and Sally will build a temporary chimney so they can make use of the stone fireplace for cooking without being smoked out of their home. Tom arrives home from a day's work outdoors and has nothing but criticism for their work until Sally points out that there is no more smoke in the cabin. One lingering sadness for Sally is the fact that, while she and her mother have picked out a large, flat stone to serve as their doorstep, her mother never lives to see it put in place by Tom.
The story follows the Lincoln's as they settle in, send the children to school and have relatives from Kentucky join them. Abe's love of learning and his desire to please his father remain a part of the story, but the focus is always Sally's struggle to be more like her mother and less aware of the unfairness of her situation, especially after her mother dies and she assumes all of the household responsibilities at the age of eleven. However, this is a difficult task for her and she remains stubborn throughout the book. A year after her mother's death, Tom Lincoln decides to resume a friendship with Sarah Bush Johhnston, Nancy Hanks Lincoln's childhood friend in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. She is now a widow with three children and considerable debt. After an exchange of letters, Tom decides to go to her, propose and return with a wife. He tells Sally and Abe he should be gone no more than nine days and leaves them a pig carcass. Although it is winter and snowing, neither father nor children seem too concerned at parting. This is no surprise as the children were remarkably self-sufficient before their mother's death and even more so after. And, while Lincoln is gone for almost three weeks and the pig carcass is stolen by a bear shortly after he departs, the children survive. They still are attending school and all the neighbors seem to know of their situation and send food for them. Mazer even introduces the Aaron Grigsby, the man Sarah Lincoln married when she was nineteen, six years after this book ends. Grigsby, a bit older and more independent, shares the excess of his hunting with them and they make it on their own, a lot dirtier and a little thinner than when their father left.
The last quarter of the book, the arrival of Sarah Bush Johnston and her children, Elizabeth, Matilda and John, finds Sally struggling to accept the changes in her life and the woman her father insists she call Mama. When Sarah gives Abe books, he takes to her immediately. It is known that, while he did not attend his father's funeral, he cared for his step-mother in her old age and considered her as much a mother to him as Nancy Hanks had been. Sally takes longer to warm to Sarah and is quick to notice the things her father does for her and her children that he never did for her mother. The book ends with Sally refusing to join her father and siblings on a wagon ride celebrating the birthdays of Elizabeth and Matilda, noting, "We hadn't never had a festive time for me and Abe, nor for Mama, neither." She stays behind with Sarah, who is cooking a big meal for the family. Being a perceptive and loving woman, despite Sally's pushing her away constantly, she takes her in her arms and asks her to talk of her mother and holds her while she cries for her.
I think children will definitely be drawn to the rugged existence the Lincoln's lived, as well as the antics of Abe and the struggles of his sister. Mazer's descriptions of Sally feel genuine and her narrative voice is strong. I think this book will take it's place on the shelf along with Gary Paulsen's "Tuckett" books and Laura Ingalls Wilder's life story.
As I was reading Rosemary Wells' compelling new book Lincoln's Boys, a fact based snapshot of the Lincoln family's life over the course of six years and narrated by Willie and Tad Lincoln, I found myself wanting to know more about the interesting people who were Abraham and Mary as well as the fates of the family. With February 12, 2009 being the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, I was not at a loss for reading material. Happily for me, for all of us, I found answers to all of my questions and much much more in Candace Fleming's amazing book, The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary which was published in the fall of 2008.
The word "scrapbook" in the title can be misleading. Here, it is used in the old fashioned sense, the pages of the book looking more like the sheets from a newspaper of the time than what we think of as a scrapbook toady. To view one of the pages click here. This is the same format Fleming used with great success in her other books, Ben Franklin's Almanac and Our Eleanor. In her introduction, in which she details her childhood growing up in Illinois, the land of Lincoln, playing on and around historical sites and even sleeping in a bedroom where Lincoln once slept, Fleming includes a quote from a friend of the Lincoln's. Speaking of Abraham and Mary the friend said, "they were like two pine trees that had grown so close their roots were forever intertwined." Thus, her editor's suggestion that she write a biography of Lincoln becomes one on the Lincolns, following the two from their births to their deaths.
I'll admit, the string of tragedies, loss after loss, that his family suffered are what intrigues me, as an adult reader. Once I began reading The Lincolns, I quickly became equally, if not more fascinated by the quantity and quality of information available on the two subjects, as detailed in the extensive endnotes Fleming provides. It seems that Lincoln is the most written about president and, in the 21st century when memoirs clog the shelves of bookstores, I was surprised to learn how many people took up the pen to write about their experiences and relationships with the Lincolns, from the sister of Tad and Willie's White House friends, to Mary Lincoln's dressmaker and Abraham Lincoln's private secretary who conducted extensive interviews with those who knew him. This provides for an abundance of quotes that make the writing even more engaging than it already is. There are also photographs, illustrations, political cartoons, legal documents, maps and personal items, such as Mary's recipe for white cake. Fleming spent five years researching this book and it clearly shows.
The visual nature of this book will draw readers in instantly. The fact that the various snippets of text, usually no more than a few paragraphs, have eye-catching headlines further serves to engage readers and hold their attention. Fleming manages to presents a multitude of details and information while maintaining an intimate feel to the book at all times. While I am a person who enjoys reading historical fiction, I am rarely tempted to learn more about what I am reading by picking up a work of non-fiction. But, when I picked up Rosemary Wells' book and was led to Candace Fleming's, I couldn't put either of them down and actually considered reading an adult biography of one of both of the Lincolns. However, that impulse is just that - I have already picked up two more works of historical fiction for young adults on Abe and Mary, one of which I learned of from the suggested reading section in Fleming's masterful biography that is engaging to young and old alike.
In case you need a little more nudging to pick up this book, here are a few interesting tidbits I learned:
Lincoln was the first president to have his likeness put on a coin.
Mary was the first wife to be referred to as "First Lady." Mary had a unique upbringing. She was encouraged to learn about and have opinions on politics. She was raised with slaves but personally handed out food and clothing to Washington DC's ex-slaves.
No doubt you know Rosemay Wells and her cannon of beautifully illustrated insightfully intelligent picture books, several of which star the timeless bunny siblings, Max and Ruby (who can take their place in line behind Frog and Toad and George and Martha when it comes to picture books that capture genuine prickly emotions and the difficult dilemmas that are part of life.) But, you may not know that Wells has written a handful of books for middle grade readers. In addition to her newest book, Lincoln and His Boys, she has written Red Moon at Sharpsburg, the story of India Moody who, while trying to get medicine to her sick father gets caught in the crossfire of the one of the Civil War's most most tragic and terrifying events, the Battle of Antietam. She also wrote the amazing biography Mary on Horseback: Three Mountain Stories which tell the story of three families who are helped by Mary Breckinridge, the first nurse to travel to the Appalachian Mountains and provide medical care to the isolated inhabitants living there. With muted pencil drawings by the magnificent Peter McCarty, author and illustrator of one of my favorite picture books, the Caldecott Honor winning cat and dog story, Hondo and Fabian, Well's interlocking short stories tell of the arrival of the Frontier Nursing Service through the eyes of the children she helped and remind readers that one person's passion can change the world.
With Lincoln and His Boys, Wells takes another poignant page from history, her inspiration for the story coming from a 200 word fragment written by Willie Lincoln about a trip taken with his father, Abe. The painterly, portrait-like illustrations of the the Lincolns by the gifted artist PJ Lynch suit the subject matter of this book perfectly. With their rich golds and browns, they convey the the seriousness of the times and the warmth of the family. Told in three chapters, "Willie, 1859," "Willie and Tad, 1861" and "Tad, 1862 - 1862," Wells captures moments from the lives of the Lincolns as seen through the eyes of their young sons. Above all else, this is the story of two sons and the profound love and respect they had for their father and he for them. These stories also illuminate the larger aspects of history that are unfolding during this time. While Mary Lincoln is portrayed as a loving if fretful mother, Abraham Lincoln is seen as a doting father who always finds a way to make time for his sons. He is infinitely accepting of who they are as children, never worrying about the parenting practice of the time that followed the simple rule: Children should be seen and not heard. As Well's writes in her author's note, "Throughout my reading [on Lincoln] I marveled at how kind Lincoln was with his sons. His boys could do no wrong. Willie and Tad were raised to have fun in the Victorian Era when fun, in public, especially for children, was frowned upon."
Because Lincoln's life is so thoroughly documented, all the incidents in Lincoln and His Boys are grounded in historical fact. No detail is imagined or invented except the dialogue and the circumstances in which it takes place. The book begins with the Lincoln's living in Springfield, IL. Willie and his father embark on an overnight trip to Chicago. Through conversations with his father and observations on the part of both boys, it is revealed that Lincoln has decided to run for President of the United States. While Lincoln tends to law and political business in Chicago. Willie observes "spiffed-up men with soft hands" who are constantly wanting to talk to Lincoln and taking up much of his time, a point which is made often in the book. Willie spends his time reading the Chicago Tribune while his father "commences two hours of lawyer work" at the Cook County Courthouse. At dinner that night in their hotel, Lincoln orders "sherbet Jenny Lind" for desert, telling Willie that his mother made him promise to take him to see the real Jenny Lind sing, for his own "edification." However, when Willie points out that a notice in the paper said that there would be a show of Chinese acrobats and jugglers at Metropolitan Hall, Lincoln, who "loves entertainments," buys tickets and father and son see both shows.
In her relatively short book, Wells authenticaly captures the feel of the time period and the real experience of the Lincoln boys through dialogue, the occasional colloquialism and an abundance of details. Willie's trip with his father is a bright time in his life but darker days are to come. While on the train to the White House after winning the election, Lincoln surprises the boys with what they think is a silly disguise. Aware of an assassination plot, Mr Pinkerton, head of security, has insisted that Lincoln take a faster train to Washington. As Lincoln explains it to his boys, there is "a lot of shicoonery" about. Once at the White House, Mary sets about updating it because there have been "too many bachelors in a row" occupying it. The boys find fast friends in Bud and Holly Taft and even build a fort on the roof. The Civil War breaks out, as does typhoid fever. Both boys become ill and, on the night of February 20, 1862, Willie succumbs to the illness. Wells does a sensitive yet honest job describing the intense grief that both parents experience upon this loss. And, while this is not the first or last time for mourning for this family, Wells focuses only on the months and years indicated in the chapter titles. Hopefully, readers will be inspired to seek out more information on the Lincolns and learn of their fates.
In the final chapter narrated by Tad, who's real name was Thomas, his father nicknaming him Tadpole at birth because of what he considered a resemblance, the Lincolns spend the summer in a cottage at the Soldier's Home and Tad's fascination with the military grows. There is the momentous visit to Richmond, VA in April of 1865 after the war has ended and, finally, Abraham Lincoln's last public address, given on April 11th, 1865, two days after the surrender of General Lee, from the balcony of the White House. This speech, which can be read by clicking here, was delivered with Lincoln's private secretary John Nicolay holding a candle for light and Tad at his father's feet, catching the pages of the speech as Lincoln finished with them. Rather than quote from the speech, Wells illustrates Lincoln's deep sense of empathy by focusing on his insistence that the band play "Dixie," which hasn't been heard in Washington for four years. As he tells Tad, "The crowd wants to rub the South's nose in the mud, but I won't let 'em, Taddie. I won't let 'em."
In a year when books on Abraham Lincoln are flooding the shelves, in the children's and adult departments of bookstores, it seems like a good time to read at least one of them. Rather than the sometimes dry biographies, give Rosemary Wells' and PJ Lynch's book a try. It captures moments in time, from a child's perspective, in a very momentous life.
I am a fairly observant person. So, a couple of months ago when we started receiving piles of new (and old) books on Abraham Lincoln and his kin, I knew something was up. At first I figured we were just preparing for the huge book selling event that is President's Day. But, as I gradually became aware that we were not stocking up on bios of George Washington, Teddy and Franklin D Roosevelt and JFK, I decided to investigate. Turns out that February 12, 2009 marks the 200th Birthday of our 16th president!
I had no intention of marking this momentous day with a post or review, but I was lucky enough to receive a review copy fromCandlewick Pressof an amazing book that lit a fire under me. Non-fiction is not a favorite of mine and, while I love historical fiction, I prefer to read about British history or Colonial Era America. The Civil War does not do it for me. But, this incredible book lead me to another engrossing book and another.
So, this week I will be reviewing books about Lincoln written for children. The two works of historical fiction are narrated by children. The third book is a work of non-fiction and a MUST read. I hope you enjoy reading about these books even half as much as I enjoyed reading them.
I have one request from parents who have children who read these books or others about Lincoln: Please let me know what your child thinks of the book(s) that s/he reads. I think that what I found most compelling about Lincoln was the profound loss and sadness that filled his life and I really don't think that this is what will attract kids, so I'm wondering, what will?
One last Abraham Superlincoln for the road... T-shirts and more great stuff available at
When The Ink Drinker was first published in translation in from the original French in 1998, it appeared as a beautiful little hardcover with vibrant illustrations. The rest of the series, A Straw for Two, The City of Ink Drinkersand Little Red Ink Drinker, appeared in succession to make a quartet. Sadly, only The Ink Drinker is still available, but it arrives in a very reasonable paperback edition, packaged now as a Random House "Stepping Stones" book, bridge between easy beginning reader books and higher level chapter books like the ubiquitous Magic Tree House and Junie B. Jones series.
The narrator, Odilon, who's name we don't learn until the second book, is the very unhappy child of a bookstore owner. He is unhappy because he hates to read, hates books, and he is surrounded by them at home and at work. It is summer vacation and he is is working in his father's store. Because he likes the sound of paper being torn, his father won't let him do anything involving books. The only job left is to watch for shoplifters. However, when he sees one he always looks the other way. It pleases him to know there is one less book in the store. His attitude towards books takes a sharp turn when he spots a new customer he has never seen before. He has a gray complexion and bristly eyebrows and looks as if he is floating!
This is Draculink (Dracul-ink, or the much better sounding Draculivre as he is called in the French edition, "livre" being the French word for book.) Odilon watches from his hiding place as Draculink takes a straw from his pocket, inserts it in a closed book and begins drinking! When Draculink is finished he puts the book back on the shelf and where Odilon finds it, the pages completely blank. Intrigued, Odilon follows him to through the city to his mausoleum, a round room encircled by shelves packed with books, Draculink's pantry. He is discovered and confronts Draculink, asking him why he drinks ink and not blood. Draculink tells him that he has had a liver condition for over seventy-two years and ink is the only food he can digest without difficulty. And, it must be ink from the printed page, not bottled ink, which he says is as "l bland as salt-free food."
Draculink bites Odilon, writing his name on his arm with his teeth. The last chapter of the book sees Odilon joyously returning to his father's bookstore and drinking ink, reveling in the stories that he absorbs as he slurps, for, when you drink ink you simultaneously live the story. The second book, A Straw For Two, finds a lonely Odilon wanting someone to share his ink with. He even invents a Y shaped straw that allows two people to drink from the same book. Happily, he finds Carmilla, niece of Draculink. In the third book,The City of Ink Drinkers, the trio is looking for a new home that is safe and full of books and find the Library of the World. In the fourth and final book, my favorite, Little Red Ink Drinker, Odilon and Carmilla find themselves sucked into the story of Little Red Ridinghood.
I wish that all these books were still in print and, even better, in one volume. The idea of an ink-drinking vampire is brilliant, especially since it makes books and the joy of reading an integral part of the story. As I re-read the series, I was reminded of Michael Buckley's equally genius series for older readers, Sister's Grimm. The playfulness of the stories, the interweaving of fairy tales and the great characters are definitely worth checking out if your reader likes The Ink Drinker.
Whales on Stilts by MT Anderson is like Monty Python's Flying Circus in book form and appropriate for children... Amazingly enough, this comes from the author of the National Book Award winning work of very serious, copiously detailed historical fiction for teens, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume 1: The Pox Party, and it's sequel, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume II: Kingdom on the Waves. Or maybe it's not so amazing. MT Anderson is a diverse writer with an incredible ear and this book BEGS to be read out loud. If you want to have some bedtime laughs with your kids, ages 6 and up, this is the book for you! However, the audio version, read by Marc Cashmam, who at times sounds like David Sedaris, is hilarious also, but then you would miss Kurt Cyrus's wood cut style, pen and ink drawings and extra goodies that add so much to this irresistible book.
Do you know how many laugh-out-loud on almost every page funny chapter books there are for children? Not enough! We owe MT Anderson our gratitude for bringing two more books to the shelves of the children's section that are masters of the ridiculous. And, while I cannot write this review without mentioning another great author of the absurd, Lemony Snicket, aka Daniel Handler, I have to say that where Snicket's books parody gothic dramas, among other things, Anderson's "Thrilling Tales Series" parodies the adventure and mystery genres that were popular in children's literature in the 1940s and 50s. The main character of these Whales on Stilts and The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen is Lily Gefelty, a plain unassuming girl with overly long bangs who blows them out of her eyes when she wants to see something. Deciding she wants to know more about what her dad does for a living, she goes with him on Career Day. She is surprised to find that he works in an abandoned warehouse, which she knows is abandoned because a sign on it says, "Abandin Warehouse. Stay Out!!! There are probly scorpions!" She is even more concerned when she meets Larry, her father's boss. Although he is wearing a pinstriped suit when she meets him in the break room, Larry is also wearing a grain sack on his head, over which he pours a vat of green brine during the course of their conversation.
Greatly disturbed, Lily is sure her two best friends can help her. Katie Mulligan lives in Horror Hollow, just off Route 666, and has lots of experience with zombies, werewolves and flesh-eating viruses. She even has her own series of books written about her adventures as well as her own fan club. Katie's way of dealing with a problem is to ignore it until it breaks into her house and tries to kill her. Katie seems to be a little bit Nancy Drew and a lot of RL Stine's Goosebumps rolled into one. Lily's other best friend, Jasper Dash, is definitely more of a Tom Swift knock off, talking and dressing right out of the 1920s. Jasper also has his own series of books written about his adventures with titles like Jasper Dash and His Amazing Electrical Sky Train and Jasper Dash and the Villainous Brain Pirates of Chungo. In addition to being an adventurer, Jasper is an inventor and concocts a crazy Rube Goldberg device that includes the use of a mule and a 250 pound roll of wax that he secretly attaches to the copier machine at Lily's Dad's office as a way making duplicates of the duplicates. The trio's investigations lead them to discover that Larry is really part of a pod of whales who are devising laser-beam eye wear and stilts that will allow them to overtake the earth... Will Lily, Katie and Jasper be able to stop this dastardly plan????
The second book in the series,The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen, finds the trio heading to the Moose Tongue Lodge and Resort for some R&R only to be disrupted by a convention of Children's Book Heroes including the Manley Boys, the Hooper Quints, the Cutsey Dell Twins and Eddie Wax who talks incessantly about his horse Stumpy. The third book in this newly named Pals in Peril series is Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware.