3.27.2009

Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan, 212 pp RL 5

With Homeless Bird, Gloria Whelan takes us to India and introduces us to Koly, yet another of her indomitable girl characters who survives against the odds, spirit intact. I seem to never get tired of this kind of story, but for those who might, Whelan's ability to capture the essence of another country, culture and language and weave them into a compelling story seem to be limitless and this book, winner of the 2000 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, is no exception.

When we first meet Koly, she is thirteen, with one older and one younger brother. Living outside a small village where her father works as a scribe, writing letters for the illiterate population, Koly knows that her mother often goes without food so that her children can eat. Thus, it does not surprise her when her father, or Baap, begins to arrange her marriage. The cow is sold, Koly's Maa gives her the solid silver earrings she wore on her wedding day, and a dowry is scraped together. Koly's Maa is a gifted embroiderer who gets work in the village embellishing saris and she has passed on her skill to Koly. As her wedding day approaches, Koly's mother embroiders a beautiful red wedding sari for Koly to wear. Maa has passed on her gift to Koly, who embroiders a quilt that serves as a photo album, reminding her of the family and life she is leaving behind.

Inauspicious signs are evident as Koly and her Maa and Baap arrive in the village where her groom, Hari lives with his parents and where the wedding is to be held. When she finally sees him for the first time during their wedding ceremony she is stunned to see that he is her age, perhaps even younger, not older as her parents had been told when the arrangements were being made. When the priest joins Koly's hand with Hari's during the wedding ceremony, she says, "it was hot and sweaty. I nearly pulled my own hand away, but he was hanging on to it hard, as if it were keeping him from falling over." Hari is dying of a virulent strain of tuberculosis and her Sass and Sassur, mother-in-law and father-in-law, are disdainful and indifferent to her in light of this. She soon learns that she was married to Hari only for her dowry. The money is needed to travel to Varanasi so that he can bathe in the healing waters of the Ganges, along with thousands of others. When Hari dies the day after bathing in the Ganges, Koly is sad but tries to be philosophical about her life. She decides to dedicate herself to serving her in-laws, but they are so bereaved and her mother-in-law so resentful of and bitter towards her, that there is little happiness for her.

Where she does find pleasure is with Chandra, Hari's younger sister. During these years, Hari's father, a teacher in the local school, agrees to teach Koly to read when she brings an old school book to him and asks if she may keep it. Using an autographed book of poems by the Nobel Prize winning poet and philosopher, Tagore, Sassur teaches Koly how to read. Soon, though, Koly's life is disrupted again when Chandra marries and Sassur dies and both Koly and Sass are now widows dressing in the traditional white sari. When Sass announces she has been invited to move to Dehli and live with her brother, Koly becomes unsure of her future, but, with a wry smile on her face, Sass says she may come along. At a stop in the city of Vrindivan, Koly finds she has been abandoned by Sass with only a handful of rupees, a bedroll and the book of Tagore's poetry that she traded Sass her silver earrings for. Koly soon learns that Vrindivan, with its many temples and monks who feed the devoted who spend all day chanting, is the place where families traditionally abandon their widows. The story of how Koly survives and thrives in Vrindivan takes up the rest of the book and is even more absorbing than the sadness and cruelty that brought her there.

Koly's sense of self and determination as well as her imagination keep this novel moving. Somehow, I felt that the sense of place that Whelan achieves so sharply in her other works wasn't quite as precise in Homeless Bird. And, while I did enjoy this book and the character of Koly, my favorite creation of Whelan's remains Rachel Sheridan from Listening to Lions, which is sent in Africa amongst the tribes of the Massai and the Kikuyu, as well as England.

Readers who enjoyed this book should look for these young adult titles by Suzanne Fisher Staples, a wonderful writer who lived in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan for many years.

Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind: Set in contemporary Pakistan, Shabanu is married off to a much older man who already has three wives shortly after her first period arrives. Winner of the Newbery Honor in 1990. Reading Level 5+.

Haveli: The story of Shabanu, now eighteen, and her daughter continues as she plans for her education and fights tradition, even falling in love with another man. Reading Level 5+.

Shiva's Fire: Set in India, this story follows a girl who's birth coincides with a cyclone that destroys the entire region. Despite villagers wariness of her, Parvati seems to have a spiritual connection to animals and the ability to remember everything. Her gift of dance lands her in a prestigious dancing school, but she finds the sacrifices she must make are great. Reading Level 4.

3.25.2009

Angel on the Square by Gloria Whelan, 288 pp, RL 5


While Angel on the Square ends the story of Ekaterina Ivanova, or Katya, on a note of love and hope, the sad fate of Katya's best friend, the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolavena, or Stana, and the rest of the Romanov family is like a ghost in the room throughout this entire, well crafted, richly detailed work of historical fiction from the master of that genre for young adults, Gloria Whelan. In 2000 Whelan won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature for Homeless Bird, set in present day India. While the story of Koly and her struggle to make a life for herself after she becomes a teenage widow and thus outcast is fascinating, I found the historical aspects of Angel on the Square to be more compelling.

As a child in the 1980s, I remember being fascinated by a documentary on television about Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed she was Anastasia, Tsar Nicholas' youngest daughter and told a detailed story of how she survived the mass execution of the royal family and a handful of their servants by the Bolsheviks on July 16, 1918. Other than that and the animated movie that came out in the 1990s, I learned nothing more about the family or the events that lead to their deaths until I read Angel on the Square and was compelled to seek out more information (albeit only through Wikipedia... I don't have time to read whole books on history for pleasure anymore. Why do you think I started reading kid's books in the first place? I can finish them in a few days and feel a minor sense of accomplishment on a weekly basis when I do!) Read at the right time and the right age, I have no doubt that Angel on the Square will inspire your child to make inquiries, with your help, into this troubled period in Russia's past.

Because of the specific historical events and real people who populate this book, Angel on the Square has a less personal feel than Whelan's other books, such as Listening for Lions, which follows the fate of Rachel Sheridan, the daughter of a doctor and nurse in Africa who minister to the Masai and Kikuyu tribes and perish in 1919 during the great influenza epidemic and the winner of the 2000 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, Homeless Bird, which tells the story of Koly, a thirteen year old Indian girl who is married off so that there will be more food on the table for her family, and her struggle to survive after her sick husband, also a child, dies and she is left alone on the streets, her dowry gone. Ultimately, I think that being the daughter of a Lady in Waiting to the Empress and playmate of Anastasia's gives Katya the distance from the royal family and their sad fates needed to keep Angel on the Square from being completely depressing. As it is, Katya and her mother's experiences from 1913 when Katya is twelve through to 1918, are troubling enough. Whelan manages the feat of portraying the perspectives of the peasants, the aristocratic land owners and the royalty in a masterful and subdued way that incorporates many perspectives and eventually empathy among those who find themselves in the decimated country, both environment and population, that Russia is by the time the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk is signed in March of 1918, ending Russia's involvement in the war.

Angel on the Square begins in the winter of 1913 with a twelve year old Katya standing on the balcony of her mother's familial mansion, looking across St Petersburg's main avenue, the Nevsky Prospekt, to the Kazan Cathedral where her mother is already ensconced, waiting to celebrate the tercentenary of the rule of the Romanov family. At her side is Misha, or Mikhail Sergeyevich Gnedich, the son of Katya's mother's best friend who has perished, along with the fathers of both of the children, years earlier. Misha, four years older than Katya, has revolutionary ideas, spends time with the workers and never misses a chance to point out to her how spoiled and unaware of the suffering of others she is. When Katya's mother is invited to be a Lady in Waiting to Empress Alexandra and Katya the special friend of Duchess Anastasia, one year younger than her, Misha warns that she will become nothing more than a glorified sluzhanka, a female servant, to her. What Katya finds over the next five years of living with the royals, being tutored in French and drawing along with the Tsar's daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia (who, I learned, sometimes referred to themselves using the acronym for their names, OTMA) is a family who love and care for each other deeply. The Tsar is a kindly father who enjoys teaching his children geography based on his own travels and delights in photography, taking thousands of pictures in his lifetime and the Empress is a mother who, while gentle hearted and interested in bringing up her children in a simple household with few luxuries, is consumed with anguish over the condition of her son Alexei, a hemophiliac who suffers painfully. She also finds two people so consumed with their family life that they seem to willfully ignore the plight of their people who so overtaxed that they cannot afford to farm the land they rent or allow their children to attend school instead of work in a rag shop. Then there is Rasputin. Although no one will share their true feelings about him to the Empress, who so fervently believes in his power to heal that she allows him to tell her how to direct the Duma, the Russian parliament, when her husband is at the warfront. In addition to her German heritage, her reliance on Rasputin for decision making only furthers the population's suspicion of and hatred for her.

The story follows Katya and the fates of the Romanovs as they vacation at their palace on the Crimea, go yachting on the Black Sea and attend many ballets up until the abdication of the Tsar and the family's exile from Siberia, where Katya and her mother remained faithful, even helping the Empress sew the family's jewels into the corsets and hems of her daughters' dresses before their final destination of Ekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains, unbeknownst to Katya, they would be executed. While this is playing out, we watch Katya grow and mature, gradually, with the help of Misha, opening her eyes to the hardships of the people of Russia. In her own small ways she tries to right the wrongs that she sees, but, she also realizes that she is helpless to make any changes or help anyone in distress beyond the work that she and the Duchesses and the Empress do at the beginning of the war when they go to work in the Catherine Palace, now a military hospital. Katya and her story are important and absorbing and this is what will draw in young readers who know little or nothing about this time in history. Whelan, who must spend months researching her books, evokes the time and place with incomparable skill and, as always, there is a glossary at the back of the book defining the words from the foreign language that she has incorporated into her book. I had the pleasure of listening to as well as reading Angel on the Square and found the narrator's pronunciation of the Russian words especially enlightening.

Like Whelan's other books, Angel on the Square ends almost where it begins, with the angel on the square, in front of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. Who is this angel? She is a bronze sculpture perched high atop a square granite pillar that sits in the middle of the square in front of the Winter Palace. She was put there to celebrate Russia's victory over Napoleon. As Lidya, Katya's governess tells her when she is a little girl, "Difficult times and even wars may come to the city, but as long as the angel watches over St Petersburg, the city will survive."

Readers who like this book might also like:

A Countess Below Stairs, by Eva Ibbotson. This story is about a girl who is also part of the Russian aristocracy and her life after she flees to London and works as a maid to survive. It also has a romantic story line and is therefore better for readers 12+.

The Star of Kazan, by Eva Ibbotson. Set in Austria, this has a similar feel to Angel on the Square, but the story is less dramatic. Annika is an orphan who is found by her "real" mother when she is twelve. The Star of Kazan is a famous emerald that was given to Annika's aging neighbor by a Russian Count, who then gave it to Annika. This book is perfect for readers who loved Frances Hodgeson Burnett's A Little Princess.

Listening for Lions by Gloria Whelan


3.20.2009

Magyk (Septimus Heap Series #1) by Angie Sage, illustrations by Mark Zug, 564pp RL 4

Like Cornelia Funke's Inkworld Trilogy, Angie Sage's Septimus Heap Series, the first in which is Magyk, creates a medieval fairy tale world, complete with talking rats, shape-shifters, ExtraOrdinary Wizards and Ordinary Wizards who's eyes turn green when their magyk kicks in, ghosts, boggarts, dragons, the Wendron Witches and a few Egyptian words and symbols here and there. Unlike Cornelia Funke's trilogy, which has more mature themes, the world of the Castle, its surroundings and inhabitants are not nearly as menacing, brutal or dark. There is never a question that the story will end well for the hero and heroine. This is the perfect series for young children who are advanced readers and looking for well written fantasy that is of a more gentle nature but still suspenseful and rich with creative, magical details. Mark Zug's softly beautiful pencil drawings that head up each chapter and bring the characters to life are perfectly suited to Sage's writing.

The story begins with the birth of a boy and a girl on a cold, dark night. Offstage, the Queen, who has just borne a daughter, and the ExtraOrdinary Wizard, Alther Mella have been murdered. Marcia Overcross, assistant to Alther and now that he is dead, ExtraOrdinary Wizard, secrets the infant to safety and ensures that she will be raised in a loving family. The Heap family, having just experienced the loss of their newborn seventh son, gladly takes her in. When, ten years later the Supreme Custodian's spy locates the Princess and sends The Assassin to finally end the royal line, the story, as well as the Heaps, Marcia Overcross and Boy 412, a near frozen sentry from the Young Army, a rag-tag group of orphan boys, takes off. Burning taverns, boat chases, swamps, Quake Ooze Brownies, magyk and reverse Darke Magyk follow the group as they are pursed by DomDaniel, the (presumed dead) ExtraOrdinary Wizard Alther was apprenticed to in his youth. DomDaniel, in his quest for power and the throne, is killing off the royal family and has kidnapped a boy who he believes is the seventh son of a seventh son and therefore in possession of great magical power, in an effort to achieve this.

As with Funke's Inkworld Trilogy, Sage's books are over 500 pages and, in my opinion could be a couple of hundred shorter and still be great books. However, I completely understand falling in love with a fantasy world and wanting to stay there as long as possible and this series definitely lends itself to that whim. I highly recommend this series for all fantasy lovers, especially the youngest ones. Also, be sure to check out the super website created for this series. It is full of games, maps and great information.























If your reader enjoyed this book, I suggest:
Castle Corona by Sharon Creech
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
Beauty by Robin McKinley

And, while this series is set in the contemporary and not medieval world, I highly recommend Michael Buckley's Sisters Grimm Series for all lovers of fairy tales.


Like Funke and her Ghosthunters series, Angie Sage has also written a series of books at a slightly lower reading level (and page count...) Araminta Spookie, who gives the series it's name, is a young girl living in an old Victorian house with her Aunt Tabby and Uncle Drac.

Cover ImageCover ImageCover Image


3.18.2009

Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon, pictures by Tony Ross, 90 pp RL 2




I
If Junie B Jones was a boy and had been written by Roald Dahl instead of Barbara Park, she would be Horrid Henry. The creation of Francesca Simon, an American who has spent most of her adult life in England, the first Horrid Henry book was published some fifteen years ago and there are currently has sixteen titles in the series, including my favorite (not out in the States yet) Horrid Henry's Nits. Tony Ross, who's illustrations are reminiscent of but less edgy than the work of Quentin Blake, current cover artist for Roald Dahl's works for children, bring Henry and his family and friends to life. Now, for the first time ever, Henry is crossing the pond and maybe he will give Junie B and Jack and Annie from the Magic Tree House series a run for their money. 

Horrid Henry RocksHorrid Henry's StinkbombHorrid Henry's Monster MovieHorrid Henry's UnderpantsHorrid Henry Robs the BankHorrid Henry and the Abominable SnowmanHorrid Henry Wakes the DeadHorrid Henry and the Soccer FiendHorrid Henry and the Mega-Mean Time MachineHorrid Henry Tricks the Tooth Fairy

These are the kind of books that parents will probably loathe but kids will love. Henry is a horrid child, and his parents can frequently be heard telling him not to be horrid in each of the four stories that make up the books in this series. Henry has a younger brother, Perfect Peter. All of the characters, the children anyway, have an adjective that precedes their name and starts with the same letter. There seem to be children for almost every letter in the alphabet in these books. There is Prissy Polly, Weepy William, Lisping Lilly, Singing Soraya and Vomiting Vera. Where Henry is unrealistically ill behaved, Peter is equally unrealistically well behaved. Naturally, Henry spends a lot of his horrid energy on tormenting Peter, who is a pretty easy mark. The first story in Horrid Henry is titled, "Henry's Perfect Day," in which he decides to be perfect, or like brother, anyway. Of course this delights his parents and aggravates his brother no end, which in turn gives Henry the strength he needs to continue on being a well behaved, helpful child. Chapter 3, in which Horrid Henry and Moaning Margaret dare each other to eat "GLOP," a disgusting concoction of assorted foods found about the kitchen, is pretty entertaining also. Who among us did not make a similar sort of mixture at some point in our childhoods? My favorite story, however, is in the book Horrid Henry and the Mega-Mean Time Machine. Henry and Peter are given the box from a new washing machine to play with and, when Henry's turn is up he refuses to turn it over to Peter, telling him it is a time machine that he is too young to use. Peter wants to turn the box into a play house with cut out windows and flower boxes but Henry convinces him otherwise by taking a solo trip to the future. Upon his return he tells Peter that boys in the future wear dresses and lipstick, every one eats vegetables and has tons of home work and they all speak the Ugg language. When Peter is dressed properly and transported to the future, Henry is there pretending to be Zog, his own great-great-great-great-great granddaughter and explains the familiar surroundings by telling Peter that he is so famous in the future that his house has become a museum and that is why nothing has changed.

Francesca Simon is a great writer with a real ear for children's dialogue and thought processes. While the characters can seem static and archetypal somtimes, Simon draws on a rich vein of everyday experiences - from eating in a fancy restaurant to reading a book or doing a school project- for her main characters to react to. Sometimes the stories just seem like more of the same thing - Henry being horrid in various ways. But, sometimes there are bright spots of inspiration, like when Peter decides to get revenge on Henry for always tricking him. Either way, these books will serve the purpose of getting kids to read and read often which is exactly what they need at this point in their budding careers as lovers of literature and seekers of knowledge. And, like Junie B Jones and the Magic Tree House, there will soon be enough of Horrid Henry books on the shelf to give emerging readers all the practice they need in reading chapter books. While parents may not be thrilled with Henry and his highjinks, he is definitely a step up from Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants in terms of providing a more complex plot structure and vocabulary and less (none, in fact) potty humor.

Don't forget, your kids will be the ones reading these books, not you, so you don't really have to enjoy them as long as you feel like you can find a way to explain Henry's behavior in conjunction with your own family values - if that is a clarification your child even needs. I realize that children are influenced by their surroundings, be it television, movies, computer/video games and peers, but I remain skeptical with the idea that children are equally influenced as heavily by the books that they read. I believe that any child with a solid foundation in reality can read Horrid Henry and laugh at him, knowing the difference between right and wrong, and not be influenced to go out and smash a flower bed, scream in public or tease a sibling. Horrid Henry should be considered part of the fantasy genre, really. And what child doesn't fantasize about doing whatever s/he wants, whenever s/he wants to? Ok, I'll admit it, I actually kind of like Horrid Henry. He reminds me a bit of Edina and Patsy from the BBC comedy of the 1990s, Absolutely Fabulous, who said and did whatever they wanted and were complete hedonists. Horrid Henry (and Eddy & Pats) do whatever they want, whenever. I have always wanted to live that way, for a day anyway, and I am sure that children (who are told "no" several times a day) yearn for that as well.


If your child likes this book, you might suggest these, or any, books in the Stink series by Megan McDonald:

Stink: The Incredible Shrinking Kid
Stink and the Incredible Super Galactic Jawbreaker

3.16.2009

feathers by Jacqueline Woodson, 118pp, RL 4

Jacqueline Woodson is a prolific and varied author with a Newbery Honor medal, a Caldecott Honor medal, a National Book Award Honor and Coretta Scott King Award and Honors for her books for children. After reading feathers I can seen why she has won so many awards. She has a way of creating a distinct sense of place and time that compliment her memorable characters. Set in the snowy winter of 1971, feathers is narrated by eleven year old Frannie who, although she thinks of herself as an average kind of girl, finds herself dealing with grown-up issues like death, prejudice, violence and the abstract concept of hope.

Emily Dickinson's famous couplet, "Hope is the thing with feathers/that perches in the soul," lends the book its title and provides an overriding theme throughout the events of the book. Like Polly Horvath, Woodson is a miniaturist, weaving tight, well crafted characters and ideas into less than 150 pages. Ms Johnson, Frannie's teacher and Frannie's mother are the two main adult characters in a story that is driven by the children. Besides Frannie, my favorite character is her older brother Sean, who was born deaf. When, at birth, doctors offer to try an experimental operation on Sean that might allow him to hear, his parents choose not to, believing that, "if that's the way he came into the world, that's the way he's staying. It's us we need to change." Dialogue in Woodson's book is indicated by italics and not the traditional punctuation, perhaps as a way to represent the sign language communications that go on in the book. It also adds to the feel of the book. Often, we are inside Frannie's head, listening to her thoughts and following as she makes connections and has realizations about the things in her world.

At school and at home, Frannie has some serious issues to face. Her mother, who has had several miscarriages and an baby who died at one month old, becomes pregnant. Frannie and Sean are concerned for her health and happiness above all else. Their father discusses this with them and the possibility that she might lose this baby just like the others. He tells the children that a baby is a happy thing and that they should be happy about this new baby growing, wether it's for two weeks, two moths or forever. Woodson takes this thread from Frannie's home life and interweaves it with her friendship with her best friend and preacher's daughter, Samantha. Frannie holds Samantha in high esteem, admiring in her the things that she is not - dainty, careful about her appearance, church going and religious. This does not come between the girls, but brings them together. When Samantha calls and asks Frannie to go to church with her one Sunday morning, Frannie is leaning toward staying home to watch "Casper the Ghost." Samantha tries to convince Frannie that she needs to go to church so she can be saved and not "worry after you die." Looking at a photo of her dead baby sister as she talks on the phone, Frannie realizes that she doesn't worry about dying because it has always "been somewhere in our house, somewhere so so close, we could feel the wind of it on our cheeks." She isn't afraid of having to move on the way Samantha is because she has moved on. This moment of understanding allows her the empathy to see the world through Samantha's eyes and she agrees to go with her.

The main event of the book, the one that kicks off the story, is the arrival of a new student in Ms Johnson's class in the middle of the year. Despite the fact that Frannie herself was once a new student in the middle of the year and knows how awkward it is, she keeps her distance. Almost instantly, the new student is named "Jesus Boy," by Trevor, the bully of the class, because he has light skin, long curly hair and refuses to talk. This, and the fact that he lived on the other side, the white side, of the highway, give him an air of mystery, one that starts Samantha thinking that he might really be Jesus. The teasing and tension between the new student and Trevor and his group escalate along with his strangeness when he tries speaking to Frannie in sing language. She is put off at first and will only speak to him audibly, but her feelings gradually change and allow her to come to his side when a playground fight threatens.

I could write so much more about the issues and ideas that Woodson brings up in her masterfully written book, but, like all great books, it is best discovered and savored on one's own and shared around later. This is the perfect book for parents to read along with their children and discuss. The age, gender, race, religion or non-religion of the reader doesn't matter, despite that of the characters. What matters, above all else, is the idea of hope and how it fits into our lives, how we let it fit into our lives.

This is the first book I have read by Jacqueline Woodson, and it will not be the last. feathers is the perfect book to start off with if you are new to her books and not to be missed if you are already a fan.




3.13.2009

The Spoon in the Bathroom Wall by Tony Johnston, 144pp RL 2

I discovered Tony Johnston's The Spoon in the Bathroom Wall when I was cruising around cover illustrator Brett Helquist's fabulous site and am happy I did. My only complaint is that I wish there was some of Helquist's unique illustrations inside the book to go along with Johnston's animated, humorous writing.

A spoof on the King Arthur legend with a nod to TH White and his brilliant version of the tale, The Once and Future King in the dedication, Johnston's book is so much more than the story of a sword in a stone, or, in this case, a spoon in the bathroom wall. The book begins with a Langston Hughes poem:


Dreams

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

This is the glue that holds Martha Snapdragon and her father Luther together and keeps them going. Even though Luther can never remember the exact words of the poem, he and Martha tell each other to "hold fast," and this manages to get them through some dark days and tight spots. And things are dark. Luther Snapdragon is the janitor at Horace E Bloggins School and he and Martha, who is the star student there, live in the noisy, dank boiler room in the school's basement. The principal, Dr Klunk, (rhymes with junk), "rhymes with" being a frequent silly extra that Johnston throws into the story) is a power hungry egomaniac worthy of a Lemony Snicket novel who is always out to get Luther and Martha. Rufus Turk is the school bully who also has it in for Martha. One day when he is teasing her and calling her "Marthur," Dr Klunk passes by and joins in the teasing. The name sticks and a hero is born, but not without the help of the school's science teacher, Ferlin, and her magic bag of tricks.

As Martha struggles to make it through the day she notices a saying etched into the school's brick wall: The King is Coming - And It's About Time. This is followed by the appearance of a bejeweled wooden spoon named X-Cauliflower, sticking out of the boy's bathroom wall and another cryptic message: Whoso pulleth this spoon from this wall is the rightwise King of all Bloggins. How Marthur gets the spoon out of the wall and the obstacles she has to overcome to do it make for a great story that any reader, boy or girl, will enjoy. And, if you're lucky, they may even become interested in the real Legend of King Arthur! And, when your kids read this book, be sure to ask them if they caught the spoof of Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd's classic, Goodnight Moon, at the start of chapter xii that begins, "In the science room there was a telephone. And a red baboon. And a picture of - George Washington. And there were three antbears sitting in chairs..."

If your reader likes this book, you might suggest:

Dragon Slayer's Academy by Kate McMullan
Castle Diary: The Journal of Tobias Burgess, Page by Richard Platt and Chris Riddell

And, last but not least, if your child really enjoyed this book, he or she will most likely enjoy Lemony Snicket's (aka Daniel Handler) Serious of Unfortunate Events. Although I have not reviewed them here, I have read them all and I have mixed feelings about them. However, the playful absurdity and rich vocabulary found in The Spoon in the Bathroom Wall, as well as the nasty Principal Klunk reminded me very much of Book the Fifth: The Austere Academy.

Why do I have mixed feelings about The Series of Unfortunate Events? For petty reasons, mostly. The ending was not satisfying in a conventional way. I felt like I was dragged along through each increasingly longer book with the promise of answers to the mysteries, specifically what happened to the Beaudelaire's parents, and there were no real answers at the end. I guess I was a little bothered that there was never any caring adult who was able to intervene successfully on the part of the three children either, but that's my hang-up as a parent, I guess. I was also sort of bothered by the mock definitions of some really great vocabulary words. It is great to expose kids to these words and provide a mostly accurate, but sort of sideways definition, but I know that very few kids who read these books actually seek out the literal definitions of these words. Maybe they learn them through osmosis and I am being too much of a school marm. In the end, I feel like these are kid's books that are full of inside jokes for adults, like the character of Esme Squalor, named for the JD Salinger short story, "For Esme, With Love and Squalor," jokes that kids will NEVER EVER get. A lot of parents probably won't get them, either. Maybe I am just jealous that Daniel Handler managed to pull the wool over so many eyes and make tons of money and hook up with a FANTASTIC illustrator while he was at it...





3.06.2009

Secrets of Greymoor by Clara Gillow Clark, 176pp RL 3


Clara Gillow Clark's third book about Hattie Belle Basket, The Secrets of Greymoor, finds our heroine knee deep in another mystery, one that might save Grandmother from losing her mansion, Greymoor. When we first met her in Hill Hawk Hattie, she is living in a small cabin in the mountains with her father and her mother has just died. When Pa tells Hattie she is going to dress as a boy and help him with his logging work, she is too despondent to argue. That's how she finds herself passing as "Harley," the only girl ever to raft down the Delaware River in 1883, even if it is in secret. In her next book, Hattie on Her Way, Hattie finds herself up against snobby neighbors and rumors about the death of her mysteriously absent Grandfather. In Secrets of Greymoor, Hattie now knows that her Grandfather, who has just passed away, was in the Utica Insane Asylum for the last years of his life, but she does not know what he did with Grandmother's fortune...

As Grandmother's income dwindles, Horace Bottle, Hattie's tutor who also boards with them, much search for a teaching job elsewhere and Hattie is forced to go to common school, or what we now call public school. Still clinging to her upper class ideals, Grandmother notes that, "Only commoners go to common school. We are not common people." Despite this, Hattie is anxious to be among children her own age again, especially now that she has ostracized her snooty neighbor, Ivy Victoria. However, Hattie finds herself an outsider once again as the girls in the school assume that she is an upper class snob because she lives in a mansion on the hill and they want to know what she is doing at common school. Hattie manages to win some of them over with her tales of elaborate feasts and festivities that never really happen and promises to invite them to her next party when her Grandmother is out of mourning for her Grandfather. Not all the girls buy her story and this proves disastrous in the end. Another impeding disaster is the overdue tax collection notice that Hattie hides from Grandmother. The need to find money to pay the taxes and a cypher filled notebook that she finds hidden in her Grandfather's old overcoat send Hattie on a hunt for hidden treasure inside the walls of Greymoor. And, while she finds the treasure, she can't save Greymoor and an auction ensues. But not before Hattie and Ivy Victoria tentatively renew their friendship which leads to a helping hand from a surprising person. The end of the book finds Hattie writing a letter to her Pa, who, after taking reading and writing lessons from the school mistress falls in love with and marries her, asking for new overalls so she can take up where she left off when she boarded that raft heading down river. Now that Grandmother and Buzzard Rose are safe and settled and money is no longer a problem and Hattie has passed her entrance exam into the Academy where Horace is now a teacher, she can make good on her promise to return to the mountains for the summer, meet her new family and take up with her old best friend, Jasper.

While this book can be read on it's own, I highly recommend reading the first two books about Hattie, which establish interesting aspects of her personality and upbringing. Hill Hawk Hattie is rich with geographical and historical information as well as a compelling relationship between Hattie and her father. Hattie on Her Way shows Hattie learning to live in a new environment as well as finding out things about her mother that she never knew. They build perfectly on each other with Secrets of Greymoor depicting a more self-assured, but still proud and sometimes foolish, Hattie and sets the stage beautifully for what I hope is the next book in the series, one that finds Hattie readjusting to life in the mountains for the summer.


3.04.2009

Hattie on Her Way by Clara Gillow Clark, 208 pp RL 3

With Hattie on her Way, Clara Gillow Clark continues the story of the independent, sometimes prickly Hattie Belle Basket that she began in Hill Hawk Hattie. Although the challenge of passing as a boy and helping her father raft logs down the Delaware River is behind her, life in a mansion on the hill in Kingston, NY with her Grandmother Hortensia and her faithful housekeeper Rose is far from easy.

Above all else, Hattie struggles the grief she still feels for the loss of her mother, Lily, as well as homesickness for her Pa and their cabin in the woods now that they have a new found respect and understanding of each other. Hattie's Grandmother treats Hattie with kindness, but with a quiet distance as well. Rose, or Buzzard Rose, as Hattie dubs her due to her red face and wattle-like neck, treats Hattie like an interloper and calls her a "breaker." Hattie assumes Rose thinks she will be careless and break the valuables in the house, of which there are mysteriously few, but by the end of the book we know that Rose means something entirely different. Rose also seems to be holding a grudge against the skinny, tanned, scrappy Hattie who looks and acts nothing like her soft, delicate mother did. To add to this, there is the spoiled, stuck-up Ivy Victoria (for the Queen of England) Blackmore Vandermeer living opulently in the mansion next door. Hattie quickly learns that Ivy's invitation to tea is not to make friends but to pump Hattie for information on her secretive mother and absentee grandfather. Ivy Victoria tells Hattie that her mother says Hattie's Grandmother and her mother Lily helped to kill Grandfather and bury him in the vegetable garden.

The thought that anyone would imply that Hattie's mother had anything to do with a murder, let alone her own father's, is more than Hattie can bear and she runs home. What follows is an intriguing plot thread. Bits of information about Lily, such as her refusal to continue taking the cure for her pleurisy and her fascination with fairies, from Hill Hawk Hattie are elaborated on in Hattie on her Way. As Hattie grows closer to her Grandmother she learns more about her mother and Grandfather and the secret that they shared. This aspect of the story makes for some very emotional scenes as well as yet another level of understanding and connection for Hattie and her father, Amos, by the end of the book. It also allows Clark to introduce the character of Madame Blatzinsky, Mrs Vandemeer's spiritualist, who conducts seances and "speaks" to the dead. During this time in history, the religion of Spiritualism was founded and seances became popular among the wealthy. Mary Todd Lincoln even held seances in the White House in the hopes of speaking to her dead son Willie. Often times, the mediums were revealed to be frauds, working with a hidden crew of assistants in an effort to deceive.

While nothing quite as suspenseful as Hattie's raft ride over a dam and the secret of her gender occurs in Hattie on Her Way, the more subtle mysteries of family ties and class differences make a story that often has Hattie and her struggle to find her place in her new home taking a back seat. Horace Bottle, a skinny, voracious, Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde loving academic tutor who takes up residence in mansion brings levity to the story, especially when he gives Hattie and her mother's old dress a make-over in preparation for Ivy Victoria's birthday party and Hattie's introduction into society. Their entrance at the party allows Hattie, when asked if Horace is her brother, the hilarious line, "He's a Bottle; I'm a Basket." My favorite line, however, comes from the always well-spoken Hattie who, when explaining to her father why she cannot leave her Grandmother just yet says, "Grandmother's sort of like a good wool sock with a hole in it, Pa. It still has a lot of wear in it, but that hole is bound to get bigger if it isn't mended proper."

Like Anne Shirley of the Anne of Green Gables books by Lucy Maude Montgomery, Hattie is an independent spirit. However, Clara Gillow Clark's books are written in a shorter format and the trials faced by Hattie are of a less mature and less complex nature making these books perfect for readers who have finished Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books and are looking for a new window into the past but are not quite ready to tackle Anne Shirley...

Readers who enjoyed this book and were especially fascinated by the character of Madame Blatzinsky might like A Drowned Maiden's Hair: A Melodrama by Laura Amy Schlitz. Although slightly longer and a little bit more complex in its themes, Schlitz's book, set in 1909, is so evocative of the time and her characters so vivid and compelling that readers up for a longer book will not be able to put it down. Maude Flynn is eleven at the start of the story, the same age as Hattie, and just as self-governing and strong willed as Hattie. An orphan, Maude finds herself adopted into a family of elderly sisters, one of whom is a Spiritualist, and their deaf and mute housekeeper, Muffet. The charismatic sister of the three, Hyacinth, is a "medium"who tempts Maude with promises of love and affection and convinces her to play the key role in her biggest seance yet, with bittersweet results.

3.02.2009

Hill Hawk Hattie, by Clara Gillow Clark, 159 pp, RL3


Hill Hawk Hattie by Clara Gillow Clark is a superbly crafted gem of a book that fell through the cracks of the shelves of the bookstore where I work. I was fortunate to receive a review copy from Candlewick Press of the newest book about Hattie, Secrets of Greymoor, and didn't realize there were two other books about her until I began doing research before writing my review. Happily, I went back and read the first two books about Hattie and her remarkable life.


Set in 1883 in the hills near Pepacton, New York, on the east branch of the Delaware River, Hill Hawk Hattie is the story of eleven year old Hattie Belle Basket and her Pa, Amos. When the story begins, Hattie and her father are still mourning the death of her mother, Lily a few months earlier. Hattie's Ma had been a society girl raised in the city of Kingston, PA, but there are hints at a troubled past as well. It was there that she met Amos Basket, clean-shaven and well dressed after rafting logs down river. The two feel in love and returned to Amos's cabin in the mountains, Hattie's Ma turning her back on her family, but holding herself apart from the Hill Hawks - another name for hillbillies - also. Lily valued education, teaching Hattie on her own and sending her to school when she could, but since her death Hattie has been stuck at home tending to chores, and not very well, her anger, grief and resentment growing. Her father has all but stopped talking to her, "ordering [her] around with curse words like [she's] nothing," and she is growing to hate him, believing that he must hate her as well. As she says about herself and her Pa, "Guess Ma was the sugar that kept us sweet." When her father acknowledges her birthday with boy's clothes, not the new dress and purple hair ribbons, her mother's favorite color, she had hoped for, Hattie is convinced of this. Amos tells her she might as well wear boy's clothes since she'll be coming to the woods with him from now on to help with his work. That night Hattie takes her mother's scissors and cuts off both of her braids, hiding them under her mattress along with her mother's half-empty diary that she now records some of her own thoughts in.

But, her Pa has his reasons, reasons he doesn't reveal to her until the very end of the story. Earning his living as a logger, Hattie's father fells trees during the winter then lashes them together to ride down river to Easton, PA in the Spring, returning home to make the trip seven or eight more times. As with all great historical fiction, the author reveals something to the reader, such as a way of life from the past that has died out, in a way that dovetails with the main characters and plot seamlessly. Clark does this wonderfully as she breathtakingly describes the rafters' journey down the river in the Spring right after the ice breaks up. What propels this story from good to great, however, is the presence of Hattie, now passing as a boy, on the raft along with her father and his partner and his partner's son. When Rastus and his boy Jasper meet up with Hattie and her Pa on her first day of work in the woods, Amos introduces her as his son, Harley. She and Jasper become fast friends and, being two years older and more experienced, he is eager to show her the ropes and tell her of the expedition that is ahead of them. Hattie's father has warned her never to reveal that she is a girl, although he does not go into specifics as to why. There is a very funny scene when the "men" are being sent off on their journey by Jasper's mother and sisters and his oldest sister flirts with Hattie. She does her best to ignore awkward situation this but Jasper teases her heartily.

Once the group embarks on their two day journey it is clear why Hattie must pass as a boy. Not only do the men bunk together in hotels when they stop for the night, an ice jam forces them off the river and into a barn the next night. Amos, who is known for his rafting and fighting skills, narrowly averts an all-out brawl one night in a tavern when Hattie's real gender is hinted at. Despite the fact that Hattie desperately misses being a girl, her time on the river with her father is exhilarating and educational, physically and emotionally. She sees her father steer the boat through some very rough patches, including over a dam, and gradually stops hating him as her admiration for his skills grows. He even gives her the chance to steer the raft one day, telling her she has "the gift." But his eyes have a sad look in them, not the proud one Hattie was expecting when she looked up. Hattie grows sad as well, thinking Pa will never call her his girl again now. There are more twists and turns ahead for Hattie as well as a bittersweet ending and a bit of redemption for herself and her Pa.


Clara Gillow Clark's book is rich with details, compelling characters and layered plot, all in less than 200 pages! Despite the cover of the book, I had no idea when I started reading that Hattie would be passing as a boy and doing man's work for part of the story. Reading this book made me realize just how easy it is to be a woman today, in so many ways. Sometimes it seems like works of historical fiction are crowded with spunky, independent thinking girl/woman characters. Perhaps this is because of the difficulties and limitations women faced over one hundred years ago. The most interesting historical fiction seems to be about the girls and women who break free of these constraints. The women who manage to live within these repressive societal rules usually merit the role of saintly mother in works of historical fiction, Caroline Ingalls and Nancy Hanks Lincoln as depicted in My Brother Abe: Sally Lincoln's Story come to mind immediately. This leads me to wonder if there are any works of historical fiction, for kids or adults, that depict the lives of the women who didn't break any molds in their time but instead lived quietly and happily with what was available to them... I'm sure there are writers out there who could make this interesting and I'm also sure these books exist and I just don't know about them - yet!

I highly recommend this book, and I think readers will also want to know more about Hattie Belle Basket's adventures. Not only is is well written, but it covers a little known (to me) area of the geographical and historical United States. Hattie's experiences on the river and her struggle to do as her father tells her while maintaining her sense of self make her a knotty but engaging character.

You can read Clara's blog about writing and books at Clara Gillow Clark, which is a different from her website linked above.

For readers who like this book, I recommend:

Hattie on Her Way by Clara Gillow Clark
Secrets of Greymoor by Clara Gillow Clark
Mary on Horseback by Rosemary Wells
Listening for Lions by Gloria Whelan