7.29.2009

Hoot by Carl Hiaasen, 292 pp, RL 5

A native Floridian and journalist, Carl Hiaasen is known as a gifted satirist and his adult novels often classified as "environmental thrillers." In Hoot, his first novel for young adults, Hiaasen definitely delivers on the environmental themes and, appropriately, his satirical style is toned down a bit. Characters are caricatures, and potential thriller aspects are replaced with some slap-sticky type situations.

Roy Eberhardt is the only child of a stay at home mom and father who is a Federal Agent who moves his family often. Their last home in Montana was hard for Roy to leave and his adjustment to his new middle school is proving rough, mostly because an the over-sized thug named Dana Matherson who has decided to make Roy his target. Roy's first scrape with Dana, which results in near strangulation and a broken nose during the morning bus ride, coincides with his first glimpse of a mystery boy, tanned and agile, running barefoot through the houses and foliage on the side of the road. Intrigued, Roy seeks out the boy while avoiding Dana, both of which prove difficult. When Roy comes close to making a discovery, he is confronted by the school's soccer star, Beatrice Leep. Tall, powerful and with a head of curly blond hair, Beatrice cuts an imposing figure. She menaces Roy, but he doesn't back down. Eventually the two become friends, Beatrice rescuing Roy from Dana's grips more than once and recruiting him to help with the secret of the shoeless running boy.

This boy turns out to be Beatrice's younger stepbrother. An embarrassment and nuisance to his mother, she repeatedly ships him off to boarding school from which he promptly runs away. After the last school he returns to Coconut Cove, but not to his home, preferring to sleep in a rusted out ice cream truck in the local junkyard and the nearby everglades. Nicknamed Mullet Fingers because he can catch the silver, super fast fish with his bare fingers, Beatrice is keeping him secret and helping him out when she can. They entrust Roy with this secret but do not reveal the boy's real name to him, which proves to be a plus as the kids become embroiled in illegal activities - theirs and others. In an effort to protect burrowing owls living on a vacant lot about to be turned into a Mother Paula's Pancake house, Mullet Fingers has been committing acts of vandalism like placing baby alligators in the port-a-johns and letting deadly water moccasins loose on the property, albeit Mullet Fingers has taped their mouths shut before doing so. Mullet Fingers actions introduce the bumbling Officer Delinko and the brilliantly named corporate representative from Mother Paula's, Chuck Muckle, into the plot.


The climax is an exciting one and the emerging sense of environmental, community and social awareness that the characters - young and old - experience feels genuine. Hiaasen tells his story in a straightforward, reporter-like way that makes Hoot a great book for younger readers ready to bite into something a little longer than usual. As a girl, the bullying and violence from Dana Matherson were a little off putting. Fighting, even boys fighting, was not part of my childhood and is always a bit alien to me when I encounter it in books. However, I know it exists and Hiaasen does a good job of evening the odds between the bulky Matherson and the smaller Roy with the character of Beatrice. And, while Matherson helps to bring Roy and Beatrice, and ultimately Mullet Fingers, who's real name is Napoleon Bridgerm together, I'm not entirely sure that it is necessary to the plot. Even so, I think that Carl Hiaasen has opened up a new genre of young adult literature - subtle environmental themes within a real life/school setting and fascinating, realistic young characters. The movie Hoot came out in 2006 and, since the novel is so straightforward, I am sure that the adaptation was a good one. Though I have not seen it, I do plan to add it to my queue after enjoying the book.













Carl Hiaasen has written two other environmentally themed mystery/thrillers for kids. Flush, available in paperback, is about a casino boat that is dumping its raw sewage in the bay and a boy's fight to expose the owner after his father is jailed for trying to sink the boat. Scat, only in hardback at this time, is about an unlikable teacher who disappears during a school nature field trip, the kids who try to figure out what happened to her and the endangered panthers roaming the swamp...


7.27.2009

The Year of the Dog, written and illustrated by Grace Lin, 134 pp. RL 3

In the author's note for The Year of the Dog, Grace Lin mentions that one of her favorite books as a child was Carolyn Haywood's
B is for Betsy, which was a real life, real girl kind of story that took place at home, in school and in the neighborhood. Written in 1939, the characters came from "normal families and ate dinner and waited for the bus. They were normal families without unicorns or fairy princesses." But, Lin says, "I saw all the things that I loved and lived [in Haywood's books] - my neighborhood, my friends and my school. The only thing that I didn't see was me." As an Asian growing up in a mainly Caucasian community, Grace Lin says that her childhood was not "a miserable, gloomy existence. But it was different." With The Year of the Dog, Lin gracefully (no pun intended) and vividly tells a story that "wraps you in a warm hug," like the Carolyn Haywood books did for her as a child, but also incorporates the identity conflicts and cultural differences that Lin felt were "threads that twisted my life into knots. Now I know that the fabric of my life is richer for them."

The Year of the Dog definitely feels like home, but it will also introduce young readers to new traditions, foods, words and customs. The book begins on the day that Pacy Lin and herMom, Dad, older sister Lissy and younger sister Ki-Ki are celebrating Chinese New Year. Special foods are prepared, happy phone calls are made from Taiwan, there Pacy's parents were born, and the New Year Tray is filled with special Chinese New Year candy. When Ki-Ki begins to shovel the special candy into her mouth, leaving the tray less than full, Pacy has the idea to throw in some M&Ms, which she loves and considers "real candy." Older sister Lissy insists she can't put M&Ms on the tray, but her father weighs in saying, "We should have both Chinese and American candy for the new year. It's just like us - Chinese-American. I think it's going to be a very sweet year!" And it is, mostly. Pacy's year has it's ups and a few small downs as she attempts to make the most of the Year of the Dog, which is a time for friends, family and thinking, a time for finding yourself and, as Mom explains to little Ki-Ki, "deciding what your values are, what you want to do-that kind of thing."

Grace Lin's The Year of the Dog is just like the tray of New Year's candy that Pacy assembles - a combination of American and Chinese tastes, but, above all else, a mixture of sweet treats that everyone loves. As the narrator, Pacy's voice is true and bright and, while so much of the story is about her experience as a Chinese American (even this description proves complicated for Pacy, who's parents are from Taiwan) it is, above all else, a book about the universal themes of family, friendship and finding one's passion. Pacy meets her best friend in the Year of the Dog - Melody, who's family is also from Taiwan. Pacy is no longer the only Asian in her school and she has a partner for the science fair. She struggles with her role of munchkin in the school play, worrying that the audience will laugh when they see a Chinese munchkin. And, when her class is given the assignment to write and illustrate a book, her teacher emphasizing that the students should write about what they know, Pacy finds herself without a single good idea. When she finally does find one, it comes from her mother's garden where she grows what Pacy refers to as the "ugly vegetables." Really, they are vegetables from her mother's homeland and, the book that Pacy writes (which wins her fourth place in a nationwide contest) is one that Grace Lin herself wrote and illustrated and titled, The Ugly Vegetables.

While The Year of the Dog adroitly embraces childhood experiences - I know I'm quite a bit older than Grace Lin, but her writing took me back to my own elementary school days some 30+ years ago - it is also a book that is rich with the experiences of a different culture. Like her magnificent book Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, The Year of the Dog is dotted with stories that Pacy's parents tell about their childhood's and their ancestors' experiences growing up in Taiwan as well as Grace Lin's delightful illustrations. I found her descriptions of the foods and celebrations that Pacy's family had intriguing - especially the Red Egg party for her newborn cousin Albert and the family trip to the market in New York City's Chinatown which ended with two overflowing shopping carts and a car packed so full that Pacy had to sit on six cans of baby corn. Lin finds the perfect balance in her novel and I am sure that children with have the simultaneous experience of relating to Pacy and learning new things from her.

Pacy's story continues in The Year of the Rat. The Year of the Dog is over and the Year of the Pig has passed by as well. Pacy and Melody are together with their families celebrating the Year of the Rat, a time for making changes.

7.24.2009

The Dragon of Lonely Island, by Rebecca Rupp, 160 pp RL 4


What serendipity to read Rebecca Rupp's marvelous book The Dragon of Lonely Island so soon after reading Grace Lin's magical dragon story Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. Although the two books are wildly different in terms of characters, plot and setting, they do share one common, wonderful detail. Both books incorporate storytelling into their plots. In Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, storytelling is a tradition that prompts Minli to begin her adventure. In The Dragon of Lonely Island the storytelling is the adventure.

Siblings Hannah, Zachary and Sarah Emily Davis find themselves spending the summer at their great-great aunt Mehitable's house on Lonely Island. Enclosed in a letter to their mother, Aunt Mehitable sends the children the key to to the Tower Room in the house on Lonely Island and a note that reads, "If you should find time hanging on your hands, try exploring Drake's Hill." The children discover the mysteries of the Tower Room and Drake's hill pretty quickly. First they find that Aunt Mehitable spent her childhood on the island and has left a treasure hidden in the Tower Room then they learn how the rocky hill on the island got it's name. Following Aunt Mehitable's advice, the children make a bee-line for Drake's Hill where, after a bit of rock climbing, they find the cave that is home to Fafnyr Goldenwings, a tri-drake. This three headed dragon, for which only one head is awake at a time, has chosen the cave on Lonely Island as a Resting Place. With a measured, erudite manner, a bit like the dragon in Kenneth Grahame's The Reluctant Dragon, Fafnyr welcomes the children into his cave, calms their fears and disperses their misguided fairy-tale notions about dragons. As a way of soothing them, he tells them a story.

The story that Fafnyr First Awake (the honorary name given to the head of the dragon that wakes first and begins to crack the shell of the dragon egg) is set in Ancient China and is about a young girl named Mei-lan. Although he is really telling a story about himself, Fafnyr does not reveal this to the children. Yet, the story he tells relates to the children and their immediate life experiences. As the First Awake, Fafnyr sympathizes with Hannah, the oldest of the siblings, and the the responsibilities that sometimes weigh on a first born. At the end of his story the sleepy dragon tells the children that he needs his rest and to please keep their meeting a secret. Upon their next visit to the cave, the children meet a different Fafnyr, a brother with a fondness for the sea who tells them the story of Jamie the orphaned cabin boy and his adventures with pirates and treasure. Again, Fafnyr's story relates to the children and a squabble over a flashlight they had been having. Finally, the children meet the Last Awake Fafnyr, the sister, who tells them the story of a little girl who was afraid to try new things. In the end, the children realize that Fafnyr is telling the story of Aunt Mahitable, how she met Fafnyr and how the tri-drake came to choose Lonely Island as it's Resting Place.

A delightful ending to a short and sweet book, makes The Dragon of Lonely Island a perfect bed-time read-out-loud for non-readers and an excellent fantasy for a reader ready to move on from Junie B Jones and The Magic Tree House. Though short in length and mystery, Rupp includes enough magical details, like a puzzle box, a dragon scale and a bond with Fafnyr that leaves permanent golden drop in the palm of one's hand, to make her book and alluring story that readers will love. Rebecca Rupp sequel, The Return of the Dragon, finds the Davis siblings back on the island while their parents are travel to London. Entrusted with the responsibility of keeping Fafnyr Goldenwing's existence a secret, the children find they have a fight on their hands when a billionaire docks his yacht on Lonely Island to do some "bird watching."



7.22.2009

Judy Moody,by Megan McDonald, illustrated by Peter H Reynolds, 160 pp RL 3

I love Megan McDonald. I gushed about her in my reviews of the first two books in the Stink series and when I reviewed her great stand alone book, The Sister's Club. Peter H Reynolds is a brilliant artist and so perfectly suited to McDonald's writing style. Reynolds is so multi-talented that I feel compelled once again to list all of the creative endeavors that he is involved with. A fabulous children's book author and illustrator in his own right - don't miss The Dot, So Few of Me and the incomprable ish -Peter H Reynolds is also the co-owner of The Blue Bunny Bookstore in Dedham, MA. The Blue Bunny publishes the semi-annual Hutch: A Kids' Literary and Art Magazine which features stories, poems and art work by kids as well as contributions by Peter H Reynolds and other guest authors and illustrators who provide tips on writing and creating. And, as if this wasn't enough, Peter is the the president and creative director of FableVision Studios where he produces award-winning children’s broadcast programming, educational videos, and multimedia applications.


Megan McDonald has a remarkable way of capturing the emotions and vast imaginations that kid's possess. She also has a real knack for writing scenes set in school. She has created teachers who are understanding and empathetic without being smarmy or condescending. And, these teachers assign some pretty cool projects. In the first book in the series, Judy Moody Was in a Mood. Not a Good Mood. A Bad Mood, which is the full (and greatest ever) title of the book, Judy is in a bad mood because she did not go on vacation anywhere special and return home with a t-shirt reflecting this that she could then wear to school on the first day, thus eliciting the interest of her peers. And, while she does make herself a pretty cool shirt to compete with the crowd, she slumps again when she sees her best friend Rocket's shirt advertising the Loch Ness Monster Roller Coast at Busch Gardens. Judy starts third grade with Mr Todd and a seat next to paste eating Frank. She thinks it is hilarious to call her teacher "Mr Toad," and almost works herself out of a bad mood by doing so on, despite sitting next to Frank. Mr Todd ignores this and delights the class with his approach to spelling. Judy, still stuck in her funk, responds to Mr Todd's request to find five spelling words from the phrase, "GINO'S EXTRA-CHEESE PIZZA" with "no" written five times on her paper. When pressed for more words, Judy writes "gnat," "rat," "tiger," and "spit" then impresses the class when she makes a sentence using all five words. The class is rewarded with pizza for all and Judy's mood begins to brighten. As with the Stink Series and the Sister's Club, McDonald manages to incorporate factual, historical and literary information into the story. Judy's hero is Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in the United States to graduate with a medical degree (1849) and practice as a doctor, and Judy like to practice her doctoring skills on Stink and her Hedda-Get-Betta doll. Judy also has an interest in the Rain Forest and, when the pet store cannot supply her with a two toed sloth, she happily settles for a Venus Fly Trap. Little details like these, which her books are cheerfully crammed full of, along with her humorous and endearing characters make Megan McDonald's books essential.


Judy goes on to struggle with a classmate's birthday she does not want to attend, the fact that her little brother and parents get to go on a class field trip to the president's house and the completion of her ME COLLAGE, another cool assignment from Mr Todd, and also one that you can print out on the Judy Moody website - along with tons of other great activities. When Judy is moody she sometimes responds to questions with a "ROAR." She can be secretive, silent and grumpy when she is in a mood. However, none of this is exaggerated and all her actions and motivations have a genuine feel to them. Judy thinks that her classmate Frank eats paste and she tries to ignore him and his birthday party invitation. When she ends up at his party despite her best efforts, she learns that Frank is a collector. Judy, who has collections of doll parts, band-aids and scabs, among other things, is impressed. This and the fact that they both have carnivorous plants as pets improves her mood. Judy's moods seem genuine as well. As the parent of a very moody son, I recognized the brooding, stewing and petulant interactions that Judy is prone to. And, when confronted with a situation that is sure to cause a meltdown, Judy surprises everyone when she recasts and calmly turns the purple patch of Jungle Juice Stink spilled on her ME COLLAGE into a her home state of Virginia. This alone would have been a great ending to a great book, but McDonald goes one further. When Mr and Mrs Moody take Judy, Stink, Frank and Rocket out for celebratory ice cream cones at Screaming Mimi's, the kids learn that Frank has to turn his collage in late because he can't fill out the corner for "clubs" since he does not belong to one. Judy and Rocket tackled this problem when they created the TP Club, so named because Stink's pet toad, Toady, peed in each of their hands when they held him (Toad Pee, get it?) Luckily, Stink has Toady with him and Judy promptly tells Frank, "If you pick up Toady right now, you can be in a club."


There are currently eight Judy Moody books on the shelf, one Judy Moody Journal and one Judy Moody Double-Rare-Way-Not-Boring-Book of Fun Stuff To Do. There is also a Judy Moody and Stink book titled, The Holly Joliday and soon to be published Mad, Mad, Mad Treasure Hunt.

Judy Moody and Stink by McDonald McDonald: Book CoverJudy Moody & Stink by McDonald McDonald: Book Cover

The Judy Moody Mood Journal by McDonald McDonald: Book CoverJudy Moody's Double-Rare Way-Not-Boring Book of Fun Stuff to Do by McDonald McDonald: Book Cover

7.20.2009

Running Out of Time by Margaret Haddix Peterson, 192 pp RL 4

I read Running Out Time by Margaret Haddix Peterson, a former journalist, after a week of reading Lois Lowry's books The Giver, Gathering Blue and The Messenger. I didn't start to think about similarities between them until I noticed a quote on the back of Haddix's book by Newbery winner Richard Peck (A Year Down Yonder, 2001) that reads, "If Ray Bradbury had written The Giver, the result might rival Margaret Peterson Haddix' Running Out of Time." I don't think I agree with this assessment but, before I launch into my opinion, I'll lay out the plot.

Jessie Keyser is a young girl living in Clifton, Indiana. The year is 1840 and Jessie is happy with her life. Her mother is a midwife and she accompanies her when she visits the sick sometimes. Her father is the town blacksmith, and a very good one at that. Jessie is a daredevil, not like her older sister Hannah, who is already sweet on a boy. One night after going with her mother to the house of yet another sick child who needed to be quarantined, Ma pulls her aside and tells Jessie to meet her at remote rock out in the woods tomorrow and to tell no one. Within the first 21 pages of the book Jessie learns that she is not really living in 1840 as she and all of the other children of Clifton believed, but in 1996. Their home is really in the middle of a forest preserve that houses the tourist attraction that is the village of Clifton, not at the edge of an unsettled frontier, and there is a diphtheria outbreak that is not being treated properly because there was no cure for it in 1840. Jessie is the only person who can fit into the contemporary clothes that her mother smuggled into the village with her when they moved in twelve years ago, so she is the only one who might be able to escape and save the children.

Built by Miles Clifton twelve years earlier, Clifton Village is like the restored, working village of Williamsburg, VA, except that the tourists view the villagers through two-way mirrors and on special video feeds rather than interacting with them. Clifton is also a little bit like the PBS reality shows of a few years back, The 1900 House, which focused on one modern British family that agreed to live (in front of the cameras) for three months exactly as their ancestors had one hundred years earlier. This is an EXCELLENT series, by the way, and I highly recommend it for family viewing. PBS also produced Frontier House set in 1883 Montana, which focused on three very different families who had to build their own homes and survive for six months and, of course, had more bickering and personal issues as part of the drama than a show with only one family at the center. Next came Colonial House, which was set in "The New World," 1628 and focused on village life as well as individual struggles of of contemporary people trying to survive in the past and then Texas Ranch House, set in 1867. Once Jessie escapes, the rest of Running Out of Time is taken up with her race to get help and escape the person her mother said would be sure to help her. The explanation at the end of the book, which a reporter helps a hospitalized Jessie, who herself has come down with the disease, unravel, was a bit unsatisfying. It turns out that Mr Clifton, a millionaire, was urged by a scientist to use Clifton Village as a front for an experiment in how to breed a race of super strong humans who could survive epidemics. The hope was that the children born in Clifton would be experimented on with viruses and those who lived would be the strongest and go on to create an even stronger generation of children when they married and reproduced. I actually described it more specifically than Haddix does in the novel. Everything is pretty much detailed for an 8 - 10 year old mentality, which, considering the subject matter, is probably a good thing. I just can't help thinking how Lois Lowry managed to broach similar topics in a more philosophical, elegant way and in as many pages in her book The Giver. By using metaphors, like the loss of the ability to see color or hear music and the significance of memories, Lowry manages to pose so many important "what ifs" as well as incorporate suspense and danger into her story. Running Out of Time is Haddix's first book for young adults. Two years later, JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcers's Stone would be published in the United States and the world of fantasy and even science fiction books for children would be changed forever. Yet, young adult literature was not necessarily a fallow field waiting to be seeded, either. The Giver won the Newbery in 1994, proving that thought provoking, philosophical themes could be read and enthusiastically grasped by young readers. In that light, Running Out of Time was a bit of a disappointment for me. As with her newest book, Found, the first book The Missing Series, I felt like Haddix had a home-run idea with a great plot twist, I just didn't care for how she executed her ideas and this has presented me with a great challenge as a book reviewer, especially one of children's books. I do not ever want to be in to position of discouraging any child from reading a book and, were I at work, I certainly would never tell a child who picked up this book that I didn't enjoy it. I am an adult reader and I have different tastes, naturally. As a reviewer of children's books on a blog that I assume is read mostly by adults, my goal is to introduce parents to books and authors I think are valuable in terms of creativity, writing skill, and ability to imbue their characters with emotions and actions genuine to children. However, I also want to provide parents with as many options as possible. As the parent of a voracious reader, I don't mind (too much) when my daughter reads a book that I consider to be "less than literary" because I know that she will read something more challenging and enriching one or two books later. As the parent of a child who only grudgingly reads fiction, I am happy when he reads almost anything from start to finish and for both those reasons I think there is value in reviewing this book and calling it to your attention. But, I also think that it is important to share my criticisms, especially after starting the review with Richard Peck's quote. Comparing Running out of Time and The Giver is a little like comparing a made-for-television movie with an Oscar winner, or a Hostess cupcake with a homemade chocolate lava cake...

So, while I was disappointed that my needs as an adult reader were not met while reading Running Out of Time and I kept thinking of ways Haddix could have expanded and explored the great plot idea further while giving dimension to her characters, I am grateful that this book is short and simple enough to be read by a fourth grader or even a high reading third grader and maybe even get a reader's wheels spinning a little.

7.17.2009

Messenger by Lois Lowry, 169pp, RL 5


With Messenger, Lois Lowry completes her trilogy that tells the stories of three different communities and the individuals who make (and remake) them. Matt, the young explorer and rule-breaker from Gathering Blue is now Matty. In the village that he and Kira were born in, age was marked not by years and numbers, but with syllables added to one's name. A person who has lived to earn a four syllable name, such as Annabella, the woman who taught Kira how to make dyes for her threads, is a rarity in their village. Matty now lives with Kira's father Christopher, who, although he is blind, is known as Seer, in the Village, a community that is made up of those who have been rejected by their own people or have fled them for fear of persecution. Life in the Village is truly communal, villagers helping and sharing with each other generously. When their genuine nature, their true worth, is known, they are given a name that reflects their place in the Village, such as Gatherer, Mentor and Stocktender. The Leader of the Village is a young man who arrived almost eight years ago by sled, part of which is enshrined in the Museum, a place that holds many relics of arrival, reminding the Villagers where they came from and what they were leaving.

Communal life in the Village is being threatened as the novel opens. The dense, immense Forrest that surrounds the Village and separates it by several days from the place Matty came from, is becoming more menacing by the day. Scratches, cuts and scrapes that the foliage once inflicted have turned murderous. As a messenger who navigates the Forrest with skill, taking communications from the Village to other communities, Matty is well aware of the changes occurring around him. He is also a bit surprised that the Forrest has not acted against him - yet. Simultaneously, the gentle, generous nature of the inhabitants of the Village seems to be turing sour as well. They are becoming self-centered, even going so far as to suggest closing the borders of the Village so that their resources are not stretched thin. The Trade Mart, a gathering at which the Villagers swap wares and possessions, has become a solemn, foreboding even rather than the boisterous fair that it once was. And, strangely, the Villagers go to the Trade Mart empty handed and return the same way. Somehow, these three occurrences are linked. But, it takes Christopher, the Leader and ultimately Matty to unravel this mystery. The Trade Mart and what the Villagers eventually end up bartering for what they think will make them happy is an interesting commentary on consumerism and capitalism, how we lose a part of our true selves when we desire objects as a means to happiness. The gifts that appeared in The Giver, Jonas' ability to see color and The Giver's ability to hear music, and those from Gathering Blue, Kira's gift with threading and Thomas' with carving, take a mystical turn in Messenger. The Leader reveals that he can "see beyond," he can visualize in his mind what those far away from him are doing. Matty, early on in the novel, discovers his gift as well, one that he keeps secret from everyone except the Leader and one that ultimately affects the climax of the book. While Matty had hoped to be given the name Messenger, his true name is revealed at the end of the book, one that gives perspective to the novel and the character of Matty himself.

Messenger brings satisfying closure to the somewhat loosely linked stories of Jonas, Kira and Matty. All three are young people who face challenges, both physical, emotional and intellectual, that affect the lives of those around them profoundly. While Jonas chooses to flee his Community, believing he will bring about positive change nonetheless, Kira stays where she is, effecting change that is hinted at in Messenger. Matty, a bright and spirited boy in Gathering Blue, grows into a thoughtful, perceptive young man who is faced with the ultimate choice. Although there were so many real-world improbabilities in The Giver, I found the similarities to the world I live in added weight to the themes she explored. While the themes touched on in Gathering Blue and Messenger are equally important, the metaphors and fictional attributes of the characters and setting made the impact of the books seem a bit less jarring than that of The Giver.




















7.15.2009

Gathering Blue, by Lois Lowry, 224 pp, RL 4


While The Giver, Gathering Blue and The Messenger are considered a trilogy, all three can be read as stand-alone titles. The Giver and Gathering Blue are linked more by Lois Lowry's thematic explorations of the idea of the individual and the community than they are by characters. In fact, there is only one fleeting reference to Jonas near the end of this book as the boy with eyes that are an "amazing blue." The Messenger is the book that unites The Giver and Gathering Blue and makes their connections meaningful and obvious. And, while all three communities are radically different, they still give the reader something to think about long after the book is over.

Gathering Blue begins with Kira sitting watch over her mother in the Field of Leaving. When her spirit has finally left her body after four days Kira returns to her cott (a word Lowry uses to mean home or cottage) to find it burned to the ground, the women of the village already trying to claim the land it was on for their own. While this situation itself is threatening, it is even more dangerous for Kira who has lost her last protector. Kira, who's leg was crippled from birth, should have been left in the Field of Leaving when she was born according to the ways of the village. But, Kira's grandfather was a member of the Council of Guardians and her father, who died before she was born, would have also joined the Council had he lived. This his allowed her mother to fight to keep her alive, to have an exception made for her. Conscious of this, Kira works to contribute her fair share. Despite her disability she finds work in the weaving rooms and also learns her mother's craft of threading (embroidery.) This skill proves to be her life saver when she is taken before the Council of Guardians by another villager who believes she should be banished from the village.

The village that Lowry creates for Gathering Blue is downright medieval when compared to the Community of The Giver. Life is brutal and difficult and the villagers are constantly bickering with each other or worse. Despite this almost animal existence, the village does have tradition, ceremony and even reverence for their past. While descriptions of village living conditions are extremely rustic, The Council Edifice where the Council of Guardians live and conduct business is clearly some sort of multi-floor building that was left standing after the ruin. When her skill as a threader saves Kira's life she is given a home in the Council Edifice where she experiences the luxuries of hot and running water for the first time. Once there, she is expected to repair and eventually add to the embroidered designs on the Singer's robe that tell the story of this post-ruin world in which only men, and few at that, are allowed to read. Like the annual Ceremony in The Giver, Kira's village also has an annual Gathering. Much like the Receiver in The Giver, The Singer of Gathering Blue lives apart from the rest of the villagers. All year, he practices his craft and repeats the verses of the hours long Ruin Song, making sure he has memorized them properly. After the Singer, the Carver and the Threader are revered, but sequestered, figures in the village. The Threader, for maintaining the robe and the Carver for maintaining and adding to the staff that the Singer holds as he sings. The staff, carved with the same story that is on the robe, allows the Singer to mark his place in the Ruin Song and reminds him of the verses.

What Kira discovers about the life she has been given by the Council of Guardians and the future that awaits her, as well as Thomas, the Carver, who is roughly her age, and Jo, the young girl who has been selected to be the next Singer, startles her- once she pieces it all together. It seems that the Council of Guardians are as manipulative and disregarding of human life as the Committee of Elders in The Giver. Again, a character who thinks she has many choices in life is confronted with the possibility that she may have unknowingly given her freedom away - if it ever existed at all. The parallels between The Giver and Gathering Blue are not obvious upon first reading, which makes it great for a "read and discuss" book for parents and kids. In addition to thought provoking themes, Lowry instills the plot with inventive and fascinating details. In Kira's village, dyes for the yarns she threads with are made from plant life. Her mother was a skilled gardener and was about to teach her to be one as well before she died. Kira is apprenticed to Annabella, an elderly woman who lives on the edge of the dangerous woods and provides this service for the village as well. Annabella teaches Kira her craft and also opens he eyes to the ways of the Council of Guardians before her untimely death. In the history of the village, the plant that yields a blue dye has never been found, although Annabella knows its name and appearance. When Kira's young friend Matt, a sometimes trouble-maker who saved the life of an injured dog - an uncommon act in a village that has little regard for the life of any creature less than whole, makes a dangerous journey to find the woad plant that will allow her to thread blue, he also makes a startling discovery that affects Kira and finally links Gathering Blue and The Giver more than just thematically.

One final interesting detail that Lowry hinted at in The Giver and gives a bit more shape to in Gathering Blue is the idea of having a "special gift." Jonas' burgeoning ability to see color, as well as The Giver's ability to hear music seemed like genetic mutations in the context of the plot of The Giver. In Gathering Blue, Kira has a "special gift" when threading that enables her hands to work almost of their own volition, as happened with a scrap of magnificent threading she completed one night as she sat by her mother's sick bed. This scrap brings her comfort and, at times, seems to give her direction when she is confused and unsure. She discovers that Thomas the Carver has a piece of wood that he carved that has similar traits. Within the context of Gathering Blue, this detail can possibly be read as an artistic gift, sort of like a sixth sense. After all, artists do see the world in a different way and that is what makes them artists. However, with The Messenger the "special gift" is revealed to be something else entirely. Gathering Blue is sort of a break after the intensity of The Giver and its Community that is similar to how most of us live today in many ways. The brutality and poverty of the village that Kira lives in is troubling, but, perhaps because it seems so medieval and distant (even though the story takes place in the future) it is not quite as affecting as the social construct of The Giver. As a character, Kira seems stronger and her survival more assured than that of Jonas, who's transition from an oblivious, pampered life to a violent, painful existence was more abrupt and shocking. Also, the fact that Kira is a female character with a a valuable creative talent makes her more relatable and likable. While I will always value and revere The Giver for the provocative ideas and questions that it embodies, Gathering Blue, with the strong characters of Kira and Matt and the supportive, friendly characters of Thomas and Annabella, is my favorite of the three.







7.13.2009

The Giver by Lois Lowry, 180 pp RL 5

Winner of the Newbery in 1994, The Giver by Lois Lowry is one of those amazing books that tells a complete, compelling story and makes a provocative point all in less than 200 pages. The plot centers on a planned community in which personal freedoms have been traded for efficiency, security and contentment. The Community has been in existence for so long that the members of it are neither cognizant of what they have forfeited nor interested in the world beyond their borders and that is exactly how the Committee of Elders desires it. However, one chosen member of the Community lives differently and apart in order to maintain the smooth running, worry-free, but shallow existence of the others. This person, called The Receiver, becomes The Giver of the title when twelve-year old Jonas is chosen to replace him. As Jonas begins to learn how to perform the job of The Receiver, he begins to question his commitment to the Community and his willingness to perform he new job.

I want to digress for a minute as a round about way of illustrating why The Giver is such an important book in the world of children's literature and possibly even literature in general and why you should read it WITH your children and discuss it afterwards. Everyone has a passion, something in life that s/he thinks is important above all other things and something that enriches his/her existence and makes him/her a better person. For some it is art, music, dance, running, religion, or even knitting. For me it is reading. Reading is entertainment for me, but it also takes me new places, introduces me to new people and beliefs and leaves me with thoughts and ideas I want to take into the world and share with others. After reading The Giver for the third time in my life (published in 1993, I never had the opportunity to read it as a child, although I wish I had) I realized that, for me, this book is sort of the keystone as to why reading, literature in particular, is my passion. The Giver is a book that MAKES YOU THINK. Yes, those words really do deserve to be in all caps. Not only does The Giver MAKE YOU THINK, it inspires you look at the world in a new way and, hopefully, appreciate it a little bit more. And that is why I love to read - to be inspired.

As Lowry said to a room full of children's librarians when giving her acceptance speech ( am ust read if you are interested in how Lowry came to write this book) for the Newbery, an award which is presented by the Association for Library Service to Children,

"Let me say something to those of you here who do such dangerous work. The man that I named The Giver passed along to the boy knowledge, history, memories, color, pain, laughter, love, and truth. Every time you place a book in the hands of a child, you do the same thing.

It is very risky.

But each time a child opens a book, he pushes open the gate that separates him from Elsewhere. It gives him choices. It gives him freedom. Those are magnificent, wonderfully unsafe things."

Although much less elegantly and succinctly, this is the point I was trying to make with my explanation above. Reading a book can encourage empathy, understanding and open up a world of choices and freedoms. It can also make you question something you thought you understood or something you never even bothered to think about before. But, for every thing chosen, some thing is left behind, some thing is not chosen, even denied. The Giver is a book that makes the reader aware of and grateful for the choices that we have but also opens eyes to the things we leave behind, the choices, things and people we sometimes forfeit when we choose one over another. As I said, I hope that you will read this book with your children, or, even better, before your children read it, and participate in a conversation during and afterwards. After re-reading the book I was inspired to have my husband, sixteen year old daughter and twelve year old son read the book so that we could have a discussion about it. We sat around the table at dinner and had a great conversation. Not only were we going over plot points and details in the story, but we were discussing ideas and themes and how, even though we have many, many freedoms, we still forfeit a lot of personal choice in order to make our lives run more efficiently and free us up for other pursuits. We discussed this as we sat on the patio of our tract home while I was wearing clothes, shoes and underwear bought entirely from one store. The significance was not lost on me...

This is a different kind of review for me. Instead of summarizing the plot and pointing out interesting details, I am going to stick to the themes of the book. If you have never read The Giver, I think it is very important for you to draw your own conclusions from what you read. One of the beauties of Lowry's deceptively simple book, a point she makes in her acceptance speech, is how every reader brings something different away from it - including multiple interpretations of the somewhat ambiguous ending. I would like to forewarn parents that there is a scene in the book in which an infant is euthanized, in accordance with the rules of the Community. The infant is an identical twin and it is accepted that it would be confusing to the Community to have two people who look the same coexisting within the city. Thus, at birth, the identical twin who weighs less and is therefore less likely to thrive, is "Released" - the Community word for euthanasia. Lowry includes this as part of the book to illustrate the ways that the Community has come to accept practices that are utterly horrific and inhuman as a means to an end. To one degree or another, we all do this in our daily, adult lives. Whether it is averting our gaze from a homeless person or, as Lowry notes in her speech, breathing a sigh of relief when, on hearing the news that a gunman has killed several people in a fast food restaurant, she discovers that this event did not take place in her community but in another state.

The Giver is set in what is meant to be a utopian community but is really a dystopian community. The word utopia has Greek roots and literally means, "no-place land," or fantasy land. Dystopia, which is the direct opposite of utopia, refers to a utopian society in which things have gone wrong. The most famous work linked to this word/idea is Sir Saint Thomas More's Utopia, written in Latin in 1516. More's work was intented to be a platform from which the chaotic political structure of Europe at the time could be discussed and is often read as a satire. In literature, which seems to be the only place utopias exist, both utopias and dystopias share characteristics of science fiction/fantasy are usually set in a future in which technology has been used to create perfect living conditions. However, once the setting of a utopian or dystopian novel has been established, the focus of the novel becomes the psychology and emotions of the characters who live under such conditions. This is true of Lowry's work as well. The first few chapters of The Giver introduce us to the main character, Jonas, and describe his life in the Community then delve into the consequences of the way of life these people have chosen to live.

All choices are made for citizens, from career, marriage, parenthood, and death because the chance for someone to make the "wrong" choice is too risky. Some citizens are deemed unsuitable for marriage or parenthood and live alone instead of with a family unit. Birthmothers work for three years bringing new life into the Community and then are given a jobs as laborers until they are ready for the House of the Old. Once there, they will live comfortably until they are honored with a celebratory ceremony and released, like all other elders in the Community. After evening meals, families have a time in which they "share their feelings," which is ironic since they have no idea what real feelings are as they are trained to suppress them. At morning meal, families share their dreams, mostly as a means to determining when a child begins to have romantic feelings for the opposite sex. When this occurs, all citizens begin taking a pill that, one assumes suppresses sexual desire. As with other serious aspects of the novel, Lowry is subtle with her writing, perhaps mainly as a way of illustrating the subdued and unknowing life of the citizens of the Community.

Somehow, I find myself thinking that, in many ways, Lowry's utopian Community and its citizens are metaphorically the mirror image of the experience of childhood. The Committee of Elders are parents who shield the Community from pain and difficulty as a way to keep them safe and intact, both emotionally and physically. There are so many things that we keep from our children, protect them from, and rightly so, but at the same time they are living in varying states of ignorance, unable to comprehend the world beyond their narrow existence. The citizens of the Community live in this same state of ignorance. While it is understandable and preferable for children not to have to or be able to comprehend painful and difficult aspects of adulthood, what are the implications for adults who allow themselves or choose to be shielded in the same way?

In order to exist in this structured, minimal manner, the Committee of Elders relies on one person in the Community to live outside the rules in order to know and understand the ways of the rest of the world as well as know and understand the history of the world, something the Community citizens have no inkling of. This person is called The Receiver, because s/he receives this information, this knowledge, and then is able to answer questions regarding serious matters should they arise. An example in the The Giver is a time when an unauthorized aircraft enters into the the airspace of the Community. The Committee of Elders consults The Receiver as to how to respond to this. Having never known hunger, the Council also consults The Receiver when citizens of the Community petition the Committee of Elders to increase the rate of births so that the population would increase and there would be more Laborers. The Receiver, with his vast wisdom acquired from the memories he has access to, is able to remember, from centuries back, the feeling of hunger and advised them against the idea. The Receiver possesses memories that are intensely painful, brutal and vicious. He also possesses memories of beautiful things like color, music and love. And, The Receiver has access to all aspects of life in the Community. He is allowed to lie and he is allowed to ask questions, two important things that other citizens are not allowed to do.

As my family and I read The Giver, we kept a notebook in which we all wrote down questions that occurred to us as we read. It doesn't serve the book well to get too technical in questioning the rules of the Community, however there are many details that are worthy of discussion. I'll share a few here that came up in our book talk. I would love to hear back from anyone, parent or child, who reads this book, especially if you have the chance to discuss it in a group. So far, after completing 10th and 5th grades, my children have not had to read this book for school, which really surprises me. I'd also be interested if anyone's children have had to read it for school and how that went. I think it remains a controversial book in many places.


Precise Speech: Why is it important to be exact in speaking to others? And why does the Community use euphemisms like "Release?"

What is the value of the individual in the Community?

Why is it necessary to exclude pain, pleasure, color, music, love and animals in the Community?

What is it about memories that causes them to be excluded from the Community?

Is Sameness ever worth the cost?

What is so important about memories - why do they have to be eliminated from the lives of the citizens of the Community? How do memories make us individuals?

Notice the contrast in writing style when Lowry is describing memories that The Giver is transmitting to Jonas.


Lois Lowry has written two other books loosely linked to The Giver, making a trilogy.As an interesting aside, while researching this review I discovered that Lois Lowry, also a photographer, took the cover photos for all three of these books. Lowry tells a very interesting story about the gentleman on the cover for The Giver in her Newbery acceptance speech that is worth checking out. Gathering Blue and The Messenger are both set in radically different communities that exist nearby the Community of The Giver. In fact, the Village in Gathering Blue almost makes you want to return to the Community. Gathering Blue can be read independently of The Giver, however both must be read in order to understand and appreciate The Messenger. Gathering Blue is one of my favorite books, Kira, the main character, is a very insightful, courageous, strong character who navigates the choices and compromises she must make as a "chosen" member of the community much in the way Jonas did.




7.10.2009

Charmed Life (Chrestomanci Series #1) by Diana Wynne Jones, 263 pp, RL 5





Born in England in 1934, Diana Wynne Jones has written over sixty books and is one of the most distinguished, awarded writers in the field of fantasy - in the UK, anyway. Her writing career spanned five decades before she died in 2011. She has influenced the likes of Neil Gaiman (they have dedicated books to each other) and, of course, the brilliant Japanese writer and director, Hayao Miyazaki. In America she is best known as the author of the book that Miyazaki turned into an animated movie, Howl's Moving Castle, nominated for Best Animated Feature in 2005, on the heels of a Best Animated Feature win in 2002 with Spirited Away. Published in 1977, Charmed Life, the first book in the Chrestomanci Series is currently available only as a two-in-one book with book two, The Lives of Christopher Chant and retitled The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume One. Volume Two includes The Magicians of Caprona and Witch Week and Volume Three consists of Conrad's Fate and the Pinhoe Egg. While I have read them all in this order over the last ten years, I just learned that it is best to read Conrad's Fate afterVolume 1 and Pinhoe Egg last. Mixed Magics is a collection of short stories from the world of Chrestomanci published between 1982 and 2000. So, if you are new to the series, take that into consideration.


Much like Patricia Wrede, who transports readers to a magical Frontier America in the first book in her trilogy, Thirteenth Child, Diana Wynne Jones creates a complete, inhabitable world(s) effortlessly, whether it is set in the present or the past. Readers will feel immediately transported - as though you can almost smell the magic, which, in the world of Diana Wynne Jones leaves a distinct, potent smell after a spell has been cast. In this particular instance, Diana Wynne Jones has invented a world in which there are multiple parallel universes. a number of which have been visited. Those which are "best known have been divided into sets, called series, according to the events in History which were the same in them." So, all twelve worlds in a series may have the American Revolutionary war as part of their past, but in each world the outcome of the war will be different. Thus, in one world the Americans won their independence, in another they lost, in another they won but were colonized by the French and so on. And, it was "very uncommon for a people not to have at least one exact double in a world of the same series - usually people had a whole string of doubles." The titular word Chrestomanci refers to a very unique and powerful enchanter who is born with nine lives. Chrestomancis are "very important and very rare. They only happens when, for one reason or another, there are no counterparts of them living in any other world. Then the lives that would have been spread out over a whole set of worlds get concentrated in one person. And so do all the talents those eight other people might have had." It is the job of the Chrestomanci to preside over all other worlds and the magic practiced within them and "control all these magic-users" so that ordinary people do not "have a horrible time and end up as slaves." To this end, the "government appoints the very strongest enchanter there is to make sure that no one misuses magic." Although this may seem to be a lengthy and complicated description, this information is revealed in bits and pieces throughout the novel as young Cat Chant discovers who he is.

Gwendolyn and Eric, nicknamed Cat, Chant are very young they and their parents are enjoying a Sunday afternoon on a very crowded, very old steamer that sinks. They survive, but their parents do not. Taken in by Mrs Sharp, a certified (but not accredited) witch, their lives are as good as can be expected. Gwendolyn proves to be a very talented witch and progresses rapidly in her lessons, paid for by family heirlooms and three letters with the Chrestomanci's signature on them - useful for casting spells. Gwendolyn, however, has a quick temper and plans of her own and has no problem using Cat and those around her to get what she wants. Soon, a letter has been sent to Chrestomanci and they children are taken to his estate where Gwendolyn thinks she will live a luxurious life and progress in her magical education. While she finds Chrestomanci's estate to be sprawling and well appointed, she is relegated to the school room for lessons with his very plain children Roger and Julia. And, she is not taught or allowed to use magic. This enrages her so completely that she begins to plot again. All the while, no matter what horrible thing she does, Cat stands by her, defends her and aides her without asking a single question. His unyielding loyalty to his sister is by turns frustrating and incomprehensible but, from the moment he flung his arms around her neck as the steamer sank beside them (witches float and, knowing this, Cat knew she could save him) he seems to be at her beck and call.



As the story unfolds and Gwendolyn's magical attempts to get a rise out of Chrestomanci and her tutor, Mr Saunders, grow more and more outrageous, bits and pieces of Cat's personality and importance are revealed as are the severity of Gwendolyn's actions. When she performs an act of magic that sends her to another world, a very difficult feat, her double, Janet, is pulled into Cat's world and Cat struggles to keep her real identity a secret, protecting Gwendolyn to the end. There is much more to the story, including the regal, distant, well dressed character of Chrestomanci, who's name is Christopher Chant, and the rest of his family and staff as well as a spectacularly stages magical showdown at the end of the book. All of the characters, from the kindhearted Millie, Chrestomanci's wife, to Roger, Julia and the housekeeper, Mrs Bessamer, to the wicked and self-interested Mr Nostrum and Mr Baslam are intriguing and often funny. The practice of magic and the place it plays in the world of Chrestomanci is fascinating also.

The second book in the series, The Lives of Christopher Chant, tells the story of how Chrestomanci discovered that he had nine lives and is equally, if not more interesting than Cat's story.




Howl's Moving Castle Trilogy



 

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland
Published in 1996 and revised in 2006, this very funny, faux travel guide that takes the reader through all the common tropes found in fantasy writing.



A few more wonderful books from Diana Wynne Jones