8.31.2009

The Cay by Theodore Taylor, 137 pp, RL 4


On the back of the jacket for the edition of Theodore Taylor's The Cay there is a quote from the review in Booklist that reads, " - eloquently underscores the intrinsic brotherhood of man." Racism and race relations, examined through the prism of children's literature are often very personal and immediate rather than expansive and historical. The Cay is a story in which racism and race relations are about as immediate and personal as you can imagine. Taylor subtly weaves this theme into a story that, on the surface, about survival.

In February 1942, eleven year old American Phillip Enright is living in the city of Willemstad on the island of Curaçao in the Caribbean. His father works for Royal Dutch Shell, on loan from the American company he worked for due to his expertise in refineries and gasoline. His mother longs to return to the home they left behind in Virginia. When the Germans bomb a refinery on the island she sees this as a sign that it is time to flee. Against his father's wishes, they board a Dutch freighter and are torpedoed on April 6, 1942 as they are leaving Panama and Phillip finds awakens from a blow to the head on a raft in the middle of the ocean with a "huge, very old Negro" and the cook's cat, called Stew Cat. Phillip is reserved and polite with Timothy, his West Indian raft-mate, when he regains consciousness but, when it seems that Timothy has a mind of his own and a reason for how and why he does things, Phillip begins to for ideas about him and "his kind." He remembers his mother saying about the black people on the island, "They are not the same as you, Phillip. They are different and they live differently. That's the way it must be."

A few days pass on the raft and Timothy, not wanting to alarm Phillip, deflects his questions about where they might be and how long before they might be rescued. He also keeps Phillip from drinking their whole keg of water and eating the few bits of food they have salvaged from the wreckage of the ship. Phillip's resentment toward Timothy and belief that his different way of doing things is all wrong grows, in spite of Timothy's skill and knowledge. As they approach an island where they might find food and shelter, Phillip's head injury takes a turn for the worse and he loses his ability to see. Now completely dependent on Timothy, Phillip fights his decisions even more than before, suggesting that they stay on the raft until they find a bigger island. Not only must Phillip learn to trust a person his mother has taught him not to trust, he must put his whole life in his hands since Timothy, as well as his protector, is now also his eyes.

Phillip desperately hates being left alone on the island while Timothy hunts for food, prepares their shelter and makes both a trough to catch rain water and a signal fire to alert aircraft. Yet, when Timothy hands Phillip a pile of palm fronds and shows him how to weave a sleeping mat for them, Phillip revolts, throwing down the fronds and unleashing a string of insults at the man. When Timothy slaps him, Phillip, though stunned, begins a shift in his attitude toward the man. Soon, Timothy has given Phillip the confidence and courage to walk the island on his own. Timothy even shows him how to fish, using nails that he has spent hours fashioning into hooks, and tells him that he has made a stash of extra fishing poles. Timothy is preparing Phillip for the possibility of being alone on the island if Timothy dies, and Phillip comes to realize this. However, it is not until after a major event that Phillip realize the extent to which Timothy prepared him and how important Phillip and his survival is to him.

As I said above, while The Cay, which is often taught in schools, provides an important look at racism and perceptions, it is also a very suspenseful story that had me reading the book from straight through. Although he admits to being over seventy years old, Timothy is adept and innovative, yet, their survival on the island never seems guaranteed. They are dependent on the rains for fresh water and they are at the mercy of the weather. Despite the exciting plot, I gave this book the label, "Books Your Kids Should Read But Probably Won't Unless You Read With Them" because I think it is one that most kids will not gravitate to without a nudge from an adult. While the racist and humanist aspects of this book are not as complex or mature as those in Jacqueline Woodson's feathers or Paul Fleischman's Seedfolks, I think that it is important to read this book with your child because there are significant themes and ideas that are worth discussing. Also, the "pidgin Eenglesh" spoken by Timothy makes for a great read out loud!


Theodor Taylor also wrote a "sequel-prequel" to The Cay. Timothy of the Cay follows the story of Phillip once he is rescued and the dangerous operations that he undergoes in an effort to restore his vision as well as his wish to return to the cay where he and Timothy were stranded and see it with his own eyes, thus the sequel. The prequel portion of the story, alternating with Phillip's chapters, tells the story of Timothy's childhood, his adoptive aunt and his desire to captain a boat of his own one day.

8.28.2009

The Clever Stick written and illustrated by John Lechner

The Clever Stick is the second picture book from the multitalented author, illustrator and animator, John Lechner, creator of the brilliant comic book for younger kids, Sticky Burr, a review of which can be read here. John Lechner is also Art Director for FableVision, the children's media company founded by the amazing illustrator and author Peter H Reynolds. In addition to writing and illustrating his own books, Lechner, who was a puppeteer for many years, directs films and designs children's software and educational websites for FableVision. Lechner's website for his own books is a treat, full of book related short movies, comic strips and songs (John's brother is a musician and writes the scores for his films). The website for FableVision is equally capitvating, keeping my son and me pretty busy for a while reading books, watching short animated movies and playing games. Definitely worth a visit.

I already knew I loved John Lechner's work after reading Sticky Burr, but reading his two picture books, A Froggy Fable and The Clever Stick, cemented it for me. Lechner's books seem to exist at the edges of the magical forest created by William Steig. This is a forest that is populated by a wide ranging cast of anthropomorphized animals who are philosophical, introspective, artistic. It is also a forest filled with bewitched objects like magic pebbles, talking bones and enchanted harmonicas. Lechner's books are more concise in their storytelling than Steig's, but, like Steig, he manages to work wonderful vocabulary into his text. Words like simile, vigorously, magnificent, rapt and tapestry are used both subtly and effectively in the telling of the Stick's story. And, like Steig, Lechner's illustrations are bright and crisp, with characters and settings outlined in black. In addition to writing children's books, Steig was a cartoonist for The New Yorker magazine and other publications for many years and this shows in his artwork. Similarly, Lechner's Sticky Burr is in comic book format and he writes a weekly black and white strip for Sticky that can be read at his website.

The Clever Stick begins, "Once upon a time, there was a clever stick. Ever since he had fallen off the tree, he had been sharp." The humor in this book is understated and will probably be missed by kids, but not by parents, which makes it a joy to read. Since I bought The Clever Stick last week, I have read it twice to my son and three times at story time at the bookstore and I still get a kick out of it. The stick likes to sit in the sand and think clever thoughts. He likes to float down the river making up poetry. He enjoys listening to the birds sing and wonders what makes it sound so beautiful. His only problem is that he can not communicate with the other creatures of the forest and share his thoughts, clever or otherwise. He wants to tell the squirrels where to find the best nuts, he wants to tell the wild rose how beautiful she is and he wants to share similes with the frog writing poetry as he sits on his lily pad. Frustrated by his thwarted efforts, he sadly drags himself home one day. On the way home, he realizes he is leaving a trail in the sand. An interesting trail. And, "to his amazement, he discovered that he could draw lines to look like things." He goes on to create a spectacular work of art and the forest finally takes takes notice of him. "The animals cheered, the insects buzzed, and the trees swayed their branches in approval. Even the rose rose turned her petals to look."

Lechner could have ended The Clever Stick at this point and it would have been a children's book worth buying. However, he goes on with an ending that makes it a children's book worth buying for your own family and one you will want to give as a gift to others. However, as adults, we know that life continues on after glowing moments of success, sometimes even turing to kick us in the behind. And, it would seem that the same is in store for the stick when the first drop of rain beings to fall, washing away his masterpiece. But, this is no ordinary stick. This is a Clever Stick! The stick "didn't care. He knew he could make another. He knew at last he had found his voice. But for now, the stick didn't want to get wet. So, he took a fallen leaf and made himself an umbrella. For he truly was a clever stick."

What more can I say?

8.24.2009

The Year of the Rat by Grace Lin, 182 pp, RL 3


With The Year of the Rat, we find Pacy Lin, narrator of Grace Lin's wonderful book The Year of the Dog at almost the same place we left her - a celebration of Chinese New Year with her family and friends. The Year of the Pig has ended and two years have passed since we first met Pacy. As the Year of the Rat, a time of new beginnings and change, kicks off Pacy finds herself wishing that nothing would change. She has found her best friend, Melody, and she has discovered her true talents.

As with The Year of the Dog, Lin seamlessly weaves traditional Chinese tales like "The Story of the Twelve Animals of the Chinese New Year or How the Rat Was First," and family stories about parents and grandparents growing up in Taiwan into her the story of Pacy and her family. As Pacy experiences typical American kid situations - she goes on field trips, worries about the talent show and copes with her loneliness and feelings of alienation after her best friend Melody moves to California, she also participates in family life which for her is rooted in her Chinese heritage and therefore not your typical American kid experience. Once Melody moves, Pacy struggles with being the only Asian girl at her school and also with the presence of Dun-Wei, the son of the family from China that has moved into Melody's house. Pacy doesn't like him at first and finds it difficult to welcome him into her life the way she did with Melody and her family, despite the fact that Pacy's mother has become fast friends with Dun-Wei's mother. When the other kids start calling him "Dumb-Way," Pacy doesn't join in but she also doesn't stop them, at first. The complexity of this situation is a step up from The Year of the Dog and is appropriate, considering Pacy is older in this book. Lin handles the insensitiveness and compulsion to ostracize anyone who is different that school age children are prone to and addresses them through the observations and ideas of Pacy in a very thoughtful, realistic manner.

In The Year of the Rat Pacy also struggles with her new found talent. While her skills as a writer and artist continue to flourish, she begins to worry about whether she can find work with her talent when she grows up. The destiny plate at her cousin Max's two year birthday is what gets her thinking. In Chinese tradition a tray holding items representative of various professions is put in front of the two year old on his or her birthday and the first object the child grabs predicts the career path s/he will take. A book, a stethoscope, a toy truck, money and a paint brush were among the items on Max's tray. When Pacy's father says to move the paintbrush to the edge of the tray before presenting it to Max, she asks why. Her father says that they don't want him to choose the "cold door." As cousin Clifford explains, "The idea is that there are many doors you can choose to walk through - all being different kinds of lives. A lot of people think that if you choose to become an artist, you are choosing a harder life - poor and shivering. You know how they always say 'starving artists'? So, being an artist is a cold door." I love this tradition, all of the traditions that Lin incorporates into her books, but I also think that including the ideas of having a true talent and then the possibility that pursuing this talent in adult life might be a struggle is excellent and rarely found in children's literature. Lin finds a way to take a mature theme, such as the work of one's life, present it in a way that is palatable and comprehensible to children and layer on the idea that doing what you love isn't always the easiest choice.


8.21.2009

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, illustrations by Carson Ellis, 496 pp, RL 5


The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, illustrations by Carson Ellis (best known for her cover art for her husband's band The Decemberists and illustrator of Lemony Snicket's picture book, The Composer is Dead) is the wildly popular first book in what is soon to be a trilogy with books two and three being illustrated by Diane Sudyka, another wonderful artist with a style very similar to Ellis'. There is a fabulous website for the book called the The Curiosity Chronicle.



This book begins with Reynard, or Reynie, Muldoon, an orphan who has decided to answer a newspaper add that reads, "ARE YOU A GIFTED CHILD LOOKING FOR SPECIAL OPPORTUNITIES?" At this point, any reader who finds this add intriguing, especially any reader who feels that he or she would also answer this add, will plunge into this hefty book, headlong and happily, I suspect. I know that the eleven-year-old me, a bookworm on the social fringe with notions of specialness, would have gobbled this book up. The gifted children in question are invited to take a test. The four who pass, Reynie, Sticky (George) Washington, Kate Wetherall and Constance Contraire, find themselves in the presence of the mysterious Mr Benedict, a narcoleptic, and his small coterie of asisstants - Rhonda Kazembe, Milligan and Number Two. Mr Benedict welcomes them warmly into his home, gives them a secret mission and cryptic advice and thanks them for taking on such a dangerous task.

What is the danger and what is the task? Although it mostly spoken of in passive terms, the "Emergency," as it is generally referred to, fills the headlines of the papers and the news broadcasts every day. The Emergency seems to be a general decline of western civilization with "the school systems, the budget, the pollution, the crime, the weather" and everything in a "complete mess and citizens everywhere were clamoring for a major - no, a dramatic - improvement in government." The Emergency and what, or who, is causing it is at the heart of Mr Benedict's research and what he hopes to defeat. The task he gives the children is to infiltrate a school, The Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened (L.I.V.E.), being run by a reclusive genius, Ledroptha Curtain, who just might be behind these drastic changes for the worse in the world. The Institute is on Nomansan Island (there are a handful of puns like this sprinkled throughout the book) and the children will be alone there with only a flashlight and Morse code as a means of communicating with Mr Benedict and his crew.

Ensconced in the school, the children are forced to learn ridiculous phrases by rote and follow absurd rules such as, "You can wear whatever you want, just so long as you have on trousers, shoes and a shirt. You can bathe as often as you like or not at all, provided you're clean everyday in class, " and so on. There are Messengers, children who are at the top of their class and have "special privileges," and Executives, who are older children who have been promoted from the position of Messenger and keep order in the school. There are also Helper, mute, down trodden adults who appear to be fearful and sad as they go about the duties of keeping the Institute in order. As Reynie and Sticky move to the top of their class and the children begin to unravel the mysteries surrounding the special privileges and the secrets being kept by Mr Curtain, they discover what is at the source of the Emergency and what Mr Curtain's plans are for ending it and taking control of the world.

As some of you know, I have been struggling with this book for months now. Reading in fits and starts, I found it necessary to re-read certain passages in order to pick up threads or try to make sense of obtuse plot points. I am sorry to say that I did not enjoy this book. While I have reviewed one other book that I did not enjoy, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo, I did so because I felt like adults were rushing out to buy this beautiful book for the children in their lives without realizing what the story was really about. Trenton Lee Stewart's The Mysterious Benedict Society requires no such warning on my part. His book is innovative, unique (although a bit derivative, if that's possible) and I have no doubt that my complaints with the book are addressed and improved upon in the subsequent books in this series. I would and often do suggest this book to customers who are avid readers, approximately ages 8 - 12 and seem to be drawn in by the cover art, just as I was. And, I know for a fact that there are many kids and parents out there who thoroughly enjoyed this book. There is something for both boy and girl readers to connect with and appreciate.


















Readers who like this book almost always also enjoy the Secret Series by Pseudonymous Bosch. You can read my review of the first book in the series, The Name of this Book is Secrethere.

Readers who like this book might also enjoy:

For mysteries slightly less weighty, Blue Balliett's Chasing Vermeer, The Wright 3 and The Calder Game might be of interest.






Elise Broach has also written two wonderful mysteries, Masterpiece and Shakespeare's Secret.


Dale Peck's two Drift House books, which I loved, that combine time travel and historical fiction and, of course, lots of action.



For mysteries with some historical fiction and what I consider excellent writing, check out Frances Hardinge's Fly By Night and Linda Archer-Buckley's superb Time Travelers Trilogy.


8.17.2009

Hachiko: A Dog's Story - Two Reviews

















I love coincidences that happen in the world of books. A few months ago I noticed a book on the shelves that was based on a true story about a dog. Being a big sap when it comes to animal stories, I filed it under "Books I Should Read and Review Because Kids will Like It Even If They Make Me Cry," and went on with my work. Then, I was delighted to hear from author Pamela S. Turner, who, among her other fabulous non-fiction books for children, has written a picture book based on the same dog. To top it all off, Pamela informed me that the award winning director Lasse Hallstrom has made this story into the movie Hachiko: A Dog Story. Prompted by this confluence, I read Hachiko: The True Story of a Loyal Dog by Pamela S. Turner, pictures by the brilliant illustrator Yan Nascimbene and Hachiko Waits, by Leslea Newman, pictures by Machiyo Kodaira.


Both stories use a fictional character to tell the story of Haciko, the akita dog who was loyal to his death. Hachiko's own story is a simple one. He belonged to Dr. Ueno, a resident of Shibuya who took the train into Tokyo every day to teach at Tokyo Imperial University. Hachi came to live with Dr Ueno when he was three months old. One day, Hachi, which means "eight" in Japanese, Hachi being Dr Ueno's eighth dog, followed him to the train station and watched him leave for work. Hachi returned in the afternoon and was on the platform to greet him as he returned from work. This was the routine for Hachi and Dr Ueno for a little over a year until, on May 21, 1925, Dr Ueno did not return home to Shibuya, having died of a heart attack while at work. For the rest of his life, almost ten years, Hachi waited at the station for the return of his master, disappearing at night. He would not allow himself to be taken in by a new family. His devotion did not go unnoticed. Reporters began to write articles for him and a collection was started to erect a statue in his likeness at the Shibuya train station.

As Pamela S. Turner writes in her The Story Behind the Story at the end of Hachiko: The True Story of a Loyal Dog, "Some years ago my family moved o Tokyo, and we rented a home not far from Shibuya Station. Everyone, it seemed, knew that Hachiko's statue was the place to meet at the huge train station. No matter what time of day or night I visited Shibuya, I would always see someone standing near the large bronze dog, with eyes searching the crowd." She sums it up perfectly by saying, "I thought Hachiko's story was lovely, both sad and wonderful, and I wanted to share it." For her picture book, Turner invents the shy young character of Kentaro, who first meets Dr Ueno and Haciko while he waits at the Shibuya Station for his father. Afraid of the trains and Hachi at first, Kentaro soon overcomes his fears and makes fast friends with the akita. When Dr Ueno dies, Kentaro asks if his family can take in Hachi, but Hachi has plans of his own. Kentaro keeps track of Hachi over the years, contributing money to help build his statue, and he is there at the end of Hachi's life as well. Turner tells the moving story of Hachi's life (Hachiko, as he is now called, is a name that was given to him by a newspaper reporter who wrote a story about him before his death and infers honor and respect) simply and movingly in a way that will have meaning for listeners and readers of all ages. The information provided at the end of the story further illuminates aspects of the amazing story and reiterates the significance of Hachiko's life and the legacy that he leaves behind. Yan Nascimbene's magnificent illustrations bring Japan in the 1920s to life in a way that is both gentle and evocative at the same time.

At 92 pages and with a glossary of Japanese words and terms, Leslea Newman's Hachiko Waits has a plot and complexity that is perfect for a read out loud book or as a read alone for a second or third grade level reader. Newman weaves a fictional story around the real life Hachi, Dr Ueno and Mr Yoshikawa that centers on a boy named Yasuo who proves to be as loyal to Hachiko as Hachiko is to his master. Yasuo makes caring for Hachiko, making sure he is fed and has water while he waits at the station, his priority, even missing out on games with his friends to do so. Mr Yoshikawa, the station master who also watches over Hachiko, tells Yasuo that his loyalty to Hachiko will be rewarded. When Hachiko dies, Mr Yoshikawa comforts Yasuo, now a young man attending college, by sharing his belief that, "there is a special train to bring those who have obtained Enlightenment up to Heaven. Every day for the past ten years, Professor Ueno has met this special train to see if his beloved Akita-ken is on it. Day after day he has waited up in heaven, just as Hachiko has waited here on earth. And today, when that special train reaches Heaven and opens its doors, Hachiko will be the first one to step out. Just think how happy he will be to see his master again." And, as Mr Yoshikawa predicted, Hachiko does reward Yasuo in the end. It is in front of Hachiko's statue that Yasuo meets his future wife and, at the end of the story, it is in front of this statue that he proposes to her.

Newman does a wonderful job enriching the simple but poignant story of Hachiko, and the addition of the Japanese words and terms make it all the more enjoyable. Any dog lover will enjoy this book and, being on the shorter side, it is a great book for emerging readers ready for something more complex. Also, having watched the preview for the movie, I highly suggest reading the book first.

Readers who like this book might also enjoy these other homeless dog stories:

A Dog's Life by Ann M Martin, The Good Dog by Avi and Dog Lost by Ingrid Lee. On the more playful side, there is Waggit's Tale, the sequel, Waggit Again by Peter Howe and Sheep! by Valerie Hobbs. Also on the more playful side, Bill Wallace and Dick King-Smith are well known for their dog stories, homeless and otherwise.

8.14.2009

Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken 192pp RL 4


The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken is the first book in her brilliant twelve book series, The Wolves Chronicles. Begun in 1962, the last book in the series, The Witch of Clatteringshaws, was published in 2005, a year after Aiken's death at the age of eighty. With apologies to her readers for writing a rather short book, Aiken said, "better short than unfinished." Her words couldn't be more true. After fantasy, my favorite genre of writing is historical fiction. Amazingly, over the course of the twelve books, The Wolves Chronicles manages to be a delicious blend of the two. Although I read this entire series as an adult, and I am sure that has colored my enthusiasm for it a bit, it has stuck with me for the past 15+ years and remained, in my mind, one of the best written, most imaginatively elegant works for children I have ever read.
Before I being my review, a brief history lesson for those of us not familiar with the lineage of the British Monarchy is necessary to understand the alternative history that The Wolves Chronicles. The House of Stuart was founded by Robert II of Scotland and in the late 14th century. At their height, they ruled over Scotland, England, Ireland and laid claim to the Kingdom of France. The line ended with the death of Queen Anne in 1707 who, as they say, died without issue. The monarchy then passed into the hands of the House of Hanover, a Germanic royal dynasty. The House of Hanover ended in 1901 with the death of Queen Victoria and is, thus far, the longest ruling house in England. In Aiken's world, it is approximately 1830 when The Wolves of Willoughby Chase begins and the House of Stuart is still in possession of the monarchy. The Hanoverians and Burgundians are both plotting to overthrow Good King James III and put an end to his reign. Political intrigue and missing princes are always part of the plot in this series, so a tiny bit of historical knowledge goes a long way to making sense of the characters and their actions. Because of this, it is important to point out to any young reader embarking on this series that Aiken has written a work of fiction in which the timeline of history is similar to the one we know but not real. In spite this, any lack of this knowledge does not detract in any way from enjoyment of the series and might make for a little gasp of surprise when, many years later while studying European history in high school or college, the reader realizes that Aiken made it all up!

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is set in an England in which a large number of wolves have migrated from the bitter cold of Europe and Russia into Britain via the Channel Tunnel and are terrorizing the citizens of the country, especially in the north where this book is set. With its cast of characters ranging from spinster aunts, orphans, wicked governesses, and embezzlers, all of whom have names that are perfectly suited to their characters, as well as a girls' school that is more like a work house and an enormous estate with hidden passages, this book brings to mind Charles Dickens with a touch of the Brontës thrown in for good measure. When the story opens we find Bonnie Green anxiously awaiting the arrival of her orphaned cousin, Sylvia, who is to be her companion while her parents take a trip that will hopefully restore the health of Bonnie's ailing mother. In their absence, a governess has been hired to teach the girls and oversee the estate. However, Miss Slighcarp turns out to be both cruel and devious, but none of this is noticed in the bustle of the departure of Bonnie's parents. From the moment she is in charge, it is clear that Miss Slighcarp's intentions are to line her own pockets without a thought for anyone else. As life at Willoughby Chase deteriorates, Bonnie and Sylvia find ways to manage. Although all of the upstanding servants have been dismissed so as not to tip of the law, Bonnie's nurse Pattern has remained on, hidden in the house, to do what she can to protect the girls. Another loyal servant, James, has stayed on as well, pretending to be unsavory so that Slighcarp will not suspect him of aiding the children. When Bonnie writes a letter for help that falls into the wrong hands, she and Sylvia are taken immediately, in the dead of a chilling winter night, to the city of Blastburn where Miss Slighcarp's friend, Gertrude Brisket runs a school for girls. Along the way, Miss Slighcarp informs them that the Thessaly, the ship Sir Willoughby and her wife were traveling on, has sunk in a storm.
Once there, the girls are issued brown overalls and have their hair chopped off. They are punished immediately and set to work mending and sorting bristles for broom making with little time to plot their escape. When Bonnie, as further punishment, is given the task of tending to the outside work, she encounters an old friend from Willoughby Chase. Simon, slightly older than Bonnie, is an orphan who took up residence, after obtaining Sir Willouhgby's permission, in a cave on the grounds of the Chase some five years back. He had run away from a job on a farm where he was beaten and walked across half of England to get away from him. Sir Willoughby offered to employ Simon as a garden boy, but Simon said he'd rather live off the chestnuts and the goose and gander chicks he had brought with him. In no time, he was raising geese, selling their eggs and driving his flock to London every spring to sell them at the Easter Fair, where they were in high demand. Simon, with boy's clothing, a donkey cart and a few guineas, all provided by Pattern and James, rescues the girls and they set off for London in search of a Mr Gripe, Sir Willoughby's lawyer, a journey which takes them two months. During this time, Simon learns how to read and paint, making use of Bonnie's books and paint box (among the few personal items Miss Slighcarp did not sell off) sent along in the wagon by Pattern to entertain the children on their trip. Simon's talent is so great that he sells many of his paintings and even earns room and board for the group when he repaints the sign of a village inn. Once in London the three children are about to visit Mr Gripe when they see mr Grimshaw, Miss Slighcarp's apprentice, entering his office. Unsure of what this could mean, the go to visit Aunt Jane and find her at death's door. The good Dr Field, a new resident in her building and also a painter, is summoned and begins nursing her back to health as well as earning the trust of the children. After capturing Mr Grimshaw trying to break into Aunt janes rooms at three in the morning, the Bow Street officers are called upon and the story is unravelled. The group, along with the officers, returns to Willoughby Chase by train and sets a trap for Miss Slighcarp, who has turned the house into a school for girls along with Mrs Brisket. Insisting she is acting with Sir Willoughby's permission up to the end, they are locked in the cellar of the house and a celebration is had, one that is enhanced by the return of Sir Willoughby and his wife, who survived the shipwreck and had her health restored by the oranges, grapes, sun, sardines and olive oil that made up her diet on the Canary Islands where they were stranded for three months. Sir Willoughby offers to adopt Simon and send him to school, but Simon says that Dr Field thinks he has promise as a painter and has offered to house him while he attends the best art school in London -  which is where we find him at the start of the second book in the series, Black Hearts in Battersea.

While we don't see Bonnie, Sylvia or any of the other characters from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase again (except for a surprise visit from Miss Slighcarp in the third book, Nightbirds in Nantucket) the rest of the series continues with Simon and one of the greatest girl characters ever written in children's literature - Dido Twite (rhymes with died o' fright...) Aiken has great fun with her alternate history and is such an engrossing storyteller that it doesn't matter how much the reader knows about the actual history of England and it's Kings and Queens. Best of all, there is an edition of this series with cover art by Edward Gorey that perfectly suits the stories inside.

The Whispering Mountain, written in 1968 and winner of Guardian Award for Children's Fiction, is considered a prequel of sort to The Wolves Chronicles. Set in Wales, Owen Hughes, son of Captain Hughes of the Thrush, a ship which returns Dido Twite to England by way of a few South American stops, finds himself in a web of mystery surronding the Harp of Teirtu and the many people, both good and bad, trying to get their hands on it. This book can easily be read as a stand alone.

 


8.13.2009

Whispering Mountain by Joan Aiken 304pp RL 4


Winner of the 1969 Guardian Award for Children's Fiction - the British equivalent of the Pulitzer - Whispering Mountain another fabulous book by Joan Aiken, and, to my surprise, part of the The Wolves Chronicles, which begins with The Wolves of Willoughby Place. I love it when an author take a minor character from one novel and makes him or her the center of another novel. EL Konigsburg weaves this sort of tapestry with her books Silent to the Bone, The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place and the mysterious edge of the known world. Aiken does the same with Whispering Mountain, Is Underground and Cold Shoulder Road, creating side-stories that are as rich an intriguing as the books with Dido Twite, heroine of the Wolves Chronicles, in them. The main character in Whispering Mountain, Owen Hughes, is the son of Captain Hughes of the Thrush (which returns Dido to England in The Cuckoo Tree), who has been sent to live with his crotchety Grandfather in the tiny Welsh village of Pennygaff. Like Jenny Nimmo's Snow Spider trilogy, this book is abundant with Welsh names and words. In fact, Whispering Mountain has so many Welsh words and names woven into the text that there is a glossary in the back of the book, but don't let that deter you. It doesn't take long to get used to the Welsh usage of the letter "f" in the place of "s," among other things. And, the language and dialogues are so rich you'll find yourself reading passages more than once for pleasure, not comprehension.


Owen arrives in town to live with a grandfather he has never met, a retired sea captain who now runs the town museum, to find his identity challenged and his presence resented by the locals. Mr Hughes grudgingly accepts him into his life, but the town bullies, Dove, Mog, Hfwa, Follentine and Luggins torment Owen every day. The book begins with Owen trying to outwit the gang and happily meeting up with his old traveling companion, the barber, healer and poet Tom Dando and his daughter Arabis. When Owen had been left at port in Southampton he had been preparing to walk to Wales but the Dando's invited him to make the journey, as far as Gloucester, in their gypsy wagon. It is Arabis' falcon, Hawc, who comes to Owen's aid and scatters the boys who are in the process of giving him a pounding. Once safely inside the caravan Owen tells the Dandos about his life in Pennygaff and the amazing discover his grandfather has made. It seems that he has found the long missing Harp of Teirtu. It seems that this harp was stolen by Prince Kelyddon, along with the help of his cousin, King Arthur, as a bride-gift for the Princess Olwen. The once golden harp eventually ended up with St Ennodawg in his monastery near Pennygaff. Then is disappeared. Arabis recalls a prophecy made by one of the old bards that tells of the castle of Malyn riding on a cloud, a plunge from Devil's Leap and the Children of the Darkness being freed. All of it seems to be a mysterious riddle to the children at the time but will make perfect sense by the ned of the novel.

As always, Joan Aiken has a cast of amazing characters and settings that come together to make for a suspenseful adventure. There is the wicked Lord Malyn who will stop at nothing to get his hands on the Harp of Teirtu. There is Brother Ianto, the remaining monk in the Order of St Ennodawg, who has been on a mission in China this past decade along with the now deceased Brother Twm, learning the art of optometry. And, there is my favorite character, the loquacious Seljuk of Rum, a nobleman from Turkey who was rescued from his overturned carriage a year earlier by Brother Ianto. Anytime the Seljuk speaks brings a smile to my face and I have to share a sample of his communication style, "It is to do with a harp, some Harp of Teirtu, I apprehended, conceive, hit the nail on the head. I understand he wishes to locate, procure, ay his paws on the harp and is unable to do so." Dove, Hfwa, Luggins and Mog also join in the action after Owen and the harp of Teirtu are stolen from the museum by the wretched thieves Bilk and Prigman, who are working for Lord Malyn. Owen and his former tormentors take off across the mountainous country to find the harp and along the way rescue the missing Prince David (remember, Aiken's books are set in an alternate reality, set roughly in the early 1800s, where Good King James III is on the throne) who has been gored by a wild boar while hunting.

On top of this, Arabis discovers a race of people with miniature camels living in the winding tunnels and crevices of the Whispering Mountian who just may be the relatives of her dead mother and makers (and rightful owners) of the Harp of Teirtu. Brought to the country by force over one hundred and two generations ago to be be slaves in the gold mines in the Whispering Mountain due to their skill as a people in mining and working with gold, they were left behind when their conquerers (probably Romans) moved on to other lands. They could not remember the way to their ancestral home and thus lived in secret for hundreds of years in the mountain. The mountain people, a hermit from their tribe named Abipaal and Arabis succeed in regaining the harp, but she loses something else very dear to her in a great stand-off with Lord Malyn on the mountain in an effort to save the life of Prince David. And, in a wonderful turn of events, it seems that the Seljuk of Rum is the dynastic leader of the people of the mountain and has come to take them home after so many years.

It is amazing what is packed into this relatively short book. As always, Joan Aiken is a master at creating a world within a book, whether it is fantastical or historical, you see it in your mind's eye as you read. The geographical landscape and characters are so vividly rendered. The edition I have has cover art by the amazing fantasy artist Charles Vess, collaborator with Neil Gaiman on the picture book Blueberry Girl. Neil Gaiman is the author of Coraline, which was made into a great movie this year, and the marvelous Graveyard Book, winner of the 2009 Newbery Award.

Now that I've gotten you to read this whole review I have to tell you that, since I reviewed this book last year, it has gone out of print in the United States. That doesn't mean you can't find it at a library, used bookstore/website or one of my favorite places to "trade" books, PaperBackSwap. I have found out of print books and books that are only a year or so old, all in great condition. If you have a pile of books you are willing to part with, this is a great way to keep your kids in books!

8.12.2009

Arabel's Raven by Joan Aiken 146pp Rl 3

Arabel's Raven by Joan Aiken follows the adventures of Arabel Jones, who finds a raven in her refrigerator one morning - an indicator of his voracious appetite - and names him Mortimer. Set in almost 100 years ago in Rumbury Borough, a small village outside of London, these stories are rich with silly ideas and crazy adventures - like Mortimer's obsession with machines you can put coins into, which necessitates a trip to the newly renovated tube station that has tons of machines, even one that can blow your nose for you. Mortimer also enjoys answering the phone, shoving things under the doormat and/or the linoleum and "packing spaghetti into jam jars or sponge bags or old yogurt pots."

Aiken is capable of the same playful ridiculousness that is found in most Roald Dahl books (her writing here is enriched by the illustrations of Quentin Blake, illustrator of all Dahl's books) but without the self-centered, cruel adults that often populate Dahl's stories. The books are also sprinkled with jokes that parents will get, like Mortimer's continual, well timed cries of "Nevermore." Since ravens are not very common or popular here in America, their smaller, more omnipresent and infinitely less interesting cousins the crows are. Before, or while, reading about Arabel and her alter-ego, Mortimer, you might want to give your kids a little background information about them. Ravens have a historical place in British culture, and a permanent home at the Tower of London, the oldest part of which was built by William the Conquerer in 1078. The Tower of London has been a fortress, a prison and is now the repository of the Crown Jewels. However, most kids probably won't even care about this since Mortimer is infinitely entertaining and even more rambunctious and destructive than a puppy who can never be left alone.

Broken into three stories, my favorite chapter of Arabel's Raven is titled, "The Bread Bin," with a chain of evens which unfolds a bit like a Rube Goldberg contraption. During an extremely wet February Mortimer is cross because he cannot do the two things he wishes to do above all else - be pulled around the garden in Arabel's wagon and sleep in the bread bin. Mrs Jones complains that that bird "gets more attention than the lord Mayor of Hyderabad," and Arabel (who is feeling a bit ticklish in her throat) responds by pulling him around the house on one of her roller skates. Through a series of events, a claw caught in the roller skate leads to an open window (by way of a toppled crate of brussels sprouts and an exploding can of oven cleaner) and a return to the red wagon. Once out the window, "Mortimer took no notice. There were half a dozen horse chestnuts floating in the red wagon. The next-door cat, Ginger, was sitting under a wheelbarrow, trying to keep dry. Mortimer jumped out into the wagon (he was up to his black, feathery knees in water) and began throwing chestnuts at Ginger. He was a very good shot." I am a cat lover, but this paragraph-long sentence made me laugh out loud. Mortimer is a free spirit with no social constraints. He does what he wants when he wants and makes the most of the moment whenever he can. The chapter goes on to involve a hair dryer, a roller rink, Arabel's awful cousins Cindy, Lindy and Mindy, a wild chase in a parking garage with Mortimer skating up and down the ramps. A mix-up with a shopping bag one wheels means Mortimer goes home with the cousins where he is chased mercilessly and ends up hiding out in the chimney. This necessitates the arrival of Mr Suckett, the chimney sweep and ends with Mortimer, followed by a stream of soot, shooting out the window with "the speed of Boeing 707." The chapter ends in the hospital, Arabel's ticklish throat turning into a full blown illness, and Mr Jones sneaking Mortimer into the hospital to be with her - in the very bread bin that he began the chapter being told he couldn't sleep in.

Sadly, out of all the Arabel and Mortimer books, only Arabel's Raven and Arabel and Mortimer are still available to purchase new in the United States. But, I am sure that your library or a good used book site will have them on hand as you will no doubt want to read more about the Jones family and their unusual pet.

8.11.2009

A Necklace of Raindrops by Joan Aiken, pictures by Kevin Hawkes 84 pp RL 2


Short story collections for kids are very rare these days, and, while I haven't read very many in my life, I suspect that Joan Aiken has to be one of the most prolific and excellent writers of short stories for children in the 20th century. A Necklace of Raindrops came about when, in 1968, Aiken was to write stories from a list of 200 words for younger readers in America - much the way Theodore Geisel (Dr Seuss) got started writing what are now known as "easy to read" books for beginning readers. A Necklace of Raindrops also marked the beginning of a fruitful picture book collaboration with the children's book artist Jan Pienkowski.

A Necklace of Raindrops was reissued in 2001 with illustrations by Kevin Hawkes, who illustrated the remarkable picture book Weslandia by Paul Fleichsman, as well as all of Eva Ibbotsen's magical novels for children. The eight stories all involve magic of one kind or another, some very much like traditional fairy tales. The title story is about a father who rescues the North Wind one night and in turn receives a necklace for his daughter. Every year on her birthday the North Wind gives her a raindrop that provides her a new magical quality, such as staying dry in a rain storm, being able to swim the deepest river and the ability to make it rain by blowing her nose. A jealous friend leads the girl on a journey to Arabia and an encounter with the king. Another favorite story of mine is "The Baker's Cat," in which Mog, the water loving cat of the baker, is given warm milk with yeast in it to help him keep from catching cold after sitting in a puddle all morning. The yeast causes Mog to grow to the size of a house and throw the town into a panic. But, Mog redemeems himself by settling down for a nap in a riverbed and acting as a dam that saves the town from being flooded.

This book is a wonderful read out loud for children as young as three or four, if they have good attention spans. There are pictures on almost every page to keep their interest. But, make sure you reintroduce it to your children when they are old enough to read it on their own.

8.10.2009

Joan Aiken: One of the most prolific, amazing authors you may have never heard of

As the one year anniversary of books4yourkids.com approached, I decided to take a week or two to re-write and re-post some of the first reviews I wrote in August of 2008. I was surprised to find that I had reviewed no less than four of Joan Aiken's books in those first few frenzied weeks. As I sat down to add a bit of polish to the reviews I was THRILLED to find a website devoted to the life and works of Joan Aiken run by her daughter, Lizza Aiken. With this amazing resource at hand, I realized that there was no way I could review any of Joan Aiken's books without first taking some time to talk about her work in general.

Before I delve into her remarkable writings, I have to share the story of my first meeting with Joan Aiken's books. I was always an avid reader and library visitor as a child but somehow never got around to reading Joan Aiken's most famous book, The Wolves of Wiloughby Chase, as a child. When I was in high school my parents moved from a bustling city to a quiet backwater town. Trips to the library happened less often, but on one trip I came home with one of Aiken's short story collections for young adults, Not What You Expected. I fell in love with this book, especially the story, "A Room Full of Leaves," about a lonely young boy living in a vast English estate with his relatives. One day during a power outage, he manages to give them the slip and he discovers a room full of leaves. Upon further investigation into the leaves he finds a massive tree trunk and people living in the branches of this tree. He befriends a girl in the tree then finds he must find a way to save her home when his relatives decide to allow an American filmmaker to dismantle the home and ship it to Hollywood - for an exorbitant price. I could not part with this book and hid it in my room. When overdue notices began arriving regularly I hid those too. Finally I got the idea to write "deceased" on the envelope and return it. I wasn't proud of what I had done, but that ended my that. Unfortunately, I also ended my library privileges as well. However, I am happy to report that, when confronted with a similar situation almost 20 years later (this time it was Aiken's prequel to my favorite Jane Austen book, Mansfield Park, titled, The Youngest Miss Ward) I had access to the internet and a plethora of used book dealers and was able to obtain my copy of this (still, sadly) out of print book legally. However, the recent spike in popularity for Jane Austen and sequels to her work has meant lovely new editions of Eliza's Daughter, sequel to Sense and Sensibility, Jane Fairfax, sequel to Emma and Mansfield Revisited, sequel to my favorite Austen, Mansfield Park.


Mansfield Park Revisited by Joan Aiken: Book CoverJane Fairfax by Joan Aiken: Book Cover



Joan Aiken, born in 1924, was the daughter of the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Conrad Aiken. Interestingly enough, after acquiring my purloined copy of Joan Aiken's short stories, my high school creative writing teacher gave me a copy of Conrad Aiken's haunting short story, "Silent Snow, Secret Snow," but I didn't make the connection between the authors until years later. Joan Aiken published her first young adult novel, The Kingdom of the Cave, in 1960 (two short story collections preceded it) and from there on wrote an average of two books a year. Genres she wrote in include, young adult novels, picture books, adult novels, Jane Austen prequels and sequels, plays and poems, supernatural stories and mysteries and period novels. Although I have read her Jane Austen continuations, I am most familiar with her fantasy writing, The body of Joan Aiken's work calls to mind that of another respected British writer not as well known in the States, Diana Wynne Jones. However, where as much of the fantasy of Wynne Jones that I have read seems firmly set in historical England, Aiken's fantasy was probably the first I ( a complete novice) ever read that had a contemporary setting and modern feel.




Aiken's most popular work, The Wolves Chronicles, includes 12 titles, the last of which she completed shortly before passing away in 2004. Set in Aiken's own version of 19th century England, "a time when ravening wolves
roamed the land, having crossed the newly opened Channel Tunnel from the wilds of Europe." dynasty of good Stuart Kings rule under the constant threat of the Hanoverian and Burgundian plotting to overthrow the kingdom from overseas. Dido Twite (rhymes with died o' fright) is the cockney heroine of several of the books in the series, most of which are set in a Dickensian England. However, some of the stories take place on the high seas, in Nantucket, USA and on tropical islands and in South American countries and include Arthurian legends, silent religious sects, Indonesian magicians and a spectacular cast of characters, from the "amazingly evil to the charmingly memorable." I was first drawn to this series by the marvelous, perfectly suited cover art by Edward Gorey and it has stuck with me, the characters and plots rolling around in the back of my head. Even though I read and fell in love with it as an adult, I have no doubt that children of the right age and interest will fall in love with these books as well.


The Arabel and Mortimer Series, begun in 1972 with Arabel's Raven, paired Aiken perfectly with illustrator Quentin Blake which Aiken and her daughter Lizza adapted into a television program in the 1990s. These stories were first read out loud on the BBC television's Jackanory Programmes in 1970 and, as I experienced with my four year old, they continue to be great read out louds. When Mr Jones brings home the injured bird, their family has no idea what is in store for them. From the moment she names him, Mortimer is the other half of Arabel's life and he, in turn, is passionately devoted to her. This doesn't stop him from getting into a world of trouble, from eating the stairs in the Jones' flat to finding the lost sword of Excalibur. Aiken described Arabel and Mortimer's partnership as that of the Ego and the Id, however Moretimer is no imaginary friend who gets Arabel in trouble and gets the blame...



Aiken also wrote The Way to Write for Children in 1982. I stumbled across it about ten years later, long before I realized that I was better at writing about children's books than actually writing them. While I have to admit that I still have not read this book from cover to cover, I now plan to as I am sure that reading what Joan Aiken has to say about how to write for children will prove invaluable to my interest in writing about writing for children. On her website this book is described as being a "heartfelt and highly entertaining personal statement by Joan Aiken about the importance of good writing in children's books and her own passionate commitment to her work. With many quotations from other writers, and straightforward and obviously well founded advice, the book manages to be both funny and profound."



I was especially excited to learn that a "new" Joan Aiken book was published last year, The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories. While I have not read it (although I just put one on order) the blurb for the book says that this is the first time that this cycle of 24 stories (4 of which never before published) about the Armitage family has been published in one volume. It seems that this is a family that dwells in and out of magical worlds who have adventures, nearly always on a Monday, with time travel, witches, ghosts, Furies and other creatures. The Board of Incantation tries to take over their house to turn it into a school for young wizards and a cut-out from a cereal box leads to a beautiful palace garden. These stories have been compared to the works of the magnificent E Nesbit who wrote during the Victorian era, and her predecessor who wrote some fifty years later, Edward Eager.