10.30.2011

Mouse and Mole: A Perfect Halloween, written and illustrated by Herbert Wong Yee


Upstairs Mouse, Downstairs Mole by Herbert Wong Yee was one of the first books I reviewed when I started my blog in the fall of 2008. I am so happy to be able to review the sixth book in this series, Mouse and Mole, A Perfect Halloween

Opposites make for great pairs in early readers. Something that endeared me immediately to Yee's books was the dedication to"Friends of Frog and Toad" that appeared in Upstairs Mouse, Downstairs Mole. Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad stories, along with many other books by Lobel, were a memorable part of my childhood reading and perhaps because of that mismatched pairs always resonate with me. But, beyond that, odd couples are great for some under-the-radar lessons about how to be - or not to be. With Mouse and Mole, A Perfect Halloween Yee goes meta and includes a story within his story that gently teaches the reader and Mole not to be so frightened by the spooky nature of the season.

Chapters "A Skeleton in the Closet," "Perfect Pumpkins," "The Contest," and "Fraidy-Mouse, Scardey-Mole" take the friends through the days preceding Halloween as they prepare for the holiday. Mouse hangs a skeleton (that she finds in her closet) outside in the oak tree that scares Mole, who has just had a bad dream about being chased by one. The two decide to enter the Halloween Pumpkin Carving contest and head to the patch. Picking and carving pumpkins is the perfect setting for the differences in the way the reserved Mole and the boisterous Mouse approach life. Of course, Mole wants to be prepared and carves his pumpkin as soon as he gets home, putting it in a box as instructed in the contest rules, then taking the extra step of burying it under a pile of leaves so that Mouse will not see it and copy his design.  This makes for an interesting response from the judges when they open Mole's box and see his creation. 

My favorite part of the book comes in the last chapter when Mouse decides to takes Mole's fear in hand and ensure that they have a happy, fun Halloween by - drumroll - reading him a book!!! Mouse tells Mole that she is going to read him a Halloween story and, when Mole tremblingly asks if it is scary, she replies, "Scary, yes - but exciting too!" The rhyming story, which is included in the book, along with images of Mouse reading to Mole and Mole reacting, features a fraidy-Mouse and a tiny mole who are friends. As the fraidy-Mouse and tiny mole celebrate Halloween and try to be brave in the dark night, Mole is so engrossed in the story that he falls right off his chair. When Mouse asks if she should stop reading the story Mole begs her not to, assuring her that, while the story is scary, it is exciting too. The two head out to choose their Halloween costumes and, in a nice little twist, Mole even has the chance to give Mouse a little shiver!
Brand-New Day with Mouse and Mole by Wong Herbert Yee: Book Cover


Don't miss this other great beginning to read Halloween story from Megan McDonald and G Brain Karas, Ant and Honeybee, A Pair of F
riends.

10.28.2011

Darkfall (The Healing Wars: Book III) written by Janice Hardy, 432 pp, RL MIDDLE GRADE



With Darkfall Janice Hardy brings to a close her amazing trilogy, The Healing Wars, which began with The Shifter and continued with Blue Fire. As always, the superb cover art is by the James Brown of kid's book cover illustration, Brandon Dorman. For an interesting look behind the scenes of how a cover is created, as well as incredible instruction and advice on writing a novel, check out Janice's blog, The Other Side of the Story.

With Darkfall Hardy delivers on the promise of the trilogy title, The Healing Wars. Jeatar and his Underground movement have been discovered by the usurping Duke of Baseer and forced to move from the capital of Baseer to a hidden farm in the countryside, which also means that Nya is forced to move farther away from the Undying (a hideous, unstoppable soldier created by the Duke) training camp that she believes Tali has been sent to. As Nya slowly moves forward without her sister, sometimes with the uninvited help of Danello, Aylin, Quenji and his gang, she faces new challenges. Nya makes the portentous decision to return to Geveg when rumors of the death of the Governor General, put in place by the Duke of Baseer, emerge. Thinking that the people of Geveg are forming a rebellion amidst the flow of refugees from the Three Territories, Danello and Aylin yearn to return home and join the fight. Nya does as well, but is haunted by her decision to leave Tali any further behind and reluctant make another move without her. In a surprising twist, it is this move to return to Geveg that reunites Nya and Tali. However, the reunion is not a happy one. Tali has become one of the Undying: brainwashed, shellshocked and dangerous, no matter what Nya does for her.

With The Shifter Janice Hardy posed interesting moral and ethical questions surrounding the ability to heal the sick and wounded and the opportunity to relieve and eliminate pain and suffering for humanity. By the time the events of Darkfall are in set motion questions of healing, class and cultural discrimination are pushed aside as a full scale war is about to break out. As word of Nya's unique skills at shifting pain and exploding pynvium spread after her dynamic escape from the Duke's creepy pain machine, the people of Geveg begin to look to her as a hero and even a leader. The Sainters, a group of quasi-nutty religious types, begin to spread the word that Nya is a saint come to earth to save the oppressed. Nya laughs this off but still finds herself swept up by the massing rebellion when she returns to Geveg and meets up with the leaders. Again and again Nya is forced to make difficult decisions (and painful mistakes) and it is easy to forget that she is a teenager. I felt myself literally breathing a sigh of relief when Jeatar showed up and removed some of the weight from her shoulders. With Jeatar at the head of the rebellion and his true heritage revealed, the reality of the unwinnable war they face becomes very evident. Troop numbers are thrown out for both sides, weapons are counted and tactics are gone over again and again. What the rebel army lacks in number and resources, they make up for in ingenuity and skill - Nya's skills, to be exact. The Duke is a master at crafting frightening, malicious uses for pynvium, but Nya and the rebels come up with some creative ideas of their own. 
While most of the book is taken up with the preparations for and waging of war, Hardy continues to fill in the gaps in Nya's history and that of her ancestors, as well as the events surrounding the Duke's rise to power. Nya even makes a wrenching trip to her childhood home, which was usurped by Baseeri nobles some ten years ago. One of the most unique aspects of Hardy's trilogy, besides her brilliant creation of the power to shift and heal pain, is the geography of her books. Hardy says she imagined a mixture of Venice, Italy and Lake Victoria, Africa with a bit of South Florida thrown in when she created the world of the three territories.   I love the descriptions of Geveg and Nya's visit to her childhood home is especially rich with details that add layers to the setting, which really can be counted as a character in its own right in this trilogy. Add to that the homey colloquialisms, created by Hardy, that pepper the story and you have a complete world that is one readers will find themselves immediately immersed in. 
As with Blue Fire, it is hard to write about Darkfall without revealing too much of this fast paced story. New characters are introduced again, old ones return, but Nya is still the star of the show and, as narrator, rightly so. It is a thrill to be inside her head, sharing her thoughts, her sorrows and her decision making process. There is even a bit of a budding romance between Nya and Danello and, while it is nice to think that someone is feeling protective of her, there is never a moment's doubt in the reader's mind that Nya is completely capable of taking care of herself and most everyone around her in any given situation. In Nya, Hardy has created a captivating, flawed, struggling hero with a unique voice. This, combined with the fascinating setting, makes The Healing Wars trilogy one of the most exciting middle grade reads I've had in a while.


Readers who  like Janice Hardy's trilogy might also enjoy this series by Philip Reeve:

Although not quite the physical force to be reckoned with that is Nya de'Analov, Fever Crumb is a pretty cool hero making her way in a post-apocalyptic world nonetheless.

Fever Crumb (Fever Crumb Series #1) by Philip Reeve: Book CoverI reviewed book one in the series, Fever Crumb in hardcover. The new paperback cover is a bit different and sorely lacking in the ominous glare of Fever. Book III, Scrivener's Moon is out in the UK now and should hit the shelves in the US in 2012.
A Web of Air (Fever Crumb Series #2)Fever Crumb (Fever Crumb Series #1)






















10.27.2011

A Challenge From Picture Book Illustrator and Author Matthew Cordell to REAWAKEN YOUR LOVE FOR THE PICTURE BOOK

First a Proclamation and now a Challenge. It's been an exciting week for picture books.

Matthew Cordell, author and illustrator of one of my all time favorite picture books (click title for my review of Trouble Gum) has written an eloquent, impassioned plea to the buyers and readers of picture books which he has generously allowed me to reprint here. It can also be read directly on his blog, which you should visit anyway for sneak peeks at his latest projects.
Toot Toot Zoom! by Matthew Cordell: Book CoverTrouble Gum by Matthew Cordell: Book Cover
Why all the hubbub about picture books? If you read around the blogosphere or the New York Times, you might have noticed some hoopla surrounding the supposed demise of the picture book as a staple of childhood. And you may have also noticed stories (like a response at Publishers Weekly) trumpeting the opposite. As a longtime children's bookseller, I have noticed a drop in sales of picture books and the corresponding reaction by the bookstore I work for. The direct results of this have been a reduction in the number of titles carried as well as a shrinkage of shelf space for picture books. On top of this, as a mom and story-time-lady at work, I have also noticed the paucity of quality picture books to read to my (and other people's) children. Or, perhaps I have just been noticing the large number of subpar picture books published over the last few years that resulted in the need for a proclamation from picture book authors and illustrators in the first place. I hope that the drop in sales of picture books will eventually lead to quality over quantity in the publishing world. I think that the actions of dedicated artists and writers (and those who are both) will ensure this, which in turn will invigorate the publishing world, bookstores and book buyers when readers (re)discover, as Matthew Cordell says, "how spiritual the picture book experience is to both children and adults."
Toby and the Snowflakes by Julie Halpern: Book CoverLeap Back Home to Me by Lauren Thompson: Book CoverRighty and Lefty: A Tale of Two Feet
But, the bottom line is that without a demand the supply will wither. Those of us with the funds to do so need to buy (or continue to buy) picture books for our kids and even for ourselves. For all the reasons why you should buy picture books and read them to your kids, please, PLEASE read Matthew Cordell's words below and PASS THEM ON to friends and family. I realize that I might be preaching to the choir, carrying coals to Newcastle and selling refrigerators to Eskimos here, but if you already read and love picture books then you are the PERFECT person to spread the word about their importance. 

And, finally, as a person who works in an actual brick and mortar bookstore, I thank Mr Cordell heartily for encouraging people to GO TO A REAL BOOKSTORE and read picture books (rather buy them on line...) Please, come on down and take these books for a test drive! I know that the train table and the increasing number of non-book items (ok, fine, TOYS) makes it hard to get the little ones to look at books, but my bookstore really is a fun place to hang out. Maybe there will even be a story time going on!
Return to Gill ParkLike Pickle Juice on a CookieJustin Case: School, Drool, and Other Daily Disasters

Reawaken your love for the picture book.

The children's picture book is not doing so well. People aren't buying it like they should. I don't have all the facts and numbers (I'm not that guy), but I know enough to tell you that. Maybe it's because of tough economic times. Maybe it's because of e-bookery or general gadget-y (short attention span) distractions. Maybe it's because parents aren't reading to their kids enough. Maybe it's because education is accelerating young readers at a newer, faster pace, and rushing them over the picture book form. Maybe it's because it's been forgotten how important, irreplaceable, and (when stars align) how spiritual the picture book experience is to both children and adults.

If you think enough about it, you'll see the importance of and need for picture books. For one thing... reading to your kids is going to make them better. Period. It's going to build some solid ground to a solid person. It's going to build up their vocabulary, and make them smarter and more fun and more interesting to be around. And you'll be all the more prouder (of yourself and of them). That's the common sense thing. But beneath the surface is the more subtle stuff. Reading to your kids is going to make you better. Shared reading is an experience no parent or child should do without. A special bond between Mom or Dad and baby girl or baby boy that will never, ever be forgotten. And of course there's art appreciation. Picture books are painstakingly composed by writers who really, really, REALLY love what they are doing. Manuscripts are written and re-written, and thrown out and re-written and revised and picked apart and picked apart again so that every line counts, every word counts. And they are visually realized by artists who really, really, REALLY love what they are doing, developing characters, and sketching and re-sketching and re-sketching, and testing drawing approaches, painting approaches, digital illustration options, creating color palettes, and newer better color palettes (and throwing those out and creating the best color palettes). And then they are designed and typeset and polished and shaped and assembled and proofed and press-checked and assembled by people who really, really, REALLY care about the finished visual dynamics of the thing. Writing, art, design, printing, binding, packaging... to make just one perfectly produced book ready to digest and enjoy. (This visual distinction and quality control of image and package from top to bottom is why picture books can never truly translate to e-books, if you think about it. But that's another rant.)This is my challenge to you, dear readers. Go into a book store (not a website, but a store with a roof, walls, people, books you can hold and browse over) and spend some time in the children's book section. Find something incredible (it ain't hard). Then, when you're all filled up, buy just one picture book. And in a week's time, repeat. Buy one picture book a week for your kid(s), some other kid(s) you love, or for yourself or some other grown-up you love. I can identify that it's hard to get, at first, but adults can also enjoy reading picture books. And if you absolutely can't swallow that concept, you can't escape appreciating them for the amazing artwork alone. It's like buying amazing art that can sit on your coffee table (or wherever you keep your favorite books with your favorite images) for, like, 16 bucks or whatever. Someone you know needs more picture books in her/his/their life/lives. You need to experience, again, what you loved when you read picture books as a kid.(Okay, okay.... if you absolutely, seriously, truthfully can't get to or find a brick and mortar book store, buy your books online. But try this first.)If you can't do a pic book a week, make it a pic book a month.And if you can't do that (understood, times are tight).... Go into your most excellent local library and check out 10 picture books a week. If you can't do it every week, do it once a month.Challenge issued. Is this more preaching to the choir? Maybe so. But I'm not sure there's enough preaching going on. The picture book should be preached. It should be testified. We have to do  more. We have to talk more. I can't do without it. And if you think about it, neither can you.P.S. If you take this seriously, and I hope that you do, and you happen to be on Facebook, pledge to me, to yourself, and to everyone around you that you will do this by liking this Facebook page. Here. Now.

Some very exciting books on the horizon from Matthew Cordell in 2012, including Another Bother, which just received a starred review from Kirkus.
Another Brother by Matthew Cordell: Book Cover



Bat and Rat by Patrick Jennings: Book CoverForgive Me, I Meant to Do It: False Apology Poems by Gail Carson Levine: Book CoverItsy-Bitsy Baby Mouse by Michelle Meadows: Book Cover

10.26.2011

Speaking of Mac Barnett (and Adam Rex...)

So, while reading the blog of one of my favorite author/illustrators, Adam Rex, creator of The True Meaning of Smekday, Fat VampireBilly Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem, written by Barnett, Psst!, Tree Ring Circus and, of course, Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich, I discovered that he has finished a new novel! COLD CEREAL is due out in February, 2012. On his blog he discussed the cover art and how students in a workshop he was teaching helped him to tighten it up.

He also shared some character sketches from the book. I can't wait to dig into it!!


Almost as exciting as a new novel from Adam Rex is the news that he is illustrating a picture book written by Neil Gaiman!!! Click here to read Gaiman's explanation of the subject matter for this book, which boils down to a blatant attempt to create something that the Chinese will not find too offensive to publish in China. Apparently his other children's picture books are too disrespectful of authority for the Chinese.


Gaiman decided there was no way the Chinese could find a cute little panda bear offensive...



Some amazing interior art from the book below.
AND!!! NEW FROM MAC BARNETT!!!! MUSTACHE!!!!
(look for my review next week)


Illustrated by Kevin Cornell.


Early concept work on Mustache!


One last exciting thing that Rex and Barnett (and Carson Ellis and other great artists and authors) have been contributing to, The Goods

Here's how publisher McSweeney's describes it:

The Goods is a gallimaufry of games,puzzles, comics, and other diversions, appearing innewspapers across the U.S. and Canada. Each week, acavalcade of artists and writers from the world of children’sbooks will contribute amusements that will enthrall kids and mostadults. Thoughtfully conceived and visually stunning, every issue of The Goods will deliver a new collection of recurring features and new work.








NOT GETTING THE GOODS?

WRITE TO YOUR PAPER AND ASK FOR US BY NAME!

(the features editor is your best bet.)
(the features editor is your best bet.)




10.25.2011

PROCLAMATION!! THE PICTURE BOOK!!! PLEASE READ AND SHARE!!

Thanks to Travis at 100 Scope Notes by way of the fabulous picture book (and chapter book!) author Mac Barnett for calling this PROCLAMATION! to my attention. To view in a larger, more readable form, go to: thepicturebook.co. Thank you to all the amazing authors and illustrators for stating your intentions and purpose so succinctly and to Carson Ellis for the elegant artwork.



(you can also "like" this on facebook here if you are into that sort of thing)

10.24.2011

Blue Fire (The Healing Wars: Book II) written by Janice Hardy, 373 pp, RL MIDDLE GRADE


One of the (very few) downsides to writing this blog is feeling like I don't have the time to read more than the first in a trilogy or series of books. Tunnels series by Roderick Gordon and ND Wilson's 100 Cupboards trilogy are among the few I have taken the time to continue reading and reviewing. Add to that short list, Janice Hardy's Healing Wars Trilogy. Book One, The Shifter, caught my eye earlier this year when I saw it on the shortlist for the Waterstone's Children's Book Prize and I am thrilled that book three, Darkfall, is out now. But first, book two, Blue Fire.

In The Shifter we met narrator Nya de'Analov, a fifteen year old orphan, and learned about the hostile occupation of her homeland, Geveg. We also learned that Nya is a Healer, like her younger sister Tali and her mother and grandmother before her, but that, unlike these Takers, Nya cannot take the pain from an injured or sick person and dump it into the enchanted blue metal, pynvium. Instead, she can only shift it from one person to another. When she first discovers this she is frightened by what she sees as a freakish mutation of an honorable skill. She quickly learns that this oddity brings with it profound moral and ethical dilemmas, especially when her talents are noted by a truly despicable man referred to as a Pain Merchant.  Through him, she is forced to make a horrible choice that brings about death but also reveals another frightening aspect of her talent. Nya learns that she can flash the pynvium, causing it to explode and knock out (or worse, depending on the size of the pynvium chunk) anyone nearby, making her even more desirable by evil forces. And there is an evil force at play, the Duke of Baseer. While he is a more prominent figure in Blue Fire, he continues to be a shadowy figure with an unknown ultimate goal. He advances his quest to amass all of the pynvium in the region as he builds an unstoppable army while carrying on with his round-up and experimentation on all of the Takers he can hunt down, even capturing Nya and using her powers to fuel his evil contraption.

An aspect of Healing Wars that I find innovative and fascinating is the continual internal struggle that Nya faces after discovering the complexities and dangers of her unique talents. She goes from being a child trying to keep herself and sister, her only remaining family, alive to the figurehead and eventual leader of an oppressed people in revolt. Actually, she faced ethical dilemmas before as she found herself forced to lie and steal as she struggled to care for herself and her sister after being left orphaned and homeless some five years earlier. After discovering the twist in her Healer abilities, Nya confronts issues of class and cultural discrimination and must struggle with choosing who and when to shift pain into. However, in Blue Fire Nya faced with the most crucial decision of her life when she has to choose between rescuing her friends, who were imprisoned because her talents have caused the Duke to put a price on her head, from certain death or save her sister from the Duke's camp where he turns Takers into the Undying, brainwashed, pynvium armored ruthless killers. Nya agonizes over her choice then spends the rest of the book worrying and plotting to get back to Tali. Reunited with Jeatar, a Baseeri spy from The Shifter who did as much as he could to help Nya, she, Danello and Aylin are taken to his secret compound outside of Baseer's capitol. There she meets Ondeeran, a Baseeri noble and Enchanter who has been helping Jeatar to overthrow the Duke. Nya senses something familiar about him and soon uncovers his true identity as well as that of Jeatar. This throws her into another profound questioning of herself, her family and her country.

Nya is a character who is constantly attempting the impossible and usually accomplishing it in one way or another. I think it must be very tough to write the second book in a trilogy and make it read like it is something more than a link between books one and three. While Blue Fire definitely does link The Shifter and  Darkfall, it stands out as a complete story on its own with Nya's grief over the loss of her sister powerful and moving throughout the story and a really great shocker that compounds this grief. Because Blue Fire takes place almost entirely in Baseer, a country that was only spoken of in The Shifter, it has a new and different feel to it. Hardy introduces new characters in Quenji and his gang of streetwise urchins eager to help Nya, Danello and Aylin in their efforts to find Tali and stop the Duke. Hardy also brings more adults into the story, both good and bad, as well as a compelling history for Nya and her family that adds another layer of meaning to the story.
















10.17.2011

Karma, written by Cathy Ostlere, 528 pp, RL: TEEN



I first heard of Cathy Ostlere's novel Karma while listening to children's and YA author Julianna Baggott's piece on NPR Hooray for YA: Teen Novels For Readers of All Ages. I have long loved books set in India, for children, teens or adults, so I was immediately intrigued by Baggott's description of this book. I was especially intrigued by the fact that the book was set in 1984 and not the more common setting of the 19th and18th centuries when India was under British rule. Although I was daunted by the page count of the novel, the fact that it is a novel in verse and completely compelling meant that I was able to read it at twice the speed I might have, which is great because it was very hard to put down.

Before reading Karma I knew nothing about the the assassination of the prime minister, Indira Gandhi by two of her Sikh body guards in retaliation for her decision to use the military to remove Sikh separatists from the Golden Temple in Amristar, Punjab, or the riots and mass murder of Sikhs that followed. And, while these political and religious battles are explained through main character Maya's eyes as she records the events of her life in verse in her diary, they are but the framework that supports and outlines the conflict and anger that is at the heart of Maya's family. Sixteen at the start of the novel, Maya is a divided being in every way. She is the child of a Hindu mother and a Sikh father who fell in love at a wedding. Outcasts in their own country, the immigrate to a small town in Canada where Maya is born and given two names, one Hindu (Maya, which means "illusion" and "change") and one Sikh (Jiva, which means "soul"). Exotic outsiders, they are stared at and derided by the townspeople who nonetheless patronize her father's shop. The isolation and prejudice is too much for Maya's mother, who longs to visit her homeland and family but is told repeatedly that they can't afford it. As Karma begins, Maya and her father are on an airplane to India to return her ashes to her birthplace.

As Maya tells her story in the pages of her diary we learn that her life is not easy either. While she has a best friend and a crush on a boy who seems to like her as well, she is devastated when, suspecting something, she finds Helen and Michael alone in the barn, Maya's mother's sari between them. But, the betrayal of Helen and her mother's suicide pale in comparison to what happens when Maya and her father when the land in New Delhi, "City of stink and/ noise. Streets clogged with flesh. Voices loud and/ soft./ Sounding of despair./ Smelling of pee." Betrayed yet again, this time by her father, Maya finds herself alone in their hotel room after the assassination while he tries to find help from an old friend. Before her father leaves the room he has Maya help him to alter his obvious Sikh traits.  When Hindus arrive at her hotel and set it on fire in an effort to force the Sikhs out, Maya cuts her own hair so that she can pass a boy, knowing how dangerous it is to be a girl on the streets even in the best of times, and literally runs for her life. Of this experience she writes, "The braid falls beside Bapu's hair. Already a/ forgotten relice. I push at the dark strands with my/ foot and recoil. It's like touching dead things."

Witness to the horrors of the time, Maya goes in to shock and stops speaking. She has no identifying papers on her and seems lost to the world. A kind female doctor sends her to live with her parents and adopted brother, Sandeep, in her home village. Dr Parvati Patel urges Sandeep to keep a journal with Maya's progress in it so that they might be able to unravel the mystery of her origins, although he is loathe to do so at first. Parvati urges him saying, "You can make a stone sing, Sandeep." In his poem titled "Duty" he writes, "Words are for seducing/ Chandi, Priti, Tejal./ Words are for getting what you want/ Words are not for putting in a book/ where somebody might find them." Sandeep's confident voice is a uplifting change, but soon he finds himself caring for Maya and defending her against the village women who scorn her for having short hair like a prostitute and for living in the same home, unmarried, with a boy her age. Finally, Mr Patel arranges to have Maya sent into the desert to live with a nomadic tribe. The journey to the camp, made my Mr Patel, Sandeep, Maya and their guide becomes yet another nightmare, although this time it is one that Maya is able to wake up from. She regains her voice, begins to trust Sandeep and together the two try to find their way back to New Delhi and Maya's father.

What amazes me again and again when I read a novel in verse it the ability of the authors to condense intense emotions and experiences into a matter of lines. I was shocked to learn that, not only is Cathy Ostlere not of Indian descent, but her only other published book is a prose memoir that tells the story of her brother's disappearance while sailing from Ireland to Madeira. The storytelling and verse in Karma are so well plotted, so descriptive and so emotionally intense that I was sure the book had to have been written by someone with first hand knowledge of the characters' experiences. Despite the fact that Ostlere has a very long story to tell in her poetry, she does not forgo advancing the plot for descriptive language. While waiting in the hotel room in New Dehli for her father to return, Maya writes, "I stare at the ceiling fan, stirring the air like warm/ pudding. Click. Click. It counts out time. Click./ Click." I would like to leave you with a poem that Maya writes near the end of the book upon returning to New Delhi to find her father after the riots have subsided. While the story of Maya and Sandeep is one of bravery, devotion and love, what stays with me long after I finished Karma are the ethical and moral aspects of the novel, the questions that Maya has after witnessing horrible violence and brutality enacted in the name of religion.

New Delhi


The city is shrouded with amnesia.
A tattered veil of forgetfulness.


Four weeks ago
I left my mother's ashes
in a hotel room.
I left my hair coiled on a tiled floor.
I left my father in a city mad with hatred while the Indian
government looked the other way.
Citizen killed citizen in a fashion so organized it's 
hard not to think it was planned for
months before.


Yet, four weeks later what is different? Fewer
turbans? But who is noticing?


On the streets of New Delhi, who is concerned?
Who even remembers?


I question that face of every man I walk by.
Was it you? Were you part of this?
Did you take a man's life? His breath? His dreams?
Or did you stand by and do nothing?

10.14.2011

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, 336 pp, RL 4


 

The word PRINCESS doesn't mean what it used to and I want to reclaim the meaning of this word from the pink swathed, tiara wearing, big eyed, marketing manufactured princesses now captivating the minds of most little girls under the age of eight. For a more astute, journalistic (but totally entertaining) exploration of this phenomena, I suggest Peggy Orenstein's most recent book Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture. Otherwise, hang in there with me while I convince you to read (or have your daughter read) A Little Princess and join me on my crusade. When I began tapping away at my keyboard I did not intend to write a polemic against the ultra-feminization of little girls and the hijacking of the word princess (I'm looking at you, Disney), but as I mulled over A Little Princess, a book that had been a childhood favorite of mine, and thought about why I loved it then, what I love about it now and why some parents might not encourage their girls to read a book titled A Little Princess, I knew I needed to do more than just review this book. I needed to defend it exactly because the cultural meaning of the word "princess" had veered so far away from what it meant in the late 1800s when Burnett created this character who liked to pretend that she was a princess. Had I not read Burnett's books as a child, I have no doubt I would have steered my daughter away from a book titled A Little Princess for the same reason I didn't let her play with Barbies (yes, I was one of "those" moms) despite the fact that she was born a few years ahead of the Disney Princess media juggernaut.

(Covers from editions from my childhood)

Although Frances Hodgson Burnett is most famous for her book The Secret Garden, I suspect everyone knows the basic plot of A Little Princess. Originally published as a serial novel in 1888, it was first published in book form in 1905. It is a reversal-of-fortune-Cinderalla type story. The twist, though, is that, while the main character is privileged and truly loved by her father, she herself is not spoiled. One of the first things we learn about young Sara Crewe is that she "did not care very much for other little girls, but if she had plenty of books se could console herself. She liked books more than anything else, and was, in fact, always inventing stories of beautiful things, and telling them to herself." While love of books always bodes well in a character, what I loved most about A Little Princess as a child was Sara's doll Emily. Raised in India by her doting father (also described as being "young, handsome and rich" by Burnett) Sara is taken to London for a proper education when she is seven. Before leaving her at Miss Minchin's Select Seminary for Young Ladies Captain Crewe takes Sara on an extensive shopping trip that includes the search for the perfect doll who will be her friend in the absence of her beloved papa. Sara tells Captain Crewe that she wants a doll (to be named Emily) to "look as if she wasn't a doll really. I want her to look as if she listens when I talk to her. The trouble with dolls, papa, the trouble with dolls is that they never seem to hear." After much window shopping Emily found then taken to a "children's outfitter and measured for a wardrobe as grand as Sara's own." Really, Emily was the first American Girl Doll, some 81 years before of Pleasant Rowland had her brilliant idea and, sadly, about ten years too late into my childhood for me to enjoy. Did I mention that I loved dolls as a kid? I collected Madame Alexander dolls and made my own dolls, their clothes and their furniture and lodgings in some cases. They were my companions, my friends and, like Sara, I was sure they moved when I wasn't looking and might one day reveal themselves to me. Sara tells her French maid Mariette that she believes dolls can,

do things they will not let us know about. Perhaps, really, Emily can read  and talk and walk, but she will only do it when people are out of the room. That is her secret. You see, if people knew that dolls could do things they would make them work. So, perhaps they have promised each other to keep it a secret. If you stay in the room, Emily will just sit there and stare; but if you go out, she will begin to read, perhaps, or go and look out the window. Then if she heard either of us coming, she would just run back and jump into her chair and pretend she had been there all the time. 

In fact, in a fit of sentimentality I posted a week of reviews of  Books About Dolls a year ago. As a child, Sara's assured and detailed world of pretend (and of course her extensive collection of accoutrements for Emily) was fascinating to me. As an adult reading A Little Princess I can see that there is so much more to Sara Crewe and the melodrama that was her childhood.
When Sara arrives at Miss Minchin's it is expected that she will be a spoiled, arrogant child who will be tolerated because of her father's vast fortune and the esteem that her presence brings to the school. While she demonstrates herself to be anything but spoiled and arrogant - in fact, upon reading the book again I found Sara's goodness, kindness, patience, acceptance and concern for the well being of those around her, be it sparrows, rats or servants, made her almost insufferable - Sara nonetheless does not win over everyone she meets. Miss Minchin walks a fine line between loathing and lauding Sara and wastes no time making her life miserable when her fortunes are reversed. Then there is Lavinia, who was the "show pupil" (and remains all around mean girl) until Sara Crewe shows up. Although these relationships are interesting aspects of the story, they are really just plot devices to allow Sara to do what she does best - use her imagination. Sara uses her imagination to entertain herself and her friends. She tells magnificent stories that help little Lottie through her grief over the death of her mother and carry Ermengarde through the pain of disappointing her father with her lack of academic skills and continually upsetting Miss Minchin with her seemingly slow wits. Sara also tells stories that help Becky, the underfed and overworked scullery maid who is only a few years older than her, make it though her long and exhausting days. As Sara says to Becky on their first encounter, putting her at ease when she expects to be punished by her for not doing her job, "Why, we are just the same - I am only a little girl like you. It is just an accident that I am not you and you are not me!" This sense of fairness, her equanimity and refusal to see class divisions is, to me, more the mark of a princess (that we should hold up as an example to our daughters) than an attendant prince, a tulle ball gown or the benefits of being the center of attention. 

While Sara is a great story teller, her imagination is best put to use when she is pretending that she is something that she is not - as a means to being a better person and bearing difficult situations. After encountering Becky asleep on the job, Sara extends a kindness to her and thinks to herself, "If I was a princess - a real princess - I could scatter largess to the populace. But even if I am only a pretend princess, I can invent little things to do for people. Things like this. She [Becky] was just as happy as if it was largess. I'll pretend that to do things people like is scattering largess. I've scattered largess." Playing "princess"- which is NOTHING like the the (Disney) princess play that is so prevalent today - both before and after her reversal of fortune, is almost a moral code for Sara. Pretending to be a princess does not mean dressing in her finest clothes and expecting special treatment, although it so easily could since Sara arrives at Miss Minchin's with all the trappings of a royal. Playing princess means scattering largess, sharing the riches of the loving relationship she shares with her father with those who are not loved so completely. But, it is most rewarding for the reader (and Sara) when she plays "princess" after her father has died, his fortunes lost through an investment in the diamond mines of an old school friend, and she has been indentured to Miss Minchin to pay off Captain Crewe's outstanding debts. A large portion of this debt comes from a lavish eleventh birthday party and a new doll and wardrobe from Paris (which Sara tells her father she will name Last Doll, since she is getting rather old and shall "never live to have another doll given to me") that Miss Minchin was not reimbursed for. It is in the midst of this party that Miss Minchin learns of the death and bankruptcy of Captain Crewe. In her anger (and seeming schadenfreude) informs Sara of this  news while also having the party immediately dismantled, arranging for Sara's possessions to be sold off, dismissing her maid and having what belongings she allows her to keep (a black dress that is too small and Emily) moved to the attic room next to Becky's. When everything has been taken away from her, including the grudging tolerance of Miss Minchin, Sara finds even more reason to play "princess" and to use her imagination to help her bear the bleakness of her days.
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Of course it is wonderful to watch as Sara shares her last crumbs with a rat she names Melchisedec and the sparrows who perch outside the ceiling window in her new room. And it is exciting to see how Sara comes across small kindnesses from time to time that sustain her. But, what truly sustains her, and this is something that I don't remember being impressed by as a child but am deeply impressed by as an adult reader, is her capacity to imagine her way above and beyond the bleak life she is living. Sara watches a prosperous family that lives across the street. Because there are eight children in the family, Sara calls them the Large Family and makes up "names out of books - quite romantic names" for them all and entertains herself by imagining their goings on. When thick, dull witted Ermengarde, who regularly sneaks up to Sara's grim attic room for her warmth and companionship, finally notices that Sara is in fact starving, she insists in getting the birthday hamper full of treats that her aunt has sent her and returning to the attic to share it with Sara and Becky. While they await her return, Sara imagines that they are preparing for a royal feast and goes about the room taking tissue paper, handkerchiefs and other common things and making them into a festive table decorations for a party, insisting that Ermengarde pretend she is the princess. Perhaps it is her imagination that allows her to continue conduct herself with dignity and respect in the face of the increasingly malevolent Miss Minchin. Upon first meeting Sara Miss Minchin asks her if she has ever had a French lesson, assuming that Captain Crewe wants her to learn French because he has hired her a French maid. Sara answers directly, saying she has never had a French lesson.  However, she does not get the opportunity to tell Miss Minchin that her mother, who died after her birth, was French and her father has always spoken the language to her, thus she has never needed a lesson. Miss Minchin steamrolls over her and Sara quietly endures until she has the chance to speak to the French instructor and explain the situation, in French. Another example of this ability to carry herself comes when, after a miserable day of work and a lonely room to return to, Sara consoles herself with Emily's lack of response to her questions reasoning, "As to answering, though, I don't answer very often. I never answer very often. I never answer when I can help it. When people are insulting you, there is nothing so good for them as not to say a word - just to look at them and think. Miss Amelia looks frightened, and so do the girls. When you will not fly into a passion people know you are stronger than they are, because you are strong enough to hold your rage, and they are not, and they say stupid things they wish they hadn't said afterward. There's nothing so strong as rage, except what makes you hold it in - that's stronger. It's a good thing not to answer your enemies. I scarcely ever do." This may seem wise beyond her years, but it is such a wonderful quality to put in a character and exhibit to young reader. And, while Sara's life may not take the turn for the better that it does by the end of the book expressly because she has these admirable qualities, she definitely survives the hardships she faces because of these qualities. For this, I can think of no better reason to read this book to your child or give it to her (really, how many boys would read a book titled A Little Princess? You can, however, steer your boys to Burnett's other hugely popular - at the time or publication, anyway - Little Lord Fauntleroy which has similar themes of reversal of fortune) to discover on her own what a real princess behaves like!

For another wonderful review of A Little Princess from 2010, visit the book blog Things Mean a Lot. Also, the magnificent Barbara McClintock adapted A Little Princess, turning it into a picture book.





And, for those of you who, like Hilary McKay, author of the fabulous Saffy's Angel, book one in the Casson Family Series, wonder what happened to Ermengarde, Lottie, Lavinia and Jessie when Sara left Miss Minchin's Seminary with Becky in tow, she has written a sequel to  A Little Princess titled, Wishing for Tomorrow that is now out in paperback and reviewed by me!