Archive for April, 2011

April 28, 2011

On the darkest side of beautiful

Fairy tales were never meant to be pretty.  The original stories are a lot less about princesses in pink dresses than about evil mothers and vengeful fairies.  Briar Rose, a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, would make the authors of those original dark stories proud.  It is a story about an average American family, an average girl, and the darkest part of the human heart.

Title: Briar Rose
Author: Jane Yolen
Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Fairy Tale
Age: Older, mature Middle School students and High Schoolers

Summary and Review:

Rebecca is a young reporter who has always been very close to the red-headed grandmother she resembles.  Ever since she was a little girl, she has loved listening to the story her grandmother tells again and again–the story of Briar Rose, or Sleeping Beauty.  Rebecca can recite her grandmother’s version by heart, but loves to hear it again and again anyway.  But the story is full of mysteries, and the most important one guides this book: why does Rebecca’s grandmother insist that she is Briar Rose?  That she is a princess from another land, that she is Sleeping Beauty?

Rebecca makes a promise to her grandmother as she is dying that she will discover the truth, that she will learn what her grandma means when she claims to be Sleeping Beauty.  And while her older sisters mock her, Rebecca sets off on a life-changing journey and learns the remarkable story in her family’s past.

The idea that drives this book and the history behind it is brilliant.  It’s an incredible reinterpretation of the story of Sleeping Beauty, and this comes beautifully to light in the first half of the book.  If I can quibble with the book (and I guess I can…), I would say that I was a little disappointed with the second half.  It seemed very disjointed from the first half–I would have loved if the two stories were more interwoven.  However, that being said, this is a beautifully conceived story.  (More info about the plot below the spoiler line.)

I also felt that the “mystery” she is trying to solve—that is, how exactly her grandmother could have been Sleeping Beauty—is fairly obvious from very early on in the book.  (And I NEVER solve anything in a book until the end—I am a VERY clueless reader!)  So I found it distressing that I predicted most of the events way ahead of the main character, who in comparison seemed completely clueless and out of it.  I guess I would have preferred if it was just presented less as a mystery, but that’s just my take.  However, just in case there are those out there that like to hang on to the mystery, I have left the rest of my review below a spoiler line, although I will by no means give everything away!

SPOILER — SPOILER — SPOILER — SPOILER

Rebecca’s journey takes her to Poland, where she finds the proof that her grandmother came to America near the end of World War II, not before the war as her family had been led to believe.  What happened to her grandmother during the war and the people she met along the way pose the setting and the characters for a dark and violent Sleeping Beauty story.

Parents might want to know that despite the happy and very G-rated first half of the book, the story definitely takes a turn that will require a more mature reader for the end.  The violence of the concentration camps and death camps is described in a lot of detail, including descriptions of inmates being forced to do things like roll in the cold snow, mentions of the gay inmates being asked to “try” themselves in brothels and be castrated if they “fail”, talk about babies being killed and people being stuffed into trucks with their children and gassed to death, among other descriptions of the horror that was the Holocaust.  There is also some mention of having sex (although no description of this).  Nothing is gratuitous and it’s all within the range of acceptable for a young adult reader, but parents and teachers might want to read the book along with their children to provide support.

April 25, 2011

someone else’s shoes

I like the title of this book.  Walk two moons.  It is so fully of poetry, meaning, and beauty.  Just like the book itself.  I’m a late comer to this book. Chances are, if you are the type to read a blog about children’s books, you’ve already read this one.  So really, I wanted to post just to say that if you haven’t read it, you need to.  And if you have read it, you should take a moment to reflect on how lucky you are.

I realize my last post was also about a Sharon Creech book, and I’m currently reading another one by her, so this is also sort of a dedication to my recently discovered love affair with her books.  As a reader, I feel like I’ve been given an incredible gift.

Title: Walk Two Moons
Author: Sharon Creech
Genre: Fiction
Age: 9 and up, Upper Elementary and Middle School

Summary and Review:

Sal is understandably upset when her mothers leaves.  She doesn’t understand why she left and why she hasn’t come back yet. Then, when Sal’s father learns that her mother is never coming back, Sal and her father pack up their farmhouse and head to a city where her dad has befriended another woman and Sal meets a strange girl named Phoebe, whose mother also leaves.  The story of Walk Two Moons is aptly told as Sal is walking in her mother’s shoes–driving to Idaho with her grandparents along the same path her mother traveled, determined to bring her mother home.  As she and the wonderful characters of her grandparents take their road trip, Sal tells them the story of herself and Pheobe, their friendship, their antics, their school friends (some of whom are characters from another Sharon Creech novel) and the lunatic they think is following them.  One of the impressive things about this book is its attention to the adult characters, people usually left out of a middle grade novel.  You learn a lot about the mothers and fathers of both Sal and Phoebe, as seen through Sal’s eyes.  While they don’t play a major role in the book, they do play a major role in how Sal and Phoebe see the world, and the reader is challenged to think about the parent-child relationship in a powerful way.

The two stories of Sal’s road trip and Phoebe’s adventures are interwoven in a way that brings more meaning to both.  And the true meaning of both of their lives is really only discovered at the end, after Sal has truly walked two moons in her mother’s mocassins.

Follow-up with the kids:

There is a great discussion guide on Sharon Creech’s website at: http://www.sharoncreech.com/novels/walk_two_moons_guide.pdf

April 12, 2011

if you chase it, it might chase you back

This book is a portal.  I opened its page and was instantly transformed.  So transformed, I was confused.  Was I the reader or the main character?  Was I on my couch, breast-feeding one son and patting the other, Sesame Street blaring in the background and the book balanced on my lap?  Or was I walking an ancient trail, uncovering its stones and its secrets one by one, finding a path as I found myself and my family along the way?  Or maybe I was the writer?  Did I write this book?  Conceive of its characters?  I feel I know them so well that I might have.  I can’t really say.  I loved this book!

All I know is that this book drew me in so deeply I can’t decide if I should ride this wave of bibliophilism (wow! that is totally a word!) and pick up another book immediately (preferably one by Sharon Creech) or just call it quits when I’m ahead and never read another book again.  Not sure yet, but in the meantime, I’ll write one (last?) blog entry.

Title: Chasing Redbird
Author: Sharon Creech
Genre: Fiction
Age: Middle School

Summary and Review:

Zinny is the quiet daughter in a large family, the one who listens to her sisters’ gossip at night in their too-crowded, shared bedroom, the one who collects bottlecaps and rocks, who spends more time with her aunt and uncle next door than her mom and dad in her own busy house.  She is an honest character, so true to her age and the human race that it seems Sharon Creech must have studied the very souls of her readers before she typed these words.

There are so many things about Zinny that I love, but mostly it is her honest confusion about life that gets at my heart.  Some of us (a rare few of us) will admit to being confused about the meaning of life.  But I’ve never heard anyone express out loud the ways that confusion can take hold on a daily level.  I love that Zinny admits to being afraid at times that she isn’t who she thinks she is.  That she is actually someone else, and that the real Zinny is dead, or the real Zinny is off somewhere and she is merely watching her.  I love that Zinny admits to being afraid of the “hand of God” and thinks that God has challenged her personally in peculiar, creative ways.  I love that Zinny admits to searching for a relative she knows has passed away, and I love that she finds her.  I love that Zinny is scared of the attention from a boy and of her own feelings.  I love the way Zinny learns about herself and her family, as if piecing together a mysterious puzzle, something that allows her to really understand some of the important things about being a daughter, a niece, a sister, and a girlfriend–none of which she truly attains until she first understands some things about being herself.  And I love, very much, the dichotomy in Zinny–how she feels so powerful that she believes she might have singlehandedly caused more than one death, but at the same time so useless that no boy could possibly ever like her.  If that isn’t growing up, then what is?

When Zinny starts to unravel the mysteries and dig up the stones of an old, historic trail near her farm in Kentucky, she takes her first step from being “one of those Taylor kids” to being “the one who’s digging up the trail.”  That transformation, from an overgrown past to a well-used walkway, from an unknown girl to a girl who knows herself well enough to like herself, is the story in this remarkable book.

Follow-up with the kids:

Zinny’s thoughts and feelings will resonate with a lot of kids in the midst of the turmoil of growing up and trying on a new identity.  Of course, if you are their parent, they probably won’t talk with you about it.  But that’s the brilliant thing about reading with your kids.  Just ask them about Zinny.  Why do you think Zinny felt that way?  Why did she do this?  That dichotomy of hopelessness and adolescence that I talked about above?  What does your daughter think about that?  You’ll hear some of her own feelings in her responses, and maybe you’ll learn what powers her own, personal dichotomy.

Now, you can start this conversation with the Jake/May issue because that might get them talking, but press further–what about Rose and Aunt Jessie and Uncle Nate?  Zinny’s precious relationship with each of these people tells us so much about what it means to be a live “human bean” that you could talk about this through the night.  And maybe you should.  Get a tarp and two sleeping bags and head to the backyard…that would be the best place to do it.  Under the stars.  Near the birds.

Oh, and one more thing: Zinny had a trail.  What do you or your child have?  Is it a place to explore?  100 books to read?  a new cuisine to learn how to cook?  a new exercise regime to learn and stick to?  What can you uncover that might help you uncover you?

April 11, 2011

Turtles, Scorpions, Pirate Treasure, and Diaper Rash

I’ve decided to go searching for some award-winning books, and this seemed like as good one as any to start with.  It won a Golden Kite in 2010, an award given out by the SCBWI, the Society for Children’s Book Writer’s and Illustrators, which means that it’s a peer award–an award given to writers by other writers.  I like the validation of that, and since I’m a writer and a member of SCBWI, that seemed like a good place to start.  I’m glad I did.  My sister was in town, which meant that I actually had a few minutes to actually read, and this was a great escape.

Title: Turtle in Paradise
Author: Jennifer L. Holm
Genre: Historical Fiction
Age: Middle Grade

Summary and Review:

Sometimes a book just gets you with one particularly good part.  This one got me near the beginning, when Turtle was dropped off at a small house in the Florida keys to live with her surprised and overwhelmed aunt and cousins.  She is outside the house, meeting her cousins and their friends when she overhears an older neighbor referring to the boys as the “diaper gang”.  Now, as a reader, I assumed this was his way of insulting them.  Turtle does too, and asks them jokingly if they change diapers.  Now they, in turn, look at her like she’s an idiot and tell her that of course they do.  And that’s her first introduction to the group of misbehaving adolescent boys and their secret diaper rash formula.

The diaper gang are the major players in the book alongside Turtle, but the diapering is only a small part of the story.  Turtle’s mom, a housekeeper, had to send her away because her new employer didn’t want children in the house.

In the keys, Turtle meets family members she never even knew about and some she thought were dead.  She has adventures that include crying babies, diaper rash, hurricanes, and pirate gold.  But in the end, this book is all about one thing: family.  And it will make you want to visit yours.

Another great thing about the book is its subtle historical setting.  You get a good feeling for the poverty and hopelessness of the Great Depression, of the stories of Little Orphan Annie and the stardom of Shirley Temple, but it isn’t rubbed in your face.  An adolescent reader who would turn away historical fiction just because of the word “history” need not shy away from this book.  In fact, don’t even tell them–they might not even notice.

The writing in the book is great.  I love all the little details–the kids who don’t wear shoes, Turtle’s sarcastic cracks at the boys, the nicknames of all the characters (Beans, Too Bad, Slow Poke–almost no one has a real name).  It all just fits together perfectly.  I’m pretty sure that if I headed to South Florida now, I might find this family there, eating Turtle soup, chasing scorpions and running around barefoot.

Follow-up with the kids:

It can’t hurt to bring up the history piece after the fact, can it?  It’s a perfect read in today’s times as a lot of families are feeling the same sense of poverty–that mix of hopelessness and dreams that comes with not having a lot of money in a country where others still have it.

Also, read the afterward with the historical details.  I liked that part a lot, and it gave a lot of context to the book.  I appreciated that it was in the afterward and not stuffed into the book, making it unwieldly like some historical fiction can be.  I also liked the part about the pirate treasure.  Without giving too much away, I can say that the pirate treasure storyline in the book didn’t really sit right with me, but the afterward put it into better perspective.

Another great conversation would be about Turtle and how she never cries anymore–she has to be the tough one in her family, her mom the weaker link.  But then something near the end makes the tears flow freely.  What is it and why was she finally able to cry?  Was it only the sadness of the event, or was it something more, maybe something that finally gave her the courage to show her emotions?

April 4, 2011

The wheels on the book get lost all over the house, all over the house, all over the house

This book is falling apart.  Which paradoxically means that it’s of the highest quality.  Because in a house with an active 3-year-old, nothing of low quality gets played with enough to fall apart.  But this book?  My son has literally loved it to death.  (It’s own death, not his, although I would say that it’s not totally destroyed yet, just on it’s way to a well-deserved rest home…)  This book has been read at bedtime and in the car.  It accompanies my son around the house when he wheels his toy bus on his hands and knees.  It’s even used as a reference book–when he sings the song and plays his banjo, or his drums, or his piano, or his accordion (we are big into the toy instruments here), he dutifully checks the book between each verse to see what’s next.  God forbid we sing the song in the wrong order…

It’s even been peed on.  (Notice that I only give book advice, not potty-training advice.)

Title: The Wheels on the Bus
Adapted and Illustrated by: Paul O. Zelinsky
Genre: Picture Book
Age: Toddlers and Preschoolers

Summary and Review:

The pictures in this book are vibrant and interesting.  After probably hundreds of reads, I’m still not tired of looking at them.  Each page has something tangible for the kids too–wheels to turn, doors and windows to open and close, etc.  I don’t love books with moving parts in general because I find them hard to maneuver and they don’t usually stand up to a curious toddler.  However, this is one of the longer-lasting ones, and definitely the most played with.  If it weren’t for a short temper tantrum a few months ago, we’d still have both wheels attached to the book.  🙂  I highly recommend this interactive version of the popular song!

Follow-up with the kids:

Music is the best follow-up with this book.  You can read it to your toddler and then sing it the next time.  You can have him practice moving the pieces at the same time as the song lyrics and get a sense of the rhythm as he does so.

Also, there is a lot going on in the pictures that isn’t in the text.  I love it when an illustrator makes a book even more interesting!  There’s a whole story to be told with the boy with the box of cats.  Why does he have them?  When does he lose one of the cats and when and how does he get it back?

Another example of this is when the song talks about the windows open and closing, notice the weather and how it changes over the few pages before and after.  Asking your child to notice these illustrated “subplots” helps hone their observation skills, which helps not only with reading comprehension but also is an early science skill.

Also, the book is animated in a wonderful DVD by Scholastic that also comes with some other great animated picture books.  We don’t do a lot of TV, but this is something I really recommend.  I found it here on Scholastic’s site as part of a travel pack, but I’m sure it’s also elsewhere online: http://store.scholastic.com/1/1/4054-scholastic-storybook-treasures-sing-along-travel-kit-the-wheels-the-bus-dvd.html.

Hope you enjoy it as much as we have in our family!