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Archive for the ‘MG books (ages 8-12)’ Category

night gardenerI am a day gardener of tomatoes, kale, and eggplants, so I was curious to find out what The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier, is all about. It seems night gardening is far more perilous.

As Molly and her younger brother, Kip, journey to the Windsor estate deep within the “sourwoods,” we are told “‘they were riding to their deaths.” They don’t have much of a choice in the matter. Their parents were lost at sea (literally), leaving fourteen-year-old Molly to fend for the both of them. Using her powers of observation and knack for telling persuasive stories, she plucks Kip out of the orphanage, finagles a fish-cart for their journey, and secures the promise of employment from a man she’s never met in a place she’s never been.

Too bad, because the Windsor house is isolated, derelict, and dominated by a creepy tree far more sinister than the Whomping Willow. In fact, it’s practically parasitic. The inhabitants of Windsor house appear drawn and pale with sickness, from four-year-old Penny to her mother, the pinched Mistress Windsor. Worst of all, a shadowy man appears on the grounds at night, souring their sleep and leaving brittle leaves and muddy footsteps behind. “This house is no place for you,” Mrs. Windsor warns, when Molly uses her talents to wrangle a servant’s position in exchange for room and board.    (more…)

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18405519Understatement: Star Mackie, of Hope is a Ferris Wheel by Robin Herrera, starts the school year on a rocky note. Not only is she the new kid, she 1) sports a mullet ‘do 2)lives in a trailer park on the edge of a dump and 3)starts an after-school club about trailer parks.

In other words, Star has no street cred or friends to speak off. Her teacher unfairly assumes she’s a delinquent and a bad influence on the class because she failed to turn in her first vocabulary assignment, a trend Star continues just to spite him. Meanwhile, Winter, her teenage sister, who used to be close, has become moody and distant with problems of her own. And her mother implodes every time she brings up her absent father, aka “her genetic donor,” whom Star knows nothing about and has only glimpsed once from the crest of a Ferris wheel.

Drawn to the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Star starts a marginally more successful club, the Emily Dickinson Club, and gains two new members, including Eddie, a fellow “delinquent” who memorizes entire poems and has strong opinions on Robert Frost. Along the way, she contemplates what poets have referred to as the “thing with feathers” and “dreams that fly,” and defines–and finds–it for herself in every corner of her life.

The discussions from Star’s club got me thinking, what does the author  think about hope? Robin Herrera gamely answers in this Q&A.

1. Since we already know Star Markie’s response, finish this verse in the style of Emily Dickinson but in the voice and experience of Robin Herrera: Hope is a…..?
I’m very in line with Eddie’s answer – a rock. But I got the idea from the Simon & Garfunkel song, “I Am a Rock,” which is one of my favorite songs. For something more original, I think hope is a cookie. (I’ve been associating a lot of things with food lately.) It takes a lot of work to make a cookie, and how it turns out depends on how much focus and work you put into it. (At least for me. I’m a terrible cook.) Hope is a lot like that as well – you can hope for something, but that won’t make it come true. What makes it happen is how much you work and focus to get it. Even then, you may still burn the cookies.

(more…)

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aliceConfession: I’ve never read Lewis Carroll’s beloved Alice in Wonderland cover to cover…until now. I tried once as a youngster, and before getting terribly far, decided Carroll was full of nonsense. Alice seemed to drift from scene to scene, from character to character. And why was there no plot? No plot, no point. The whole thing was, ahem, mad as a hatter.

Perhaps I could have avoided Alice for the rest of my natural life, but as a self-professed lover of children’s books, this omission on my reading list made me feel ever so slightly like a fraud. Plus, there are a lot of Alice fans in the kidlitosphere. So over the weekend, I decided to patch this gap in my education.

Going in, I expected Alice to be irritatingly trippy, full of mushrooms with magical properties and hookah-puffing caterpillars. (This was my sole memory of the animated Disney film that baffled me as a child.) Alice surprised me by coming across like a comedy sketch you’d watch on the BBC, deadpan yet absurd. I found myself reading in the pauses before the punchlines.

You promised to tell me your history, you know,” said Alice, “and why it is you hate–C and D,” she added in a whisper, half afraid that it would be offended again.

“Mine is a long and a sad tale!” said the Mouse, turning to Alice, and sighing.

“It is a long tail, certainly,” said Alice, looking down with wonder at the Mouse’s tail; “but why do you call it sad?”

and

Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.

“I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone, “so I can’t take more.”

“You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter: “it’s very easy to take more than nothing.”

If the people behind Monty Python didn’t read Alice growing up, then that’s curiouser and curiouser. Next question, is Through the Looking Glass just as funny?

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The reviews for The Giver movie are trickling in, and it’s as I feared. The movie’s being described as yet another YA dystopia action thriller à la Divergent or The Hunger Games, complete with a love triangle (gulp. There goes Lowry’s request to the filmmakers). Worst of all, some of the reviewers have clearly never read the book:

From The Guardian:

One can easily see why this is such a popular book, especially with teens roiling with angst and hoping to lash out at society.

From The New York Times:

Ms. Lowry’s “The Giver” preceded both the “Hunger Games” and “Divergent” book series, to name two popular feel-bad sagas. Yet because both “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” hit the screen first, the movie version of “The Giver” — scene by formulaic scene, narrative cliché by cliché — can’t help but come off as a poor copy of those earlier pictures.

Thank goodness for this bit of sanity from Slate, which separates the book from the movie:

There are no bad guys in The Giver, exactly. It’s a book about the evil that good people can commit when they complacently submit to societal pressure—a book about how evil functions in the real world, in other words.

It would be difficult, but not impossible, for a skilled filmmaker to adapt Lowry’s novel into a quiet, intelligent movie, something along the lines of 2010’s Never Let Me Go. Phillip Noyce’s The Giver, in wide release today, is not that movie. Where Lowry’s book is subtle, disarmingly simple, and humane, Noyce’s film is loud, overly complicated, and cynical.

I think I’ll go drown my sorrows by re-reading the quartet, and never reading another Giver movie review, let alone watch the actual movie.

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I’m partway through Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, and it’s so good I can’t wait to finish it before writing a review. Written in the style of an A-Z guidebook, it’s best appreciated by connoisseurs of the genre, hardcore fans and weary eye-rolling readers alike. Jones skewers clichés, inconsistencies and the often faulty logic found in fantastical realms (as Jones helpfully reminds us, the Rules were created by the “Management,” aka fantasy authors, so it’s no use blaming her). It should be required reading for every aspiring writer. Here are just a few of the delights:

CLOAKS are the universal outer garb of everyone who is not a Barbarian. It is hard to see why. They are open in front and require you at most times to use one hand to hold them shut. On horseback they leave the shirtsleeved arms and most of the torso exposed to wind and WEATHER…It is thought that the real reason for the popularity of Cloaks is that the inhabitants like the look of themselves from the back.

Of course. Who hasn’t wondered at the obvious impracticality of fighting, riding and trekking with a billowing blanket strapped to your neck?

FOREST OF DOOM. This is usually the home of mobile and prehensile TREES. There will be giant SPIDERS too…

One of the many clear references to Middle Earth (“SPIDERS…lair in certain WOODS and in CAVES, where shorter and slighter Tourists may be seriously inconvenienced by their gigantic webs made of sticky, rope-thick strands. Often only a special SWORD will cut these webs, and it usually takes two or more Tourists to defeat the Spider.”)

Jones seems to be targeting copycat Lord of the Rings epics, and because Tough Guide was written in 1996, she didn’t have a chance to reference the Harry Potter craze, so we can only imagine what she would have done with that.

DARK LADY. There is never one of these–so see DARK LORD instead. The Management considers that male Dark Ones have more potential to be sinister, and seldom if ever employs a female in this role. This is purely because the Management was born too late to meet my Great Aunt Clara.

Hmm. Good point. Someone should get on that and invent Sauron’s XX cousin.

More to come once I’ve finished the book, including a note about the guide’s attitude toward names with apostrophes.

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40 acresI’m now in the Reconstruction phase of the O’Dell Awards, and the next two books make a natural pair. Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule by Harriette Gillem Robinet follows former slave Pascal and his brother Gideon as they fight for the land and freedom they were promised. Along the way, they befriend people both black and white, while struggling to avoid the notorious night riders.

In Shades of Gray by Carolyn Reeder, Will, a white boy in Virginia who loses his family during the Civil War, is sent to live with relatives he’s never met. Will is sure he’ll hate it. How can he respect Uncle Jed, when he refused to fight in the Confederate Army? Will’s cousin Meg is no better, constantly putting him to shame by easily doing the farm chores that Will, a city boy, isn’t strong enough to do. But after weeks of working beside his uncle, Will starts to respect the man–until Jed lets a Union soldier stay at their house.

shades of grayForty Acres offers the more complex story, and the book is better, too. While both boys struggle to find their place in the world, Will gets to do it in the safety of his uncle’s farm. Aside from a few run-ins with the neighborhood bully, he’s protected from external dangers. His main conflict–learning to understand and respect Jed–is emphasized again and again as various people have one-on-one conversation with Will to try to change his mind. The repetition got a bit dull after awhile, so it was a relief when the Union soldier arrives, bringing new complexity to Will’s life.

Pascal, meanwhile, has to deal with so much more. One of the saddest moment occurs at the beginning of Forty Acres, when Pascal wonders if he even understands what it means to be free. Does freedom mean owning his own farm? the chance to go to school? or being able to walk around without fearing the night riders? His personal journey merges seamlessly with the larger historical context, as he meets dozens of other emancipated slaves trying to rebuild their lives. The lucky ones, like him, manage to get their 40 acres. Others are rounded up by plantation owners and forced back into slavery under another name. It’s the variety of experiences, and their awareness of what’s happening in the world at large (like the moment they learn of President Lincoln’s death), that makes the book stand out.

Next up: Chickadee, by Louise Erdrich, will be the first O’Dell winner I’ve read since January that doesn’t involve the Civil War or its immediate aftermath.

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After stalling on the Newbery Challenge for quite some time (The White Stag of 1939 was an offensive read), I decided to dive back in with the 1940 winner, Daniel Boone by James Daugherty. Let’s just say it rivals its predecessor in terms of offensiveness.

Billed as a biography, Daugherty spins the yarns of Daniel Boone’s life with the artistic license of a tall tale teller. Or a biographer who lack objectivity. Boone’s arrival into this world, not to mention chapter one of this book, doesn’t even come with a date. (A quick visit to the History channel reveals Boone was born in 1734.) Instead, we get snippets of Real Historical Events (without context) at sporadic times. And an allusion that compares Boone’s boyhood home of Yadkin, North Carolina, to “the kingdom of a man in a world almost as new as Genesis.”

Indeed, Daugherty all but props Boone up as a god, or at the very least as someone instated by God to do whatever the heck he pleases. “The splendor and the brightness came upon his spirit like the rushing of mighty wings,” writes Daugherty, “and the voice of mighty thunderings [said], ‘Enter into a promised land such as no man has known, a new born creation all your own; drink deep, O Daniel, of the mysterious wine of the wilderness.'”

Even worse is Daugherty’s depiction of Indians as “savages,” “dogs,” and even “varmints.” When Boone uses deceit and treachery to outwit the Indians in one of their many violent conflicts, he is praised as clever and wily. When the Indians employ the same tactics, they lack common decency. Ironically–and I’m quite sure, unintentionally–one of the few first-hand accounts included by Daugherty shows the Seneca Indians to be one of the most reasonable and kind characters in this book.

I suppose Daugherty’s folksy writing style could be considered a plus, but that’s negated a hundred times over by his troubling content. And he structures his story with all the focus of a puppy teased by squirrels. Honestly, I’m completely baffled why the Newbery committee thought this book was “distinguished” enough to deserve a medal. I guess they didn’t learn from their epic failure (excuse the pun) in taste the year before.

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