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You know how it is: first you notice one thing, then another example of the same thing, and pretty soon you’re convinced this trend is taking over the world.

Lately, it seems, I can’t seem to escape middle grade books starring orphans–not just any orphans, but orphans in 19th century London, sneaking through grimy, secretive places and doing things adults can’t (or wouldn’t) do. Here are just a few examples:

index1. The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud. In a world where England is attacked by vengeful zombie-ghosts that can only be seen by children, orphans are routinely hired by terrified adults to get rid of the threat–often with deadly results (for the orphans). It’s a brilliant story, but not recommended for the claustrophobic (too many trapped-in-a-cobwebbed-room-with-monster scenes).

2. How to Catch a Bogle by Catherine Jinks–19th century London with supernatural predators. This time, it’s an adult using kids as bogle-bait, with yet more sewers, chimneys and cramped quarters.

3. Black Ice by Andrew Lane–in one disgusting scene, young Sherlock Holmes is saved by London street kids who know how to navigate the sewers (again with the filth and tight spaces!)

howtocatchabogle4. Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell–this one takes place in Paris instead of London, but the main character is British (and a presumed orphan), and she ends up joining a group of French orphans who live on rooftops and trees, never stepping foot into the street. Less claustrophobia, more acrophobia.

5. The Great Trouble by Deborah Hopkinson–I haven’t read this yet, but it’s about “mudlarks”–Victorian London orphans scrounging for stuff to sell from the River Thames. This is playing out during the cholera epidemic, so expect plenty of unhygienic conditions.

What did I miss? I’m sure there are plenty of other recent books with plucky orphans not afraid of a little dirt.

I just discovered The Guardian’s delightful series, How to draw…, where children’s books illustrators teach you how to draw characters from their books. Today’s model: Weasel Leader and friends, of Elys Dolan’s Weasels (which I haven’t read.)

That didn’t stop me from drawing some weasels, though.

Swan Lake weasel pas de deux (paws de huit?)

Swan Lake weasel pas de deux (paws de huit?)

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.

A Refreshing Reminder

Once in awhile I succumb to the guilt of trying to be more knowledgeable about Literature. And thus, a few weeks ago I slogged through 300 pages of prose from a Very Important Author, re-affirming, in the process, why I read children’s books:

PLOT: if there was a plot to this Famous Book Which Shall Remain Nameless, it was too subtle for me to catch. I like stories where something happens. But there was no sense of progression in this book, just random slices-of-life that never quite strung together.

CHARACTER: everyone, it seemed, was either a quivering mess of low self-esteem or just plain cruel. I don’t need all the characters to be likeable, yet the constant unvarying doom was uninspiring. If there’s no discernible plot, at least give me someone to root for.

WRITING: the prose was fairly straightforward and not at all interested in showing off. I only wish it had been used to tell a better story.

From now on, I think I’ll stick with the adult books that work for me, like Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, or nonfiction. (Why is it that nonfiction reads so much better? Is it because the authors feel they have to work harder to make the story shine?) And the next time I get a guilty twinge, this post should cure any inclination to act on that impulse.

My reaction to Veronica Roth’s widely popular New York Times best-selling YA turned motion picture was, to my surprise…Divergent. The very first chapter captured my attention, but the book as a whole failed to keep it. Was this an allegory for high school? Was Roth trying to depict the subtle power of cults over individuality? Or envision what a society of sociopaths would look like? Turns out, sort of and not at all.

To get the inevitable Hunger Games comparisons out of the way, Divergent is a coming-of-age story centered around a plucky (or should I say, dauntless) young woman from a grim dystopian future. Beatrice Prior has been raised all her life to practice self-denial in Abnegation, one of five trait-based factions that make up her society. At sixteen, she and all the youth her age take a virtual reality personality test to determine the proper House, I mean, faction, into which they should be sorted. The next day, they must choose wisely which faction to join; entering a different faction means leaving their old faction–and their families–behind, permanently.

Beatrice’s test comes up inconclusive, a very rare occurrence we’re told. The reason: Beatrice could conceivably belong in three of the five factions, making her (insert dramatic whisper) Divergent. I found this concept rather silly. Not being able to distill one’s personality down to a single overarching feature? Shocking. Continue Reading »

Contains grumbling and spoilers.

shadow throneIn contrast to Jen’s enthusiastic review of The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing, my latest encounter with a sequel wasn’t nearly as fun. The Shadow Throne, by Jennifer A. Nielsen, did exactly what I hoped it wouldn’t do. Instead of challenging Jaron by making him stay put and acting kingly (e.g., deal with court intrigue and order people around like commanding a chess board), the book lets him go gallivanting around the countryside again, basically saving the kingdom single-handed. It would be impressive if we hadn’t seen him do this twice before, with much the same formula:

Step 1: panic over a crisis, in this case, the impending war as several armies march on Carthya and the kidnapping of his beloved Imogen.

Step 2: formulate a strategy, one that allows Jaron to do whatever he likes. In the last book it meant running off to confront the pirates. In this book, he sends his right-hand man to save Imogen (following, for once, the counsel of his advisers)—but fate, or rather, the plot, pushes him to mount a one-man rescue.

Step 3: to battle! I don’t remember who they’re fighting against or why they’re important, but believe me when I say there are many battles. One involves a dam scene reminiscent of The Two Towers movie, and there seems to be some improbable physics involving a collision with a cliff. Continue Reading »

The Matter of Who’s Who?

Presentation1Lisa and I were chatting the other day about book recs, and she mentioned a non-fiction YA that she really enjoyed, Pure Grit: How WWII Nurses in the Pacific Survived Combat and Prison Camp,by Mary Cronk Farrell. The title alone has me hooked already. I’m a sucker for anything that combines medicine (this story screams sepsis, dengue fever, and malaria), guts (literal and figurative), women’s war efforts, and the Pacific theater (which is almost always overshadowed by the European front) into a narrative that sheds light on unknown or forgotten moments in history.

 

Lisa’s only complaint–because there were so many accounts to piece together, she had trouble keeping track of all the people mentioned in the book. You could call it the Game of Thrones syndrome, where you’re not sure if you should invest in remembering characters because its uncertain whether they will reoccur. Only one doesn’t feel guilty about it in Thrones because they’re fictional…

 

I asked Lisa to think of a case of non-fiction where recalling who’s who was not an issue, and she offered Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb as a notable example. To be fair, Lisa has taken at least twice as many chemistry and physics classes as the average Bomb reader. Niels Bohr, Heisenberg (of Uncertainty Principle fame), Enrico Fermi, and Robert Oppenheimer aren’t just part of her vocabulary, they were the scientific superstars of countless textbooks.

 

Which is all a very long-winded way to wonder…do you have trouble keeping track of the many main players in non-fiction accounts?

What are some steps you take as a reader to keep all the persons being referenced straight?

What are some things authors can do to help you out? Which non-fiction books in particular worked for you?

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