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CallitCourageI’ve given up hope of making good on my goal/bet to read ten consecutive Newbery winning books this year. Call It Courage, by Armstrong Sperry, brings my grand total to exactly three. The 1941 winner is a familiar title from my childhood, back when I was very much into survival books of the My Side of the Mountain, Julie of the Wolves, and Island of the Blue Dolphins variety. It’s funny how my thoughts on the book have changed since my ten year old self last read it.

Written in the style of a legend, Call It Courage is a coming-of-age story about a Polynesian boy named Mafatu who is afraid of the ocean. Because he and everyone in the village is dependent on the sea, Mafatu gets a lot of grief for his fear. (Although to his defense, as a toddler he almost drown during a massive storm, while his mother, who saved his life, died.) Nevertheless, Mafatu is a source of embarrassment to his father, the chief, and a disgrace to his namesake, Stout Heart. So one day, fed up by the taunts of the other boys his age, Mafatu decides to conquer his fear of the ocean by sailing into the ocean. His plan: to set off for a distant island and live there among strangers until he has proven his bravery, and then return home in glory. Instead, he gets shipwrecked on a cannibalistic island (the cannibals visit periodically) with no food, shelter, weapons, or means of escape. (more…)

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storyofowenI’m not a big fan of dragon books, so I was skeptical when I heard the praise for E.K. Johnston’s The Story of Owen: Dragonslayer of Trondheim, which got a lot of media buzz last month when it was nominated for the Kirkus Prize (it ultimately lost to Aviary Wonders Inc. by Kate Samworth).

Even the premise sounds nonsensical: the story is set in contemporary Canada, but in an alternate version of history where dragons are real. Dragons, it turns out, are addicted to fossil fuels, so they will attack anything that spews carbon: factories, power plants, oil rigs. After the industrial revolution, dragon populations skyrocketed, and cities employed teams of official dragon slayers to combat the problem, leaving rural, less wealthy areas virtually unprotected.

As bizarre as it sounds, the premise works because the dragons don’t feel forced. Johnson manages to make the dragons a believable force in geopolitics. We get glimpses of their role in World War II, the building of the Suez Canal, the First Gulf War, and the power of corporations to influence public policy. You could interpret them as a metaphor, and they do shine a light on all kinds of real-world problems, from environmental decay to celebrity culture and socioeconomic inequality. But leave that to the Common Core curriculum. I had much more fun admiring how Johnston inserted dragons into everyday activities. Think Driver’s Ed is boring? You might miss the boredom if you had to deal with a lesson on what to do if a dragon goes after your car while you’re driving down a lonely road. (more…)

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thimble summerThe 1939 Newbery Award winner, Thimble Summer, by Elizabeth Enright, is bland in a charming and low-stakes kind of way. It’s still a better book than many of its distinguished predecessors.

When we are first introduced to Garnet Linden, age 9, she is waiting for rain. Her parents are farmers, the crops are wilting, and there are bills to pay. I thought this set the scene for a vintage version of Karen Hesse’s gripping Out of the Dust, but alas, no. A missed opportunity. Garnet and her older brother, Jay, go to beat the heat by the creek, which has the tint and temperature of tea. Garnet finds a thimble in the river bank and declares it is magic. That night, the rain comes.

Now that their troubles are in the past, Garnet goes on to have quaint adventures, including:

  1. getting locked in the town library past hours, which, to her credit, she finds absolutely grand
  2. hitchhiking to the “big” city while all in a funk because she feels overlooked and under-appreciated by her family (Garnet is the middle child.)
  3. raising a prize hog and showing him at the fair
  4. touring all the tame antique rides and attractions at the state fair

To end the book, Garnet concludes that she had such a great summer on account of her lucky thimble. Yay. The End.

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images.duckduckgo.comAn E. L. Konigsburg book about an art museum, an irascible old woman, a kid who wants to discover a secret and a mysterious piece of art? You’d be right if your first guess was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, but Mixed-Up Files has a lesser-known twin, written 39 years later: The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World (no one can beat Konigsburg when it comes to titles).

If I had to reduce Mysterious Edge to one sentence, I’d call it Mixed-Up Files with opera and Nazi art history. The art museum in question is the Sheboygan Art Center in Wisconsin, home to a historical exhibit of Degenerate art–artwork that was banned by the Nazi government and deemed too terrible for public consumption. As the museum curator, Peter Vanderwaal, works feverishly on the exhibit, his godson Amadeo Kaplan is contemplating his own art mystery in Florida, where Amadeo has just moved with his mother. Like the Mixed-Up Files’ Claudia, Amadeo wants to discover something: a fossil, a secret, buried treasure. He gets a good shot at his dream when he joins his classmate William in clearing out the estate of Mrs. Zender, who in her opera-singing days was known as Aida Lily Tull. Mrs. Zender hovers over their work with an imperial air, and her old-fashioned manners grate on Amadeo’s nerves, yet he can’t help but feel she’s testing him somehow. When he discovers a mysterious sketch tucked away on a bookshelf, and Mrs. Zender manipulates him into keeping it away from antique dealers–nearly costing him William’s friendship in the process–Amadeo begins to wonder what he’s gotten himself into.  (more…)

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chickadeeFor a book about a kidnapped boy, Chickadee, by Louise Erdrich, is surprisingly funny. I first read Chickadee last year, before I’d read the previous books in the series: The Birchbark House, The Game of Silence, The Porcupine Year. And while Chickadee stands well on its own, it’s even better when read in order.

Omakayas, last seen as a teenager in The Porcupine Year, shows up in Chickadee as the mother of 8-year-old twins. That’s a leap in time of at least 15 years, and quite a gutsy move–but Omakayas was instantly recognizable as the calm, resourceful healer-in-training, and Erdrich smooths over the time gap by inserting a scene where the family tells the story of the twins’ birth. Having read the previous books, I enjoyed catching all the references, whether a sweet homage to Old Tallow, or the familiar story of how Omakayas’ brother Quill got his namesake from the porcupine.

Our main character, though, is Chickadee, who’s kidnapped by a couple of dim-witted twin brothers best described as henchmen (muscular, mean, prone to issuing growling threats). As Chickadee gets spirited away into the frozen prairie, the entire extended family follows to track him down. (more…)

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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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