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littleHouseMaking the drive from the Dakotas to Missouri, I passed the exit for De Smet, South Dakota, aka the town where Laura Ingalls Wilder’s By the Shores of Silver Lake through The First Four Years are set. This awoke a deep nostalgia in me, and the urge to revisit the series starting with Little House on the Prairie. (Sorry, Big Woods. I wasn’t in Wisconsin.)

Rereading Little House was a strange visit. On one hand, some parts were as charming as my childhood memories of Laura’s pioneering life. Then again, I’m astounded the Ingalls managed to stay alive for the entire book, much less the series. As protective as Pa is of his family, he has no qualms about putting them in dangerous situations to begin with.

I’m not the first and I won’t be the last to point this out, but I kept a running tally of all the ways they could have died on the prairie:

  1. The ice cracks the day after the Ingalls crossed over the frozen Mississippi River in their covered wagon from the big woods of Wisconsin to the Indian Territories aka Kansas.
  2. Then they ford a rising creek where their horses almost drown.
  3. While building the walls of their log cabin, Ma narrowly avoids getting crushed to death by a rolling log.
  4. Their cabin is encircled by a pack of wolves at night and they don’t have a real door — only a quilt nailed across the door frame.
  5. Pa and their nearest neighbor Mr. Scott dig a well and narrowly avoid being overcome by fumes underground.
  6. Pa, Ma, Mary and Laura contract “fever ‘n’ ague” aka malaria and it’s unclear who is taking care of baby Carrie while the rest of the family is delirious and bedridden. (Baby Carrie gets ignored during this chapter.)
  7. The chimney attached to their wooden house catches fire.
  8. The prairie surrounding their wooden house catches fire.
  9. A panther visits them.
  10. The U.S. government is in the process of “resettling” the Indians from their land, and meanwhile the Ingalls are homesteading illegally on Osage land, though they don’t realize this until the end of the book. It’s amazing every encounter the family has with an Indian doesn’t end badly…

salt to the seaI remember watching “Titanic” for the first time and refusing to get sucked in by Jack, Rose and their brief but ill-fated romance (though I did shed a tear for the brave string quartet, who serenaded the sinking ship with a dignified rendition of “Nearer, my God, to Thee”) because the ending was a foregone conclusion.

So when I read the book jacket for Salt to the Sea, about the actual worst maritime disaster that I had never heard of, I wondered how author Ruta Septys would tell the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff in a way that would escape the feeling of inevitability without actually escaping the inevitable.

Septys kept things lively by dedicating a good part of the story to the dynamics between three of the four POV characters as they journey from somewhere frozen in Prussia to the equally frigid port where the Wilhelm Gustloff and the fourth character await.

For Joana, a young Lithuanian nurse separated from her family–pay attention to who her relatives are–guilt is a hunter.

For Florian, a disillusioned Prussian teenager on a secret high stakes mission, fate is a hunter.

For Emilia, a Polish girl caught between the Germans and the Russians, shame is a hunter.

For Alfred, a sailor on the Wilhelm Gustloff desperate to prove himself to the girl next door and to the Third Reich, fear is a hunter.

Continue Reading »

My side of the water tower

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Up close and personal with a 24 day old peregrine falcon chick. This is what it must feel like to be a NatGeo photographer.

Confession: I became obsessed with peregrine falcons for a time after reading Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain as a child. During recess, I would scan the skies for the definitive peregrine silhouette, widespread wings and long tail feathers, and wonder if I could track the bird to a cliff side nest where I could snatch a chick to raise as my own, as Sam did with Frightful. (Granted, that was probably illegal, even back in my day, and I could never tell kites, hawks, and sometimes, low flying crows apart.)

Nevertheless, I had the chance to live my childhood dream when I got to pet four fluffy chicks that were temporarily removed from their lofty water tower nest for banding. At 24 days old, the chicks were too young to do much except flap their wings and squawk indignantly at being handled in such an undignified manner.

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This is exactly what it looks like. The chick is temporarily placed into a purple plastic pumpkin so it can be weighed on the scale. Females are larger and heavier than males.

Give them another two weeks to grow, and they’ll be soaring and swooping with the best of them.

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In two weeks, these primary feathers will be light, long and strong enough to help this guy or gal reach speeds of up to 220 mph during dives.

I later found out there’s a whole color-coded system for banding peregrines. The chicks I touched were banded with black over red ankle rings, signifying that they were from the eastern U.S., even though they were technically Midwest/Great Plains birds. I should find out what that’s about.

 

Confession: ever since we set foot in the young adult department at the Cambridge Public Library and casually asked librarian Maya Escobar for book recommendations, we’ve been secretly plotting how to get her to do a Q&A with us.

When we finally got around to asking her about the state of YA–including common misconceptions about YA books and readers–and what it’s like to be a YA librarian, she graciously agreed.

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Photo courtesy of Maya Escobar, who’s clearly showing off her love of comics!

1. How did you become the CPL YA librarian?

I first worked at Cambridge Public Library part time, mostly in the evenings, when I first got out of college.  I worked at the checkout desk and met and observed all kinds of interesting folks — not just library visitors, also my co-workers!  Then I went off for a bit and worked in graphic design and publications, ending up at a nonprofit called YouthBuild USA.  I really liked being back in a nonprofit setting, which was also geared towards improving the lives of young people.  But I missed having more face-to-face interactions with those people; I was mostly sitting in front of a computer, working on layout and editing.

Around that time I ran into CPL’s director, Susan Flannery, on the T, and she said if I ever wanted to come back to the library she was sure there would be something for me.  So I went in for an informational interview with the current head children’s librarian at the time, and learned more about what was involved in becoming a children’s librarian.  I decided that I wanted to go for it, and applied to the GSLIS program at Simmons and an entry level position at CPL at the same time.  And those both worked out!  So here I am🙂

2. Best job perk?

I work with really wonderful, smart, creative people!  And the children’s staff at Main has always been made up of a fun group of people who are really passionate about this work and have wonderful senses of humor.  I also like not having a formal dress code.  After working in the financial district, I can tell you: khaki pants NEVER AGAIN.

Continue Reading »

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The first time Sarah Rees Brennan read A Tale of Two Cities, she dropped it in the bathtub because it made her so upset. Too bad it was a first edition copy that belonged to her grandmother.

Family trauma aside, Brennan liked the book so much she ended up writing a retelling, she explained on Thursday during a talk at Brookline Booksmith. Holly Black (author of the wonderful Doll Bones) was also there, but most of the conversation revolved around Brennan’s Tell the Wind and Fire.

As Brennan sees it, the beauty of a retelling is the opportunity to both praise and insult the original author. She kept what she liked from Dickens’ novel (the basic plot, a sad ending, the key characters) and threw out the bad stuff. Most importantly, while Dickens’ Lucie Manette rarely talks and has no agency (she’s too busy fainting in carriages, Brennan noted, but “I’m pretty sure ladies could talk back then.”), Brennan makes Lucie the protagonist. And she definitely talks (she also fights, and does powerful magic). Brennan then took Dickens’ weakest plot point–the coincidental resemblance between Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay–and makes it integral to the plot, by giving Lucie’s boyfriend a doppelganger created by magic. Continue Reading »

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Credit: SLJ Battle of the Kids’ Books

It’s almost time for my favorite kidlit event of the year: SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books. This year’s a bit tough, because I know nothing about most of the judges. I’ve only read the books of four of the judges: Frances Hardinge, Cece Bell, Mariko Tamaki and Ann M. Martin. So my predictions are even more random than usual. Here goes…

ROUND ONE

3/7 Judge Michael Buckley
The Boys Who Challenged Hitler vs Challenger Deep 

3/8 Judge Maris Wicks
Drowned City vs Echo 

3/9 Judge Melanie Crowder
Gone Crazy in Alabama vs Goodbye Stranger 

3/10 Judge Erin Kelly Entrada
The Hired Girl vs I Crawl Through It 

3/14 Judge Tim Federle
The Marvels vs Most Dangerous 

3/15 Judge Frances Hardinge
My Seneca Village vs Nest

–I’m counting on Hardinge to choose the book that least resembles the types of books she writes. It’s worth a shot, especially since I found Nest a bit lacking in character development.

3/16 Judge Cece Bell
Nimona vs Rhythm Ride 

–I’m using the opposite reasoning here with Cece Bell. Besides, Nimona is fantastic.

3/17 Judge Pamela S. Turner
Symphony for the City of the Dead vs X: A Novel Continue Reading »

I was lucky enough to catch the musical Allegiance on Broadway last month, in one of its last performances (it closes Feb. 14). Loosely based on George Takei’s childhood memories of his family’s time at a Japanese-American internment camp, it’s a stunning story, and a crash course on a part of American history that’s often skated over (spoilers below).

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The sign outside the theater, referring to this amazing video: http://tinyurl.com/gwqxpwz

As the title suggests, the musical explores allegiance in all its forms. What makes it so wonderful is how every character responds differently to how, or if, they should be loyal to the U.S. government after it’s labeled all Japanese-Americans as enemies and locked them behind barbed-wire fences.

The main character, Sam Kimura, joins the army because he thinks it will restore the public’s trust in Japanese-Americans. Sam’s father can’t understand how his son could fight for a country that’s treated them so badly, and when the government sends out a “loyalty questionnaire” to sniff out traitors, Mr. Kimura answers honestly (no, he isn’t willing to serve in the armed forces, and he can’t swear absolute allegiance to the United States), even though he knows it will land him in a labor camp away from his family.

Meanwhile, Sam’s sister Kei falls in love with a young man at the camp named Frankie, who burns his draft papers and refuses to serve in the army. Kei just wants to keep her family safe, so she finds herself torn between her brother and her boyfriend–who are at odds with each other–and doesn’t find her own brand of allegiance until the end. Hannah, a white nurse at the camp, has a different kind of struggle, as she tries to reconcile her love for Sam with societal expectations.

The boldest statement about allegiance comes from Sam and Kei’s grandfather Ojii-chan (the Japanese word for “grandpa”). In a lovely moment of resistance, he takes the hated questionnaire and folds it into an origami flower, which Kei wears in her hair. Continue Reading »

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