I’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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Once in awhile it’s nice to get a refresher course on why [insert genre here] is so great. Such was the case when I sped through three graphic novels in a row: El Deafo by Cece Bell, and Raina Telgemeier’s Smile and Sisters. Aside from the great storytelling and fun artwork, each memoir took advantage of the graphic novel format, doing things that are difficult–if not impossible–to do in text-only novels:
1. The bunnies. El Deafo is Bell’s memoir of growing up as the only deaf kid in her school/community. Her hearing aids made her conspicuous at a time when all she wanted was to be a normal kid with a true best friend. So, what better way to emphasize the importance of hearing than to depict every character as a rabbit? Those long ears sticking out of everyone’s head made it impossible to forget Bell’s fixation on sound. And it made the humor in the book that much goofier. (more…)
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I know, sacrilege! Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie, is so special, it’s practically untouchable, but I’m going to say it anyway: I don’t see why this book is so beloved. I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as a kid, and the only reason I pushed through as an adult was out of obligation.
But what kind of children’s book blogger would I if I were not familiar with the Great Pan himself? (The kind of blogger who had not read Alice until recently….cough, cough.) I’m pretty sure Pan references pop up more often than, say, Little House or Oz ones. Code Name Verity? Check. Peter and the Starcatchers? Check. Finding Neverland, the film and musical? Check.
While I highly recommend two of the three works listed above which reference Peter Pan over the original, here are the highlights from my reading of Peter Pan:
- Famous opening remarks: “All children, except one, grow up.”
- Mrs. Darling “tidies” up her children’s thoughts after they go to bed, like socks in a sock drawer, so the mean thoughts are folded away at the bottom, and the nice ones are on top. An intriguing idea.
- Tinkerbell is “slightly inclined to embonpoint.” Also, being a fairy, she is so small she has room for one feeling only at a time. (This description is made of awesome.)
- The number of Lost Boys on the island varies, “according as they get killed and so on; and when they seem to be growing up, which is against the rules, Peter thins them out.” If that doesn’t scream sinister, I don’t know what does.
- Barrie establishes that children are rotten brats towards their parents on multiple occasions: “Off we skip like the most heartless things in the world, which is what children are, but so attractive; and we have an entirely selfish time; and then when we have need of special attention we nobly return for it, confident that we shall be embraced and not smacked. So great was their faith in a mother’s love that they felt they could afford to be callous for a bit longer.”
- awkward narrator narrates sexist playtime: in Neverland, the boys play pirates and Indians. Wendy plays house with the boys. “Wendy would have a baby, and he was the littlest, and you know what woman are, and the short and the long of it is he was hung up in a basket.”
- awkward narrator narrates racist interactions: After Peter saves Tiger Lily, the “redskins” take to calling Peter “the Great White Father, prostrating themselves before him; and he liked this tremendously, so that it was not really good for him.”
- If Wendy allows her daughter to fly off with Peter so he can fulfill his selfish need for a “mother,” does that make her an enabler?
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I’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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The 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:
- getting locked in the town library past hours, which, to her credit, she finds absolutely grand
- 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.)
- raising a prize hog and showing him at the fair
- 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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An 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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