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The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare (1958)

“Don’t you know about the water trial?” Nat’s eyes deliberately taunted her. ” ‘Tis a sure test. I’ve seen it myself. A true witch will always float. The innocent ones just sink like a stone” (p 13).

It is 1687 and Kit Tyler has fled her home in sunny Barbados to escape an undesirable marriage. With her grandfather’s death, her only living relative is an aunt in colonial Connecticut. Kit books passage on the Dolphin with the last of her money, befriending the Captain’s son, Nat, on the journey.  Arriving unexpectedly, Kit disrupts his aunt’s household. Her Uncle Matthew is a strict Puritanical man who speaks out against the King, much to Kit’s dismay. Her cousin Judith resents the attention Kit attracts from the local boys and while Mercy is a quiet and comforting presence, Kit can’t deny she is another mouth to feed during tough times.

Then she meets Hannah Tupper, a widow believed to be a witch, living by Blackbird Pond. Through Hannah, Kit meets Nat again and a tenuous friendhsip begins. She also begins tutoring Prudence, a neglected girl who blossoms under Kit’s care, in secret at Hannah’s little house. It becomes a sanctuary for Kit until an illness takes hold of the townsfolk and they turn on Hannah and then Kit.

While there are tense, hair-raising moments and acts of cruelty based on fear, the resolution is of the happy variety. Though property is damaged and Kit spends an uncomfortable night in a cold shack, she find happiness with Nat, Hannah escapes to a more companionable situation, and both Mercy and Judith are paired with the perfect suitors. This cheery conclusion, however, does not diminish the horror mind-numbing religious fanaticism and the mob mentality threat to outliers.

Library copy | 1958 | Houghton Mifflin Company | Ages 9 + | 248 pages | ISBN 0-395-07114-3 | $16.00

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From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg (1967)

Even though Claudia knew that New York City was not far away, certainly not far enough to go considering the size and number of the injustices done to her, she knew it was a good place to get lost (p 7).

For our next Mock Newbery Kidlit meeting, our group is reading Wonderstruck by Brain Selznick. It makes sense then, to read From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. I had never before read this 1968 Newbery winner. I might never have read it if not for my Newbery club and Selznick’s tribute. I must say, the cover did nothing for me.

The novel is so perfectly framed. I recall our KidLit discussion of Shoot the Moon by Frances O’Roark Dowell; the line between Jamie as adult narrator and Jamie the child were blurred. Mixed-up Files is laid out such that we have the childlike story with childlike behavior with the adult interpretation and witticism without any confusion as to whom is thinking what. One of my favorite scenes involves Jamie finding an uneaten candy bar.

“You better not touch it,” Claudia warned. “It’s probably poisoned or filled with marijuana, so you’ll eat it and become either dead or a dope addict.”
Jamie was irritated. “Couldn’t it just happend that someone dropped it?”
“I doubt that. Who would drop a whole candy bar and not know it? That’s like leaving a statue in a taxi. Someone put it there on purpose” (p 75-6).

Here, Claudia reminds me of myself. And Jamie, when he pretends death, my brother. I felt like I was on an adventure, remembering all the times I wished I could have run away. (I think many children from large families must feel like Claudia sometimes.) Just a lovely book full of truth and well- paced. Now, if someone would just update the art. Bleck!

Read Becky’s Book Review. Read my review of Shooting the Moon.

Library copy (print) | Antheneum Book for Young Readers | 162 pages | Ages 7-14 | ISBN 978-0-689-85322-7 | $17.99

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The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley (1984)

He looked at her, feeling a twitch of surprise; in her smile for the first time he saw that which was going to trouble his sleep very soon; something very unlike the friendship they’d enjoyed all their lives thus far; something that would raise the barrier between them much faster than anything else could; the barrier thus far Aerin alone saw growing (p 58).

In the land of Damar, Aerin is the King’s daughter by his second wife, rumored to have been a witchwoman. Aerin’s heard the stories – her mother died birthing her and people say her father was bewitched by her.

Some suspect she isn’t even the King’s daughter. She does not show signs of the Gifts held by those of royal blood. Her cousin, Galanna, teases her and those in court look down on her pityingly. Her father is distant but kind. Only Tor, the first sola,heir to the crown, and Aerin’s cousin, befriends her.

Determined to earn her place at her father’s side, Aerin practices swordplay and works to discover a long-lost recipe for defense against dragon fire. Soon, Aerin is the kingdom’s finest dragon slayer, though it does not earn her the respect she hoped for.

Soon, the kingdom is facing bigger threats and Aerin is the only one with a chance of defeating them. With the aid of the wizard, Luthe, Aerin must claim her destiny though it change her forever.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

McKinley’s novels are usually hit or miss for me. I disliked Dragonhaven, couldn’t get past the first chapter of Pegasus, but I loved Beauty.

The Hero and the Crown is the first of her novels that I have mixed feelings about.

Overall, the plotting was excellent – complexed and nuanced – but the pacing was uneven. Some events were confused and so brief that important events seemed less significant. For most of the novel, I did not fear the evil (not until the end when Aerin had to deal with Maur’s head).

Passages where characters interacted and reacted to each other were brilliant and engaging. All the scenes between Aerin and Tor or Aerin and Luthe caused my heart to beat a little quicker.

But when McKinley fell to describing the kingdom or telling about characters, I found some parts to be clunky and sometimes, awkwardly worded. Alternately, some things were revealed subtly in graceful lines. Overall, it left me feeling skewed and feeling like something was missing or the book incomplete.

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Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool (2010)

I shoved the compass into a side pocket of the satchel, then made my way to the back of the last car. Being a paying customer this time, with full-fledged ticket, I didn’t have to jump off, and I knew that the preacher would be waiting for me. But as anyone worth his salt knows, it’s best to get a look at a place before it gets a look at you. I’d worn my overalls just for the occasion (p 3).

I’m feeling a whole lot better about Keeper and Dreamer being passed over by the Newbery committee. I was surprised and aghast when my two front-runners weren’t given a nod, but after finishing Moon Over Manifest, my anger is quelled.

What a beautiful, quiet book! It is 1936 and Abilene Tucker is sent by her father to live in Manifest, Kansas for no good reason she can think of. After years of living a nomadic life, scrapping through during the Great Depression, Gideon Tucker decides it is not the life for a young lady.

Feeling abandoned, Abilene goes in search of answers; a reason why her father sent her to this quiet town where he spent only a short time in his youth. What she finds is a cigar box with trinkets belonging to a boy named Jinx and letters dating from 1918 and written by a soldier named Ned. She also crosses paths with a Diviner, Miss Sadie, who sheds light on the meaning behind those trinkets and letters. Through them, Abilene connects with the town of Manifest in a way she could have never predicted.

This story tackles heavy topics like intolerance, prohibition, poverty, and war with a muted elegance. Little discoveries keep the plot moving. Cliffhangers abound! Abilene’s desire for her father is palpable. The denouement will evoke tears of sorrow and joy.

What did the committee have to say about it?

“Vanderpool illustrates the importance of stories as a way for children to understand the past, inform the present, and provide hope for the future,” says Cynthia K. Richey, committee chair for the Newbery (SLJ).

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KidLit Revisits When You Reach Me

Well, the Ocean County Children’s (and Collections!) Librarians gathered once again to discuss Newbery winners When You Reach Me and A Wrinkle in Time. I knew coming into this discussion that the group was split. Some adored Stead’s historical/sci-fi/realistic/religious (?) sophomore offering while others were less enthusiastic (to put it nicely). Here’s a bullet point summary of what was said:

A Wrinkle in Time

  • The setting is a bit Gothic (think a “dark and stormy night” and a strange, cloaked wanderer entering the house). Nothing about Reach Me waxes Gothic.
  • We could detect the religious overtones in Wrinkle but not so much in Reach Me.

“Do you think things always have an explanation?”
“Yes, I do believe that they do. But I think that with our human limitations we’re not always able to understand the explanations. But you see, Meg, just because we don’t understand doesn’t mean that the explanation doesn’t exist.”
(p 43)

  • It does an amazing job tackling the concept of free will in less than a page by comparing it to a sonnet:

“You mean you’re comparing our lives to a sonnet? A strict form, but freedom within it?”
“Yes,” Mrs Whatsit said. “You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you.” (p 192)

  • There isn’t a lot of time travel, like in Stead’s novel. It’s really just a once and done deal. The rules that apply to this world follow the rules of previous sci-fi time-travel rules; do not allow your other self to see/interact/be aware of your future/past self or what you do in the future/past effects the future. You can’t change the past without effecting the future.

When You Reach Me

  • For Miranda, Wrinkle is a special book because it’s all about Meg’s search for her father. For Miranda, it’s all about family. When she meets Marcus, he is hung up on the book’s time travel flaw (the broccoli patch). Their conversation isn’t really based on the book; Miranda is miffed that he likes her book! An interesting commentary on the different types of readers :)
  • There’s a time travel flaw in this book – is it mirroring Wrinkle intentionally? How can Marcus time travel back and tell Miranda to write the letter is he hasn’t read it yet (think Time Machine – how can the Time Traveler go to the past and save his wife if it is her death that allows for his creation of the machine – he can’t)?
  • We thought the setting and character relationships were all very realistic (the race issue was not an issue for us). Get rid of the time travel trick and you have the best parts of the book.
  • Time travel rules here are less clear. There is no explanation of time travel. Why can Marcus carry pieces of paper in his mouth but not keep his clothing on? Why can he remember some things (Julia) when he needs notes to remind him what to do? How can he change the past (save Sal), alter his future, and still discover time travel? Why does he have to save Sal by sacrificing himself. There were so many other options!
  • There were just too many unanswered questions for some of us. For others, it didn’t bother them. Some thought the plotting was tight, some thought it didn’t add up. I don’t think anyone ranked it higher than Wrinkle.
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Summer 2009 Wrap Up

This is a list of books I read this summer but didn’t have the time or inclination to review in detail. So this will be brief:

Crispin: The Cross of Lead by AviCrispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi – A work of historical fiction that won the Newbery in 2003. Crispin is a young boy whose mother has just died. He is soon on the run (accused of a crime he did not commit) being declared a wolf’s head (meaning anyone may kill him). The secret to his sudden fall from obscurity lies in the identity of his father. A great read but not a favorite, if you know what I mean. I hate the cover! I think it has been a turn off for a lot of young patrons, who might otherwise gravitate toward it as the language is very accessible.

Someone Like You by Sarah DessenSomeone Like You by Sarah Dessen – Not my favorite Dessen but an okay read. Clearly one of her earlier books. I was dying to know if Michael’s parents replied to Scarlett’s letter. Dessen certainly has a hang up when it comes to Mother/Daughter relationships. Regarding teen boys, they have ranged from the wonderful (Along for the Ride and Just Listen) to average (Someone Like You) to terrible (Dreamland) in nature. It was satisfying that our heroine, Halley,  didn’t end up with the stereotypical loner but that her experiences shed some light on the relationship between Scarlett and her deceased boyfriend (aka father of her child).

The End of OvereatingThe End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite by David Kessler – You wouldn’t believe how you are being manipulated by the restaurant industry. Fat, sugar and salt (the three points of the compass) combine to trick your mind into eating more and more and more food you do not need. What’s worse, they stick healthy sounding names (like Spinach Dip) on the dishes to mislead you. Read this book. Take back control!

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When you Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

when-you-reach-meIt has been said this book “has a darkness and a depth that pulls you in” (Fuse #8), a subtly ominous mood and perfect pacing (100 Scope Notes). It has been called LOST for the middle grade set (The Reading Zone).

SPOILER ALERT

However, I am reading this on the heels of The Time Traveler’s Wife, so I saw immediate comparisons between that and When You Reach me, not only in plot, but also in the philosophy and the theory of time travel. It is as if Stead read The Time Traveler’s Wife and decided to make a spin off story for middle schoolers.

When Henry (Time Traveler’s Wife) time travels, he arrives naked. So does Marcus. There is no machine à la H. G. Wells. Both Henry and Marcus arrive at a place that was important in their pasts (for Marcus, a place where he often walked and would have chased a boy to his death, had his older self not stepped in). Both books mention other works of literature. When You Reach Me leans heavily on A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle. Sure, we can all remember reading one particular chapter book over and over again (for me, it was Matilda), but Stead invokes A Winkle in Time close to the point of annoyance.

So, was I blown away by this book as I thought I would be? No. Not at all. Maybe if I had read it prior to The Time Traveler’s Wife. Can I appreciate that it is praise-worthy and all those things mentioned above: well-written, engaging, humorous, truthful with three dimensional characters? Absolutely.

This book stacks up with a book like Neil Armstong in My Uncle and Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me. Great characterization, solid story, but not quite award-worthy. It just doesn’t seem to stand up to the likes of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which takes previously published stories and stereotypes (like vampires) used millions of time, and yet pulls it all together to make a fabulous story so deliciously all his own. Definitely booktalk worthy, despite its unfortunate cover.

Nominated for the Printz and surrounded by Newbery buzz, I’m sure this one will have some hardware come 2010… then again, I was sure Graceling would too and I was wrong. Hum.

*** Updated 2/12/2010

Well, it ended up winning the Newbery. Now my kidlit group will meet to discuss its merits and shortcomings (oh, yes, they exist).

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Late December Reads

In preparation for this Sunday’s mock award dinner, I have read mostly Children’s books with a single YA novel and a single Non-fiction. Let’s start with the first.

A Crooked Kind of Perfect Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! The Story of Water on Earth Skyscrapper Psst! by Adam Rex Little Night 17 Things I’m Not Allowed to do Anymore Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary by Beverly Donofrio Windflyers by Angela Johnson, Loren Long (Illustrator) Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain

A Crooked Kind of Perfect: Linda Urban – Funny and charming. Zoe, our would-be Carnegie Hall pianist, finds a crooked kind of perfection in playing TV theme shows on a wheezy organ.

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval City: Laura Amy Schlitz - Poetic (and so in the Newberry category rather than the Sibert, as it originally was placed) monologues and duets that can be performed by students inclined to the dramatic.

One Well: the Story of Water on Earth: Rochelle Strauss ill. Rosemary Woods – This was an extremely appropriate read considering my non-fic pic of the month (The World Without Us – see below) and gives rise to important but often ignored facts… we all need water to live. The amount of water in the world doesn’t change. It’s just recycled. SO TAKE CARE OF IT (like by not polluting the ocean with plastic… which just breaks into smaller and smaller pieces but does not actually break down, so smaller and smaller animals are ingesting it).

Skyscrapper: Lynn Curlie – A dense read, more like a text book (possibly more of a YA read), but interesting. I do wish it had pics of all the skyscrapers mentioned.

PSSST!: Adam Rex – Beautifully drawn, hilarious. One boy falls prey to the pleas of several zoo animals. Not one I’d choose for a story time (because some of the pics/text is so small) but it has worked for some of my colleagues.

Little Night: Yuyi Morales – A small night plays hide and seek with her mother.

17 Things I’m Not Allowed to do Anymore: Jenny Offill – The more malicious female counterpart to David (of No, David! fame), this little girl gets into all kinds of mischief. I enjoyed it, although I think it went right over the heads of the 2nd grade class I read it to.

Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary: A cute book but, I agree with my super, not a Caldecott winner.

Windflyers: Angela Johnson – “Wind Flyers artfully interweaves a character study of a World War II airman from the historic black Tuskegee squadron, a celebration of the dream of flight, and a tale of a child who learns to share both a love of flying and a poignant sense of history through his great-great-uncle’s experience. Poetic text and rich, fluid illustrations guide readers through the skies on an important journey of remembrance that also honors the beauty we can find above our heads—and in our hearts—if we take a few moments to look upward.” from the Reading Guide.

The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain: Peter Sis – A tear jerker but great!

Ptolemy’s Gate

The Bartimeaus Trilogy: Ptolemy’s Gate:Jonathan Stroud – A captivating, plot-twisting, very satisfying ending to a well-written, highly enjoyable series. I plowed through it and couldn’t get enough.

The World Without Us

The World Without Us: Alan Weisman – While some of this was above my understanding, I got the gist… and, oh man, am I nervous! What a wreck this planet has become because of us but what a joy to know it can all be fixed. There is only one variable: how long will we continue the damage (and how many more life forms will we obliterate in that time), thereby effecting how long nature will take to restore itself. The frightening power of nature did not escape me… for something I almost always read about in poetic or high prose terms, this was a splash in the face with ice cold (albeit containing small particles of plastic) ocean water.