Monday, March 25, 2019

#YearOfHarryPotter: Prisoner of Azkaban, Chapters 8-11

Once again, this week it was difficult to tear myself away from this book after I'd finished reading the week's assignment, which was chapters 8 to 11: "Flight of the Fat Lady," "Grim Defeat," "The Marauder's Map," and "The Firebolt." (Lots of spoilers in this post, for this book and later ones.)

One of my favorite things about this book is that it begins to introduce all of the backstory leading up to the death of Harry's parents and the key figures in Harry's life who are later revealed to be members of the Order of the Phoenix. I think the relationship between past and present is one of the strongest elements in this series, and this book feels like the beginning of the real story Rowling wants to tell.

I was especially drawn into the relationship between Lupin and Snape. Having read to the end of the series, I have such love and empathy for Snape, but his behavior when he must cover Lupin's class due to "illness" is pretty cruel. Even if he disapproves of a werewolf teaching at Hogwarts, it seems really over-the-top to discuss werewolves with Lupin's class, almost as though he is encouraging them to figure out the truth about their teacher's illness. I guess some of this is due to the fact that Snape suspects Lupin of helping Sirius Black, who Snape believes betrayed his beloved Lily, but sometimes it is just hard to reconcile the Snape of book 7 with the Snape of the earlier books.

As for Harry's overhearing that Sirius Black is his godfather, I found that whole scene kind of far-fetched this time around. Knowing that that bombshell was coming allowed me to focus my attention on how the information is delivered, and it didn't quite ring true. It doesn't seem consistent that McGonagall would be discussing sensitive information like that in public on a day when she knows the students are in Hogsmeade. Even if Harry himself is not meant to be present, Ron and Hermione and plenty of other Gryffindors (not to mention nosy Slytherins!) are around to overhear. This is the only time in the series so far, where I feel like Rowling inserted a scene solely for the opportunity to give us a bunch of exposition at one time.

The other thing of which I took special note is Hermione's reporting to McGonagall that Harry received a Firebolt from an anonymous benefactor on Christmas. I've really been on the lookout for instances when these characters do dangerous things and get away with it, but Hermione really does the right thing in this situation, even though Harry is very annoyed with her. As Dumbledore says in the first book, "It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.” Hermione's willingness to go against Harry's wishes in order to protect him is admirable, and her good instincts are the kind of thing I won't mind seeing my kids emulate.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Reading Through History: The Porcupine Year by Louise Erdrich (2008)

In the year during which Omakayas is twelve winters old, she and her family leave their home near Lake Superior and head west, looking for a new place to settle. As they make the difficult journey, Omakayas and her younger brother, Pinch, both begin to come of age, taking on new names and identities as adulthood comes ever closer. The year is marked by many emotional ups and downs, including the loss of a beloved family member and the revelation that another is perhaps not what he had first seemed.

I was really annoyed by the representation of Father Baraga in the second book of this series, Game of Silence, and it took me a while to want to read another book for fear there would be more blatant inaccuracies requiring research and emails to Catholic Answers apologists. Happily, there are no egregiously anti-Catholic representations in this book, and indeed, priests, when mentioned, are shown to be helpful and merciful. Without having to dissect scenes involving Catholic clergy, I was able to enjoy this novel for what it is: an exciting but emotional adventure story about Ojibwe life in 1852.

There is a lot of memorable description in this book, and while not all of it is pleasant to read about, it is all handled very tastefully and almost poetically. Though there are some definite scary moments, and some that could even be considered gruesome, I did not find them so troubling that I lost sleep or had nightmares or anything like that. Even the scenes about Omakayas beginning her "moon" and gaining the ability to bear children were written in a way that didn't feel embarrassing or awkward. Erdrich describes this experience as such a positive and meaningful transition from girlhood to womanhood, and though it is very specific to Omakayas's culture, I think her description could be comforting to a girl from any time and place.

While the plot in this book is pretty action-packed, for some reason, I just didn't connect with it as strongly as with the first book of the series. Still, I enjoyed the story and plan to read the next book, Chickadee, sometime this spring, at which point I'll need to get myself a copy of Makoons, the only one of the series I don't yet own, and the final book.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Book Review: Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly (2017)

Shy Virgil, age eleven, is having trouble learning his multiplication tables, so he goes to the resource room at his school every Thursday. Every week, he sees Valencia, a fellow student who is deaf and wears hearing aids. He is interested in getting to know Valencia better, but he's not sure how to approach her. He decides to enlist his friend Kaori Tanaka, who claims to be a psychic, to help him figure out what to do. Before he can fully take advantage of her services, however, a bully attacks him, and he and his guinea pig, Gulliver, end up trapped in a well. Now Virgil is convinced that not only will he never speak to Valencia, but he might never even be found.

After being let down by the 2019 Newbery winner, Merci Suarez Changes Gears, I became curious about the 2018 medal winner. Sadly, Hello, Universe seems to suffer from the same strains of mediocrity that made Merci Suarez Changes Gears such a disappointment. As I read, I imagined a diversity checklist, and with the introduction of each new character, I checked another box. It feels as though the author tried to ensure that her book would be as inclusive as possible by including as much diversity as possible, whether it contributed to the story or not. Because there are so many main characters, none of them are as well-developed as they could be, and they all feel like token representations of their minority groups rather than three-dimensional characters.

These characters are also presented as victims - of clueless parents, unbelievably stereotypical bullies, and general misunderstanding about their identities. The portrayal of bullies is especially bothersome, as both Virgil's bully, Chet, and Valencia's former best friend, Roberta sound like stock characters from a 1990s teen drama. Chet uses the words "retardo" and "pansy" which I don't think I've ever heard in real life. Every bully I've ever encountered has had subtler material. This book also perpetuates the stereotype that kids like Chet get their attitudes from their fathers. The story needs a villain, but Chet and his dad are both too cartoonish to feel like real threats. Roberta and the group of girls who ask Valencia not to hang out with them anymore are also not believable tormentors; their dialogue sounds like it was lifted from an after-school special. Any kid who has been bullied will recognize that this book does not understand how it feels.

Additionally, this book presents some problematic religious practices that would prevent me from recommending it to a Catholic family. Kaori relies on crystals and horoscopes to supposedly predict the future. Virgil talks to a mythical character when he is trapped in the well who talks about writing letters to the universe. Valencia prays to a saint, not for intercession, but seemingly as a form of worship. In that sense the book shares the same relativistic point of view as the 2017 Newbery Honor book, The Inquisitor's Tale, but at least it doesn't pretend to do anything else.

Each time I read a recent Newbery book, either a medal winner or an honor book, I become more convinced that this award can no longer be trusted to recognize books for their literary merit. This book is not distinctive, nor do I see what it might contribute to the canon of children's literature over a period of more than five years. All it does well is that it includes diversity, and that's a quality that serves a political agenda, not a literary one. From the start, the book feels laden down by all the pandering it does to the so-called "diversity Jedi," and even at its best moments, it still feels like it's trying too hard. Valencia is the strongest character, and I think telling just her story would have made for a better and more cohesive novel. The attempt to be all things to everyone really impacts the overall quality of the story in a negative way.

Hello, Universe is eminently forgettable. Newbery winner or not, no one is missing anything by not reading this book. If you're looking for a book about the interconnectedness of different people, and the uncanny ways in which important friendships sometimes form, Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins, the 2006 Newbery Medal winner, is a much better choice. Goodbye, Stranger by Rebecca Stead (2015) is another good alternative. And if you really want to read about what it's like to be trapped in a well, there's a better book for that too: The Girl in the Well is Me by Karen Rivers, published in 2016.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The Night Watchmen by Helen Cresswell (1969)

Henry, who has recently been bedridden with an illness, is finally allowed to get out of bed and spend time outdoors while he waits to be cleared to return to school. As he wanders the city on his first day of freedom, he encounters two unusual men - Josh and Caleb. At first glance, they appear to be mere tramps, but after spending time with them, hearing them talk about "There" and "Them" and a mysterious night train that can take them away if necessary, Henry begins to realize there is something unusual, and possibly otherworldly, about them.

This was a strange little book, and I'm not sure whether I enjoyed it. It was certainly intriguing, but it was so short, that by the time I felt invested in what was happening, the story was over. While I usually like compact middle grade novels, this one felt like the beginning of a larger story that never came to fruition. What is here is well-written, and it blurs the lines between reality and fantasy beautifully, but I didn't finish the book with the sense of satisfaction I was expecting.

This book could be a good choice for a reader who is wary of fantasy books, as the magical elements are ambiguous, and the setting is the real world. It might also make a good read-alike for a book like Skellig, which also involves a mysterious otherworldly visitor, or even The Dark is Rising, where fantastical events occur within the context of regular daily life. 

Monday, March 18, 2019

#YearofHarryPotter: Prisoner of Azkaban, Chapters 4-7

This week, for the first time since beginning this project, I wanted to keep reading when I finished the week's "assignment", which was Chapter 4 ("The Leaky Cauldron"), Chapter 5 ("The Dementor"), Chapter 6 ("Talons and Tea Leaves"), and Chapter 7 ("The Boggart in the Wardrobe"). There were so many things I loved in these four chapters (and some of them are spoiler-y):

  • The humor: the banter among the Weasleys at the Leaky Cauldron before they and Harry leave for Hogwarts, imagining Boggart-Snape dressed in Neville's grandmother's clothes, and Professor Trelawney's outlandish behavior in Harry and Ron's first Divination class (plus McGonagall's reaction to it). I don't know why I don't usually think of this series as funny; there have been quite a few laugh-out-loud moments so far in these re-reads.
  • The introduction of Remus Lupin. He's my favorite of all the Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers, and I love that his first interaction with Harry is to give him chocolate after the Dementor attack.
  • Hagrid as the instructor for the Care of Magical Creatures class. I'd forgotten that he hadn't started out in this position, and I loved the way Harry, Ron, and Hermione tried to help him succeed in his first class, even when Malfoy was determined to make a fool of him.
  • The hints that Hermione is using the time-turner. Though we don't find out until later in the book that Hermione is using time travel to make her intense courseload possible, all the clues are there from the start, and they fly just far enough under the radar to keep the mystery afloat. 
  • Scabbers's odd behavior, which re-readers will know instantly is because he is really Peter Pettigrew, and he is reacting to the possibility of encountering escaped prisoner Sirius Black. 
So far, of the first three books, this seems like the one that is the most rewarding to re-read. I'm excited for the next set of chapters, which will introduce the Marauder's Map and explain what a Patronus is for the first time.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Book Review: A Girl from Yamhill by Beverly Cleary (1988)

A Girl from Yamhill is the first of two memoirs children's author Beverly Cleary wrote about her early life. It was my nonfiction pick for #MiddleGradeMarch over on Instagram. Interestingly though, after reading it, I'm questioning whether it's middle grade after all! Compared with her humorous tales of everyday life with Henry, Beezus, and Ramona on Klickitat Street, Cleary's childhood during the Great Depression is darker and sadder. There is still humor, of course, but her memoir is more realistic than idealistic in its worldview. Despite subject headings on the copyright page labeling it "juvenile nonfiction" it's as though the memoir is really written for those who loved her fiction books as kids to read once they've grown up.

The most fascinating thing for me was learning how many of the events and relationships in Cleary's novels were drawn from real life experiences. Though Cleary rarely comes out and states how a real life event influenced a fictional one, many of the connections are very obvious. I also found it interesting that Cleary had neither the supportive, loving mother nor the exasperating older sister which appear in the Ramona books.

I would definitely exercise caution in sharing this book with kids under 12. There are quite a few topics covered that require a bit or maturity to handle, including a miscarriage, an uncle who makes sexual advances, and a much older boyfriend whose unsettling presence is encouraged by Cleary's mother. Beverly Clearly handles these things tastefully, but she also doesn't shy away from the truth of the impact of these events on her well-being.

For me, though, this was a clear five-star read. I'm eagerly anticipating reading the follow-up memoir, My Own Two Feet (1995).

Monday, March 11, 2019

#YearOfHarryPotter: Prisoner of Azkaban, Chapters 1-3

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was my favorite of the first three books the first time I read them, and it's also one of my favorites of the movie adaptations from the series. This week, I jumped in with chapters 1-3: "Owl Post," "Aunt Marge's Big Mistake," and "The Knight Bus." (Spoilers below.)

Ron starts the book with a couple of memorable moments. First, he tries to call Harry on the regular Muggle telephone and angers Uncle Vernon by shouting into his ear. Then, he sends Harry an owl which closes with my new favorite quote: "Don't let the Muggles get you down." (Is this quoted a lot? I feel like I have never seen it, but it should be on a tee shirt!) I'm really glad his character is holding up so well to these re-readings.

Because Harry is entering his third year at Hogwarts, he has now come up against the problem of needing a permission form signed to be allowed to visit Hogsmeade. Of course, after Harry blows up Aunt Marge, the Dursleys won't sign, and Cornelius Fudge, Minister of Magic, won't do it either. In my fuzzy memories of this predicament, I was under the impression that Fudge was standing on ceremony and somehow upholding the Dursleys' authority, but after this reading, it's clear that his inability to get the form signed is giving Harry an added layer of protection that Fudge wants him to have, as Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban and everyone thinks he's dangerous at this point in the story. 

The other thing about Fudge that is notable is that he doesn't punish Harry for using magic on Aunt Marge, even when Harry is certain he is about to be expelled. Fudge seems to be motivated by relief in finding Harry safe as well as by his own affection for the wizarding world's young celebrity. I don't think it would have been right to expel Harry, necessarily, with a murderer on the loose, since Hogwarts is the safest place for him, but Fudge's leniency does add to the pile of evidence showing that Harry never faces the consequences of his actions. 

Finally, this section introduced one of my favorite things in the wizarding world: the Knight Bus. This was the scene I most wanted to see when the movie came out, and having just watched the clip on YouTube, I can say that the filmmakers really did a nice job bringing Rowling's description accurately to life, even if the dialogue was a bit condensed for time.

I'm looking forward to refreshing my memory about other favorite scenes as I read through this book over the next 5 weeks!