Thursday, January 27, 2011

Reading Through History: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz (2007)

One of  the first things I loved about this book was something I read on the book jacket. The author, Laura Amy Schlitz, originally wrote the monologues and scenes in Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! for the students at her school, so each child could have an equal role to perform in a class presentation on medieval life. I was amazed (and impressed) that an educator would go so many extra miles for the good of her students, and on the flip side, I was equally impressed that something so good started out on such a small scale.

In general, I have a hard time relating to history unless someone invites me into the world of a particular historical time period, and gives me a decent likable character to guide me through that world. In this case, Schlitz has provided an entire cast of likable people to whom I could easily relate, despite the distance between their time and mine.

The cast includes such interesting and endearing characters as Taggot the blacksmith’s daughter, who feels too big to have a sweetheart, Alice the shepherdess who sings to soothe her sheep, Jack, the half-wit who is thankful for the death of his abusive father, and Jacob and Petronella, whose religious differences keep them from truly being friends, even though they meet one another fetching water at the stream.  Robert Byrd’s illustrations serve to illuminate the medieval village these characters populate, and a useful map at the front of the book shows each character’s name and location, which really helps to understand where each character is coming from in his or her speech.

Schlitz’s writing uses the language and style of the medieval world, but also manages to be quite clear and readable. I was never bored, and never dismissed any of her words as old-fashioned or irrelevant. In fact, this book has many simply beautiful moments, including this one from Jack the half-wit’s monologue:

Now it’s just Moggy
     and me, and Mother
     and the beasts,
           which is good.
           Heaven must be like this:
Jesus, and his Mother,
       and the dumb beasts,
       and angels fluttering ‘round like birds.
Nobody ale-drunk
       nobody yelling
       or hitting
       or jeering “Lack-a-wit.”
       Just friends.

I also loved this description from Barbary the Mud Slinger’s monologue.

It made me think
    how all women are the same -
    silk or sackcloth, all the same.
           There’s always babies to be born
                 and suckled and wiped,
                 and worried over.
     Isobel, the lord’s daughter,
            will have to be married
            and squat in the straw,
            and scream with pain
            and pray for her life
                   same as me.

This is a truly unique and well-executed book. I had no interest in it at all when it won the Newbery back in 2008, but I was wrong to dismiss it. In addition to the monologues (and a couple of scenes for two voices), this book is also infused with historical background, given in just the  right amount at just the right times. Footnotes provide vocabulary help, while longer sections answer any question that might pop into your head while reading.

I can imagine this collection was an excellent educational tool for the classrooms that used it before its publication, and it would be an amazing asset to a classroom or library lesson on medieval times. I really enjoyed it, and I can’t say enough good things about it.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Book Review: The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron (2006)

I’ll start by saying I am a big fan of realistic fiction, and a really big fan of books set in small hard luck towns. So the fact that Lucky lives in a town with only 42 people in it, where the majority of those people attend multiple twelve-step programs predisposed me to loving the book before I even really got into the story.But even beyond just the appealing set-up, there’s lots to like about Lucky.

She’s scientifically minded and unafraid of bugs and snakes. She’s kindhearted at the core, but has flaws, including her exasperation with her clingy five-year-old neighbor Miles, and her underlying suspicion that Brigitte, her guardian, is secretly planning an escape. Lucky also eavesdrops on twelve step program meetings, looking for hints on how to find her higher power, and, still mourning the accidental death of her mother, maintains a survival backpack, filled with everything a person would need in case of emergency. She doesn’t quite trust her new life without her mother, and copes by being constantly prepared for the next disaster to strike.

I think what truly won me over about this book was the writing itself, and the amazingly detailed characterization of  each person, and of the town of Hard Pan. There are lots of books out there where kids have to overcome some obstacle in order to grow and change and become more mature, but I don’t think many of them are written this well, or with this same style.

I also think Susan Patron has a really good sense of how children observe the world, and of what is important to them. For example, Lincoln, Lucky’s friend, takes offense to the SLOW CHILDREN AT PLAY sign in their neighborhood, because without proper punctuation, it’s insulting to the children. In an act that Lucky calls “presidential,” Lincoln makes the necessary changes:

Lincoln did something brilliant. Next to SLOW, he drew two neat perfect-size dots, one like a period and the other a little above it. Lucky knew it was a colon and it made the sign mean, "You must drive slow. There are children at play" (p. 24).

I also loved the little things, like the phrase “brain crevices,” and the fact that Lucky’s dog’s name is HMS Beagle. I enjoyed the stories Lucky tells Miles about Chesterfield the Burro in the Olden Days of Hard Pan, and Short Sammy’s efforts to cook with government cheese, about which he says, “...nobody can figure out what to do with it to make it something you’d want to eat.”  Best of all is Brigitte’s exclamation of “Oh, la-la, la-LA, la-LA, la-LA” whenever her anxiety or anger level rises. So many very specific details went into Susan Patron’s portrayal of Hard Pan and its people, and I eagerly ate up every single one.

One final bonus was the references to other children’s books, namely Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman, and Peter Sis’s The Tree of Life. I especially love the fact that the author took the time to cite them in the acknowledgments, along with the serenity prayer, which most young readers would probably not know on their own.

This book represents exactly the kind of contemporary, realistic fiction I love, and of which I wish there was much, much more. I’m sure my bias toward realism contributed to my positive review, and I’m not 100% sure that kids would love this book, but I still say it’s excellent, and I’ll probably become one of those adults who wants to give it to a kid “for his own good.”

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Reading Through History: Bud Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis (1999)

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis was the 2000 Newbery Medal winner, but because it was published in 1999, while I was still in high school and not yet interested in children’s books, I never got around to reading it. Finally, though, it was snowing one day, and the library was slow, so I yanked a paperback copy from the shelf, and whipped through it in one sitting.

Bud Caldwell is ten years old, and living in Flint, Michigan, in 1936. His mother's been dead for four years, he doesn't know his father, and after a brief, disastrous stay with a foster family, he's "on the lam" and looking for a place to go. Convinced that concert flyers kept by his mother, advertising performances by Herman E. Calloway and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression!!!!!! are clues that will lead him to his true father, he sets out for Grand Rapids, looking for home and family.

The strength of this book is in the writing. Christopher Paul Curtis is very careful with his words, and each one is placed exactly where it belongs. His style is deceptively simple, but packs a definite punch.

My favorite moment from the beginning of the book is below:

I aimed the gun at the stove and pretended I was shooting at a elephant or a dragon or a tiger, or best of all, Todd!

I imagined how it would feel to creep up to his bed while he was sleeping and put the shotgun barrel right in his nose.

After that I'd have to do some quick moving to get the grown-up Amoses. Unless they were real sound sleepers the shotgun going off in Todd's room would give them a clue that something was going on.

I lowered the gun. These things were just too dangerous to play with or take chances with, that's why the first part of my revenge plan was to get this gun out of the way. (p. 33)

That’s pretty darn powerful for such a short passage, and of all the descriptions of Bud’s life that we get in this book, I think this one tells us the most about his dire situation. He’s living a life where shooting an entire family is one of the options for survival, and it’s only because of the kind of kid he is, a good kid with a good heart, that he doesn’t follow through. And his self-awareness, the knowledge that he has to get the gun out of the way to avoid taking that chance - that was chilling. Literally. It gave me chills.

And maybe I’m sick for saying so, but I kind of wanted more of that intensity and stress, and less heartwarming stuff. I know this is a children’s book, and maybe it wouldn’t have been appropriate to explore the creepy dark side of everything, but after reading Harry Potter and so much dystopian stuff, I felt almost too jaded to appreciate this book without a little more pain and suffering. I’m not saying I’d have Bud load a gun and shoot it, but I would have liked to see more of what his life was like before he left for Grand Rapids and things started to look up. I wanted more emotion, and for the entire middle of the book, I just didn’t feel much.

But all was not lost. I definitely found something to love about this book, and that was the time Bud spends in the public library.

I am usually annoyed by the depiction of libraries as sanctuaries for troubled kids in fiction, because while I obviously know a fair number of kids who see the library that way, there are also many more kids who don't go running to the library for asylum, and never would. But I think the logic here makes sense. The library is a place Bud's mother took him, so he returns there now to remember her, and to maintain some sense of routine and normalcy. And because he is familiar with libraries, he also knows this is where he can gain information about traveling to Grand Rapids.

And, thankfully, Bud's reaction to librarians isn’t super warm and fuzzy, and it made me laugh.

My two favorite library moments from this book are below:

Shucks, this is one of the bad things about talking to librarians, I asked one question and already she had us digging through three different books. (p. 58)

That is so true. We all do it. We can't help ourselves.

"And when you're done with the book bring it back and I have something special  for you!" She had a huge smile on her face.

I said, "Thank you, ma'am," but I didn't get too excited 'cause I know the kind of things librarians think are special. (p. 89)

Curtis has obviously spent some time in libraries. That made me chuckle.

All in all, I’m glad I filled in this gap in my reading An excellent book which is certainly deserving of the Newbery it was given.