Thursday, February 24, 2011

Reading Through History: Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool (2010)

Moon Over Manifest surprised many people when it came out of left field and won the Newbery Medal. I hadn't even heard of it until then, let alone predicted that it would win anything, so naturally I was quite curious and immediately got my hands on a copy of the book. Having finished it, I can say I definitely approve of the Newbery committee's decision, even if I'm not quite sure if I know any kids who will willingly read this book.

  Moon Over Manifest is the story of 12-year-old Abilene Tucker, who has come to Manifest, Kansas to live with Pastor Shady Howard while her father, Gideon, Shady's friend from a long time ago, works a railroad job back in Iowa. She's not sure why her father has suddenly decided she can't tag along on his jobs, but Abilene is confident Gideon will return at the end of Summer 1936, and she does what she can to make herself at home. With new friends Lettie and Ruthanne, Abilene uncovers letters and artifacts left behind by someone named Jinx, and learns that there may have been a spy amongst the people of Manifest back in 1918. The ensuing spy hunt, which goes on all summer long, introduces Abilene to many of the townspeople in Manifest, and begins uncovering some sad secrets people have been sitting on for close to 20 years. Most notable and interesting are the stories Miss Sadie, a self-proclaimed "diviner" tells about Jinx and his friend Ned, and what her stories ultimately reveal about the town's past, and Abilene's own past.

I think the fact that I had a difficult time writing a summary of this book is actually a compliment to its complexity. While I was reading the story, I was never lost in its many threads, but trying to articulate those threads myself is nearly impossible. The simplicity and clarity of this novel is actually pretty remarkable, and the longer I think about the book, the more impressed I become.

Clare Vanderpool does an especially good job of transitioning between the present-day scenes set in 1936 and Miss Sadie's narration of the events of 1918. She also managed to keep me in suspense far longer than children's books usually do, and when I finally learned what the ultimate truth of the story was, I felt it so strongly, I then went to sleep and had a dream about living in Manifest. It's not every day that a book becomes so real for me that I attempt to live in it.

Saying too much about the plot, and what impressed me about the book would spoil the surprises, I think, so I want to be careful. I can say, though, that Abilene is a refreshing voice, the townspeople of both time periods are wonderfully well-done and manage to represent the varying cultures living in Manifest without becoming a series of bad ethnic caricatures, and the ending has such a wonderful emotional payoff, I can't even put into words how much I loved it.

I often sing the praises of award-winning books, but this one, in particular, just got its hooks into me, and didn't let go. Still hasn't. I hope there are kids who will pick up Moon Over Manifest. It might be a hard sell because it's slow to start, and I think a lot of the subject matter might sound dry and unfamiliar to elementary school kids. But I thoroughly enjoyed it, and the experience of reading it, without preconceptions or even any hints at what's to come, is really valuable. I'll be thinking about this book for a good long while.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Book Review: Jessica by Kevin Henkes (1989)

I had not thought about this book in years, until I discovered that my library owned a copy. And then I was not only pleased to see an old familiar title still being read by kids today, but surprised and delighted to learn it was written by Kevin Henkes! For whatever reason, I associate Henkes with a newer age of picture books, books I was too old to read by the time they were published, like Chrysanthemum (published in 1991 when I was 8), Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse  (1996), and Wemberly Worried (2000). I didn't realize he'd actually been on the scene since the early 80's, and therefore never associated him with Jessica.

That said, whether I knew of the author or not, I can remember being very fond of this book when I was younger, and I'm just as fond of it now, reading it with an adult perspective.

Ruthie Simms didn't have a dog.
She didn't have a cat,
or a brother
or a sister.
But Jessica was even better.

So begins this simple story of friendship between a girl and her imaginary friend.

One of the first things I thought about when I was reading this was all the white space on the pages. I very distinctly remembered imagining that space as Jessica's part of the world, the unseen, imaginary part. Though most people - including Ruthie's parents - can't see Jessica, I always imagined her there in those white areas, participating in the activity at hand, visible only to the eyes of her playmate. I'm not sure I could see it that way now, if not for the memory of my childhood reading of the story.

I also picked up on a few things I missed as a child. For one thing, in the illustration of Ruthie's and Jessica's block towers, Jessica's name is spelled incorrectly, with a K, hinting subtly at Ruthie's ignorance of the proper spelling of her friend's name. I also loved the way the words "And if Ruthie was glad, Jessica felt exactly the same" come dancing out of Ruthie's trumpet, as though they are the music. I can remember feeling especially triumphant when I read those words, and I'm sure their concrete poetry style contributed to that.

The other thing I considered was the reaction of Ruthie's parents to her imaginary friend. I was surprised at how insistent they were that Ruthie stop believing in Jessica, and that she leave Jessica at home when school begins. I had many imaginary friends when I was preschool-aged, and I think my family just sort of let me pretend. I'm not sure what to make of these parents who feel it's necessary to point out Jessica's non-existence so often. It obviously worked in the story, though, because my 6 year old self believed in it wholeheartedly.

Overall, what I love about this book is its unique way of tackling an experience so many kids have - believing in, and eventually abandoning imaginary friends. I absolutely loved the fact that Ruthie makes a real friend at school whose name is Jessica. I had an imaginary friend in childhood whose name - Lena Farina - appeared in the obituaries when I was in high school, so I'm especially intrigued by the notion of imaginary friends who somehow show up in real life. I also liked that Ruthie relinquishes the imaginary Jessica on her own terms, and that the experience isn't traumatic and scarring, but a positive coming of age experience that sets Ruthie on the path toward growing up. The repetition of the opening paragraph on the last page really brings the story full circle to a very emotionally satisfying ending.

Henkes does this kind of story so well - and apparently he was doing so way back when, in 1988! This book doesn't feel dated in the least, and I can imagine kids still relating to it quite easily. A really good one, worth visiting and revisiting.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Book Review: Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (1936)


We three Fossils vow to try and put our names in history books because it's our very own and nobody can say it's because of our grandfathers.

My boyfriend and I listened to the audiobook version of Ballet Shoes whenever we were in the car during late December and basically all of January, and I'm not sure I can imagine enjoying it in any other format. Reader Elizabeth Sastre had the perfect voice to suit the story, and being able to hear the characters' voices made me love them so much more.

Pauline, Petrova, and Posy Fossil are orphans brought home by Great Uncle Matthew, better known as GUM, who collects artifacts (and babies!), drops them off at home, and goes back out into the world to explore. When he leaves the family for an indefinite amount of time, the three girls, under the care of Nana and Sylvia, GUM's adopted daughter, live frugally, and eventually take up dancing, acting, and singing to help pay living expenses. The quotation at the start of this review is the vow they make on each girl's birthday, which they use to keep them focused on what they really want to do.

I am not a particularly girly girl, so the thought of reading a pink-covered book about ballet shoes was not necessarily readily appealing, but after the first chapter of this book, my mind was quickly opened and I fell in love with the Fossils, and with the fictional world they inhabit. I love that the story follows the girls from birth and gives the kind of detailed backstory that is so often missing from modern children's novels. I also enjoyed the realism of the story, even amidst some of its more fanciful elements. The constant struggle to find enough money, and  the occasional brattiness of each girl as the spotlight shines upon her made the story believable for me, and made me much more invested in all the dance and theater stuff. This book isn't just a cotton-candy filled fantasy for little girls who like tutus; it's a story, peopled with well-crafted characters, about being poor, doing what you can to get by, and hoping for a happy ending.

An added bonus is the fact that many Shakespearean monologues and other plays are referenced in the story, which hopefully sends kids from Ballet Shoes to other great works of literature. I was actually sad to reach the end of this book, and I'm wondering if any other Noel Streatfeild books will be as good, or if I should just read this one again.

An oldie, but goodie, as they say.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Book Review: Lucky Breaks by Susan Patron (2009)


This second book in what I have now learned will be a trilogy is, in my opinion, better than the first one that won the Newbery. While The Higher Power of Lucky was quite well-written, it involved a lot of backstory that took time to build, and the entire plot was basically an internal struggle within Lucky's own mind. This book, Lucky Breaks, with its addition of newcomer Paloma, and her family, takes a more traditional path, and while the writing style doesn't deviate much from the first book, there is a much more clearly defined story arc, and I think the moment of crisis that serves as the book's climax is ten times more satisfying than anything that happened in the first book.

The threads running through this story include Lucky's desperate desire for a female best friend, Lincoln's continued obsession with knot-tying, and his entry in a contest that could take him to England to study, Brigitte's constant efforts to become more Americanized and more Californicated, and a mysterious box delivered to Short Sammy's water tower that all of Hard Pan believes contains his coffin.

The desert setting once again served as an interesting and vibrant backdrop to the story, and scenes such as the appearance of a urinating burro outside Brigitte's trailer, and Brigitte's first experience with s'mores were not just great plot points, but also just really funny moments.

I'd also like to say the book was quite quotable, and some of the lines I marked are below:

From page 42:
Sometimes certain things are so important, so vital and urgent, that they get a momentum of their own, like a force of nature. Lucky felt sure that the essentialness of Paloma coming back to Hard Pan was exactly that kind of force of nature, and one way or another, it would happen.

From page 59:
"Of course," Brigitte said. "Adults have big, big wishes that we do not expect to come true. That is why we need so many more candles on our cakes."

From page 91:
Lucky did not understand why adults were always trying to keep important information from kids. It was very frustrating, because it made kids have to work twice as hard to find things out. 

From page 128:
After a time, Lucky discovered that being bored is actually almost worse than being sad. When you are sad, your heart pumps the tragedy all through your body and fills your mind with the story of your suffering, and you tell that story to yourself over and over. But when you are bored, your mind has no stories and is a gray lump, a lump with soggy crevices of longing for something to happen.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I anxiously await the third installment, Lucky for Good, to be published this summer. I was sad to learn, however, that the illustrations for the third book are not done by Matt Phelan, who did a beautiful job on the first two titles. I have a hard time believing his replacement will measure up.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Exploring Helen Lester's Picture Books


A few months ago, I read Hooway for Wodney Wat for the first time, and wrote a rather negative review on Goodreads. The writing and illustrations themselves weren't the problem; rather, I was critical of the book's message that the way to combat bullying is to become a bully yourself. (I think, based on the author's statement on her website  that she loves this book specifically for its message, that perhaps my interpretation is different than hers, but I still believe my concerns are valid. Full disclosure, though: I was a kid who was bullied, and I have a hair-trigger response to books that don't handle the issue the way I'd want it handled.)

Aside from that, though, I had not read any other Helen Lester books, so when I was setting up the picture books for my new branch library that just opened recently, I made a point of picking up a few of her other titles to get a sense of what her writing is really like. Specifically, I read Tacky the PenguinMe First, and Listen, Buddy.

I am pleased (and relieved) to be able to say that Lester's other books convey much more positive and empowering messages than the one I took away from Wodney Wat, and I was impressed particularly by the way she so colorfully and accurately portrays the kind of phases and difficulties kids go through during their elementary school years. I was not at all surprised to learn that her inspiration comes from years of teaching school. Her characters are too realistic not to have basis in reality.

Tacky the Penguin is different from all the other penguins. Most penguins march in straight lines and blend together in their black and white tuxedos, but Tacky wears a shirt with a loud tropical print, and his marching is much more boisterous, and much less orderly than his companions'. The other penguins don't know what to make of Tacky. However, when three hunting bears threaten the safety of the penguins' home, it is Tacky's out-of-the-box thinking that saves the day.

To my mind, this book has the opposite message from Wodney Wat. Wodney prevailed in his story by bullying the bully. Tacky prevails by remaining true to himself.

Me First is the story of a little pig boy named Pinkerton who insists on being the very first one to do everything. I became concerned from the beginning of the story that we were going to see Pinkerton punished and banished for his bad behavior, as we do with Camilla Capybara in the Wodney Wat story. Pinkerton is first to respond when he hears the question, "Who would care for a sandwich?" and a Sand Witch appears, insisting that the young pig has now volunteered to do her bidding. I worried this would be the end of Pinkerton. Instead, though, his time with the Sand Witch serves as a short penance, and he is eventually sent back out into the world to avoid being pushy and to sin no more.

While I thought the digression into fantasy was weird, and the sandwich/sand witch situation was the kind of silliness I could never abide, even as a child, I think there are many kindergarten and first grade students in the world who would love it. And the message, that being first isn't always best, comes through loud and clear and without trauma.

And finally, Listen Buddy is about a rabbit whose huge ears do nothing to help him listen. Whatever his parents ask him to do, Buddy does something close, but not quite right. When asked for a pen, he provides a hen. When instructed to bring bread, he brings a bed. When Buddy is sent out on his first "long hop" alone in the woods, his poor listening skills send him on the wrong path. He ends up at the cave of the Scruffy Varmint, who is pretty intent on eating bunnies who don't listen to their parents. Suddenly, when forced to fear for his life, Buddy can hear everything loud and clear.

I was confused in the early part of the book, because it seemed like Buddy was just hard of hearing, but I guess his silly mistakes were just meant to be funny, and did not indicate that he couldn't hear the specific words being spoken. As in Me First, I wasn't crazy about the strange outside influence being the catalyst for Buddy's changes, but that seems to be a formula that works for Helen Lester, and I prefer these strange moments of grace brought about by strangers over the suggestion that the way to beat a bully is to join her.

Overall, I think these four picture books - Hooway for Wodney Wat, and the three others I just reviewed - are best suited to classrooms where these particular issues are taking place. They are useful moral tales that are fun rather than preachy. I just think that sometimes the moral is lost, or misinterpreted, and the story suffers.

Also, just a shout-out to illustrator Lynn Munsinger, who does a great job of creating warm, fun, and sympathetic images of these sometimes not very sympathetic animal characters. The illustrations are wonderful, and do a great job of depicting preschool and early elementary school life.

For more on Helen Lester, visit http://www.helenlester.com.