Friday, March 30, 2012

Book Review: No Talking by Andrew Clements (2007)

No Talking is a school story about a particularly chatty fifth grade class. Their teachers have been trying since kindergarten to get these kids to stop talking so much during the school day, and they have never been able to do it. This is why they are so surprised when, one afternoon, the entire class falls silent. Little do they know that Dave Packer and Lynsey Burgess have made a bet to see which group - the boys or the girls - can say the fewest words in two days. And little do Dave and Lynsey realize what this experience will teach them about communication, language, and each other.

Clements is a really perceptive author. His observations of school-aged kids are very insightful, and his stories are both realistic and imaginative at the same time. Though his characters are interesting, far more interesting in this book is the school environment itself. By including the points of view of students and teachers, he provides a full, clear portrait of how the school operates, and how the kids' experiment in silence affects that entire system. Too few authors use omniscient narrators in contemporary realistic fiction - Clements's style is a welcome change from the typical first-person or third person limited perspectives. I especially like the way the omniscient third-person narration is able to comment generally on certain characteristics of the individual characters as well as the class as a whole.

Here is my favorite example, from page 19, where the narrator explains about "cooties:"

However, some groups of kids cling to those cooties a little too long. The boys avoid the girls, and the girls avoid the boys, and everyone keeps seeing cooties everywhere. And, sadly, that's the way it was with most of the fifth-grade kids at Laketon Elementary School.

Of course, the fifth graders didn't actually use the word "cooties" anymore - that would have sounded like baby talk. They used words like "dumb" or "gross" or "immature" or "annoying." But a cootie by any other name is still a cootie.

Statements like this couldn't necessarily be understood or articulated by the kids in the story, but readers certainly understand them, and the entire story becomes richer by their addition.

This book can appeal to both boys and girls and would work well as a classroom read-aloud or book club pick. Readers who enjoyed Frindle and other Clements titles will be drawn to this one, as will fans of books like Regarding the Fountain by Kate and Sarah Klise, and the Secrets of a Lab Rat series by Trudy Trueit.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Reading Through History: The Moffats by Eleanor Estes (1941)

At first glance, The Moffats is a charming throwback to World War I America. The four Moffat children, Sylvie, Joe, Jane, and Rufus, live with their single mother in a rented house on New Dollar Street in Cranbury, Connecticut. Their neighborhood is idyllic, and the only true problem looming over their heads is the fact that their house is for sale, and eventually they will have to move to a new one. This set-up provides many possibilities for adventure in the kids' own backyard, and for taking readers on a journey to a time and place depicted as safer, cozier, and simpler. Unfortunately, while the book is a gentle, clean read, it's also actually pretty darn boring.

In this book, as in others of its ilk (The Saturdays, The Penderwicks, The Boxcar Children, etc.), lots of little, everyday things happen. The kids celebrate Halloween by frightening a bully. They ride on a trolley and witness a standoff between operators moving in opposite directions on the same track. They help a man from the Salvation Army bring his wagon to a revival. These are all good ideas, and they sound interesting, but their execution left me feeling disappointed. I usually love it when authors bring new life to everyday occurrences, but Estes just didn't do that for me. Everything started out ordinary and remained that way. Many scenes felt unresolved, or contrived in their resolutions, and I often got the feeling that the book was showing off its cuteness. I couldn't quite get invested in the characters because they never felt authentic. I was always aware, at every point, that they were fictional representations and never crossed over into believing they could be real people. Jane, especially, seemed impossibly young for nine years old, and Sylvie and Joe were almost irrelevant for how little they participated in anything.

I think, in addition to the shortcomings of the story, my reading experience was further destroyed by the fact that I listened to the audiobook. The full-cast recording was very distracting, and some of the kids' voices downright squeaky and ear-piercing. I liked the narrator's voice, and it completely drew me out of the story every time when dialogue was spoken by a different voice actor.

I recall enjoying Ginger Pye when I read it in graduate school, so obviously Eleanor Estes is a talented author. The Moffats, however, was too sugary-sweet and lacked enough conflict to keep me interested. I think I will pass on the sequels, The Middle Moffat, Rufus M., and The Moffat Museum.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Book Review: Penny and Her Song by Kevin Henkes (2012)

Though I think a lot of people and bookstores have called this book a picture book, it’s really an easy reader divided into short chapters. Penny is a mouse like Lilly, and Chrysanthemum, and Owen, but she doesn’t have a big life-changing problem. Rather, she comes home from school wanting to share her special song, and discovers she must wait because the babies are asleep. It’s difficult to wait, but well worth it, because when she does finally share her song, everyone in the family loves it - including those little babies.

The story reminded me immediately of Noisy Nora, but without the condescending older sister, and with a much less dramatic resolution. Penny is never brushed aside and ignored like Nora; rather, she waits patiently, and is ultimately rewarded with lots of positive attention from her parents for her creativity. The book is less a sibling rivalry story, and more of a celebration of joy, togetherness, and sharing simple moments with one’s family.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Book Review: Swallowdale by Arthur Ransome (1931)

In this second book in the series, a year has passed since Swallows and Amazons, and the Walker children have returned to the Lake District for the summer holiday, excited to sail in Swallow, camp on Wildcat Island, and fight more wars with the Amazon pirates, Nancy and Peggy Blackett. There are some changes this year, though. For one thing, their younger sister Vicky has stopped resembling Queen Victoria, for whom she was nicknamed, and is now called Bridget. The family has also acquired a monkey, though he has not joined them on this trip, and a parrot, named Polly, who will serve as the ship’s parrot. They have also invented an imaginary explorer named Peter Duck, about whom Titty tells many exciting stories. What they are not prepared for, however, are the unexpected changes that impact their summer fun. The Blacketts have their great aunt staying with them, and she keeps the girls on such short leashes, they can hardly have any fun or free time at all. Then the Swallow suffers an unfortunate shipwreck, and the Swallows find themselves marooned on dry land while it gets fixed. But the Walker children are true explorers, and it doesn’t take long for them to settle a new camp, which they name Swallowdale, and to set out on a whole new set of adventures, including an ascent up the peak they call Kanchenjunga.

The first book in this series is so utterly brilliant, it would be impossible to top, but this sequel comes very close. Though at times early in the story Ransome’s thoughts seem somewhat disorganized, and his descriptions repetitive and lengthy, the story hardly suffers at all from these shortcomings. Rather, Ransome does a very good job of managing many story threads, and of breathing fresh life into the setting so thoroughly explored by Swallows and Amazons. I love the plotting of the story. Obviously, a new story in a familiar setting requires some changes, or the writing grows stale, but the way he chose to bring about those changes fits seamlessly into the overall narrative arc of the story and provides its own exciting shipwreck scene. Throughout the book, Ransome propels the story forward with one realistic and believable conflict after another, always resolving them happily but not without some anxiety on the part of characters and readers alike.

The characters also have a lot of room to grow during this story. Not only do we see a prim and proper side of the usually wild Blackett girls, we also see Roger beginning to mature and developing some exciting storylines of his own. Susan, too, develops beyond her role as mate, especially when she takes up native concerns on the behalf of her mother or another adult. The differences between outspoken and daring Nancy and the more cautious Swallows is also much more apparent in this book, and made me really consider how their friendship works, and why. I also thought the adult characters came to life much more strongly in this second book. Mrs. Walker and Captain Flint, in particular, developed personalities as people, not just as authority figures or family members.

This book, like its predecessor, empowers children to use their imaginations and explores the possibilities of a world where children can roam independently and look after themselves for certain lengths of time. Contemporary kids - especially in my urban community - probably haven’t done anything close to what John, Susan, Titty, and Roger do in these books, but I think every kid understands the desire for independence and relates to the power and enjoyment of imaginative play. These books appeal to all kids because they speak to their fundamental understanding of the world, and speak to their interests and concerns, instead of to the messages, lessons, and morals of adults.