Sunday, February 24, 2013

Book Review: Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorenson (1956)

Miracles on Maple Hill was published in 1956, and it was the winner of the 1957 Newbery Medal. As the book opens, Marly and her family are headed to Maple Hill, a rural area of Pennsylvania where Marly’s mother spent her childhood summers. Though at first it appears to be a happy family vacation, the truth is that Marly’s father is suffering the psychological effects of the time he spent as a prisoner of war. At home in the city, he is angry and irritable, jumping at every little thing and sometimes even mistreating his children. The family is coming to Maple Hill in the hopes that the country lifestyle will help Marly’s dad start to heal. Over the next year, Marly gets to know wonderful people - Mr. and Mrs. Chris, Harry the Hermit, and Margie - and she experiences all the miracles Maple Hill can offer, from maple syrup and wildflowers to the slow recovery of her father’s mental strength.

In contemporary children’s books, there is a tendency to dwell more heavily on the darker side of life. Nowadays, for better or for worse, we trust kids to deal with the harsh truths of life - abuse, poverty, divorce, death - and many books describe these situations in detail, evoking empathy from readers and encouraging them to feel all the associated emotions, good and bad. This book handles the pain of Marly’s dad’s experiences in a more detached way, which I think is an interesting and effective approach.

Marly is about ten years old, and what we know of her dad’s condition is filtered through her point of view. It seems likely, given the personality of her mother, that Marly would be protected as much as possible from the darkness of her father’s experiences. Because of this, the reader is really only shown those few frightening moments of anger that Marly has actually witnessed. Throughout the book, both Marly and her brother react to their father nervously, with lots of concern over how he will respond to them, but the reader isn’t subjected to the experiences that made them feel that way. I can only assume this was a conscious decision on the part of the author, and my guess is that it was a decision made to protect young readers. Though some kids do certainly like to read the gory details, or maybe even need to read them to feel validated, other kids are more sheltered, like I was, and this book strikes a great compromise between perfect happiness and interesting storytelling.

The other remarkable thing about this book is its descriptions of country living. I borrowed this book from my urban library system, where kids don’t often run into wildflowers, wild mushrooms, or sap from maple trees. If they read this book, though, they will feel as though they have spent a year on Maple Hill right alongside Marly. The descriptions of everything Marly sees, feels, and tastes during her year of visits to Maple Hill are beautiful, and the author uses just the right details to transport the reader through the beauty of the different seasons. She ties all of this wonderful information about the natural world in with Marly’s relationship with her brother, Joe, and both kids’ relationships to their Maple Hill neighbors, and it is the combination of character and setting that drives the story forward.

This is very much of a book of the 1950s. There are lots of references to very rigidly defined gender roles, where Joe is permitted many freedoms, but Marly must stick close to home, and where it is surprising when Marly’s father learns to cook, or when her mother drives the family car. At one point, Marly’s mother actually apologizes to Marly’s teacher because Marly is more of a tomboy than the other girls at her one-room schoolhouse. These references are among the few moments in the story that make it seem more historical than contemporary. There are also a lot of references to Marly’s father’s time in World War II, which could date the book, but given that our country is also at war today, it is possible that contemporary kids could have a parent in a similar situation to Marly’s father and find some hope and meaning in his recovery.

I really enjoyed this book, though it’s probably best enjoyed when we think of it as “old” realistic fiction rather than historical fiction. The story reflects the values of the time, but they have not been filtered through contemporary thinking. Two very recent novels about similar subjects that might draw interesting comparisons are The Second Life of Abigail Walker by Frances O’Roark Dowell and The Bell Bandit by Jacqueline Davies.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Book Review: Lulu and the Dog from the Sea by Hilary McKay (2013)

Lulu and the Dog from the Sea is Hilary McKay’s second adventure about a young animal lover whose compassion for animals in need often leads her into trouble. Set during the summer, this story takes place at the beach, where Lulu and her family take a vacation with Lulu’s best friend Mellie. On their first day in their vacation home, Lulu is warned not to befriend a stray dog who wreaks havoc on the neighborhood by digging through everyone’s garbage cans, but she just can’t help herself. The dog from the sea is obviously lonely - and hungry. Lulu is overwhelmed by the desire to save him, but to do so, she’ll have to protect him from the local dog catcher as well as from angry neighbors who would do him harm. A subplot involves Mellie’s difficulties with building a kite, the end result of which figures heavily into the fate of Lulu’s new canine friend.

For more than two thirds of the story, I liked this book better than its predecessor, Lulu and the Duck in the Park. Whereas the first story focuses mostly on Lulu and her class at school, this second one delves deeper into her family dynamics, and into the personalities of Lulu’s parents. Occasionally, it shifts points of view so we get to understand the thoughts of Lulu’s own dog as well as the so-called dog from the sea. Lulu’s empathy for animals gets transferred to the reader so that, dog lover or not, the reader becomes invested in the well being of this particular stray dog. The writing is strong and evocative, and at times, even funny. In particular, I enjoyed the moment in chapter three when Lulu’s dog Sam reflects on the ill behavior of other dogs, and the narrator tells us that Sam would be surprised to learn that he himself is a dog. I also loved McKay’s descriptions of the beach atmosphere. I felt as though I could practically breathe the sea air.

There is just one problem with this book, and for me, it was sort of a deal breaker. In the final moments of the story, when the tension mounts between the dog from the sea and his neighbors, the dog suddenly becomes Lassie. In episode after episode of Lassie, the famous collie has a sixth sense about his master, Timmy, and she is always running off to wells and mines and various dangerous places to rescue him. Essentially the same thing happens near the end of this book. I saw it coming, hoped desperately that it wouldn’t happen, and then found myself rolling my eyes as the book jumped the shark in a way I could not really forgive. Will kids who love dogs find the ending believable? Perhaps. This series is very sweet and gentle, and readers who don’t mind a mushy ending might buy into the easy way things wrap up for Lulu and the dog from the sea. For me, though, having read many chapter books, I thought this was too simple an ending to an otherwise beautifully written book. I felt that the author owed the reader a more realistic and less cliched finale, and it dropped my Goodreads rating from five stars down to three.

Lulu and the Dog from the Sea is likely to appeal to fans of the first Lulu book, as well as to readers who like the Puppy Place, Vet Volunteers, and Critter Club series. It’s also a nice family-oriented alternative to some of the other girl-centric chapter book series where crushes and girl drama have taken center stage.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Book Review: Words of Stone by Kevin Henkes (1992)

Every summer since his mother died of cancer, Blaze Werla has created an imaginary friend and subsequently buried him in the backyard. This summer, after the yearly burial, someone begins leaving messages made of stones on the hill behind Blaze's house. First, he sees his mother's name. Later, the messages become more personal. He suspects his father's new girlfriend, in whom he has confided, might be the one leaving the words of stone, but while he decides what to do about it, he surprises himself by making friends with Joselle Stark. Joselle herself is troubled by her own absent mother, and as she and Blaze grow closer, she realizes she must tell Blaze an important truth if they are to be true friends.

Like Henkes's more recent novels such as Olive's Ocean and Junonia, Words of Stone is a quiet, introspective story. Blaze and Joselle are both sensitive kids who have endured their share of pain and confusion, and because of this, much of the story takes place inside their heads. (Though the narration is all in the third person, the chapters alternate between the two characters so we know both of their thoughts.) Outside events do influence their internal struggles and triumphs, but there is very little physical action. This is definitely a literary novel, where the language and word choice are the most prominent features. It reads like a lot of the serious fiction (The Cay, The Lottery Rose) I was assigned in late elementary school. The writing is lyrical and at times, almost eerie, as Blaze reflects on his mother's death and on the accident he had on a ferris wheel.  His toy Noah's Ark and the graves of his imaginary friends are powerful images that represent his pain and his loss, and it is Henkes's use of these symbolic objects that makes the book stand out.

I would be surprised if this book had ever become super popular, because it dwells so much on the emotions of its main characters. There are readers, though, who are not satisfied by fast-paced action novels, like the Percy Jackson series, or by cruelty thinly veiled in humor, like the Wimpy Kid books, and I think it is those more serious readers who appreciate Henkes's style. Kids who mourned the loss of a parent, or who have trouble making and trusting new friends will empathize strongly with Blaze's loneliness. Those who have grown up reading Henkes's picture books will be pleased to see that his writing for older children continues to provide validation and support for the myriad challenges of growing up.

Words of Stone was published in 1992, and it is still in print. The cover of the most recent edition is much better suited to the story than the cover of the edition I read (shown at the top of this post), and I think kids would be interested in picking it up. It is a great read-alike for As Simple As It Seems by Sarah Weeks, Remembering Mrs. Rossi by Amy Hest, and The Last Best Days of Summer by Valerie Hobbs.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Book Review: A Song for Bijou by Josh Farrar (2013)

Bijou Doucet, a survivor of the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, has just moved in with her aunt and uncle in Brooklyn, where she attends an all-girls school. Though Bijou is not permitted to date or even to socialize out of school, she manages to attract the attention of Alex Schrader, one of the students at the nearby all-boys school. Alex is pretty clueless about girls, but he is sweet, and before long, Bijou, too, wants to spend time with him, even if it is forbidden. Through their sweet and innocent first romance, Alex and Bijou overcome the pain of Bijou's past, the restrictive rules of her aunt and uncle, and the intolerance of their classmates.
I was drawn to this book on NetGalley for two superficial reasons: the poetic sounding title, and the cover illustration by Erin McGuire. I guessed instantly based on those two things that this would be a cute middle grade romance. What I didn't guess - and what truly makes this book special - is how many other story lines figure into that romance.  This isn't just a love story, but a story about cultural differences, empathy, acceptance, and forgiveness. Because the narrative alternates between Bijou's voice and Alex's voice, the story is well-balanced and presents the challenges of both characters. Even when the characters misunderstand each other and fail to communicate, the reader remains sympathetic to both sides of the story and continues to root for the success of  their relationship.

In addition to the well-realized main characters, this book is also populated by many wonderful supporting characters. Alex has two best friends, the actions of whom figure heavily into some of the mistakes he makes in trying to get to know Bijou. Bijou has an older brother who has moved out of his aunt and uncle's house and who teaches Alex to play Haitian rada music and conspires with Bijou to find ways for her to spend time with Alex. Alex and Bijou each also have a set of class bullies who tease them about their relationship and use cyber-bullying to intimidate them. The entire world of this story feels very contemporary, and I could imagine these same situations playing out in the schools in my neighborhood.

This is a great book for readers who enjoyed Same Sun Here. Both books alternate between a boy's point of view and a girl's, and both deal with characters who expand their horizons by learning about each other's cultures. It is also a very boy-friendly romance. Though Bijou is a significant part of the story, most of the romance comes through in Alex's narration. I'm not 100% sure the cover will attract male readers, but Alex's voice is so authentic, middle school boys - especially those who are already fond of reading -  would easily get hooked once they started reading.

A Song for Bijou is a beautifully written story of first love, and so much more. Issues of racism, bullying, and cultural differences make it a great read-aloud or book club choice for middle school students who love to discuss and debate serious issues. I look forward to reading more from Josh Farrar, and I plan to read his other middle grade novel, Rules to Rock By, which was published in 2010. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Book Review: A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L'Engle (1980)

My feelings about the last three Madeleine L'Engle books that I have read have ranged from lukewarm disinterest to all-out hatred, so I was almost nervous to pick up another one. Thankfully, though, A Ring of Endless Light, published in 1980, made me fall in love with L'Engle's writing all over again. Vicky Austin is almost sixteen, and she is struggling to make sense of death. A family friend, Commander Rodney, has died trying to save a drowing teen, and Vicky's own grandfather is dying of leukemia. Vicky also spends time with Zachary Grey, the troubled young man she first met in The Moon By Night, Adam Eddington, who works with her brother John at a marine biology research station, and Leo Rodney, whose feelings for Vicky are far more romantic than hers for him. As her grandfather's condition deteriorates, Vicky comes to terms with the idea of death and works to sort out her feelings for each of the young men who desire her affections.

Because I have such an affinity for realistic fiction, it comes as no surprise that my favorites among the L'Engle books I've read have been the ones about Vicky Austin and her family. My love for this particular book, though, extends beyond just a genre preference. There is plenty of science fiction in A Ring of Endless Light, including references to farandola, discussions of Adam's role in Dr. O'Keefe's regeneration research, and the discovery that people can communicate with dolphins telepathically. The difference between this book and A Swiftly Tilting Planet or A Wind in the Door is that I connect better with Vicky's emotions than with Meg's or Charles Wallace's. Meg and Charles Wallace always feel like characters, whereas Vicky sometimes feels like a real person who has the experiences of a real teen.

There were moments in this book where I felt it was necessary to suspend my disbelief a little bit. It seemed unlikely to me that several people connected to one family would die or come so near to death in such a short time. I also thought the way Zachary Grey was brought into the story was maybe a bit too coincidental, and I wondered if it was necessary to create a connection between him and Commander Rodney's death. Even so, the way these events are described, and the way they work together to further the plot, is exceptional. Whereas in A Swiftly Tilting Planet, I felt that L'Engle made all the connections between the characters too obvious, A Ring of Endless Light is written with more subtlety, and even if the events of the story are unlikely, the overall narrative is more believable.

I am nearly finished reading L'Engle's Murry/O'Keefe and Austin books. Next up is A House Like a Lotus, and after that, only Many Waters, An Acceptable Time, and Troubling A Star are left.  I'm hoping these last few books will be as enjoyable as A Ring of Endless Light, or at least not as dismal as A Swiftly Tilting Planet.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Book Review: Love is in the Air by Jonathan Fenske (2012)

Love is in the Air by Jonathan Fenske is a new (December 2012) Level 2 easy reader published by Penguin Young Readers. It is designated for the “progressing reader” and its Guided Reading Level is H. After a party, Balloon is left all alone, tied to a table. Just as he starts to droop, along comes Kite, a new friend who invites Balloon to fly with her. Balloon manages to break free, but then he flies higher than Kite. Once they are side by side, they have lots of fun... until the wind dies down and Balloon runs into a bird with a sharp beak. Is this friendship doomed to deflate?

In this, his very first book, Fenske has done everything exactly right. He creates lovable characters out of everyday objects, and gives them personality and significance in just a few simple words and images. Each word of the text is important, and none is extraneous; his writing is aptly economical and perfectly suited to the reading abilities of his audience. There are also some great artistic moments that set the writing apart. Repeated letter sounds in poetic phrases like “rose on the breeze,” “cool clouds” and “down drifted Kite” give the text a pleasing sound. Onomatopoeia enhances but does not take over the text, appearing only in speech bubbles to express sounds such as “Doink!” and “Plop!” This approach works so well, because readers get both the rich vocabulary of the story and the fun of those silly sound words.

The use of panels and speech bubbles give the book great visual appeal, and they work well with the cartoonish facial expressions of the two main characters. Fenske also makes great use of white space, giving the characters lots of room to move around. The result is that the illustrations feel almost animated. Visual hints that the story is set in the sky are minimal, but that sense of movement makes it impossible to forget that we’re meant to be floating on the breeze.

The relationship between the two characters is also perfect for the easy reader audience. Romances aren’t great for early elementary school kids, but gentle friendship stories still appeal to them. Kids will be intrigued by the idea of a balloon and a kite becoming friends, and they will be excited by the problems they have in being together, and ultimately comforted by the story’s sweet and happy ending. This sweetness also makes it a perfect easy reader for preschoolers who start reading early.

Love is in the Air is definitely one of my new favorite books, and I can’t wait to see more of Fenske’s fresh style.