Saturday, June 27, 2009

Opal by Opal Whiteley

Opal was born just before 1900 and was raised by foster parents in Oregon lumber camps after her parents died. She kept a diary when she was five and six years old and this was first published by the Atlantic Monthly Press in 1920. The edition that I read was adapted by Canadian poet Jane Boulton, who standardized some of the spelling and arranged the lines into free verse form on the pages.

Opal writes about her favourite animals, including Thomas Chatterton Jupiter Zeus, a lovely woodrat; Virgil, a toad; Brave Horatius, her dog; Peter Paul Rubens, the pig who follows her to school; and Felix Mendelssohn, the mouse that is always in her pocket. She tells her sorrows to Michael Raphael, a big tree. Sometimes she misses her dead parents and writes messages to them on leaves, saying prayers as she ties them to trees for the angels to find and carry on to heaven.

"The glad song in my heart is not bright today. I have thinks as how I can bring happiness to folks about. That is such a help when lonesome feels do come."

Opal saves any pennies she is given so that she can buy her foster mama the singing lessons she longs for. "And when I grow up I am going to buy her a whole rain barrel of singing lessons."

There is always work, even for very young girls. Opal "dishtowels all the dishes" and "some days there is cream to be shaked into butter. Some days I sweep the floor." She carries eggs to neighbours, feeds the chickens and washes baby clothes and stockings. "Stockings do have needs of many rubs. That makes them clean." She weeds the garden. "My back did get some tired feels but the onions were saying, 'We thank you for more room to grow.'"

"Then I thought I could go explores, but the mama called me to scour the pots and pans. That is something I do not like to do at all. So all the time I'm scouring I keep saying the lovely verses. That helps so much. And by and by the pots and pans are clean."

Opal loves exploring the natural world. "When I grow up I am going to write a book about a raindrop's journey." Of snakes, she says, "Their dresses fit them tight. They can't fluff out their clothes like birds can, but snakes are quick people."

"I lay my ear close to the ground where the grasses grew close together. I did listen. There were voices from out the earth and the things of their saying were the gladness of growing. And there was music. And in the music there was sky-twinkles and earth-twinkles. All the grasses growing there did feel glad feels from the tips of their green arms to their toe roots in the ground."

"One drinks in so much inspiration with one's toes in a willow creek." I've made a note to try that sometime.

This quirky and charming diary is one of my favourites. Suitable for Grade 5 through adult.

Friday, June 26, 2009

King of the Screwups by K.L. Going

K.L. Going really has a way with memorable teen characters who are outsiders. Troy Billings, 296 pounds and suicidal in Fat Kid Rules the World. Iggy Corso, born addicted to crack and pretty much neglected as he grows up in Saint Iggy. I was not so sure about her most recent creation, Liam Gellers in King of the Screwups.

Liam's mother was a world-famous model and now runs a chi-chi clothing boutique. Liam's father is an extremely successful businessman. Liam himself is Mr. Popularity. He has his mother's fabulous looks and an uncanny fashion sense. His problem is that he always seems to screwup big time, end result being that his father kicks him out of the house. Liam goes to live with his gay uncle Pete, a member of a glam-rock cover band, for his final year of high school.

It took me awhile to care about this rich, straight kid who was trying so hard to be someone he was not in order to please his tyrant of a father. By the middle of the book, I was weeping for Liam. Another winning novel from Going. Grade 9 and up.

Map of Ireland by Stephanie Grant

Ann Ahern is 16 and living in South Boston. Her pale skin, blue eyes, red hair and freckles are as clear an indication of her Irish heritage as a map of Ireland. Ann explains how she came to be serving a 20-month sentence for burning down the house of a friend. It happens when she was only just beginning to learn about the fires of passion; she gets a crush on her Senegalese French teacher, Madmoiselle Eugenie, and falls in love with Rochelle, a Black teammate on her basketball team.

The fact that Ann is romantically interested in her own sex is not such a big thing for her, because she has been attracted to girls for a long time, but the colour barrier is a big one. 1974 marks the first year of forced integration of schools through bussing. Ann's mother is one of the women kneeling with rosaries in front of the busses, praying that the Black students will go back to their own neighbourhood. Parents throw rocks at busses containing young students. A group of boys lights Madmoiselle Eugenie's car on fire.

This is a short, gripping novel about coming-of-age in a complex situation. It has been marketed as an adult novel, yet has very much of a YA feel to it. Grade 9 and up.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Embracing the Wide Sky by Daniel Tammet

The author of Born on a Blue Day writes about the way our minds work. He especially wants readers to understand that the brains of autistic savants like himself are essentially the same as every other human being.

I was surprised at how much I learned from this book. For example, the reason that the electoral college system in the U.S.A. gives individual voters more power and how it helps protect minority factions from being ignored by the majority. Opinion polls indicate that 75% of Americans would rather switch to a single national election, and this also is explained; the electoral college system is far more complex and most people prefer to go with the simplest option possible.

Something that has long baffled me is why people buy lottery tickets, even when they know that they are more likely to be killed by lightning than to win a big pot. Tammet explains this in a section entitled "Why People Believe Weird Things." Very enlightening.

How do we measure an intangible thing like intelligence? What role does imagination play in thinking? Why are ideas so much more important than information? Much to ponder in this book. I've also come away with new tips for foreign language learning, which I plan to use when I tackle Slovak.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds

Nicholas Hardiman is a famous British crime novelist. He and his wife, Beth, run a writer's retreat at their country home, Stonefield. In truth, it is Beth who does all the work of the business, and performs all secretarial duties for her husband's writing also, allowing him to concentrate on his work. She knows he is unfaithful, which is causing some strain in their relationship after 25 years.

Just down the road is an estate recently inherited by a young columnist from London, Tamara Drewe. She flirts with all the men - including Nicholas - whenever she breezes into Stonefield for a visit. Andy Cobb, the Hardiman's gardener, is serious when he tells her he preferred her face before her nose job, but he is definitely interested in Tamara. Unfortunately for Andy, Tamara gets involved with Ben Sargeant, the drummer from a rock band. Who happens to be the heart-throb of one of the teenagers in the local village, Jody Long.

A satirical, tangled plot of seduction, betrayal and death, this story is a contemporary version of Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd. And I haven't even got to the best part yet; it's a finely-drawn graphic novel in full colour. Available in book format or online. Very highly recommended.

Arthur, For the Very First Time by Patricia MacLachlan

The summer that he is 10, Arthur is sent to his Uncle Wrisby and Aunt Elda's farm, where he learns that there is more than one way to look at the world. An enchanting, amusing and timeless story about family relationships and coping with difficult emotions. I like the pet chicken, Pauline, who prefers to be addressed in French.

Readers who loved MacLachlan's Sarah, Plain and Tall will find an almost identical side-story here, about a mother who died in childbirth and the mail-order bride who arrived to take her place.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Hamilton Case by Michelle de Kretser

Set in Sri Lanka in the 1930s (when it was still called Ceylon), this is the story of a Sinhalese lawyer who was briefly famous for solving the murder of a British tea plantation owner. But even at the end of his life, he harbours doubt about what really happened. De Kretser, who was born in Ceylon and emigrated to Australia when she was 14, is deft with nuances of character. Through the life of Sam Obeysekere, readers also observe the tragic effects of colonialism on a country, the unravellings leading to a future civil war.

Fractal Time by Gregg Braden

If the subtitle - The Secret of 2012 and a New World Age - grabs your interest, I suggest that you skip right to the final chapter. The first six are repetitious and a waste of time, since everything is summed up at the end. Could have been a magazine article instead of a book.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Gravesavers by Sheree Fitch

Eleven-year-old Cinnamon "Minn" Hotchkiss is sent to stay with her cranky grandmother in Nova Scotia when her mother has trouble recovering from a stillbirth. Minn finds a human skull on the beach and learns from her grandmother about an 1873 shipwreck in which 544 lives were lost. The graveyard where they were buried is being washed out to sea and Minn decides to do something about this. Both entertaining and poignant, this book is suited to readers in Grade 4 to 7. I was glad to find Percy Bysshe Shelley quoted within!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Swallow Me Whole by Nate Powell

Wow! A great coming-of-age story told in black and white graphic novel format. Perry and Ruth are teenaged siblings who are mentally ill. Their elderly grandmother, 'Memaw' - this is set in the American deep south - lives with them and is also mentally ill. Perry sees a tiny wizard on the end of his pencil who forces him to draw for secret mission purposes. Ruth hallucinates swarms of insects as well as keeping, and continually placing into order, jars of them in her room. Ruth eventually gets diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (and has to take 6 pills at a time) but Perry's doctor just says that he is under too much stress.

There are funny parts, like where their biology teacher tells them that, thanks to the PTA, "to keep my job, I can't say anything rooted in scientific theory." Memaw tells Ruth that she understands about seeing things that other people don't. "I see god, after all... over by the back door." Ruth says, "WHAT--" and Memaw says, "just kidding."

There are lots of downright tragic elements to this story. It is remarkable in that it is much more than a tale of coping with mental illness, however. It is about the way that we get on with our lives in the best way that we can, no matter what challenges we face. Parents are fallible, as are teachers and police officers.

I was a bit baffled by the surreal ending the first time I read it but liked it even better upon a second reading.

The Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia A. McKillip

Sealey Head is a quiet seaside outpost with one unusual feature; every day at the moment of sundown, an unseen bell rings out. No one knows its origin. A stranger comes to town, eager to solve the mystery of the bell. Ridley Dow calls himself a travelling scholar and he suspects magic may be afoot. Sealey Head townspeople believe the bell may be connected to a ship that went down at sea long ago. Dow is more interested in searching a crumbling mansion called Aislinn House. Will he discover what Emma, the young housemaid, already knows? That any door in the house might open into an enchanted other version of the house, complete with knights and murderous crows?

It is nice to come across an absorbing, shorter (277 pages) fantasy for adults. I also liked the characters very much, especially the strong women. This book will interest teens from Grade 8 and up as well as adults.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Libertad by Alma Fullerton

Two children, Libertad and Julio, live with their mother at the edge of a garbage dump in Guatemala City. Every day, they work collecting cardboard to sell. When an accident kills their mother, they decide to find their father who went to the United States five years earlier. A moving account told in verse novel format and based on the journey of a real boy, combined with other children's actual experiences. Grade 4 to 8.

Similar stories about working children in other parts of the contemporary world:

Iqbal (carpet weavers in Pakistan) by Francesco D'Adamo
I Am a Taxi (children of incarcerated parents in Bolivia) and The Breadwinner (a girl disguised as a boy supports her family in Afghanistan), both by Deborah Ellis

Similar verse novels:

Home of the Brave (An orphaned young Sudanese refugee) by Katherine Applegate
Downtown Boy (Chicano child of migrant workers in 1950s California) by Juan Felipe Herrera

Similar story of illegal immigrants to the U.S.A.:

Red Glass by Laura Resau

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley

I picked up Being Shelley: The Poet's Search for Himself because I listened to Eleanor Wachtel talk to the author, Ann Wroe. It was slow going and I mentioned to my sweetie that maybe I needed to be more familiar with Shelley's poetry. A few minutes later, she dropped a tiny, tattered book of his work next to me. Moments with Shelley (1907) had belonged to her great-uncle Jack.

The poems made me feel rather off-balance. Heady, old-fashioned language. (" 'T is like a child's belov├Ęd corse / A father watches, till at last / Beauty is like remembrance cast / From time long past.")

Next, I read a teen novel about Shelley's romance and marriage with Mary Shelley: Angelmonster by Veronica Bennett. Much more accessible. Bennett had a lot of exciting stuff to work with.

A proponent of free love, Shelley left his first wife, Harriet, for Mary when she was 16. They ran away to France together... with Mary's stepsister, Claire, who was also 16 and also romantically involved with Shelley. Shelley's first wife was pregnant (possibly with his child) and committed suicide. He was unsuccessful in gaining custody of his two previous children by Harriet because a judge found him immoral. Mary and Shelley had several children who died young (which explains the line I quoted about a father watching a beloved child's dead body) and then Shelley drowned in a boating accident when he was 29.

Probably because it is a teen novel, Bennett left out many of Shelley's additional suspected romantic involvements, even when these people were included in the story, such as Mary's older stepsister, Fanny (who also committed suicide) and Jane Williams. Jane and her husband shared a house in Italy with the Shelleys. In Angelmonster, Mary doesn't finish writing Frankenstein until after Shelley's death, but she actually completed it when she was 18 years old. In the author's note, Bennett acknowledges this discrepancy and I can understand why she structured the novel this way. It does have a powerful ending.

After a few weeks of reading Shelley's poetry before bed, I grew to love it. Being Shelley remained dense, however, and even going back to re-listen to the Wachtel interview didn't help me get through it. I ended up just skimming and stopping to read bits that caught my attention. There was a time in France when Shelley, Mary and Claire walked from Paris to Troyes - a distance of 120 miles - with all of their luggage on a mule. I wish scenes like this had also been included in Angelmonster.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson

One of my younger sisters, Simone, was not as strong a reader as my older sister and I had been when we were in Grade 2. We normally got our books from the school or the public library. My clever mother decided to get her to choose some books of her very own, books that were purchased and that Simone could keep, which was a brilliantly effective strategy. Simone became a passionate reader, like the other female members of my family.

I still remember the books Simone chose. We read them so many times for our own pleasure, and then to our younger siblings, that I can still recite lines from them. Dr. Seuss (The Cat in the Hat; Green Eggs and Ham; Fox in Socks; Hop on Pop). P.D. Eastman (Are You My Mother?). Stan Berenstain (Inside, Outside, Upside Down). Maurice Sendak (Chicken Soup With Rice). Ruth Krauss (The Carrot Seed). And Crockett Johnson's Harold and the Purple Crayon.

To someone who hasn't seen what the right book can do for a child, these titles may seem too babyish to be consequential. To someone who is learning to read, they are magic.

I recently got out a copy of Harold and the Purple Crayon from the library and was delighted to find it every bit as wonderful as I remembered. It was first published in 1955. The art is deceptively simple. The story is of a small child who adventures into his own art creations. Harold's vast imagination and quick wits are an inspiration. Read it and enjoy it and share it with children as young as two years old.

Sunrise Over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers

Why does a peacenik Canadian like me read a book about the American army in Iraq? The whole military culture of the U.S. mystifies me. I am glad that writers like Myers can help me to understand by using first person for a young army recruit.

Robin "Birdy" Perry tells of his experience in Operation Iraqi Freedom, at the start of the invasion in 2003. He enlisted against his father's wishes, but he really wanted to do something after the attack of 9/11. Of course war isn't anything like he expected. Birdy's Civil Affairs unit is supposed to interact with Iraqi civilians and help stabilize the country. The confusion over who exactly is the enemy makes everything complicated. He realizes that, like his uncle who went to Vietnam, it is unlikely that he will be able to talk to people at home about the horror that he has seen and been a part of.

Sunrise Over Fallujah is a gripping read and makes a powerful statement about the senselessness of war.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Shepherd's Granddaughter by Anne Laurel Carter

Winner of the Canadian Library Association's Children's Book of the Year, 2009.

Amani Raheem is a Palestinian who loves sheep. She started accompanying her grandfather and the flocks into the mountain fields when she was six years old. She chooses to be home-schooled so that she can continue to learn her vocation as a shepherd, and, less than a decade later, she takes over the herd when her grandfather dies.

The Raheem family farm lies in the West Bank some distance from Al Khalil (better known as Hebron). The grazing area for Amani's sheep is gradually encroached, first by new Israeli roads, and then an illegal Israeli settlement is built right on her family's lands. Injustice and tragedy come one after another. It is an absolutely heartbreaking story. I can't remember the last time I cried so much over a novel.

Without ever becoming preachy, the strong message of this book is one of peace and nonviolent protest. Carter tells a compelling story. I highly recommend it to anyone (Grade 6 or older) looking for insight into the complicated situation in Palestine. Another powerful book on this topic (suitable for Grade 5 and up) is a collection of interviews put together by Deborah Ellis: Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak.

The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico

First published in The Saturday Evening Post magazine, The Snow Goose was awarded an O. Henry short story prize in 1941. I finally got around to reading it because I had heard of a new edition (well, relatively recent -- 2007) illustrated by Angela Barrett.
Joanna Carey wrote about Barrett’s work, “A lot of children’s illustrators today grab your attention with the speed and economy of their style, but Angela Barrett approaches things very differently. There is a stillness and a quiet atmospheric intensity to her illustrations which appeal across a wide range of understanding. She doesn't simplify things - on the contrary, she both assumes and respects the intelligence of her readers - and her richly allusive work, full of detail and symbolism, invites and rewards as much time and investigation as you care to give it."
The Snow Goose is a sentimental story about a hunchback who becomes friends with a girl when she brings an injured goose to him. The man is killed after rescuing many soldiers who had been stranded on the beach of Dunkirk.
The restrained style of the illustrations nicely balances the melodrama inherent in the tale. The story travels into sappy territory but not so far as to prevent my enjoyment of it. I appreciated the mood change in the section where the narration shifts from third person to bits of conversation between soldiers, telling of their experiences at Dunkirk and their sightings of a snow goose. There was one point (the mine in the water) where I felt my emotions manipulated and resisted the author, but other than that, I liked the story and loved the artwork.
This edition may draw new readers (like myself), but will also be enjoyed by people who already know and love the classic story. A picture book for all ages: Grade 4 to adult.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Talking Like the Rain: A Read-to-me Book of Poems

This collection of poetry for young children is selected by X.J. Kennedy and Dorothy M. Kennedy and charmingly illustrated in bright watercolours by Jane Dyer. The poets range from Emily Dickinson to Dennis Lee to Christina Rossetti to Langston Hughes and Robert Louis Stevenson.

All of the poems are short and have been chosen to share the beauty and rhythm of language. Some are fun and snappy, like the two lines that make up the entirety of "The Wapiti" (Ogden Nash): "There goes the wapiti / Hippety-hoppity."

Others are more lyrical, inspiring a child's imagination:
"a cold little / raindrop / in her winter nightgown" from "First Snowflake" (N.M Bodecker)
"stars come out / with silver keys / to open up the night" from "Taking Turns" (Norma Farber)
"Far away, on the world's dark rim / He howls, and it seems to comfort him." from "The Wolf" (Georgia Roberts Durston)

This would be an excellent gift for a 2nd, 3rd or 4th birthday. Like a collection of Mother Goose rhymes, it is a book to reread with a child many times.

Tsunami! by Kimiko Kajikawa

I've always liked Ed Young's artwork and so I looked forward to seeing this new book that he illustrated. It was a surprise to me that, this time, I think the story is stronger than the art. (It is adapted from a story by Lafcadio Hearn.)

The cover illustration is the best; tiny bits of flotsam give a sense of the enormity of the wave swamping a Japanese village. The orange colour of the title pops against the grey background and echoes the shape of the wave. Barring a few exceptions, I found the rest of the mixed media collage images too busy or too difficult to interpret the action or both. The two spreads that show Ojiisan and his grandson seen against the sky from a viewpoint slightly below the top of the mountain are very nice, however.

The story, as I've already said, is great. A man sacrifices his wealth in order to save hundreds of people. Kajikawa's writing is spare, yet evocative. "And presently an earthquake came -- a long, slow, spongy motion. The house rocked gently several times. Then all was still." I've never experienced an earthquake, but I was perfectly able to imagine it. The awesome, destructive power of nature is there too, when the tsunami hits. Might be scary for young children, especially if they live by the ocean.