Friday, February 29, 2008

Except for the Fleas! Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz

The Newbery Award, often given for strong, thematic novels, was won this year by the script written by the school's librarian for a group of middle school-aged students in an across-the-curriculum study of the Middle Ages. Faced with a potential cast in which "no one wanted a small part," the author settled upon a script of dramatic monologues and dialogues, some in rhyme, some in blank verse, and some in prose, to be spoken as if by young people of a medieval manor in the England of 1255.

This production's libretto became Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, bravely published* by Candlewick Press, and illustrated in beautiful watercolors reminiscent of medieval illuminations by Robert Byrd. Schlitz also utilizes the medieval manuscript's technique of the gloss, or marginal note, to elucidate the text, e.g., "Friants are boar droppings."

How does Schlitz work the medieval term for pig poop into her production? She does it organically and naturally, as she does in all the pieces, drawing us immediately into the character's external world and internal life. Here is Hugo, the Lord's nephew:

"I ran to the woods, where I saw his tracks--
this big--and the mud he scratched
bottom side the trees.
Followed his friants straight to his bed
and found it warm.
There was a boar in the forest."

When Hugo confesses his truancy from Latin to track the spoor of the boar, his uncle and lord cuts to the chase:

"Why then, we'll go hunting! And as for you,
you'll hunt like a man, or be flogged like a boy.
Help kill the boar, and I'll give you the kidneys--
turn tail and I'll have the skin off your back."

Hugo quails as he and his uncle dismount to meet the charge of the boar, "as huge as a horse," holding his ground on legs like straw with his spear in wet, shaking hands. Yet he stands to help fell the beast and earns the right to be called a man.

Each speech reveals the layers of interrelation among the residents of the manor, as we see on Maying Day, when Hugo's horse goes lame and the blacksmith's daughter, in her own words "big and ugly," capably calms Hugo's palfrey and tends to his shoe. All the while totally smitten with the "beauty of his face," and unable even to speak to Hugo as he leaves, Taggot wonderingly finds the sprig of hawthorn bloom he leaves on her anvil.

The voices of those in all stations is heard, from Jack the Half-Wit, to Isobel, the lord's daughter, Thomas, the doctor's son to Nelly the sniggler (eel-finder). All speak truthfully, revealing details of their times but also of their hearts. Here is Otho, the miller's son, speaking of the way of the world as true today as it was for him:

"Oh, God makes the water, and the water makes the river,
And the river turns the mill wheel
and the wheel goes on forever.
Every man's a cheater, and so every man is fed,
For we feed upon each other
when we seek our daily bread.

...My father used to beat me sore--
I've learned that life is grim.
And someday I will have a son--and God help him!"

A poignant dual monologue tells of the encounter between Jacob Ben Salomon, the moneylender's son, and Petronella, the merchant's daughter, as they come upon each other on opposite sides of a stream. Petronella picks up a stone, knowing that "the Christians always throw stones at Jews," but their eyes meet, and instead she skips the stone across the water, "skipping, swift and merry," and the two spend a half-hour, laughingly skipping stones playfully back and forth, until the bells for afternoon prayers remind them of their places in the world, and they leave the spot, never to tell a living soul of their encounter.

In short expository sections, titled "A Little Background" Schlitz amplifies aspects of medieval life, describing, for example, the "three-field system," "the Crusades," "Jews in medieval society," and "towns and freedom." But it is in the speeches themselves where the world of the speakers, with their faith and their failings, comes home to the readers. Here is Barbary, the mud slinger, who, saddled with her pregnant stepmother's obstreperous twins, vents her resentment of her lot by secretly throwing dung upon the silk gown of Isobel, the lord's daughter:

"It wasn't easy. I prayed
that God would forgive me--
that the muck would come out of her dress,
that my stepmother wouldn't die.

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 the pain
and pray for her life,
the same as me.

And thinking of that,
I added one more prayer--
sweet Jesus, come Christmas,
don't let it be twins."

Lowdy, the varlet's (animal keeper's) child, sums up the troubles that the medieval flesh is heir to in her complaint:

I'm used to the lice,
Raising families in my hair.
I expect moths to nibble holes
In everything I wear.
I scrape away the maggots
When they crawl across the cheese.
I can get used to anything,
Except for the fleas!

*Note: Apparently not anticipating a Newbery Award (or even big sales), Candlewick seems to have printed far too few of this beautifully designed book. I ordered Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! online on January 14 and received it only two days ago!

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Nonfiction That Makes the Grade: The Battle of the Bulge by Bill Cain

The Rosen Publishing Group has established themselves as publishers of a wide range of nonfiction books for the elementary and middle school reader. Their new series, Graphic Novels of World War II combines the long-term appeal of the subject of World War II with the current popularity of the graphic novel with middle and young adult readers.

I've just had an opportunity (not easy, since bookstores often don't carry much in the way of children's nonfiction) to examine one title in this series, The Battle of the Bulge: Turning Back Hitler's Final Push (Graphic Battles of World War II).

Author Bill Cain offers a conventional text overview of World War II on his contents page and lists the "key commanders" of the Allied and German forces, with thumbnail drawings of Omar Bradley, George S. Patton, Josef Dietrich, and Hasen von Manteuffel. A four-page introduction, "D-Day and Beyond" and "Prelude to the Bulge" competently hits the major events leading up to the historic battle, also known by the Allies as the Battle of the Ardennes and by the Germans as Wacht am Rhein. He also includes an afterword, "After the Battle," which points up the significance of this battle in the outcome of the war, also illustrated with sepia-toned photographs from the period.

The bulk of the book is a full-color comic-book portrayal of this significant battle, day by day, beginning with the Allied generals' sense of complacency following their breakout from Normandy and Hitler's top-secret plan to throw all of Germany's land army into an attack to split the British and American armies and force a treaty favorable to the Third Reich. Illustrator Dheeraj Verma adapts the retro look of classic action-adventure comics, with plenty of burning tanks, flashing rifles, and grimacing soldiers and an occasional "BOOM," and "AARRGGHH!" along the way.

Along with the major events of the battle, Verma throws in some classic anecdotes, including General Omar Bradley's being held at gunpoint while he tries to convince a rifle-wielding sentry that he is not a German imposter and that the capital of Illinois really is Springfield, not Chicago, and General McAuliffe's famous "Nuts" in reply to the German commander's call for his surrender at Bastogne. He also includes stories of individual heroism by medal winners and accounts of high-ranking strategists as they struggle to hold their front against the surprise attack. To their credit, both Cain and Verma do not slight the immense toll of the casualties of this bloody battle.

For reluctant readers who find long pages of text daunting, this series has a great deal to offer. Both authors provide background, motivation, and basic facts of the battle in an appealing format. Backmatter includes a good glossary, a short "Further Reading" section (albeit weighted toward Rosen's and their English partner Osprey's books), and index. An additional feature is an online umbrella site which promises to keep an updated list of websites related to the subject at

Other titles in this series are The Battle of Guadalcanal: Land and Sea Warfare in the South Pacific (Graphic Battles of World War II), The Battle of Iwo Jima: Guerrilla Warfare in the Pacific (Graphic Battles of World War II), The Battle of Midway: The Destruction of the Japanese Fleet (Graphic Battles of World War II), D-Day: The Liberation of Europe Begins (Graphic Battles of World War II), and Pearl Harbor: A Day of Infamy (Graphic Battles of World War II).

Reading levels for this series, according to Accelerated Reader, range from grade 5.6 to 6.6.


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Family Secrets: Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything In It by Sundee Frazier

A kid with a scientific mind--even while doing his chores--Brendan Buckley begins to wonder about dust.

"I stopped thinking about Khalfani and riding my bike, and even Grampa Clem. And I definitely wasn’t thinking about finishing any chore. I went straight to my computer and got on the Internet, where I typed in the search question “What is dust?”

Sixty-seven million, nine hundred thousand results came up.

I had no idea there would be so much out there about dust, but that’s the thing about asking questions: They often lead to surprises, and they always lead to more questions."

Still sad over his Grampa Clem's death, ten-year-old Brendan's questions about the science of rocks and minerals lead him to investigate an exhibit at the mall. As it often does in science and in life, serendipity takes a hand and leads him to the display of Ed DuBose, president of the local rockhounds' club, and Brendan suddenly realizes that Ed is the white grandfather his mother will never talk about. With a white mom and black father, Brendan has never really given serious thought to being biracial, but he has always wondered what happened to his mom's father, whom she will only say is "gone."

Feeling the loss of his other grandfather, Brendan is drawn to this gruff old man who shares his prominent ears and his love for mineralogy, and without telling his mother, he resolves to visit Ed and find some answers to his family's long estrangement. What he finds, like his Google search on dust, turns up some surprises which Brendan has to accept and many questions which he has to find the courage to ask his new found grandfather and his own mother.

Biracial children, living as they do on the cusp of our racial ambiguities, often live with questions that the rest of us would rather leave unspoken. Brendan's honest attempts to get at the heart of his severed family's secrets pulls no punches with the reader as piece by piece he puts together the evidence he needs. In human relations as well as in science there are often variables. Brendan learns that his mother has never forgiven her father for cutting off all contact, even with her own dying mother, but he also senses that Ed, who teaches him about driving and takes him on an expedition to find "Thunder Eggs," deeply regrets his separation from his daughter and grandson.

"What am I?" Brendan writes in his "Book of Big Questions," and in Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything in It, the summer before sixth grade is one in which Brendan learns about much more than rock science.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Irregular Posting for a Few Days. . . .

I'll be away from home staying with a couple of grandchildren while their parents head to the Keys for some well-earned sun, sea, and snorkeling. I'll post when I can get to a computer, probably daily, but my posting times will be a bit unusual.

I'll be back on my regular schedule after next Tuesday, March 4.

Rock & Roll! Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules by Jeff Kinney

On the heels of his New York Times bestseller, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, a Novel in Cartoons, Jeff Kinney continues the saga of his clueless middle schooler Greg Heffley in his just published Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules (Diary of a Wimpy Kid)

Kinney switches the action from the school scene to the home scene, where big brother Rodrick, high school slacker and dedicated drummer in his garage band "Loded Diper," continues to make life rough for Greg. To protect his personal diary, er, journal, from his big brother, Greg is forced to hide out in the ladies' restroom at Leisure Towers, his grandpa's retirement home. Trapped on top of a toilet inside a stall for what seems like hours, he is finally discovered and charged with being a "peeping Tom." The whole humiliating incident plays out on his grandfather's TV, which he keeps permanently tuned to the security cameras in the building.

Rodrick figures this story will provide infinite power over Greg for the rest of their lives, Unluckily for Rod, however, when he spreads the story by phoning all his friends with middle school brothers and sisters, the story morphs into an heroic adventure in which Greg infiltrates the girls' locker room at the high school. The guys at school give him the nickname of The Stealthinator, and "For the first time ever, I knew what it felt like to be the most popular kid in school," Greg confides in his new journal.

Rodrick gets his chance at fame (and humiliation), too, when Greg refuses to video Loded Diper's performance at the city-wide school talent show and Mom generously offers to take over the camera so that Loded Diper can use the tape as a demo to win a major recording contract. Mom's video is fine, although a bit jiggly where she breaks into a dance during Rodrick's drum solo, but Rod is embarrassed when he realizes that her uncomplimentary asides to her friends got picked up on the soundtrack.

But, wait! All is not lost for the future rock stars! The city has a video of the whole show, including Rodrick's featured drum solo in the final number. But BUMMER! The cameraman has zoomed in on Mom's impromptu and spirited aisle dance, not Rodrick's sticks. In no time the clip from the public access channel is all over the Internet and Rodrick Heffley is known from coast to coast as the drummer from the hilarious Dancing Mom video.

Kinney squeezes a lot of humor into his stick-figure cartoons, while the hapless Greg's first-person journal entries tell his side of the painfully funny events. Despite their failings, the author somehow invokes empathy for Greg and Rodrick as they stumble through adolescence. Often shelved in the "Manga and Graphic Novels" or "Comics" section of bookstores because of format, Kinney's latest episode of the series has already been labeled a winner. The next sequel, The Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw, is scheduled for publication late this year.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

Making It in Middle School: Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

One of the best ways to survive early adolescence is to have a sense of humor, and Jeff Kinney's best-selling Diary of a Wimpy Kid offers the chance for readers to see the humorous side of surviving the rite de passage of middle school. Indeed, what makes Kinney's main character Greg Heffley so funny is his inability to see how oblivious he is to his own cluelessness in the face of the challenges that face him. Perhaps readers who share his wimpy and somewhat self-centered view of the world can laugh and learn as they read.

Greg is a scrawny, socially untalented middle school newby who longs to be a popular and muscular ladies' man, but totally lacks the motivation to make the effort to get there. Instead he spends a lot of his energy trying to avoid schoolwork, get his hands on a video game called "Twisted Wizard," and hang out with his sidekick Rowley. Now, clueless as he is, Greg realizes that Rowley is still stuck in kidsville and admits that Rowley's status as "friend" is no sure thing:

"Rowley is technically my best friend, but that is definitely subject to change.

I've been avoiding Rowley since the first day of school, when he did something that really annoyed me.

We were getting our stuff from our lockers at the end of the day, and Rowley came up to me and said,"

"I have told Rowley at least a billion times that now that we're in middle school, you're supposed to say 'hang out,' not 'play.' But no matter how many noogies I give him, he always forgets the next time."

With friends like Rowley, Greg doesn't need enemies, but enemies he has, including his teen-aged brother Rodrick, whose chief joys are his garage band Loded Diper and finding ways to humiliate Greg. At school there are the various "gorillas who have to shave twice a day," who lay in wait for him everywhere, and his gym teacher whose "wrestling unit" pairs Greg with Fregley, the puniest and freakiest kid in school, who nevertheless takes him down in every match.

One of the funniest episodes has Greg and his sidekick Rowley trying to milk their last opportunity as cute costumed kids to bag a bunch of trick or treat candy. Finally shaking Greg's dad and toddler brother Manny, the two are happily bringing their treats home when they are zapped by a truckload of teenagers with a fire extinguisher. Thinking quickly (for him), Rowley uses his costume shield to block most of the water, and Greg can't resist yelling that they're calling the cops.

Whoops, it's the wrong time to go all law-abiding. The teen truckers chase the boys until they take refuge in Greg's grandma's house where, still feckless, they taunt the teenagers from the window. When they finally are forced to sneak through the backyards to get home, Greg's dad douses them with his favorite Halloween trick, a garbage can full of water. The rest of the year is spent as underground fugitives until the teenagers finally catch Rowley and make him eat the "the Cheese" a discarded cheese sandwich which has been ripening on the asphalt at the playground for a year.

It's a hard-knock life for Greg Heffley, recalling Ben Franklin's jest that "experience keeps a dear school, but a fool will learn in no other," but Kinney's characters and priceless cartoon drawings are absolutely drop-dead funny. But although the cartoons add much to the story, Kinney is such a great comic writer that the text would be hilarious even without them. His caricatures are both comedic and sympathetic, with everyone's foibles showing up eventually. Somehow, though, you can't help pulling for Greg along the way. For easy reading that will make you laugh so hard you almost drop the book, this one's a winner.


Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sudsy Sea World: Who's in the Tub? by Sylvie Jones

All of us parents have been there! It's a struggle to get kids into their bedtime bath, and once they're in, it's a fight to get them out. All we parents see is one more task before lights out, but in Who's In the Tub? author Sylvie Jones shows us that for an imaginative kid, a simple bath can be a Jacques Cousteau moment.

"Willy John Jones,
are you in the tub?
I'm waiting to hear a splash and scrub!"

Willy John's mom is all business as she warns him from the next room to get into the tub and get scrubbing. Bedtime's at eight, and he'd better be done by then--or else!

But Willy has his reasons for lollygagging. Draped in his fluffy towel, he watches with some consternation while first a mallard drake, then three sea turtles, a dolphin and seal, and finally a huge pink octopus take a dip, dive, and dunk in the suds. There's clearly no room for Willy in that tub, and the bewildered boy can only stall his mom's appearance at the bathroom door while he deals with his marine marauders.

"Mom, I have a reason,
a good one, I think.
Can I take my bath
In the kitchen sink?"

Just as the sea creatures are about to be busted by Mom, the octopus takes things into his own, er, hands and pulls Willy into the tub and gives him a scrub. Willy assures his mother that he's making good use of his soap and shampoo; in fact, now that he's wet, he's having too much fun to stop for something like bedtime.

Just as Willy is good and clean, his frisky sea creatures morph into plastic bath toys, safely stowed in a net on a hook beside the tub.

"Willy John Jones, are you
out of that tub?
The drain isn't saying

In a flash Willy is out of the tub and busily brushing his teeth in front of the vanity mirror, with his animal friends behind him, all brushing, too. Willy reassuringly calls out to his mom,

"We had a nice swim.
Tomorrow we'll definitely get back in!"

Willy's mother picks up on his pronoun with a slightly alarmed "Willy, did I hear you say WE?"

Pascale Constantin's illustrations of the amazed and delighted Willy John Jones are reminiscent of William Joyce's wonderful fantasy adventure George Shrinks. For Willy John Jones, bathtime is anything but boring!

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Want T-Rex with That? When Dinosaurs Came with Everything by Elise Broach

It's the dream of every kid who can't get enough of dinosaurs--a dinosaur FREE with every purchase!

It's Friday, time to be dragged along with Mom on boring errands. To sweeten the deal, Mom takes her small boy for donuts first, and to his amazement the sign on the door says "BUY A DOZEN. GET A DINOSAUR." When the shoplady leads a real tricerotops out, Mom is aghast. "How are we supposed to get THAT home?" she gasps. Little does Mom know that getting one home is the least of her problems.

Triceratops in tow, Mom forges on with her list, only to find that there's a stegosaurus instead of stickers at the pediatrician's office; it's a pterosaur in place of a balloon at the barber's. All around him the delighted kid sees boys and girls proudly leading their new dinos. It's a dino-rama of a day.

Back home, however, Mom finds the dinosaurs are great with yardwork; old ankylosaurus makes a pretty good clothes-drying rack; and the various kids' new pets are a lot of fun at the neighborhood pool Then, to the boy's delight, he hears his mom dialing up the donut shop to order more donuts and dinosaurs!

Half the fun in When Dinosaurs Came with Everything (Junior Library Guild Selection) are David Small's delightful pen and ink drawings with their slapdash wash of watercolors, light and silly enough to keep this everykid's daydream floating along at a fast pace. One hilarious spread shows Mom, freaking out just a little on the street corner, as behind her the laid-back dinos calmly graze from a stalled garbage truck. As usual, Small's characters, with their expressive faces and loose-as-a-goose body language, make this over-the-top fantasy as much fun as, well, sliding down a diplodocus' tail!


Friday, February 22, 2008

Unlikeliest of Friendships: Owen and Mzee by Craig and Isabella Hatkoff and Paula Kahumbu

The story of Owen and Mzee reads like a fantasy tale for children. A 600-pound yearling hippo with his family group is washed down a flooded river to the sea and orphaned and stranded on a reef by the Christmas tsunami of 2004, only to be rescued by a variety of concerned humans and released in an animal sanctuary where (get this!) he is adopted as the best friend and constant companion of a 130-year-old giant Aldabra tortoise.

The media story of orphan Owen and ancient Mzee began as a newspaper article and photo by BBC photo-journalist Peter Greste as a follow up to the tsunami's aftermath. The story was read by six-year-old Isabella and her father Craig Hatkoff, who turned it into a WNBC segment, a photo-essay e-book. and eventually a series of what are now one All Aboard Science Reader board book and two conventional print books on this surprising friendship.

Following a harrowing and difficult rescue on the coast of Kenya, Owen (named for one of his courageous rescuers) was deemed too young to place among other hippos and was released into a comfortable enclosure with a natural pond, mud wallow, and vegetation, and--among several smaller animals, a four-foot-long giant tortoise. The terrified youngster immediately huddled behind the tortoise, perhaps drawn to him by his resemblance in color and shape to his mother. At first Mzee hissed and tried to creep away from Owen, but by morning the two were found huddled together, sleeping. Soon they became constant buddies, eating, swimming, sleeping, and roaming their area in companionable consort to the amazement of naturalists and the public alike.

In the time since the publication of the first book, animal behavior and intelligence experts have had opportunity to observe Owen and Mzee, particularly as their association and ways of communicating have evolved. Owen and Mzee communicate physically through a language of nips and nudges which guide each other around their area. For example, Owen pushes against Mzee's right hind leg to get him to go to the left and the left hind leg to move him to the right. Mzee blocks Owen's way to deflect him in the direction the old tortoise chooses, and each is not shy about nipping the other's tail to get attention. Even more amazing is that both animals have developed what is described as "a deep, rumbling sound," not natural to either animal, to call to the other. The 2007 book, Owen and Mzee: The Language of Friendship describes their observable communication and also discusses questions about the future of their relationship as Owen grows to a powerful and potentially hazardous 7,000 pound friend.

It's mind boggling to contemplate how a young hippo and an old tortoise, separated as they are, not by species, like, say, a dog and cat, but by biological class--a mammal and a reptile--could learn to communicate and relate to each other as what we humans call friends. With radically different bodies and brains, how can they, why would they become fond companions?

The authors say, "The reasons are unclear. But science can't always explain what the heart already knows: our most important friends are sometimes those we least expected."

It's a tritest of truisms that we humans have a lot to learn from our fellow creatures, but we surely have much to gain in understanding the relationship of living things from these two. If Owen and Mzee can find common ground, surely there's hope for the rest of us.


Thursday, February 21, 2008

Too Short to Make the Shot: Salt in His Shoes: Michael Jordan in Pursuit of a Dream by Deloris Jordan

In his playing days, at six foot six, Michael Jordan cast a very long shadow over the game of basketball, but few of his fans know that he was once too short to make his neighborhood team. His mom remembers, though, and Deloris Jordan, with the help of Michael's sister Roslyn, tells the true family story of a star who was once too short to make the shot in Salt in His Shoes.

When hazing by an taller, older kid sends Michael home with a case of basketball blues, he confesses to his mother that he is afraid he'll never grow into his dreams of being a great player. Mama Deloris tells him to put salt in his shoes, say his prayers, and give it time. After four months of patience, practice, and plenty of salt, Michael hasn't grown an inch and completely loses heart. This time Daddy steps in and reminds Michael that practice, determination, and giving his best is what will make him a winner.

Michael decides to give his dad's advice another shot and hurries off to watch the neighborhood team play at the park. With their game already in progress, an injury to a player gives Michael a chance to come in near the end of the game. Confronting the bully, Michael confidently fakes him off and scores the winning goal "right over the tall guy's head." Although he was to grow plenty of inches in his high school years, Jordan never was the tallest guy on the court, but following his parents' advice, he became the biggest star in basketball.

Deloris Jordan's text reads true, and Kadir Nelson's illustrations of Michael in despair and in action tell the story of one little boy's real growth spurt on the way to becoming a man.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Messy Glory of Life: Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles

"I come from a long line of dead people," begins Comfort Snowberger, whose ten years as the middle child in an undertaking family have seen a lot of burials in Snapfinger, Mississippi. But when her Great-uncle Edisto dies in March with a cheerful "Time to go home," and in September Great-great-aunt Florentine is found dead in her garden, head on a clump of marigolds, it's too much death for even Comfort to sort out. To add to her problems, her whiny, coddled eight-year-old cousin Peach, there for the funeral, breaks into such overwrought keening that Florentine's viewing has to be suspended then and there. Then, there's her best friend Declaration Johnson, who suddenly seems to prefer the company of girls in matching shorts sets with names like Kristen and Tiffany.

All Comfort has to fall back on is her family motto, "I Live to Serve," and her dog Dismay, Funeral Dog Extraordinaire, who loyally guards the newly deceased until the funeral is done. Dismay sets out with the disgruntled Declaration, made to attend by her father, and the unwilling Comfort, whose funeral day assignment is to stay with her overdressed and nearly out-of-control cousin Peach as the mourners walk to Aunt Florentine's burial. Declaration's cruel description of the cemetary scene sets Peach off into fresh wails just as the gloomy weather turns dark and a gully-washer of a thunderstorm unloads on Comfort, Peach, and the loyal Dismay. In the flash flood that follows, Comfort has to let go of her dog to pull her cousin Peach from the rising water, and Dismay is swept away.

It is not until the family holds a memorial service for her dog that Comfort finds a way to deal with so much loss. As her family rallies around her, Comfort realizes that despite their faults only her friend Declaration and her cousin Peach share her guilt and grief over the loss of her dog. Comfort remembers Uncle Edisto's remarks that life is just one "messy glory" as she says,

"I stared into my cousin's shining eyes. Then I looked at Declaration's eyes. And I saw in their faces what had been in Dismay's eyes in that last moment I'd seen him--grief and fear and hope and love somehow woven together, somehow connected. All the messy glory."

Each Little Bird That Sings, a National Book Award finalist, is, despite its theme of death, a humor-filled, heartfelt, optimistic affirmation of life with all its messy mix of joy and pain. Comfort's funny "Life Notices," which she submits to the Aurora County News' obituary page, her ongoing recipes for Fantastic (and Fun) Funeral Food for Family and Friends by Comfort and Florentine Snowberger, and her dramatic monologues and musings from her thinking closet make her a memorable character who deals with the central question of life head on.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Spiderwick Chronicles: A Movie Review

I wish I could say that Spiderwick Chronicles is a really good children's movie.

After all, it's based on a popular five-book series by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, a sort of "Narnia Lite," involving three children plopped down by their parent's divorce in an old gothic house in which magical secrets hide behind the walls. Uncovering these secrets makes visible an alternate world of benevolent spirits and evil ogres who seek the power hidden in a book left behind by the children's great-uncle Arthur Spiderwick, whose Field Guide has lain hidden in his study for 80 years.

Two of the Grace children, teen-aged Mallory and brother Simon, are reconciled to the move precipitated by their father's romance with another woman, but Jared turns his anger on his mother, who has no choice but to move the family to her Great-Aunt Lucinda's dark and shabby old Victorian house. Once inside, ominous events lead Jared to discover a dumb waiter inside the kitchen walls and make a solitary trip on it up into the garret. There, despite dire warnings, he finds and reads his Great-great Uncle Arthur's Field Guide , which holds the secrets of an alternate universe of magical beings. With the help of the Seeing Stone, which he also finds in Arthur Spiderwick's study, Jared is suddenly able to see the evil monsters he has released. With two helpful creatures, a honey-swigging brownie named Thimbletack and the piggish hobgoblin Hogsqueal, Jared and eventually his siblings must find a way to keep the powerful Field Guide out of the hands of the ultimate evil ogre, Mulgarath, who needs it to destroy all earthly life.

Strung out over five books, this is a passably good fantasy adventure. Cramming all the action into one movie means that exposition of the underlying family problem is limited to a few interchanges between Jared and his clueless mother Helen Grace. Instead, most of film's 97 minutes is spent force-feeding the audience with an endless series of confrontations with the encroaching villainous creatures. On the "MPM" (Monsters-per-Minute) scale, this movie tops most recent fantasy movies by a mega-mile. The grounds and woods are crawling with the creatures, who eventually make off with enough of the Field Guide to break all of Arthur Spiderwick's protective spells on the house.

With the ogre hoards literally at the door the kids have to make do with Lucinda Spiderwick's monster-inhibiting supplies of oatmeal, tomato sauce, and lots and lots of salt. Yep, tomato sauce, oatmeal, and salt, with which Jared puts together the old exploding oven trick and wipes out the minor bad guys, leaving just enough film time for the final showdown with Mulgarath, who having already appeared in the form of Nick Nolte and a ravening, slime-drooling monster, shape-shifts again into the form of Jared's father.

The human actors are good, but the competently done C.G.I. creatures are beginning to seem all too familiar. Of course, the evil Mulgarath is satisfyingly conquered with a touch of humor, leaving the old house mysteriously restored (not a speck of tomato sauce in sight) and Jared and his mom reconciled. It's all pretty formulaic, especially when the sylph-borne Arthur Spiderwick returns from his fairy limbo to take his now 86-year-old daughter Lucinda back to Never-Never Land in the final fade-out. The lack of a compelling and unifying theme amidst all this monster mayhem leaves the whole thing rather flat and the audience somehow unfulfilled.

I'd give it a C+ at best. Your movie money would probably be better spent buying the books, The Spiderwick Chronicles Box Set: Book 1: The Field Guide; Book 2: The Seeing Stone; Book 3: Lucinda's Secret; Book 4: The Ironwood Tree; Book 5: The Wrath of Mulgarath, and/or the audio book version of The Spiderwick Chronicles Box Set: Book 1: The Field Guide; Book 2: The Seeing Stone; Book 3: Lucinda's Secret; Book 4: The Ironwood Tree; Book 5: The Wrath of Mulgarath.

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To the Bone: Bone by Bone by Bone by Tony Johnston

Best known for her whimsical books for young readers, Tony Johnston has written a book aimed best at young adult readers, her 2007 novel, Bone by Bone by Bone. "I am haunted by my father," she says in her foreword, in explanation of why she wrote this semi-autobiographical novel about those "innocent-mean times" of the 1950's in the deep South.

Main character David Church is nine as the novel opens, a motherless and only child of Dr. Franklin Church who grows up in a house which has sheltered six generations. The kitchen door frame shows penciled heights and ages as far back as his great-grandmother, now nearly 100 years old, who tries to rule the household from her bed upstairs. David both reveres and fears his father, who installed a yellowed skeleton, scientifically labeled, beside his crib so that David could begin to follow him into a medical career from the cradle.

But even so, David is his own man. When he meets up with Malcolm Deeter, age 8, Negro and costumed in his mother's bedsheet for trick or treat, he sees in his sparkling eyes a kindred spirit. Dr. Church snatches the sheet off Malcolm's head and throws it in a trash can. "Jesus Christ, boy! You can't wear that! he shouts, dragging David away. "He can't be your friend. He's a n-----."

Despite his father's warning that he'd shoot any n----- who came in his house, it is "friendship at first sight" for David and Malcolm. They play together whenever they can escape adult eyes. They make a mud tar baby and play out the story, they dabble in the murky waters of Jesus Pond, tell ghost stories in the graveyard, invent a secret code, and discover a cave where, over a campfire meal of swiped hot dogs, they decide to become blood brothers. David even teaches the names of all the human bone he knows to Malcolm. Together at Miss Grace's, who doesn't seem to care if they are different colors, they earn shiny half-dollars doing chores and search surreptitiously for the severed arm of her Confederate great-granddaddy reputedly hidden somewhere in her house.

It is an outwardly idyllic boyhood, but David is unable to reconcile the two sides of his father--a doctor who gently bathes and consoles a dying patient with small talk about their own childhood games and a man who keeps a shotgun loaded with rock salt to shoot at any cat who violates his yard, a father who shares birthday banana splits and yet is involved with Klan doings in the countryside around. David is torn between love and hate for the father he can't understand. When his father turns a drunken old black handyman, called "the Mole Man," away at Christmas, David defies him by taking the man a plate of food. Then, during one of their now rare meetings, David and Malcolm discover the old man lynched, a dead mole crammed into his mouth and a sign, ONE LESS N-----, around his neck.

David knows he has to choose. It is his father's way or his own. David begins by deciding that he will not follow his father's orders to prepare for medical training. Then, on a Sunday, the day after his thirteenth birthday, a Klan Klavalcade of local men ends with the town's white drunk leading an attack on Malcolm. When David tries to shelter Malcolm inside the house, his father, true to his word, fires his shotgun at Malcolm just as David moves to shield him. David realizes that he will never know if his father thought the gun was loaded with rock salt or buckshot and knows that he will never really be his father's son again.

Bone by Bone by Bone received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, and Booklist and appeared on several lists of noted books for 2007. However, perhaps because of its honest portrayal of brutality, the authentic language of the time, and perhaps the knowledge that its readership would be limited by these factors, it did not win any major awards. For the right readers, however, this book, although like Huckleberry Finn a work of fiction, stands as an eyewitness account of its time which deserves to be read, discussed, and remembered by those who did not grow up in that time but live in its shadow.

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Finding a Voice: A Song for Harlem by Patricia McKissack

Noted Tennessee author Patricia McKissack takes on the task of making the concept of the Harlem Renaissance come alive for beginning chapter readers in her latest in the Scraps of Time series, A Song for Harlem: Scraps of Time 3 (Scraps of Time).

McKissack uses the device of a frame story in which the three Webster children, digging up mementos in their Grandmother Gee's attic, uncover a journal kept by their great-great-aunt of a summer spent in Harlem in 1928. An aspiring young poet selected for The Harlem Young Writer's Workshop, Lilly Belle makes the trip from Smyrna, Tennessee to stay with her glamorous Aunt Odessa. Twelve-year-old Lilly is wide-eyed at the day and night bustle and energy of Harlem. Her classes, conducted by famous writer Zora Neale Hurston, meet in the mansion of A'Lelia Walker, daughter of famed black entrepreneur Madame C. J. Walker, and her summer experiences bring her into contact with Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Bojangles Robinson, and W. E. B. Du Bois, who publishes her group's work in his legendary Crisis magazine.

Lilly Belle Turner encounters her first posh bathroom and has her first long-distance telephone conversation, sees her first movie, wears stylish dresses from her aunt's upscale shop, and with a full makeover in Madame Walker's hair salon, appears in print advertisements for her products. Lilly also encounters her first experience with intraracial prejudice in Alice Gaylord, a rich student who condescendingly calls the small-town summer students "country mice" and "Russians," the term for poor blacks who "rush-in" to imitate the Harlem upper class. Although challenged by a bit of culture shock and Zora Hurston's high standards for their writing, Lilly's strong family grounding and hard work enable her to find her own voice through this life-changing experience, and as we learn from Grandmother Gee at the book's end, as an adult she becomes a reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier.

McKissack slyly tucks in a preview plug for her next book in this series, The Homerun King (Scraps of Time), forthcoming in December, when the Webster kids find among Lilly's treasures an old baseball autographed by Josh Gibson, Satchell Paige, and other Negro Baseball League greats. Previous books in the Scraps of Time series include Abby Takes a Stand (Scraps of Time), in which Grandmother Gee tells how as the ten-year-old Abby she was turned away from a department store circus-themed restaurant and joined the 1960 Nashville sit-ins, and Away West (Scraps of Time), in which a Civil War medal found in the attic gives Grandmother a chance to describe their ancestor's service in the Union Army and his son's trek with a wagon train to the freed slave settlement of Nicodemas, Kansas.

For Black History Month activities, McKissack's substantial but simple chapter novels involve modern readers in American history through the eyes of children who lived during these significant eras. Patricia McKissack is also the author of the Caldecott Honor Book Mirandy and Brother Wind (Dragonfly Books), Color Me Dark, the Diary of Nellie Lee Love, the Great Migration North, Chicago, Illinois 1919 (Dear America, Early 20th Century 1900's - 1930's Book 3), the award-winning The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural: (Newbery Honor Book, Coretta Scott King Author Award, ALA Notable Children's Book) (Coretta Scott King Author Award Winner), and has a string of biographies of significant African Americans to her credit.

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