Archive for November, 2009

Review of Fire, by Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson

Monday, November 16th, 2009


Tales of Elemental Spirits

by Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2009. 297 pages.
Starred Review

I found it amusing that the two books I was most eager to read as soon as I finished the assigned reading for my Newbery class were both titled Fire. I confess that even though Robin McKinley is one of my very favorite authors, I read Kristin Cashore’s Fire first, because I generally find complete novels more compelling than short stories.

This collection of five tales, with two by Robin McKinley and three by her husband Peter Dickinson, is truly wonderful. The theme is fire, and we have tales of a phoenix, a hellhound, a fireworm, a salamander, and, of course, a dragon.

I think my favorite was Robin McKinley’s story about a girl with a compassion for animals who takes on a scrawny dog even though he his eyes are rimmed with fire. Her compassion is rewarded when the uncanny dog takes on the hosts of hell for her.

None of the stories is weak. In “Phoenix,” by Peter Dickinson, Ellie learns what happens to someone who befriends a phoenix. In “First Flight,” Robin McKinley quickly develops a world where dragons fly through Firespace with their third eye. A boy and his humble Foogit help their brother’s dragon, who has been injured and has only two eyes.

Of course, my only complaint is that I’d enjoy spending more time in each of these worlds and with all of these characters. Each story contains the seed for a delightful book.

For a quick jaunt into five magical worlds, Fire delivers five memorable experiences. Definitely up to the standards of these two outstanding writers.

“I think that it’s the glitter of dragon eyes that’s the origin of all those stories about the beds of jewels that wild dragons are supposed to have made for themselves back in the days when dragons were wild, and used to eat children when they couldn’t find any sheep. Where all those jewels are supposed to have come from was always beyond me; even if you put all the kings and emperors and enchanters (good and evil) together and stripped them of everything they had, I still don’t think you’d get more than about one jewel-bed for one medium-large dragon out of it. But you see the glitter of the eyes and you do think of jewels. Nothing else comes close — not fire, not stars, not anything. Of course I, and most of the other listeners to fairy tales, have never seen more than the mayor’s beryl or topaz or whatever the local badge of office is, but we can all dream. When you see a dragon’s eyes up close — if you’re lucky enough to see a dragon’s eyes up close — you don’t have to dream.”

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Newbery Class: What I Learned

Monday, November 16th, 2009

This weekend, the six-week online class I took from ALSC, the Association for Library Service to Children, finished up. The class was called The Newbery Medal: Past, Present, and Future. I thoroughly enjoyed the class, and highly recommend it to anyone like me, fascinated with the Newbery Medal.

The Newbery Medal has been given since 1922 to the “most distinguished” contribution to American children’s literature. In the class, we each read a book from each decade the award has been given, as well as some Honor Books. Our instructor has been a past Newbery Medal Committee Chairperson, and we had guest speakers of other Newbery committee members and a Newbery winning author and publisher and other such guests.

One thing I learned is that Newbery books make good reading. No, I wasn’t as enthralled with some of the older books, but they all had something good about them. A past committee member said that she was comforted when her year’s chairperson told them that they were going to choose one of the best books of the year. Yes, they try for the most distinguished, but of course that is an elusive goal. The nature of the word assures that no committee will ever be able to please everyone. However, in their attempt, they will surely come up with one of the best books of the year.

I was reassured by stories of how hard the committee works and how seriously they take their charge. I was pleased to learn that no one can be on a committee more than once in five years, so if one year there is a prejudice against certain types of books, the next year different people will be selecting.

I learned that the committee is not supposed to take an author’s previous work into account. They are simply supposed to compare with the other books published that year.

I learned that the award is for books that appeal to “children,” which can include up to age 14. The choices tend to skew toward the older end of the spectrum, despite what elementary school teachers may wish. Newbery Medal winners are most often works of middle-grade fiction, but there are notable exceptions, and that is not a requirement.

All of us in class have certain Medal winners that we read as children that still resonate with us today. A side effect of choosing the most distinguished children’s book of the year is that over the years the committees have chosen a list of books that, for the most part, stand the test of time.

I will be looking forward to next January’s announcement more avidly than ever.

Review of Our Lady of Kibeho, by Immaculee Ilibagiza

Saturday, November 14th, 2009

our_lady_of_kibehoOur Lady of Kibeho

Mary Speaks to the World from the Heart of Africa

by Immaculee Ilibagiza
with Steve Erwin

Hay House, Carlsbad, California, 2008. 210 pages.
Starred Review

I was so deeply moved by Immaculee Ilibagiza’s other two books, Left to Tell and Led by Faith, I also snapped up this book, even though I am not Catholic and the miracles she tells about are definitely related to the Catholic faith.

But, as with her other books, this story is wonderfully moving and inspiring. She convinced me that God is doing great miracles in and through the Catholic church, and I praise His name for that! Her narrative gives glory to God and testifies to His power and His great love for His children.

In her Introduction, Immaculee explains what she’s setting out to do in this book:

At that time, as incredible as it sounds, the Virgin Mary and her son, Jesus, began appearing to a group of young people in the southern Rwandan village of Kibeho. The visionaries brought messages from heaven intended for the entire world to hear: messages of love, along with instructions on how to live better lives and care for each other and pray more effectively. But with those messages also came dire, apocalyptic warnings that hatred and a thirst for sin would lead Rwanda and the rest of the world into a dark abyss. The Virgin Mary’s prophecy of the 1994 genocide is one of the main reasons the Catholic Church has focused much attention on the apparitions in Kibeho.

In November 2001, the Church, in a rare move, officially approved the apparitions of the Virgin Mary seen by three schoolgirls: Alphonsine, Anathalie, and Marie-Claire. The girls were tested and examined rigorously by doctors, scientists, psychiatrists, and theologians. Yet no testing could explain the miraculous and supernatural events that occurred when the Blessed Mother appeared to the girls. The evidence of a true apparition was irrefutable, and the local bishop said that there was no doubt a miracle had occurred in Rwanda. Thus, the Vatican endorsed what’s known as “the Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows,” which is the only approved apparition site in Africa….

I was actually among the earliest believers that Mary and Jesus had come to Rwanda….

My parents frequently traveled to Kibeho and told me details of their visits, and I’ve always had great love for the Virgin Mary. This, coupled with my fascination with the apparitions, drove me to find out as much as I could about them so that I could share my findings with you in these pages. I met with the bishops, priests, and doctors who studied the apparitions; I’ve become friends with several of the visionaries themselves; and I’ve repeatedly listened to the hundreds of hours of apparitions that Father Rwagema recorded. These are the sources I draw upon for this book. In other words, it’s not a history lesson, but rather my personal account of an authentic miracle unfolding and the profound effect it had on my country, my parents, and my faith.

The shrine for Our Lady in Kibeho has become a place of worship and prayer for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from across Africa, many of whom claimed miraculous healings at the site, yet most of the world hasn’t even heard about this blessed place. It is my deepest hope that this small volume will help change that, and that Kibeho will become as well known as Fatima or Lourdes. The messages Jesus and Mary brought forth at Kibeho are of love — which today’s world so desperately needs to hear.

The result of Immaculee’s efforts is a book with a fascinating, powerful, and inspiring story. Read it yourself and draw your own conclusions!

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Review of Shiloh, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Friday, November 13th, 2009


by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Yearling (Bantam Doubleday Dell), 1992. First published in 1991. 144 pages.
Winner of the 1992 Newbery Medal
Starred Review

Here’s another book I read as one of my assignments for a class I took on the Newbery Medal. It seems like the ultimate Newbery Medal winner — suitable for third or fourth graders, this is a heart-warming story about a boy and a dog. Look at that — a book with a dog on the cover and an award sticker, and the dog doesn’t even die! (See No More Dead Dogs, by Gordon Korman, to get a feel for how rare that is.)

Marty finds a beagle who’s run away from his owner, and the beagle is clearly afraid of getting hit. Marty names him Shiloh, after the place where he found him. But the dog belongs to Judd Travers, and his father makes Marty give him back. When Marty hears how Judd plans to punish Shiloh for running away, his heart is sickened.

Then Shiloh runs away again. Marty simply cannot bear to bring Shiloh back. But how long can he keep a secret from his family, his best friend, and, most of all, Judd Travers?

I like Marty’s reflections on his moral dilemma:

Thinking about an earlier incident where he lied, he says:

When Ma asked me again about that rabbit, I gulped and said yes, and she made me get down on my knees and ask God’s forgiveness, which wasn’t so bad. I honestly felt better afterward. But then she said that Jesus wanted me to go in the next room and tell Dara Lynn what I’d done, and Dara Lynn threw a fit all over again. Threw a box of Crayolas at me and could have broke my nose. Called me a rotten, greedy pig. If that made Jesus sad, Ma never said.

About Shiloh:

“Jesus,” I whisper finally, “which you want me to do? Be one hundred percent honest and carry that dog back to Judd so that one of your creatures can be kicked and starved all over again, or keep him here and fatten him up to glorify your creation?”

The question seemed to answer itself, and I’m pretty proud of that prayer. Repeat it to myself so’s to remember it in case I need to use it again. If Jesus is anything like the story cards from Sunday school make him out to be, he ain’t the kind to want a thin, little beagle to be hurt.

Even as short as it is, this book has surprising depth. Marty comes to see another side even to Judd Travers. But mostly it’s a heart-warming story about a boy who loves a dog.

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Review of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor

Friday, November 13th, 2009

roll_of_thunderRoll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

by Mildred D. Taylor

Puffin Books, 1997. First published in 1976. 276 pages.
Newbery Medal Winner 1977
Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #3 Other Children’s Fiction

I’ve been taking a class offered by ALSC, the Association for Library Service to Children, called The Newbery Medal: Past, Present and Future. It’s a wonderful class, and one of the assignments was to read a Medal-winning book from each decade that the award was offered. For my 1970s selection, I chose Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, because that’s on the Fairfax County Public Schools list for 7th-8th graders, and is checked out frequently.

The book is truly warm and wonderful. I’m going to list it as children’s fiction, because the characters are children, the oldest of whom is twelve. But the book is on the long side and the subject matter is serious, so I do think the schools are right to recommend it to middle schoolers or upper elementary.

Cassie and her three brothers live in Mississippi in 1933. Their family owns its farm, and has since their Grandpa bought the land in 1887. But times are hard, and their Papa had to go work on the railroad in Louisiana in order to pay the taxes on the land.

The book opens as the Logan family makes the long walk to school, with Little Man especially proud of his new school clothes. When the bus for the white children passes, they have to run down the bank, getting all covered with red dust, just the beginning of a series of encounters with that bus, over which the Logans eventually get a delightful revenge.

The book is about prejudice, but the story is told with humor and dignity. There’s a scene at the beginning with old textbooks that reminds me strongly of a similar scene in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

Eventually, the stakes get much higher than a school bus getting them dirty or Cassie having to apologize to a white girl she bumped.

This is a wonderful story that teaches history along the way and gives you lots of food for thought.

As Mama says to Cassie:
“Baby, we have no choice of what color we’re born or who our parents are or whether we’re rich or poor. What we do have is some choice over what we make of our lives once we’re here.”

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Review of Fire, by Kristin Cashore

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009


by Kristin Cashore

Dial Books, 2009. 461 pages.
Starred Review.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #2 Fantasy Teen Fiction

Fire is a “companion novel” to the powerful book Graceling. I don’t think it matters which book you read first, but if you read one, you will definitely want to read the other. The books are set in the same world, but the kingdoms of one book are set apart by impassable mountains from the kingdoms of the other. The one thing they have in common is a villain, and he is sinister enough whether you know what his power is or not.

The Kingdom of the Dells does not have Gracelings. Instead, they have monsters — both animal and human.

In the Dells lived colorful, astonishing creatures that the Dellian people called monsters. It was their unusual coloration that identified them as monsters, because in every other physical particular they were like normal Dellian animals. They had the shape of Dellian horses, Dellian turtles, mountain lions, raptors, dragonflies, bears; but they were ranges of fuchsia, turquoise, bronze, iridescent green. A dappled gray horse in the Dells was a horse. A sunset orange horse was a monster.

Larch didn’t understand these monsters. The mouse monsters, the fly and squirrel and fish and sparrow monsters, were harmless; but the bigger monsters, the man-eating monsters, were terribly dangerous, more so than their animal counterparts. They craved human flesh, and for the flesh of other monsters they were positively frantic….

He heard there were one or two monsters of a human shape in the Dells, with brightly colored hair, but he never saw them. It was for the best, because Larch could never remember if the human monsters were friendly or not, and against monsters in general he had no defense. They were too beautiful. Their beauty was so extreme that whenever Larch came face-to-face with one of them, his mind emptied and his body froze, and Immiker and his friends had to defend him.

“It’s what they do, Father,” Immiker explained to him, over and over. “It’s part of their monster power. They stun you with their beauty, and then they overwhelm your mind and make you stupid. You must learn to guard your mind against them, as I have.”

Larch had no doubt Immiker was right, but still he didn’t understand. “What a horrifying notion,” he said. “A creature with the power to take over one’s mind.”

Fire is such a monster. But she’s determined not to use her mind powers on people against their will. She’s determined not to be as monstrous as her father was.

However, she can’t help her overwhelming beauty. She can cover her hair; she can try to hide from the raptor monsters that thirst for her blood; but she can’t change who she is. People are powerfully attracted to her, but they also hate her for it.

Then a stranger comes to their land and shoots Fire by accident, and he in turn is executed by an archer with prodigious skill. The kingdom is at war, so Fire and her boyfriend Lord Archer head toward the queen mother’s stronghold to find out if the strangers are coming from the rebellious lords.

One thing leads to another, and the royal family asks Fire to come to the King’s City to interrogate another stranger. Fire doesn’t want to use her powers against people, but what if the kingdom is at stake? Meanwhile, the king can’t resist her beauty and asks her every night to marry him. His brother is far more restrained, so why is Fire dismayed to see how kind he is?

Fire is a powerful tale of adventure and romance about a young woman who is too beautiful for her own good.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Kristin Cashore has built a world that completely draws you in, just as she did with Graceling. She quickly establishes the “rules” of life in this other world, and gets you mulling along with Fire as to what that means about who she is and what she can be and do.

I was a little dismayed by all the casual sex in a young adult novel. It’s no different than our society today, I suppose, but I found it kind of sad that it’s just taken for granted. There are plenty of illegitimate births, but not too many other repercussions; it’s just treated as the natural way of things, and I found that a little sad. Fire’s boyfriend at the beginning sleeps with plenty of other women, and I suppose that makes you less sorry for him when Fire finds true love elsewhere. Call me a romantic, but I would have been happier for Fire if she had waited a bit for that true love. And the other women are surprisingly calm to find out about each other, too, I might add.

The book isn’t graphic about the sex, but the fact that it’s going on is no secret. As I say, it’s no different from our own culture any more, but ten years ago, I think you would have only seen this sort of thing in a book for adults, not one for teens.

Anyway, the book gives you a wonderful tale of adventure and magic and romance. But I don’t think of it as a children’s book.

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Review of I Heard God Talking to Me, by Elizabeth Spires

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

i_heard_god_talking_to_meI Heard God Talking to Me

William Edmondson and His Stone Carvings

by Elizabeth Spires

Frances Foster Books (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), New York, 2009. 56 pages.

Here’s a book that is as distinctive as its subject. It’s a biography of folk sculptor William Edmondson, but the story of his life is told in a series of poems. The poems are based on photographs taken during his life (He died in 1951.) of his sculptures and of himself and of his yard.

The poems are mostly in the voice of the object in the sculpture. Like the sculptures, they are quirky and distinctive and amusing.

A few pages of prose at the end give a summary of William Edmondson’s life and fill in some of the details.

Altogether, the photos and poems in this book add up to a compelling portrait of a man who believed he was doing the work of God.

I’m inclined to agree with him.

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Review of The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau, by Dan Yaccarino

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

jacques_cousteauThe Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau

by Dan Yaccarino

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2009. 36 pages.

What is a scientist after all? It is a curious man looking through a keyhole, the keyhole of nature, trying to know what’s going on. — Jacques Cousteau

This picture book biography tells the story of Jacques Cousteau’s amazing life with simple details and evocative pictures. Looking at the pictures brought me right back to the days when my family used to watch the TV show, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. Every page includes an inspiring or illustrative quotation from Jacques Cousteau.

Jacques Cousteau began his fascination with the sea as a sickly child, encouraged to swim to build up his strength. He was also a scientist, tinkering with cameras from a young age. Those two passions combined encouraged him to expand the technology available for ocean exploration, and to share what he discovered with the world.

It fascinated me to do something that seemed impossible. — Jacques Cousteau

This beautiful biography will fascinate children with the sea and what one man can do to expand knowledge for everyone.

When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself. — Jacques Cousteau

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Review of Jeremy Draws a Monster, by Peter McCarty

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

jeremy_draws_a_monsterJeremy Draws a Monster

by Peter McCarty

Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2009. 36 pages.
Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #1 Picture Books

Here’s another picture book I’ve tested out at Storytime with great success. The monster definitely gets the kids’ attention, and the plot is short and sweet enough to keep it.

Jeremy lives on the third story of an apartment building. He never goes out.

One day, he draws a monster. The monster is not very nice. He demands that Jeremy draw more things for him, and doesn’t even say thank you.

The monster goes out, and Jeremy thinks he is free of him, but the monster comes back in the night and takes over Jeremy’s bed.

Jeremy’s solution for dealing with the monster is ingenious and just right. After he sees the monster off, the neighborhood children ask Jeremy to play with them, and he does.

I’ve been following School Library Journal’s Heavy Medal blog, discussing Newbery Medal possibilities, and the moderators suggested some picture books. Technically, a picture book can win the Newbery Medal on the basis of its text. However, I wasn’t impressed by the text of the two books suggested.

Rereading Jeremy Draws a Monster to write this review, I realize that I’ve found a candidate! The pictures are delightful and do add to the story, but you can read the text alone as well. In simple and spare language, it presents a plot — a troublesome monster that must be dealt with. There is character growth: Jeremy goes from isolation to playing with the neighborhood children. Even the setting of the third-story apartment plays a part. The style is spare and the theme of a lonely child finding human companionship is inspiring.

I confess, I still prefer that Newbery winners have stories that are more fleshed out, and I’d rather see this book win a Caldecott Honor. (The artwork is excellent, too, and I still think of the Caldecott for picture books.) But I want to point out that this book tells a poignant story in only 225 words.

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Review of Chicken Dance, by Tammi Sauer and Dan Santat

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

chicken_danceChicken Dance

written by Tammi Sauer

illustrated by Dan Santat

Sterling, New York, 2009. 40 pages.

Here’s a hilarious, completely fun tale of two chickens pursuing their dream.

Marge and Lola see a poster about the barnyard talent show, with top prize tickets to the Elvis Poultry Concert. But what can they do for talent? The ducks taunt them every step of the way, since chickens can’t swim, and can’t fly.

I love the way the ducks get their comeuppance and the chickens have their dreams come true — even without actually winning the talent show.

This story is short enough and full of action enough for preschool storytime, but also has plenty of humor for the parents to enjoy. I only wish I did a better Elvis voice.

Delightful! It will have you flapping and shaking.

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