Review of The Name of the Star, by Maureen Johnson

The Name of the Star

Shades of London
Book One

by Maureen Johnson

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2011. 372 pages.
Starred Review

On the same day that Rory Deveaux from Benouville, Louisiana, arrives in London for a year of boarding school, someone decides to imitate the murders of Jack the Ripper. The murders are gruesome and horrible, and keep arriving on schedule, with Rory’s school in the middle of Ripper territory. But the worst part about these new murders is that the victims can be seen on the closed circuit TV cameras posted all over London. But the person murdering them cannot be seen.

Then Rory begins seeing people that her friends don’t see. And on the night of one of the murders, one man in particular talks to her, but her roommate Jazza doesn’t even see him. He knows who she is and where she lives.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot, because it’s all played out beautifully, with plenty of growing suspense as we begin to figure out, along with Rory, what is going on.

It all leads into a frightening and dangerous confrontation at the end, with a nice twist that assures us there will be more books about Rory. (Though the story in this book is complete, thank goodness! None of that awful “To Be Continued” stuff here.)

Now, call me sheltered, but I had no idea how gruesome Jack the Ripper’s murders were. I thought he just slit people’s throats or something. Using those details definitely raises the stakes in this novel. We want to see the murderer brought to justice, and we don’t want to see Rory fall into his clutches.

The non-paranormal part of the story is entertaining on its own with an American girl trying to fit in at an English boarding school. I fully sympathized with Rory’s horror at field hockey every single day.

I enjoyed the passage where she explains what she learned in the first week:

“Some other facts I picked up:

“Welsh is an actual, currently used language and our next-door neighbors Angela and Gaenor spoke it. It sounds like Wizard.

“Baked beans are very popular in England. For breakfast. On toast. On baked potatoes. They can’t get enough.

“‘American History’ is not a subject everywhere.

“England and Britain and the United Kingdom are not the same thing. England is the country. Britain is the island containing England, Scotland, and Wales. The United Kingdom is the formal designation of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as a political entity. If you mess this up, you will be corrected. Repeatedly.

“The English will play hockey in any weather. Thunder, lightning, plague of locusts . . . nothing can stop the hockey. Do not fight the hockey, for the hockey will win.

“Jack the Ripper struck for the second time very early on September 8, 1888.”

This is a well-written novel of suspense, but with lots of fun mixed in. I’m an avid follower of Maureen Johnson on Twitter, where she’s the funniest person ever, so I wasn’t at all surprised to love Rory’s voice. I am not a person who deliberately chooses to read scary books. Yet I thought this scary book was wonderful, and a whole lot of fun. I’m looking forward to future books.

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Source: This review is based on a book I ordered from Books of Wonder, signed by the author.

Review of The Periodic Table: Elements with Style!

The Periodic Table

Elements with Style!

Created by Basher
written by Adrian Dingle

Kingfisher, New York, 2007. 128 pages.

Why is learning so much more fun when it’s done with cartoons? In this book, the elements introduce themselves, in groups, with cartoon pictures of the key elements. I found myself reading the whole thing, even though I took Chemistry so long ago, I don’t remember much of anything about it.

This is a fun introduction to the periodic table, told in a way that’s likely to stick!

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Review of Hatch! by Roxie Munro


by Roxie Munro

Marshall Cavendish Children, 2011. 40 pages.

The title of this book definitely caught my eye! You see, my maiden name is Hatch. In fact, I decided that someone in my family who still bore the name would have to own this book, and I sent it to my sister for her birthday.

The book itself, besides its delightful name, is a nice introduction to various kinds of birds. It reminds me of The Bird Alphabet Book, by Jerry Pallotta, which my son spent hours looking over when he was small. It was one of the first picture books he memorized all the words to, we read it to him so many times. I can easily imagine a small child being just as fascinated with this book.

The format is a nice predictable one. First, some eggs are shown and the text tells some facts about the type of bird that laid them. The caption asks, “Can you guess whose eggs these are?” Older kids may well be able to guess some of them. Then, as you turn the page, you see the birds with a nest of hatchlings in their native habitat. The text tells the name of the birds and more interesting tidbits about them. On each habitat page, there is a list of several other critters “also on this page.” So it will give some fun to younger children to spot the other animals.

My one complaint with the book is that I wish the eggs were drawn to scale. The ostrich and hummingbird eggs are drawn at similar sizes. The description tells how big and how small they are, but I think it would be much more effective to show that. That might perhaps interfere with putting the text in an egg shape, but maybe in the initial drawing of the eggs, they could at least make them actual size.

Other than that little quibble, I think this book will set many children off on a fascination with birds. Interesting and beautifully done.

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Review of Tuesdays at the Castle, by Jessica Day George

Tuesdays at the Castle

by Jessica Day George

Bloomsbury, New York, 2011. 232 pages.
Starred Review

I always wish for fantasy books to get some Newbery glory. It’s my favorite genre, and although some win, some years outstanding books get passed over. This year, the fantasy book I’m rooting for is Tuesdays at the Castle, by Jessica Day George.

Okay, it’s got some tough competition in the form of Okay For Now, by Gary Schmidt. Tuesdays at the Castle is much lighter fare, not covering big, heavy issues that come up in Okay for Now. However, what Tuesdays at the Castle does, providing a light, intriguing fantasy tale for middle grade readers, it does exceptionally well.

It’s a story of a medieval-type world with a princess at the center of the tale, yes. But the magical setting is highly unusual and delightfully different:

“Whenever Castle Glower became bored, it would grow a new room or two. It usually happened on Tuesdays, when King Glower was hearing petitions, so it was the duty of the guards at the front gates to tell petitioners the only two rules the Castle seemed to follow.

“Rule One: the Throne Room was always to the east. No matter where you were in the castle, if you kept heading east you would find the Throne Room eventually. The only trick to this was figuring out which way east was, especially if you found yourself in a windowless corridor. Or the dungeon.

“This was the reason that most guests stuck with Rule Two: if you turned left three times and climbed through the next window, you’d end up in the kitchens, and one of the staff could lead you to the Throne Room, or wherever you needed to go.

“Celie only used Rule Two when she wanted to steal a treat from the kitchens, and Rule One when she wanted to watch her father at work. Her father was King Glower the Seventy-Ninth, and like him, Celie always knew which way was east….

“The Castle didn’t seem to care if you were descended from a royal line, or if you were brave or intelligent. No, Castle Glower picked kings based on some other criteria all its own. Celie’s father, Glower the Seventy-Ninth, was the tenth in their family to bear that name, a matter of great pride throughout the land. His great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather had become king when Glower the Sixty-Ninth’s only heir had turned out to be a nincompoop. Legend had it that the Castle had repeatedly steered the old king’s hairdresser to the throne room via a changing series of corridors for days before the Royal Council had declared him the next king, and the young man who should have been Glower the Seventieth found himself head down in a haystack after having been forcibly ejected from the castle through the water closet.

“King Glower the Seventy-Ninth, Lord of the Castle, Master of the Brine Sea, and Sovereign of the Land of Sleyne, knew when to leave well enough alone. He married the beautiful daughter of the Royal Wizard when the Castle guided them into the same room and then sealed the doors for a day. He paid attention when the Castle gave people larger rooms or softer chairs. When his oldest son, Bran, kept finding his room full of books and astrolabes, while his second son, Rolf’s, bedroom was moved next to the Throne Room, King Glower sent Bran to the College of Wizardry and declared Rolf his heir.

“And when little Celie was sick, and the Castle filled her room with flowers, King Glower agreed with it. Everybody loved Celie, the fourth and most delightful of the royal children.”

But Celie ends up facing some big problems. Her parents go to Bran’s graduation from the College of Wizardry, and on the way home, they are attacked by bandits in the pass. Bran’s horse is found dead, but they don’t find the bodies of the royal family. However, the king’s Griffin Ring, which rumor says can only be removed at the king’s death, was found at the site of the attack.

Search parties are sent out, but the king and queen and Bran are not found. But things don’t look hopeful for them, and the ministers don’t want to be without a king. Princes from their neighboring countries come with armed guards, plus servants and advisors and ministers of state. Ostensibly they are coming for the funeral. But Celie and her brother and sister don’t want to have a funeral. Though there seems to be no reasonable hope of finding their father alive, the Castle has not yet turned Rolf’s bedroom into the Royal Bedchamber, where the Crown of Sleyne remains. So the current King Glower must still be alive.

But with the king missing, the neighboring kingdoms see Sleyne as weak. The ministers want to go ahead with Rolf’s coronation, but at fourteen they think he’s too young to rule, and will need a regent. The Castle is filled with foreign soldiers and now the foreign princes say they’re staying for Rolf’s coronation. How can Celie and her sister and brother salvage the situation and save the kingdom? And how can Celie use her knowledge of the castle to defend the country and her family?

The story that follows is inventive and suspenseful and wonderfully creative. One lovely thing about it is that, though there’s a little romance with Celie’s big sister, the main focus all the while is on Celie, who is firmly a child, about ten years old. I love it that this child saves the day, doing realistic things for a child and little sister to do. For example, Celie is interested in the Castle and has been mapping it out. She knows it better than anyone. Which enables her to go places no one else can go….

A huge strength of this book is its wonderfully imaginative setting, though perhaps I should say the strength is really
in the characterization, because the Castle is like a character itself. The three royal siblings left at the Castle are all distinct personalities and contribute to the solution in ways that are true to their character. And the plot is wonderful, too — with plenty of twists and turns showing up like castle corridors changing direction, but all arising naturally out of the inventive situation the author has created. This book is tremendous fun, and my favorite children’s fantasy book of the year so far.

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Source: This review is based on an Advance Review Copy I got at ALA Annual Conference.

Review of The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater

The Scorpio Races

by Maggie Stiefvater

Scholastic Press, New York, 2011. 409 pages.
Starred Review

I wasn’t sure I would like this book when I read the cover flap, but ended up completely entranced. All my childhood love of The Black Stallion books was aroused. I started it on the way to KidLitCon, and was awfully annoyed when the plane landed and I had to stop. The second night (when I didn’t have a roommate), I kept reading until I finished, because sleep could wait!

Now, I haven’t read any of Maggie Stiefvater’s other books. I’ve pretty much had my fill of werewolf or vampire books, so I didn’t even try them. But this one is about horses — bloodthirsty water horses.

I thought the author had invented a completely new creature, but I learned in the afterword that there is a strong tradition of Manx and Irish and Scottish dangerous water horses. Of course, Maggie Stiefvater took the idea and made it her own. This is no fairy tale retelling, but an intriguing story with mythic elements.

The book begins with a Prologue set nine years earlier. The heading says we’re hearing from Sean, who we soon learn is 9 years old. Here’s how it begins:

“It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.

“Even under the brightest sun, the frigid autumn sea is all the colors of the night: dark blue and black and brown. I watch the ever-changing patterns in the sand as it’s pummeled by countless hooves.

“They run the horses on the beach, a pale road between the black water and the chalk cliffs. It is never safe, but it’s never so dangerous as today, race day.”

As Sean watches his father mount the red stallion, he hopes the capall will remember what Sean whispered in his ear: Do not eat my father.

“I am watching the race from the cliffs when a gray uisce horse seizes my father by his arm and then his chest.

“For one moment, the waves do not attack the shore and the gulls above us do not flap and the gritty air in my lungs doesn’t escape.

“Then the gray water horse tears my father from his uneasy place on the back of the red stallion.

“The gray cannot keep its ragged grip on my father’s chest, and so my father falls to the sand, already ruined before the hooves get to him. He was in second place, so it takes a long minute before the rest of the horses have passed over the top of his body and I can see it again. By then, he is a long, black and scarlet smear half-submerged in the frothy tide. The red stallion circles, halfway to a hungry creature of the sea, but he does as I asked: He does not eat the thing that was my father. Instead, the stallion climbs back into the water. Nothing is as red as the sea that day.”

Then the book begins, nine years later, from the perspective of our other protagonist, Kate “Puck” Connelly. Her parents were also killed by water horses, but not because they were racing. Last Fall, they were simply going for a ride in their boat offshore the island, when a water horse attacked and killed them. Now Puck’s older brother, Gabe, goes to work at the Hotel, and Puck keeps things going at home for him and their younger brother, Finn.

Puck and Finn are going into town along the beach with Puck’s beloved ordinary horse Dove when they see the first water horse of the year come onto the land.

“Finn flinches as the horse gallops down the beach toward us, and I lay a hand on his elbow, though my own heart is thumping in my ears.

“‘Don’t move,’ I whisper. ‘Don’t-move-don’t-move-don’t-move.’

“I cling to what we’ve been told over and over — that the water horses love a moving target; they love the chase. I make a list of reasons it won’t attack us: We’re motionless, we’re not near the water, we’re next to the Morris, and the water horses despise iron.

“Sure enough, the water horse gallops past us without pause. I can see Finn swallowing, his Adam’s apple bobbing in his skinny neck, and it’s so true, it’s so hard not to flinch until it’s leapt back into the ocean once more.

“They’re here again.

“This is what happens every fall. My parents didn’t follow the races, but I know the shape of the story nonetheless. The closer it gets to November, the more horses the sea spits out. Those islanders who mean to race in future Scorpio Races will often go out in great hunting parties to capture the fresh capaill uisce, which is always dangerous, since the horses are hungry and still sea-mad. And once the new horses emerge, it’s a signal to those who are racing in the current year’s races to begin training the horses they caught the years before — horses that have been comparatively docile until the smell of the fall sea begins to call to the magic inside them.

“During the month of October, until the first of November, the island becomes a map of safe areas and unsafe areas, because unless you’re one of the riders, you don’t want to be around when a capall uisce goes crazy. Our parents tried hard to shield us from the realities of the uisce horses, but it was impossible to avoid it. Friends would miss school because an uisce horse had killed their dog overnight. Dad would have to drive around a ruined carcass on the way to Skarmouth, evidence of where a water horse and a land horse had gotten into a fight. The bells at St. Columba’s would ring midday for the funeral of a fisherman caught unawares on the shore.

“Finn and I don’t need to be told how dangerous the horses are. We know. We know it every day.”

Then the narration alternates back to Sean Kendrick. He’s nineteen now, and he knows the water horses better than anyone else on the island. He has won the Scorpio Races the last four years, riding on Coll, the red stallion his father rode the day he died. But Sean isn’t racing on his own name. He works for Mr. Malvern, the richest man on the island. He wants nothing so much as to own Coll for himself, but Malvern isn’t selling.

Then Puck’s brother Gabe tells her he’s leaving the island to find work. Puck will do anything to keep him here, for any length of time, so she decides to enter the race this year.

But the island men don’t want a woman in the races. They say it’s bad luck, that she doesn’t belong. But Puck has to win. That’s the only way she can save their home, on which Malvern says he’s going to foreclose.

To add to Sean’s difficulties, Malvern’s son Mutt is jealous. Sean has always told Malvern which horse is the safest, so Mutt can ride that one. But now Mutt wants to win, even if it takes riding a horse that’s more than he can handle.

We quickly get drawn into these characters’ lives. They both love the island and the island’s traditions. They both love their horses. And they both really need to win.

Meanwhile, there’s a long tradition of how the training is done in the weeks leading up to the race, and Maggie Stiefvater has the reader mesmerized as Puck and Sean go through those weeks, Puck facing the hostility of the whole town, and Sean facing Mutt Malvern’s hatred and Malvern’s refusal to let him buy Coll. Along the way, they both are in life-or-death danger over and over again.

This book is brilliant. As I said, all my horse-book-loving little girl passions were aroused! But it had more than that. These horses were faster and far more deadly than ordinary horses, so the stakes were much higher. The author also worked in a realistic scenario of a small island totally dependent on the tourism surrounding its annual race, with young people leaving the island for the mainland. Like The Black Stallion, we’ve got a young man who is the only one who can ride a wild stallion, and maybe the horse loves him back, though wild with everyone else. And we’ve got a girl willing to risk everything to stay on the island she loves. No surprise, there’s romance between Sean and Puck, and it’s beautifully, delicately done. As the end approaches, we definitely want both of them to win the race, with so much at stake.

The one little thing I wasn’t crazy about was the character of Mutt Malvern. In general, I don’t like books to have a stereotypical bully. But Maggie Stiefvater made the situation seem quite realistic and we could pretty easily believe Mutt would act the way he did. She did keep him just the right side of stereotypical. And the interaction between Mutt and Sean definitely ratcheted up the tension.

Yes, I confess, even though I never had a horse, I was a stereotypical horse-loving little girl through books. And this book was like those childhood reads, only more so. I have a feeling I will be rereading this book many times. It is that good.

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Darkness and Oz

There’s been another recent kerfuffle, albeit a relatively minor one, about darkness in children’s books.

What set it off was Maria Tatar’s Opinion piece in the New York Times, “No More Adventures in Wonderland.” A notable paragraph includes: “But the savagery we offer children today is more unforgiving than it once was, and the shadows are rarely banished by comic relief. Instead of stories about children who will not grow up, we have stories about children who struggle to survive.” In another section, she says, “Children today get an unprecedented dose of adult reality in their books, sometimes without the redemptive beauty, cathartic humor and healing magic of an earlier time.” Mind you, then she brings up an example that was definitely written for young adults, not children.

Her final paragraph mourns what she calls a lost tradition: “Still, it is hard not to mourn the decline of the literary tradition invented by Carroll and Barrie, for they also bridged generational divides. No other writers more fully entered the imaginative worlds of children — where danger is balanced by enchantment — and reproduced their magic on the page. In today’s stories, those safety zones are rapidly vanishing as adult anxieties edge out childhood fantasy.”

I’ve read some thoughtful responses to that piece from Monica Edinger, Nina Lindsay, and Betsy Bird, along with some insightful comments from their readers. I don’t think I have a lot to add to the discussion.

But I did read something this week that made me laugh, when juxtaposed in my mind with Maria Tatar’s article. Believe it or not, it’s the Introduction to L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

I was rereading this fabulous book for a meeting of the DCKidLit Book Club.

Bearing in mind Ms. Tatar’s article and that L. Frank Baum wrote this in 1900, see if you can see why this Introduction made me laugh:

Folk lore, legends, myths and fairy tales have followed childhood through the ages, for every healthy youngster has a wholesome and instinctive love for stories fantastic, marvelous and manifestly unreal. The winged fairies of Grimm and Andersen have brought more happiness to childish hearts than all other human creations.

Yet the old-time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as “historical” in the children’s library; for the time has come for a series of newer “wonder tales” in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incident devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder-tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.

Having this thought in mind, the story of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was written solely to pleasure children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out.

— L. Frank Baum
Chicago, April, 1900

It’s funny in several ways. First, he was complaining that existing children’s literature is too dark. But also, he was saying the opposite of what people say today: That it’s “modern” to have sweetness and light in children’s books.

So perhaps critics have a point. But I’m thinking there were two camps then and there are two camps now. One camp thinks that childhood should be G-rated, and you should try to keep unpleasant things from the little dears. (I guess you can already tell which camp I’m in.) The other camp thinks that kids can handle unpleasant things, in reasonable context and as they grow.

To be honest, I love the Oz books, but they do have a sentimental, grandfatherly tone. This makes their best audience tend to be younger children, who don’t mind being talked down to. Mind you, they’re wonderful adventures. But the reader must not mind that the heroine is called a “little girl,” as in this passage: “Dorothy was an innocent, harmless little girl, who had been carried by a cyclone many miles from home; and she had never killed anything in all her life.”

I’ve been thinking about it, and Oz is a perfect family read-aloud for young children, as well as an ideal choice for early readers. The reading level is a little higher than the interest level, because as kids get older they are less taken by the grandfatherly sentimental tone. (Though if you once hook kids on the Oz stories, I’m convinced they’ll continue to gobble them up, and will take longer to outgrow them.)

Like J. K. Rowling, L. Frank Baum had an incredible imagination, and threw all kinds of bizarre countries, characters, and adventures into his books. As far as creating new, American wonder-tales, he certainly succeeded.

But how funny that he was trying to save the world from dark children’s literature of “heart-aches and nightmares”!

Actually, if everyone who finds children’s literature too dark would take his approach, I would have no complaints at all: Go out there and write something wonderful without the darkness. L. Frank Baum decided to write light-hearted wonder-tales, and did a magnificent job.

And whether or not you think L. Frank Baum was right that the tales before his time were too dark, you’ve got to admire his response. He didn’t just complain. He did something about it, and created the kind of tales he wanted to see. If today’s critics would only do the same.

Review of A Woman’s Worth, by Marianne Williamson

A Woman’s Worth

by Marianne Williamson

Random House, New York, 1993. 143 pages.

I began this book shortly after my divorce was finalized. Honestly, in bad moments, I’m feeling wounded, a failure, and unlovable. My mind knows all that is not true, but my heart needs uplifting messages of truth. And that’s exactly what this book provided for me. I found myself posting resonant quotations from this book over and over on Sonderquotes.

I’ll post some of my favorites here, and that will give you the idea.

“Every woman I know wants to be a glorious queen, but that option was hardly on the multiple-choice questionnaire we were handled when we were little girls. Rarely did anyone tell us we could choose to be magic.”

“We have a job to do reclaiming our glory. So what if we are called grandiose? So what if we are accused of being in dangerous denial of our faults, our neuroses, our weaknesses? It’s an ancient trick this, telling a woman that her glory is her sickness. You bet we’re in denial. We deny the power of weakness to hold us back, be it the weakness of the world or the weakness in our own past. We are on to better things, such as owning our beauty and honoring the courage it has taken us to get here and claiming our natural power to heal and be healed. We’re not grandiose, but we’re tired — tired of pretending we are guilty when we know we’re innocent, that we’re plain when we know we’re beautiful, and that we’re weak when we know we’re strong. For far too long, we have forgotten we are cosmic royals. Our mothers forgot, their mothers forgot, and their mothers before them. We regret their tears; we mourn their sadness. But now, at last, we break the chain.”

“Joy is our goal, our destiny. We cannot know who we are except in joy. Not knowing joy, we do not know ourselves. When we are without joy, we grope in the dark. When we are centered in joy, we attain our wisdom. A joyful woman, by merely being, says it all. The world is terrified of joyful women. Make a stand. Be one anyway.”

“No man can convince a woman she’s wonderful, but if she already believes she is, his agreement can resonate and bring her joy.”

“There’s a lot of talk today about whether a woman can have it all. The problem isn’t having it all but receiving it all, giving ourselves permission to have a full and passionate life when our cultural conditioning has denied us that for centuries. The biggest limit to our having is our small reach, our shy embrace. As long as it’s considered unfeminine to have a full appetite — which it is, because it is recognized that whatever we allow ourselves to truly desire we usually get — then we will not sit down at life’s banquet but only at its diner. This is ridiculous, and it holds back the entire world for women to live at half-measure. It’s also an insult to men to suggest that they can’t dance with goddesses, as though a woman at full power might step on their toes.”

If these uplift you as they did me, I recommend getting the book and reading more of this encouragement for yourself.

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Review of A Fistful of Rice, by Vikram Akula

A Fistful of Rice

My Unexpected Quest to End Poverty Through Profitability

by Vikram Akula

Harvard Business Review Press, 2011. 191 pages.

This is an intriguing and hopeful book. Vikram Akula was working in India with a nonprofit organization that offered microfinance loans to poor people. But they quickly ran out of funds.

“The woman looked me in the eye, and with great dignity, she spoke the words that would change my life, ‘Am I not poor, too?’ she asked me. I stared at her, jarred by the question, and she went on. ‘Do I not deserve a chance to get my family out of poverty?’

Am I not poor, too? With these words, this driven, determined woman suddenly made me see how unfair — unjust, really — our microfinance program was. Yes, we were helping hundreds of poor Indians take the first steps to pull themselves out of poverty. But my program had just $250,000 to spend in thirty villages — that was all DDS had been given for the project. And once that money was disbursed, there was no money left for other poor Indians who desperately wanted a chance too.

“The woman wasn’t asking for a dole. She wasn’t asking for a handout. She was simply asking for an opportunity. But we couldn’t give it to her.

“This was a defining moment for me. We had to find a way to change microfinance — to make it available to any Indian, or any poor person anywhere in the world for that matter, who wanted to escape poverty. Microfinance was a fantastic tool, but a deeply flawed one. There simply had to be a way to scale it beyond the constraints of how it was currently being practiced.”

His solution ended up being charging higher interest — and making a profit from the work the poor people did.

It sounds atrocious, but Vikram Akula ended up convincing me it was a brilliant idea. Now his company is helping thousands of times more people — and has people wanting to invest more money, rather than them having to ask for money.

The book goes into details of how his program works and how they make it good for the people who get the loans as well as for the company. It’s a fascinating story.

I especially liked these paragraphs toward the end of the book:

“I believe a commercial approach is the best way to give the most poor people access to finance. My early days at DDS taught me a crucial lesson: the poor are really no different from you or me. They’re not stupid or slow, and they aren’t looking for us to rescue them or teach them anything. The relationship between SKS and our members is mutually beneficial. Our members are receiving tools that have long been denied them, and using them to do things they’re naturally skilled at doing. In return, SKS is building an enormous member base, establishing a brand, raising money in investments, and continuing to expand the number of poor members served. It’s a perfect circle, one that benefits everyone.

“The notion that it’s somehow unethical to enter into a profitable business working with the poor is insulting to the poor. They are not children who need our protection. They’re working women and men who are thriving under a system that allows them to take their economic lives into their own hands. Treating them as anything less is unjust.”

This reminded me of Libraries.

Bear with me, as I realize I’m someone obsessed by an idea. But I’ve seen homeless people who go to the library every day absolutely refuse when kind people want to give them hand-outs. When my oldest son was small and my husband was a Senior Airman, we had a low enough income to participate in the WIC program, and it felt very demeaning. The government workers assumed we didn’t know much about nutrition, for a start. In the end, the little bit of financial help they could offer wasn’t worth the “educational” sessions we had to sit through. I had too much pride.

So how does this relate to Libraries? Libraries help the poor tremendously, but they allow them to keep their dignity because they help rich people, too. Bottom line, libraries are a big cooperative to purchase books for an entire community at a lower price. Everyone benefits, so no one has to feel that they are singled out to be “helped.” Libraries help everyone, and people can be proud to use them, without feeling obligated.

It is similar with SKS. The investors are making money because of the hard work of those who take out loans. And they are able to get out of poverty, but don’t have to feel indebted to those who made it possible. Those people benefit, too.

Sometimes, you help people more when you allow them the dignity of helping you. When the investors in SKS make a profit, they allow the “helping” not to be all on one side.

Vikram Akula closes his book telling the story of another woman, a woman whose whole family has been helped by SKS.

“I thought back to the woman in the faded purple sari, all those years ago — the woman who asked the question that changed my life: ‘Am I not poor, too?’ And I couldn’t help but contrast her with smiling Yellamma, proudly telling me about how SKS has helped her family.

“‘Am I not doing well?’ she asked. Yes, she was.”

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

State of Wonder

by Ann Patchett

Harper, 2011. 353 pages.
Starred Review

I got to hear Ann Patchett read from this book almost a full year ago, when she spoke at the Fall for the Book Festival at George Mason University in Fairfax, sponsored by the Fairfax Library Foundation. It’s been a long time to wait for it to come out! Though it didn’t exactly make me excited to read the book — the passage she read involved an Anaconda on a small boat in the Amazon, and it was portrayed all too vividly. But I did know from that reading that the book would be well-written, vividly described, and definitely exciting!

I was right about all of that. Her writing is so evocative. She deeply pulls you into the lives of her characters — who are definitely individuals, with very particular, very unique lives. But it doesn’t take long reading to feel like you know these people, to completely believe that their lives and complex histories are exactly as described.

The story is rather exotic, taking our character to a remote tribe in the Amazon jungle. The beginning sounds completely normal, but momentous:

“The news of Anders Eckman’s death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope. Who even knew they still made such things? This single sheet had traveled from Brazil to Minnesota to mark the passing of a man, a breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to this world. Mr. Fox had the letter in his hand when he came to the lab to tell Marina the news. When she saw him there at the door she smiled at him and in the light of that smile he faltered.”

Anders shared an office with Marina. They were doctors working for a pharmaceutical company. Anders had gone to Brazil to check on the progress of the elusive Dr. Swenson, developing a valuable miracle drug for their company, exploring the late-life pregnancies of a remote jungle tribe. He was supposed to hurry Dr. Swenson along and ask her to bring most of the work back to Minnesota.

But they got an aerogram that Anders died of a fever. They buried him there.

Naturally, that doesn’t satisfy anybody. So Marina goes to find out how he died and to check on the progress of the work while she’s at it. But Dr. Swenson’s work is so secret, no one even knows where she is, and the first step is to wait in a city outside the jungle until she comes in for supplies. What’s more, Marina has some baggage. Years ago, Dr. Swenson was her advisor in her medical residency. But Marina had an accident in performing a Cesarean section, and transferred out of obstetrics and gynecology to pharmacology. She, along with all the residents, idolized Dr. Swenson. But she understands that nothing but the work is important to Dr. Swenson. So she is not surprised when Dr. Swenson doesn’t even remember her.

And there’s so much more going on. I won’t tell any more, so you can enjoy discovering it all in the delightful way Ann Patchett gives it to you, as if you’re learning it from the people themselves. This book is so richly textured, with layers and layers of meaning.

The story is rather exotic, since it takes you to the Amazon. And, yes, Ann Patchett did go to the Amazon when researching this book. You can tell in details like the way an anaconda smells.

I see in my notes from her talk that she says that when writing “you have to know the characters first — like knowing people.” And her characters are indeed like real people, each with their own unique history and hang-ups and interests. You will be fascinated when these people you’ve come to know get plunged into extraordinary situations.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Didn’t I Say That Would Happen?

Last week, I posted about the Digital Divide and how I think that will affect students in Fairfax County. This week, The Washington Post ran an article reporting that very thing is already happening.

Here are some pertinent paragraphs:

But questions remain about whether the least-privileged children will have equal access to required texts. Many don’t have computers at home, or reliable Internet service, and the school system is not giving a laptop or e-reader to every student.

A survey of the schools that piloted online books last year, including Glasgow, indicated that 8 percent of middle school students and 12 percent of high school students do not have a computer at home.

On a recent day at the Woodrow Wilson Library in Falls Church, she signed up for a terminal and dived into her homework — several pages of questions about the Reconstruction period after the Civil War that required visiting a particular Web site. She finished more than half of the questions before the library closed at 6 p.m.

The article links to an earlier article that expressed how difficult it was — even before textbooks were online — to get enough computer access to do homework. It frustrates me that this is the same county that drastically reduced library hours. I have no doubt that a large proportion of middle school and high school students who don’t have a computer at home also may not have a parent at home until after 6:00 — when their local library hours have been cut.

That seems to me an awful large number of students (ten percent of such a huge county is a big number) to make jump through extra hoops just to get their homework done. The article mentioned that some schools are trying to accommodate those without a computer:

At Glasgow, which is in the Alexandria portion of Fairfax County and where about 62?percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, Principal Deirdre Lavery has extended after-school computer lab hours and developed a way for students to check out laptops overnight. Other schools are making similar adjustments.

Now, for me, I’m relieved that even though he has his own computer, my son is a Senior. And AP Social Studies textbooks are not yet online. Aside from all the other issues, I don’t really want him reading from a computer screen that much more in a day. He already wears glasses.

Two thoughts spring to mind, for the whole county and the future, though:

1. It seems to me that Fairfax County decision makers need to think much harder about the kids who aren’t getting a fair shake out of this situation. You’ve just made their lives that much more difficult.

2. Please acknowledge that now the libraries in the county are more important than ever. The library hours and funding should be restored, because now more children than ever before need the library just to do their homework.