osprey_archer: (books)
...kids are always part of grown-up problems. Even when the grown-ups think they aren’t.

So Raine tells her grandfather in Sheila O’Connor’s Sparrow Road, thus summing up the theme of the book: you can’t protect your kids from the problems in their lives just by refusing to talk about them. The kids will notice those problems on their own - in Raine’s case, the problem of her missing father, who disappeared when she was a baby.

I really liked this book. The themes may be heavy, but the story itself is a summer idyll. Explorations of the vast old house at Sparrow Road, once an orphanage and now an artist’s colony. Getting to know the artists who live there: reading poetry with fragile Lilian, going to town for ice cream with exuberant Josie who makes her own patchwork dresses, rowing on the lake with Diego of the booming laugh. Raine begins to discover her own talents, too: inspired by the attic dormitory, she begins to write an orphan story of her own.

It does have one peculiar quality. Although Sparrow Road was published in 2012 and it’s never explicitly stated that it’s set any time but now, it feels like it’s set at least twenty years before. No one has a cell phone, no one’s ever heard of the internet, and Raine was born during her mother’s “hippie years.” When did people last have hippie years? 1975?

I think this time warp effect gives Sparrow Road some of its timeless idyll quality, so this isn’t a criticism so much as an observation. And, now that I think of it, a lot of the best children’s book writers write books set in their own childhood era. Laura Ingalls Wilder and Maud Hart Lovelace both wrote explicitly autobiographical books series; Anne of Green Gables, IIRC, is also set during L. M. Montgomery’s childhood years. (Perhaps also Emily of New Moon? I know Pat of Silver Bush is intended to be set when it was written, which just makes it seem more old-fashioned.)

Maybe I should start plotting a 1990s magnum opus. The characters occasionally get on the internet long enough to watch Hamster Dance, except then Mom wants to use the phone, so they dash outside again to ride their bikes down to the park to… uh, play pogs maybe?

In any case. Sparrow Road! A neglected gem.
osprey_archer: (books)
What I’ve Just Finished Reading

I finished The Railway Children! [personal profile] asakiyume had acquired a copy of the most recent movie for us to watch, which gave me extra impetus, but it was a real pleasure to read so I probably would have galloped through it anyway. Highly recommended if you like early twentieth-century children’s books.

Also highly recommended: the 2000 film version of The Railway Children, which is quite faithful to the book - it cuts a couple of scenes (and one of the cut scenes is the one tragically sexist scene in the book, which is otherwise so good about letting the girls be just as heroic as their brother) but doesn’t add much, which IMO is generally where adaptations go wrong, adding in scenes that don’t suit at all. The biggest addition, I think, is that the film draws out some of the stuff about class relations which is latent in the book - but it doesn’t become overbearing or anything; it’s still quite secondary to the fun adventures.

Also Jerry, by Jean Webster - who is most famous for writing Daddy-Long-Legs - and this is definitely a case where I can see why that’s the book she’s remembered for, although Jerry is not without charms. A young American man - and, as a side note, his name is Jerymn, which I have never seen before and would be inclined to take as a misspelling of Jermyn except Webster spells it that way every single time. Has anyone else run across this name? How do you pronounce it?

Anyway, Jerry - to give him his easily pronounceable nickname - Jerry is vacationing in a dull Italian country town when he meets a beautiful American girl. To get closer to her (and enliven his dull days), he masquerades as an Italian tour guide. She sees through him at once, but doesn’t let on, and the rest of the book consists of the two of them gleefully upping the ante of the masquerade.

What I’m Reading Now

I’m almost done with Jane Langton’s The Astonishing Stereoscope, which sadly I think is not nearly as good as either The Fragile Flag or The Fledgling, although also not nearly as bad as The Time Bike. A good middling Langton! And I will continue to search for The Swing in the Summerhouse, which is about, I think, a magical swing, which I think is just perfect and delightful and I hope the book lives up to it.

There are also a couple of post-Time Bike books in this series, but I am a little leery about reading them. Still, if I do run across them…

What I Plan to Read Next

My next reading challenge is coming up! It is “a book published before you were born,” and the only challenging part of this will be fixing on just one. The library has kindly purchased Kate Seredy’s The Chestry Oak for me (this is the first time I have made a purchase request at a library! I feel so powerful!), so perhaps that; but there is also the possibility of reading more Nesbit...
osprey_archer: (books)
What I’ve Just Finished Reading

The first Ivy + Bean book, which I did not find nearly as enchanting as I hoped. Ivy and Bean are just such - twerps, I think is the only word for it; the crowning moment of the book is when they throw worms in Bean’s sister’s face, and you know, I have an older sibling, and he could be very frustrating when I was seven, but somehow I managed to refrain from throwing worms in his face.

On a cheerier note, I also read Thomas Mallon’s Yours Ever: People and Their Letters, which is absolutely charming. I love letters and books about letters and letters between famous people, and Mallon packs lots of characterization into his brief portraits of these famous letter-writers.

Of course it helps that the letter-writers are so very characteristically themselves: Byron, for instance, bragging of his “Don Juan,” “Could any man have written it who has not lived in the world? - and fooled in a post-chaise? in a hackney-coach? in a gondola? against a wall? in a court carriage? in a vis-a-vis? on a table? and under it?” He probably expired filled with dismay that he never managed to do it in a hot air balloon.

Or Richard Nixon, paranoid, thin-skinned, obsessed with his legacy. His neediness is actually rather touching, at least as long as you don’t think about the fact that he had the power to turn that thin-skinned paranoia into quite a lot of damage.

What I’m Reading Now

I’m reading Blinky Bill, which is Australia’s answer to Beatrix Potter. Like Beatrix Potter, it is full of adorable pictures of anthropomorphized animals looking cute, and also like Beatrix Potter, when you actually read the text you discover that the adorable animal illustrations are a thin veneer over ANARCHY. Blinky Bill is forever narrowly escaping death and also accidentally (or not-so-accidentally) squashing other critters and there is nary a moral in sight.

I don’t know about Blinky Bill’s reputation in Australia, but it occurs to me that Beatrix Potter, like early Disney, has a reputation for treacliness that is totally at odds with the actual content of her stories. Maybe it’s just because we associate these stories with early childhood and assume that they must therefore be sweet and anodyne.

What I Plan to Read Next

Well, I’m giving the second Ivy + Bean book a go. We’ll see if it’s an improvement.
osprey_archer: (books)
I almost mended a copy of Olivia today, but at the last minute we decided its condition was too poor for repairing, so into the recycling it went. :( Hopefully another Olivia will show up soon; I really want to read this book.

I did read Elizabeth Schoonmacher's Square Cat, which is about Euly, a square cat in a world of round cats. It's a hard life, being a square cat. She looks silly in stripes. She's invisible in rooms with lots of right angles. She tips over, and - being square - she's just kind of stuck there. At first Euly's friends try to make her feel more round, so she'll feel like she fits in; when that doesn't work, they put on cardboard boxes, and they all experience the square cat life together, at which point Euly realizes that being square has its advantages. At the end, they all flop down together and look at the sky, which is, the book tells us, a view "only a square cat could have."

I guess maybe the round cats would roll away if they tried to lie down and look at the sky. Or something.

There are many things I love about picture books, but one of the things I find irritating about them is that they can be so relentlessly upbeat. Every cloud has a silver lining. When one door closes, a vast panoramic window with a view of the Grand Canyon opens. The ugly duckling will always turn into a swan, and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer will always save the day in the end.

And I like upbeat stories, I do. But in the aggregate, this relentless positivity begins to feel emotionally dishonest. I realize that picture book authors don't want to discourage the three-year-olds of the world, many of whom will in fact outgrow their ugly duckling stages and do just fine, but at the same time, I feel like it would be good if these books would occasionally allow disappointments to actually be disappointing.

Maybe being a square cat is tough, but Euly has managed to acquire two awesome cat friends who want nothing more than to cheer her up. Isn't that happy ending enough without pretending that round cats are incapable of looking up at the sky?
osprey_archer: (books)
”A woman’s work is something fine and noble to grow up to, and it is just as important as a man’s. But no man could ever do it so well. I don’t want you to be the silly, affected person with fine clothes and manners whom folks sometimes call a lady. No, that is not what I want for you, my little girl. I want you to be a woman with a wise and understanding heart, healthy in body and honest in mind. Do you think you would like to be growing up into that woman now? How about it, Caddie, have we run with the colts long enough?”...

Suddenly Caddie flung herself into Mr. Woodlawn’s arms.

“Father! Father!”

When I was a little girl, I was convinced I was a tomboy, despite the fact that I didn’t like sports, physical exertion, boys, or pretty much any of the other things that young tomboys are supposed to love. Mostly I just wanted to sit around and read all the time, but in between the Little House books and Caddie Woodlawn, my reading led to the conclusion that girls were supposed to be tomboys.

I should perhaps put “supposed” in quotes, because these are books at war with their own subtext. On the one hand, the explicit message - and this is especially clear in Caddie Woodlawn, which spells its message out the passage I quoted above (which is one of the few parts of the book I remembered all these years later) - is that tomboys have to grow up, and put aside childish things, and become good quiet housekeepers who learn all those girly things they’ve scorned.

But on the other hand, and all words about “fine and noble” callings aside, man does Caddie Woodlawn make proper ladyhood look unattractive. Caddie’s older sister Clara has been so subsumed by ladyhood that she barely has a personality. She’s the only one in the family who votes to go to England when her father inherits an estate, because only she is blinded by the glitz of the English peerage to the true beauty of the rough frontiers of America.

(Clara does not lose her entire family to a train accident, but nonetheless I think she and Susan Pevensie have something in common.)

Who wouldn’t rather be a tomboy? Tomboys are honest and brave and true and have their own opinions about things rather than just parroting out of the Godey’s Lady’s Book.

I loved Caddie Woodlawn as a girl, and I still love lots of it - there’s a marvelous scene where Caddie tries to fix a clock, for instance, and ends up getting taken under her father’s wing as his clock-fixing apprentice. The nature descriptions are marvelous. (The Indian plotlines are of their time - neither particularly noxious nor particularly progressive for the the thirties, but uncomfortable reading today. I’m sure someone has written about this at length elsewhere.)

But reading it now, what it really draws out for me is how two-faced our cultural vision of how girls are supposed to be is. For a long time, the explicit message - the conduct-book message, one might call it - was that girls should be quiet and polite and thoughtful and ladylike, while the message in books (Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Caddie Woodlawn) was that ladylike girls are the most boring thing to ever bore, and girls ought to be exciting and sprightly and tomboyish.

And at some point (gradually, although it was quite common in books I read growing in the nineties), that implicit message became explicit. Girls should be tomboys. They should be fearless! and feisty! and loud! and able to keep up with the boys.

Or - if it’s a story that isn’t specifically aimed at girls - maybe only almost able to keep up. Not too fearless. Not too loud. Not so set in their opinions that it’s annoying, and God forbid not right.

Pretty much the only thing on which there is cultural consensus is that girls had damn well better be pretty.
osprey_archer: (books)
What I've Just Finished Reading

Who has two thumbs and has finished reading The Gulag Archipelago? That's right, me! I think that most of the meat of the trilogy is contained within the first volume - not that the second and third books aren't worth reading, because they are, but they are in a sense supplemental material to Solzhenitsyn's thesis, which he expounds in volume one, "that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains ... an unuprooted small corner of evil."

And therefore any and all attempts to clean or perfect humanity by killing the portion of it that you deem evil are not only evil in themselves, but useless at the outset. If you want to kill the evil portion of humanity, then you'd have to kill all humans.

There is this one quote, though, from the third volume, which I've been turning over like a stone in my hand - about forgiveness. It's a long one, so behind the cut: )

I also read Oliver Sacks The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which I really enjoyed. It's a series of case studies about unusual neurological disorders that have come through Sacks' office over the years, some of which are a bit nightmarish (I suspect which cases one finds most upsetting will change from person to person; the one about the woman who lost her proprioception, her sense of her own body - who now feels literally disembodied, like a ghost - really got to me), but all of which are thought-provoking. Some of his terminology is a bit dated - the book was published in 1984; I don't believe anyone uses "moron" as a diagnostic term anymore - but Sacks is nonetheless a thoughtful, compassionate writer.

I also finished Annie Jacobsen's Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America, which is a book that is interesting more for its subject matter than for its treatment of it. Jacobsen lays out a convincing case that the US Department of Defense willfully turned a blind eye to the Nazi pasts of many German scientists it brought to the US - up to and including scientists who committed human experimentation at concentration camps - but somehow all the details slipped through my mind like water through a sieve. The subject is clearly worth exploring, but I can't quite recommend this particular book.

In less heavy (both in size and in subject matter) reading material, I read the latest Penderwick book, The Penderwicks in Spring, which I enjoyed but not as much as the earlier books in the series.

What I'm Reading Now

I've returned to Sarah Rees Brennan's Unmade. I am determined to finish this book, but my progress is dragging because of two seemingly contradictory reasons. First, because I've heard that a character (I don't know which character, but apparently someone everyone likes, because all the reviews I've seen were annoyed) is going to die; and secondly, because the supposedly wicked murderous sorcerer now in charge of Sorry-in-the-Vale has failed to kill any of the characters we like, which makes it hard to take his wicked murderousness seriously.

Possibly when I get to the death, that will make him seem like a slightly more formidable antagonist, but so many characters have escaped certain death already, I suspect that it's going to make the authorial intervention when someone finally bites the dust seem very obvious. You've taken care of everyone else so far, so why didn't so-and-so deserve your protection too, Brennan?

What I Plan to Read Next

Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia.
osprey_archer: (books)
by Langston Hughes

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

In Blue Balliett’s Hold Fast the heroine Early’s life is disintegrating. First her father disappears. Then gangsters, possibly connected to his disappearance, destroy the family’s apartment and steal almost all their belongings. Early, her mother, and her little brother are forced to move into a homeless shelter, and Early’s mother begins to sink into despair.

Faced with this domino-line of catastrophes, “hold fast,” a quote from one of her missing father’s favorite poems, becomes Early’s mantra. Hold fast, because otherwise life will carry you away and drown you.

Literary and historical allusions weave through all of Blue Balliett’s work. But in her earlier books, particularly Chasing Vermeer and The Wright 3, these allusions seemed to be the point of the book: as if the book were a puzzle, intellectually stimulating but not very emotionally engaging. The characters were conduits for information about Vermeer and Frank Lloyd Wright.

But as Balliett’s career has progressed, her work has gained more emotional power. The intellectual puzzles have high personal stakes for the characters, and the characters themselves feel more fleshed out. In Hold Fast, Early and her family are as important - no, even more important - than Langston Hughes’ poetry.

In fact, Early’s family is the most appealing part of the book. The immense stress of their situation bends their immense love for each other almost to the breaking point. Eleven-year-old Early becomes the keystone holding the family together. Despite her strength, the job is almost too much for her to handle: but nonetheless, she holds fast.

An excellent book. I definitely recommend this one.
osprey_archer: (books)
What I’ve Just Finished Reading

Rumer Godden’s The Greengage Summer, which is about a group of children who spend a few weeks in a French hotel, alone because their mother has fallen ill and is in the hospital. Nothing much happens for most of the book: it’s a slow exploration of the hotel, and the routine of the hotel and the routine the children make for themselves while they’re there, and the complicated intersecting relationships of the people who run the hotel.

And then, having set up so many dominoes, Godden gently flicks them down. It’s rather fascinating to watch.

This is an adult book about children rather than a children’s book. This isn't so much about content as about, how shall I put it - underlying worldview. The first word that came to mind is bleak or possibly jaded, but that's not quite right. The book is not jaded, but many of the characters are, and their actions are driven by pettiness in a way that is uncommon in children's books.

I think perhaps in children's books, evil usually has a cause deeper than shallowness? I'll have to think about this more.

What I’m Reading Now

Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races, which is amazingly awesome. I like the main characters a lot, particularly Puck (Sean took more time to grow on me, because he doesn’t like anyone except his stallion), but I love, love, love the island setting. I love the way its customs unfold as we, through Puck, learn more about the titular Scorpio Races. Every year, humans capture, train (not tame. Water horses are never tame), and race the deadly water horses which rise from the sea and occasionally eat people.

Because obviously if your island is beset by deadly flesh-eating horses of dooooom, the thing to do is to capture them and race them. Obviously.

And I love also that, although the deadly doom horses of the deeps are clearly the most important thing, Stiefvater remembers to flesh out other aspects of the islands as well. I would really, really like to eat a November cake.

Oh, oh! And I love the sibling relationships in this book, particularly Puck's friendship with her little brother Finn. Basically I like this book a lot.

What I Plan to Read Next

Sutcliff’s Mark of the Horse Lord is next, but after that I’m not sure. You guys, I have so many books that I’m planning to read over break, I don’t even know where to start.

But I've finished all my course work, so now I have time to read AS MUCH AS I WANT!
osprey_archer: (friends)
Via [livejournal.com profile] sineala, from the ask me questions meme - btw, you should all go ask me questions, because you know you’ve always secretly yearned to know all my thoughts about Golden Age Hollywood or girls’ series books or caramel or goodness knows what else.

Ahem. Sineala said: Describe your perfect children's/YA novel. (Bonus question: Does it exist in reality? If not, what comes closest?)

The heroine is a clever and imaginative girl, and the book focuses on her adventures with her best friend (who is, in the words of Anne of Green Gables, the patron saint of all these heroines, a kindred spirit)

She lives in a large and atmospheric house, possibly in modern times, possibly in history (as long as the author isn't using history to teach us a Very Important Lesson), or possibly in a fantasy world. There is an awesome garden and/or frightening but amazing forest nearby. Preferably, the house contains an awesome library that is somewhat eerie but so full of awesome books that she overcomes the anxiety that the massive mask and/or doll collection causes her.

The masks and/or dolls may turn out to be enchanted. I like all values of enchanted, from actual magic to gentle magical realism to the Frances Hodgson Burnett style of magic, where nothing technically magical happens except for people imagining glorious feasts. (Incidentally, glorious feasts are always a plus. All books are improved by cake.)

I have many such books listed on my 100 books list - seriously, half the books listed probably fit a loose version of this description - but probably the best examples that I've reviewed are The Egypt Game, The Secret Voice of Gina Zhang, and Becoming Rosemary. And clearly I need to write a review of A Little Princess.

The YA novel chronicles the adventures of the clever and imaginative heroine with her bestest best friend ever - or possibly, given that a longer YA book allows greater complexity, a whole posse of friends. Romance, if it's there at all, is subsidiary to the main plot: quite probably they're beset by political intrigue or war, and the book focuses on that.

It may also tackle the big questions, particularly questions of good and evil. Children's books do this too, but a slightly older audience allows for a more sophisticated discussion - teenagers are not necessarily going to get bored if someone quotes a couple lines of Locke or Arendt.

Code Name Verity, The Montmaray Journals, and Enchantress from the Stars (despite the fact that Elana does not have a bestest best friend ever) all strike me as good examples of this sort of story.
osprey_archer: (books)
Drumroll, please! For I have completed the final book in the Newbery project: Avi’s Crispin: The Cross of Lead!!!!

This is exciting because the project is done, but otherwise the book is pretty underwhelming. Possibly I would have liked it more if I hadn’t read it so soon after Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, which evokes the medieval period with twice the grace and ten times the economy. (And in poetry, too!)

Indeed, I find a lot of Avi’s work underwhelming. I had to read Nothing But the Truth in sixth grade and I am still, still indignant about the ultimate hollow pointlessness of that book, in which a horrid little boy wrecks his teacher’s career by claiming she won’t let him say the Pledge of Allegiance, but it turns out he doesn’t even know the words. Oh it made me so mad!

So, fair warning, I am clearly biased against Avi’s work. But Crispin isn’t unfair or infuriating, just...well, it has a lot of tics that annoy me in historical fiction. There’s some clunky exposition, like the scene where Crispin looks down on his village from a hilltop and is all, “Let me explain the layout of my village and also medieval farming practices,” and some even clunkier important life lessons about Freedom.

Characters in children’s historical fiction frequently learn important life lessons about Racism (bad), Sexism (bad), or Freedom (good) - as if these are discreet things that one can learn about all at once and never worry about again. Racism is not like smallpox, it’s not like you get an inoculation and then are safe from ever catching it again.

Admittedly, Crispin learns a lesson about Freedom and not Racism, but the sequel - there is a whole Crispin trilogy - is called Crispin: At the Edge of the World, so I daresay he will learn an important lesson about xenophobia if not racism.

And, again, this is something that Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! does much better: one of the vignettes involves a Jewish boy and a Christian girl who meet unexpectedly on opposite sides of a stream. She raises her arm to cast a stone at him, but ends up skipping the stone instead; they skip stones together, remember themselves, and leave in a hurry.

They haven’t learned an important lesson about anti-Semitism: they’re just left a little uneasy about the way that society works. It’s much more subtle and less sledge-hammery.

In summary: read Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! instead of Crispin.
osprey_archer: (books)
One other thing I did on the camping trip is finally finish The Dark is Rising sequence, which was great fun even if it did take the series a few books to get going. I liked the first book’s jolly English adventure story air, thought the second and third were rather a slog, and quite enjoyed the final two even though Will Stanton remains as dull as two posts.

And even though the ending is the worst ending ever, OMG, disapprove times a million, I intend to pretend the last two pages never occurred.

Spoilers, obviously )

So yeah. I’m glad I finally read the Dark is Rising sequence, if only because I’ve been meaning to for lo these many years, but they aren’t a patch on The Boggart or King of Shadows for my favorite Susan Cooper books.
osprey_archer: (friends)
I love Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s books for a lot of reasons, but chief among them is the fact that she captures the magic of imaginative games. The Changeling does this beautifully too, but her finest book on this score has to be The Egypt Game, which follows new friends April Hall and Melanie Ross as they build a complicated game based on - though swiftly spiraling out from - ancient Egypt.

I love the descriptions of the game, and the book gives them their full due: it describes the backyard of the local antique store that they slowly take over as a stage set for Egypt, the household items that they manage to spruce up into Egypt wear, the way that the game slowly adds new subplots, new characters - and new players - and evolves over the course of its run.

I also love April and Melanie's friendship, which evolves from prickly beginnings into a steadfast thing. April can be difficult and prickly and not so much attention-seeking as attention-demanding; when she and Melanie first meet, April is wearing a massive feather boa, even larger fake eyebrows, and a "I'm from Hollywood and know everything" attitude. She's putting on a front: her feckless mother has just sent her to live with her grandmother, and April feels insecure and unwanted and damned if she's going to show it.

But she and Melanie manage to work past that through their mutual love of story-telling and ancient Egypt. (I suspect that taking care of her little brother Marshall, who is also a rather odd kettle of fish, has given Melanie some extra maturity for her age.)

Another thing I appreciate about Snyder's writing, more now that I'm older and rereading, is how gracefully she incorporates diversity and changing social mores into her stories. Melanie and her little brother Marshall are black, April is white, their neighbor Elizabeth Chung is Chinese-American - and also a lot younger than Melanie and April; I like how the book has a mix of ages - Ken Kamata is Japanese-American (and also kind of a dumb jock type: he can never lose himself in the game but retains always an awareness of how kookie they all look, walking around casting ashes on their heads), and Toby Alvillar is...complicated?

And it all seems very natural. Snyder introduces this diversity so gracefully that it just seems like the way things are in the Casa Rosada, where April and Melanie live, and not at all as if she's teaching a lesson or making a point.


This gracefulness is part of why The Egypt Game's belated sequel, The Gypsy Game, so disappointing: where The Egypt Game is light-handed, The Gypsy Game is as subtle as a brick. It would be bad even if it weren't a sequel, but the comparison makes its faults especially glaring. Clearly at some point Snyder realized that making a game about gypsies would be just as bad as making, say, the Jewish Game.

Which is true, but unfortunately social insight alone does not a good novel make. The book becomes not so much a novel as a PSA: a very dull PSA where nothing imaginative happens at all. And when I first read it, in 1997 when the book came out, I was too busy being bitter about its failure as a novel to retain any of its social messages.
osprey_archer: (books)
I have been warned repeatedly about Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons, and for once forewarned was definitely forearmed, because I didn’t chuck the book across the room when the ending turned out to be both a cheat and deatherrific.

The story is told in the first person, and we find out at the end that Salamanca has been keeping an important piece of information from us since the beginning: her mother is dead, and has been dead since before the book began. I despise books that create a “twist” by having the main character not tell us something incredibly important. It’s cheating; it’s cheap and lazy plotting.

I also felt uncomfortable by the book’s subtheme about Indians and Indian culture. To be fair, Salamanca’s mother Sugar seems like exactly the kind of person who would try to bolster her wavering little individuality by believing she has a special connection with nature because she’s one-eighth descended from that-tribe-that-begins-with-S - she thought the tribe was named Salamanca (hence her daughter’s name), but it turned out to be Seneca, oops.

It ties into something that I actually liked about the book, which is that Sugar seems like a real and very flawed person: Salamanca misses her because Sugar is her mother, despite all her flaws.

But I don’t think we’re meant to see “appropriates Indian culture” as one of Sugar’s flaws, so...it makes me uncomfortable.


I’ve also been reading - actually, listening to the audiobook of - Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, a time-travel mystery set in the 1970s. Inevitably the heroine Miranda is a huge fan of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time; this sets up a comparison between the two books which is rather hard on When You Reach Me.

Basically, A Wrinkle in Time expects the reader to be smart enough to keep up, while When You Reach Me expects the reader to be dumb as a rock and need the basics of time travel explained to them three times, at length, in a manner that more or less spells out the mechanics underlying the plot. I guess most of the major twists before they happened.

However, despite its predictability, When You Reach Me did have some good points. It does an excellent job showing Miranda’s character growth, which I think is hard to do well: people often either drag it out too long or rely too heavily on sudden epiphanies that cause the character to turn their behavior instantly and without apparently relapsing.

But I thought Stead did a good job balancing the slow and painful with the sudden epiphanies (and making the post-epiphany growth seem reasonable) - particularly impressive, given that Miranda starts out as quite a brat. (I actually started a review when I was halfway through the book, complaining that Miranda was by far the least sympathetic or interesting character in it).

There’s a scene I particularly like where Miranda realizes that her jealousy has led her to misjudge and mistreat another girl, feels so appalled at herself that she wants to sink into the floor - and instead, sets out to make amends and make herself the kind of person she won’t need to feel bad about.
osprey_archer: (books)
I have finished reading I, Juan de Pareja in Spanish! Because I am boss! And have therefore completed all the Newbery books from the 1960s!

And now I think I will take a break from Newbery books for a bit, even though I still have twenty-four left to go. (Why are there so many of them? Why?) It’s been interesting reading a lot of books that I wouldn’t necessarily choose for myself - refreshing, even, to branch out - but...it’s still a lot of books that I wouldn’t necessarily choose for myself.

Case in point: Ann Nolan Clark’s Secret of the Andes, which is about a young Inca llama herder Cusi. No one will explain to him anything about anything, because if they did, the book would be ten pages long, and more importantly, Cusi has to learn the importance of blindly obeying orders.

Seriously, everyone is all “Cusi, stop asking questions, questions are bad.” I am utterly perplexed by this message.

Case in point part the second: William H. Anderson’s Sounder, which I approached with trepidation, on the grounds that it is an award-winning book about a dog, and, well. We all know what happens to dogs in award-winning books.

It’s actually a very good book, though I’m not sure I would have thought so if I had read it as a child. Sounder is a sharecropper’s hunting dog - none of the humans ever get names, only Sounder - and the book kicks off with Sounder getting one of his feet blown off when he tries to stop the sheriff from taking the sharecropper off to jail.

I think I might have found that scene just a bit upsetting, as also the scene where the jailor destroys the Christmas cake that the sharecropper’s son attempts to take him in jail - allegedly to check if there’s a file in it - or the scene where the son, trying to find his father, gets a crowbar tossed at him by a foreman while he’s looking into a quarry.

It is, as I was saying, a good book; but it’s intense. Anderson has clearly taken the dictum “show, don’t tell,” to heart, because he never does come right out and tell us that racism is bad; he never needs to, because it’s so obvious, so enraging, how unfair this is. Why does the sharecropper have to do years of hard labor for a single theft? Why isn’t his family allowed to know where he is? Why did the sheriff have to shoot the dog?

Sounder lives through the shooting, incidentally, though he’s scarred for life by it; he loses an eye, he can’t walk very well. Of course he dies by the end of the book, but the book’s construction makes that almost a triumph. He died, sure; but he’s not suffering anymore, and he died at home, and he got to see his master the sharecropper come home before he went.
osprey_archer: (fic corner)
You guys you guys, it is like the internet created a belated birthday present just for me, there is a brainstorming post for the Exchange at Fic Corner, which is a fic exchange for children’s and YA books, IT IS LIKE A DREAM COME TRUE.

A Little Princess! Crown Duel! Ella Enchanted! (SOMEONE LISTED THE CHANGELING. I would be terrified to write fic for it but YAY, OTHER PEOPLE LOVE IT, it is not just me and [livejournal.com profile] asakiyume!) Monica Furlong’s Juniper! And Code Name Verity and the Montmaray Journals and - ! So many books that I am so excited that other people remember and love and want fic for!

Also, a lot of people have expressed interest in American Girl fic - particularly Felicity and Samantha, of course, although a smattering of others. Hooray hooray! This feeds my vague and nascent idea to someday run an American Girl fic exchange! But that would require rising above my usual slothfulness and the fact that I have the organizational ability of a yak.

IN ANY CASE, in the short term my main concern is winnowing my nominations down to a reasonable list - and deciding what to ask for! SO MANY POSSIBILITIES.

Meet Molly

Jul. 6th, 2013 11:43 am
osprey_archer: (books)

Molly, the 1940s girl who thirsts for glory and leadership and may someday achieve them if her tactlessness does not do her in first!

Pretty sure tactless is her middle name. When Emily the English refugee girl stays at Molly’s house, Molly is all friendly and welcoming and “Hello, refugee from the blitz! How about you come down in the basement and play fake bomb shelter with us! It will be fun!”

Emilly: O.O

Molly eventually realizes her mistake, and the two girls bond over their shared love of the two English princesses, only to almost destroy their friendship having a fight over Molly’s birthday party. They decide that it should be an English tea - only Emily, who despite being quite reserved is as stubborn as the day is long, wants it to really be a proper English tea, whereas Molly, though in theory enthusiastic about all things English, wants a proper birthday cake.

Molly is rather stunned that Emily won’t give in, partly because, after all, it is Molly’s birthday, and partly because Molly’s two everyday best friends generally follow her lead. Susan and Linda are all but indistinguishable, and I have the impression that - while Molly really does like them - she also likes the fact that she can lead them.

Molly, you see, is forever coming up with Plans. When we first meet her, she is trying to think of a way to convince Susan and Linda to be the ugly stepsisters to Molly’s Halloween Cinderella. This particular plan falls through, but fear not, Molly has plenty more! She wants to be the leader, the star: the guiding light to her class’s contribution to the war effort, the leader of her team in the summer camp game of capture the flag, the principal dancer in her tap class’s variety show.

This self-assurance - self-centeredness, even - is both one of Molly’s most winning qualities and her greatest flaw. Winning, because she has the talent and persistence to bring her Plans to fruition, and I admire that; but at the same time a flaw, because this is at the root of her tactlessness: she so wrapped up in herself that she often doesn’t seem to notice other people (and she positively sulks when she doesn’t win).

One of the things I love about Molly’s portrayal is that it does capture the duality of this quality: she’s great fun to read about because she’s always making things happen, but nonetheless this thirst for glory does lend a certain prickliness to her relationships with almost everyone in her life. She wants to be at the center of things; she doesn’t want to compromise!

But she does learn to compromise with Emily. In the end, they both apologize: Emily for taking over Molly’s birthday party because of her own homesickness, and Molly for losing her temper with Emily. It’s unfortunate that Emily and Molly probably never see each other again once Emily goes back to England. Maybe they could be penpals?

EPISTOLARY FIC. It could be a thing!


I have been thinking about American Girl against recently because there is going to be children’s and YA book fic exchange called [livejournal.com profile] fic_corner (the dreamwidth mirror community seems to be more active) (THERE ARE NOT ENOUGH EXCLAMATION POINTS IN THE WORLD TO SHOW HOW EXCITED I AM ABOUT THIS) and so I have been STRATEGIZING.

I think it is probably better to ask for fic about the American Girls who have been around longer (which, fortunately, tends to dovetail with the ones I want fic about...) because people are more likely to have the emotional investment to write for them.

Also the necessary canon knowledge. Caroline fic might be fun, but I am pretty sure I am the only person over the age of ten who has read her books.
osprey_archer: (books)
Just finished reading Miss Buncle Married, which is the sequel to Miss Buncle's Book and quite as delightful as the first - and with the added draw of being a book about a house, rather as The Secret Garden is about Misselthwaite Manor or Rebecca about Manderley (although in a much lighter vein than Rebecca).

I'm looking forward to reading as many more of D. E. Stevenson's books as I can track down.


The most interesting thing about Robert Lawson’s Rabbit Hill is what is not in it. Pace Wikipedia, when the book was originally published, the cook character was a blazing Aunt-Jemima-ish racial stereotype. This edited out of later versions - as far as I can tell, mostly by removing the cook from the story as much as possible, and definitively cutting any mention that she was meant to be black.

On the one hand it is laudable that the publishers or Newbery committee or whoever didn’t want their award-winning fiction to promote racial stereotypes - and this is a situation that actually comes up a lot in older Newbery books. Both Hugh Lofting’s The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle (which also has some pretty sexist passages) and Rachel Field’s Hitty: Her First Hundred Years have lengthy episodes that are cringe-worthy by modern standards.

But I am not sure about editing books (without even mentioning anywhere on the book that it has been edited!) and then sending them out, award in hand, as if they’d been like that all along.

I can’t decide what would be the best way to deal with this situation. Should they be published as is? For adult books I would say “Yes, do that.” But children are still forming their standards about what is acceptable, so it seems like a bad idea to simply republish award-winning yet racist fiction without at least saying that some parts of it are no longer appropriate.

So what then? Publish the books with an introduction explaining that this sort of thing was socially acceptable in 1940, but standards have changed? Quietly drop them from publication? Or is editing the right way to go? Or edit it - but include an introduction that explains “we edited this part because reasons”?

The Dolittle book I read took this final route. I am not sure that making the addle-pated African chief want to become a lion rather than a white man actually made things all that much better, honestly, but...I guess they tried.
osprey_archer: (books)
What I’ve Just Finished Reading

Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone, the first book in the Dark is Rising sequence, which I actually quite enjoyed. I went into it with such low expectations that I was pleasantly surprised to find it a family adventure story, a la Narnia or Swallows and Amazons or even the Boxcar Children. And with a magical twist, to boot!

I am very fond of this sort of story, although it seems to have fallen out of fashion in recent years. There are Hilary McKay’s books - I adored The Amber Cat, though for whatever reason I’ve had trouble getting into her other books - and Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwick series, which is absolutely charming. The fourth book should be coming out next year, I hope...they seem to come out at three-year intervals.

What I’m Reading Now

Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, because I was feeling gigantic French novel withdrawal. So far, everyone is jealous of Dantes and scheming against him and he has just been taken to the police station (gendarmerie?) on suspicion of being a Bonapartist agent.

Also Jaclyn Moriarty’s I Had a Bed Made of Buttermilk Pancakes, which I am struggling with, because I want to smack so many of the characters. Of the three main adult characters, one just embarked on an affair with a married man, one schemes vaguely about cheating on her boyfriend - even though she’s happy with him! - and one is pettily unhappy about little things her husband does.

I have to keep checking the cover to convince myself that this really is a Moriarty book. The characters in her teen novels are so much more grown up than this.

What I’m Reading Next

The rest of the Dark is Rising sequence.
osprey_archer: (books)
More Newbery medal books! In case you don’t want to wade through it all, this entry contains: Marguerite De Angeli’s The Door in the Wall, medieval historical fiction novel about a youth who loses the use of his legs, Kate Seredy’s Hun epic The White Stag, and Eleanor Estes’s family adventure with dog, Ginger Pye (with bonus discussion of Estes’s The Hundred Dresses).

Marguerite De Angeli’s medieval historical fiction novel The Door in the Wall features Robin, who awakens one morning mysteriously unable to walk. Robin learns to lope around on crutches, to swim, to play the harp and write and whittle wonderful things; the door in the wall is a metaphor for finding another way forward when one’s original plans, like Robin’s plan to be a knight, are blocked by unexpected barriers. He can’t be a knight if he can’t walk; but he finds other talents he can use.

I am almost positive that long ago I read, or had read to me, the first chapter or two. I suspect we stopped reading because I was terrified by the idea that you could go to bed one night, just as usual, and wake up unable to walk. (We also stopped reading Susan Fletcher’s Dragon’s Milk because I found Lyf’s plague too upsetting - though I did get back to that series while I was still a child. I am not a fan of books about sudden and terrible diseases.)

Second, Kate Seredy’s The White Stag, which is not a novel. Oh, it has many of the accoutrements of a novel, chapters and illustrations (and lovely illustrations they are, too); but it is in fact an epic.

It spans generations, larger-than-life hero succeeding larger-than-life hero, all of them referred to not by name but by epithet: Nimrod, Mighty Hunter before the Lord; Magyar and Hunor, Twin Eagles of Hadur; Bendeguz, White Eagle of the Moon; ending, at last, with Attila the Conqueror. And the narration sustains the elevated, mythic tone set up in these names.

Personally I find mythic diction - indeed, epics in general - airless and dull. So I didn’t enjoy the book very much, but it’s well-done for what it is, and I suspect children who have a taste for the epic find this a soul-stirring introduction to the genre.

And finally, Eleanor Estes’ Ginger Pye, an engaging comfort read about featuring Rachel and Jerry Pye, who adopt a dog (Ginger Pye, naturally), only to have their dog stolen. The stolen dog storyline provides a light framework for the book, which is mostly a digression-laden meander through their small town and Pye family stories. It reminds me of a much lighter and more New England To Kill a Mockingbird.

I think this is a case where the right author won, but for the wrong book. I enjoyed Ginger Pye, but Estes clearly should have gotten the medal for The Hundred Dresses, a gentle and sensitive story about bullying. Maddie disapproves but does not try to stop her friends’ teasing of a classmate named Wanda, only to realize too late just how badly that teasing hurt Wanda.

What I like particularly like about this book is that Maddie’s realization comes only after Wanda has moved away, when it’s too late to make amends. Realizing that you have done wrong and can’t right it except by doing better towards others in the future is an uncommon literary theme: it’s melancholy (because the harm is irrevocable) without being hopeless (because Maddie will try to do better). It’s a difficult mood to capture.
osprey_archer: (books)
Newbery books! I have been reading them, and naturally I have thoughts about them which must be shared.

First, Eric P. Kelly’s The Trumpeter of Krakow, which I expected to like, as it is an adventure story in Poland in the 1400s. Doesn’t that sound interesting and unusual? But although there are a lot of exciting happenings in this book - robberies! hypnotism! alchemy! - it just never really grabbed me. The characters never seem quite alive.

Second, Cynthia Rylant’s Missing May. I didn’t read this back during my fifth-grade Newbery medalist binge, probably because I had already read Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia and been scarred for life and had learned from it an important life lesson: assiduously avoid all folksy rural books about artistic young people who learn important lessons about Death.

(I should have remembered this lesson before reading Kate diCamillo’s The Tiger Rising. It takes place in rural Florida and one of the characters is named Sistine: the combination should have warned me right off.)

But despite the fact that Missing May is surprisingly similar to Terabithia in its broad outlines, it’s ultimately a hopeful book, an effect diametrically opposed to grim Terabithian misery.Read more. )

And finally, Betsy Byars’ Summer of the Swans, which lacks an Important Lesson about Death, but is nonetheless very much in the “rural setting with a discontented protagonist surrounded by disappointing people” mold of Jacob Have I Loved. I am beginning to think I should keep a running tab of qualities that make a book Newbery-bait. Setting it in a small town in the middle of nowhere: clearly a plus!

I’m kind of bitter that Summer of the Swans beat out Enchantress from the Stars, which is simultaneously a space opera and a fairy tale and has likeable characters and meditations on the nature of good and evil and obligation to others.


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