Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Bambino and Mr. Twain

Years and years ago, soon after I got my master's degree in library science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I went back to school again.  I decided to get a second master's degree in English literature, from Virginia Commonwealth University.  I went part-time, at night, so my class choice was a little limited.  But I loved learning more about critical writing, and reading more literature.  I found most of my classes really interesting.  One of the classes that ended up being an unexpected favorite was a class that focused on the writings of Mark Twain.  I'm sure I originally thought it would only cover his most famous works, and that I could look more closely at The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  I thought reading those two books again would tie in nicely with my love of children's literature.  Instead, I gained a far more rounded understanding of both Mark Twain the writer and Samuel Clemens the man.

So when Bambino and Mr. Twain showed up on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book nomination list, I was definitely looking forward to reading it.  This story takes place in 1904 and 1905.  Mark Twain is a famous, well-loved writer; Samuel Clemens is dealing with his grief over the loss of his wife, Livy.  He is reclusive, staying in his New York City home and not interacting with the public and reporters who wait outside.  He only talks to his housekeeper, his daughter Jean, and his cat Bambino.  The winter drags on, cold and dreary, as Clemens drowns in his sorrow.  Then as spring begins, a window is opened, and Bambino darts out.  Clemens is heartbroken and the family puts an ad in the newspaper, along with a reward for Bambino's return.  The response to the ad is completely overwhelming.  People bring cats of all kinds and descriptions to the Clemens house to help with this newest loss.  They just want to help their beloved "Mark Twain".  When Bambino finally returns, days later, the episode causes Samuel Clemens to realize that "there's a whole world outside of this house to enjoy."  He begins to return to life and his public, all due to his cat.

I found this book really interesting from my own adult perspective.  When the book opens, the entire family is in mourning for their wife and mother.  As I mentioned, Samuel Clemens is the one grieving.  He sees a huge chasm between his writerly persona, Mark Twain, and his own broken heart.  He says to Bambino, "' Everyone wants to meet witty Mark Twain,"..."' would they want to meet sad, old Samuel Clemens?'"  His daughters are also in the midst of their grieving - Clemens' daughter Jean is "growing old before her time." and his other daughter, Clara, is in a clinic, "too upset by her mother's death to be with them."  They are isolated, sad, and falling apart.  The cat is the only sign of energy and life in the home.

And because everyone is so beaten by their emotions, the cat's personality really shines.  Bambino is everywhere, providing distraction and comfort to the family.  When Clemens takes  to his bed, Bambino curls up on papers next to him.  When they half-heartedly celebrate Clemens' birthday, it's Bambino who eats the ice cream.  Bambino is clever, sassy and energetic.  Maltbie does a terrific job depicting the cat - his behavior is familiar to all cat-lovers.  Bambino's personality also gets at the core of the human-cat relationship.  Readers can tell how much Bambino cares for Clemens.  He accompanies Clemens everywhere, including playing billiards with him.

In the author's note at the end of the book, Maltbie explains that while Bambino was the Clemens' family cat, and did go missing in the spring of 1905, "whether Bambino's return really had anything to do with Sam's decision is something only Sam and Bambino would know."  So what Maltbie is indicating here is something discerning readers may have already wondered about: that at least part of this story has been fictionalized.  There is also quite a bit of dialogue in the book, which has also most likely been created by the author, since there are no citations.  Even though the story has been created, there are facts behind it, including that Bambino really did go missing.  So does the fictionalization make this story any less impactful?  I don't think so, in this case.  It is still a very vivid portrayal of grief and a family trying to move forward with their lives. It still rings true, both in their sadness and in the depiction of mischievous Bambino.  I appreciate Maltbie's author's note, with its clear explication of fact and fiction, to help readers distinguish between them.  Maltbie also includes a bibliography of adult biographies, which might help older readers continue to learn about Samuel Clemens and Mark Twain, including one written by his daughter, Clara.

This leads me to my thoughts about the audience of this book.  It is a nonfiction picture book, and it seems at first glance to be appropriate for children in younger elementary grades, just by looking at the length of the text.  However, most young children wouldn't know who Mark Twain was and would be confused by the duality of his personas - both Mark Twain and Samuel Clemens.  Also, the writing is fairly subtle and young readers will miss the grief and the loving relationship with the cat.  It seems like this book might be better used in a classroom where Mark Twain is being studied in-depth.  I also would have loved to have used it when I was taking my graduate-level seminar on the works of Mark Twain.

I haven't addressed Miyares' illustrations at all yet, and they do a terrific job of bringing this story to life.  The combination of mixed media and digital illustrations gives an unusual twist to the feel of this book.  They feel historically accurate and yet modern.  Everything that needs to be historically correct, is - including houses and clothing.  But the rest of the colors and details feel modern and a little more abstract.  The combination works well for this story, combining fact and fiction.  Again, Bambino's personality shines through.  When he returns to the Clemens' house, there is an illustration where the housekeeper scolds Bambino.  His tail quirks, questioning and unrepentant.  As any cat owner has experienced, he is sorry, but not that sorry.

This book is thoughtful and graceful.  It is a real treasure, both for Mark Twain fans and cat owners alike.  Explore it for yourself - it is worth the read.

Note: I am on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book panel, but this blog post does not represent the committee's thoughts about the book.  It only represents my personal ideas and thoughts.

Bambino and Mr. Twain.  P.I. Maltbie; illustrated by Daniel Miyares.  Charlesbridge, 2012.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Grandmother's Pigeon

I have loved Louise Erdrich's books and writing voice ever since I started reading her work - probably in college.  I found her adult novels then, probably reading in chronological order, since that is often how I read books, and her work with then-husband Michael Dorris.  And then, for a long time, I tried to keep up with her writing.  I read the book I'm writing about today, Grandmother's Pigeon, and loved it so much that I sought out my own copy.  But Erdrich's publishing went far faster than I could read, and I moved on to other authors for awhile.  Almost two years ago, I went to work at the Office of Public Instruction, right down the hall from our Indian Education division.  I started talking books with the Indian Education staff, and was reminded how much I liked her writing.  So more than a year ago, I set myself the goal of reading and re-reading Louise Erdrich's novels, both for children and adults.  And I knew I wanted to start with Grandmother's Pigeon.

This narrative begins with Grandmother.  The narrator, an unnamed young girl, begins with the words "As it turned out, Grandmother was a far more mysterious woman than any of us knew."  She describes her grandmother and her ways, ways that are slightly magical and definitely a little mysterious.  Then the granddaughter launches into the heart of the story - on a beach vacation with the family, Grandmother hops onto the back of a dolphin, and sets off for Greenland.  A year later, the family is forced to acknowledge that their Grandmother will not be returning.  The family (which includes an older brother) opens their Grandmother's bedroom door and begins to sort through her belongings.  Their astonishment grows when the mother picks up a nest and the eggs within it begin to hatch.  They are pigeons, eerily similar to the stuffed, taxidermied pigeon on Grandmother's windowsill.  As the pigeons grow, the mother begins to suspect something.  She calls in an ornithologist, who confirms her suspicions.  Somehow, the eggs that have hatched are passenger pigeons, which have been extinct for almost 100 years.  The media is called, and the three young pigeons become the focus of much attention.  But when it is determined that the pigeons are all male, cannot continue the species, and will more than likely spend their lives in a zoo, the children take matters into their own hands.  And in freeing the pigeons, the children make contact with their Grandmother, who they believed lost forever.

There are so many interesting things about this book that I'm not sure exactly where to start.  But maybe I'll begin with Grandmother herself.  As you may have realized from the summary, Grandmother is only in the first two pages.  And she only has a few lines of dialogue, just as she is leaving the family.  She is primarily seen through the eyes of her granddaughter, who seems to be about five years old.  But Erdrich's descriptions are rich, unusual and full of evocative detail.  The granddaughter describes how the Grandmother's tea could get them out of bed on days when they had exams at school, "when we felt slightly ill", before she even entered the room.  When the family enters their Grandmother's room a year after her disappearance, that description makes you want to enter the room yourself.  There is a wooden Sun-Tzu effigy of a horse on the windowsill, a petrified buffalo tooth, a Paul Klee painting.  All of these small details give you a strong sense of this woman you won't even meet again in the pages of this book.  She is quirky - someone of this world and yet not. Grandmother is mysterious, as the granddaughter says in the very first line of this book.  As a reader, I was sorry I would never get to meet her.

Another interesting thing about this way this book is composed is the issue of names.  There are no personal names in Grandmother's Pigeon.  Everyone in the book (except for the ornithologist) is family, and as such, is only described by their family relationship.  And this relationship is also very formal - not Grandma or Nana, but Grandmother.  The granddaughter only says "my mother" or "my father", not Mom or Dad.  Even the brother is not referred to by name.  This gives the book a formal feel, which is juxtaposed against the more casual, spontaneous, chaotic feel of the Grandmother's personality.  The granddaughter's narrative, with the longest descriptions of family relationships in each paragraph, is much more buttoned up in comparison.

The mysterious hatching of the three passenger pigeons raises questions for the ornithologist, who literally cannot believe her eyes.  In a neat twist, they restore her with some of Grandmother's own magic tea - while the children can be roused on "sick days" simply by the smell, the ornithologist takes two cups.  Erdrich is able to introduce the unique history of the passenger pigeons at this point as the ornithologist explains it to the children.  Erdrich's explanation of the pigeons' history is impressive at this point - it is accessible to young readers, but also sounds enough like a lecture to sound reasonable coming out of the ornithologist's mouth.  The ornithologist never seems to notice Grandmother's pigeon sitting proudly on the windowsill, or make any sort of connection between it and the hatched eggs.  The children are one step ahead of her.

The ornithologist says while describing the passenger pigeons, "nature is both tough and fragile."  This, to me, is the core of the book.  The passenger pigeon is extinct and yet alive.  The family misses their Grandmother dearly, grieving for her, and yet continues on in the strength she has given them.  For them, as for all of us, the correlation can be drawn to life - it can be tough and fragile too.  One moment their Grandmother is there with them, full of magic and spark, the next she has left a void (granted, by sailing off on a porpoise).  As the newly hatched pigeons begin to droop under all of the media attention, the family comes to the realization that they must be set free.  While this will be the only generation of passenger pigeons, they will survive and soar in their freedom - tough, yet fragile.

When you first look at the cover, you instinctively believe that the cover illustration is of the Grandmother.  After all, the title blazoned across the front is Grandmother's Pigeon, and the cover shows a woman, along with the two grandchildren, gaping in astonishment at the pigeons in a cage.  It is only as the book progresses that you realize it is not, in fact, the Grandmother, but the ornithologist.  Grandmother is absent from the cover of her own story, which is, I suspect, how she would like it.  This is yet another example of the mystery surrounding her.

Jim LaMarche's illustrations are full of wonder and perfectly echo Erdrich's tone and text.  Again, the Grandmother is only pictured in the first two pages of the book, and there is only one close-up.  On that page, where the text describes the children's attempts at a sick day and Grandmother's magic tea, she has strength, wisdom and even magic in her twinkly eyes and knowing smile.  Her dress is eclectic, with her wide-brimmed black hat and soft kerchief, but she is no-nonsense too.  And yet when she is astride the porpoise, off on an adventure, she is cheery and light.

The glow of the light in these illustrations are remarkable.  LaMarche has identifiable light sources in each and every page, from the light pouring into Grandmother's dusty room through the window to the hot sun on the family's beach vacation.  That is true of every illustration except three.  The children decide to release the pigeons in the dead of night, on a foggy, moonlit night.  Mist pools around the tree trunks, giving a hazy look to the dark, shadowy landscape.  But even then stars glisten and moonlight highlights the pigeons' wings as they take off into the wilderness.  In their escape there is still mystery and magic.

There are so many more things I could say about this book.  While this book is a picture book, the text is long and detailed and requires comprehension beyond that of a young child.  But many of the details of the book may also help stretch a child's curiosity to explore whether you actually could ride a dolphin to Greenland, to learn more about passenger pigeons, or Paul Klee's paintings.  Grandmother's knowledge can help create more connections for readers.  

In the end, not even Grandmother's own family, who knows many of the details of her life, really knows her.  We exit the book with just as many questions about her as when her granddaughter began: "As it turned out, Grandmother was a far more mysterious woman than any of us knew."

Grandmother's Pigeon.  Louise Erdrich; illustrated by Jim LaMarche.  Hyperion Paperbacks for Children, 1999.

borrowed from Montana Office of Public Instruction Resource Center

Monday, February 11, 2013

Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site

As you know by now, I have two little girls.  Like any mom, I hoped when I was pregnant with Frances that she would like cars as much as princesses, and that I would make an effort to introduce both girls to as many different kinds of toys as possible - blocks, stuffed animals, cars and princesses.  And as you could predict, Frances ended up loving primarily princesses and all of the tiaras, wands, and high heels.  Then Gloria was born, and she could not have been more different.  She is a Disney Cars fan.  We have lots of trucks, race cars, and of course, Lightning McQueens galore (I think I counted ten the other day!).  So a book about construction sites is right up Gloria's alley.  And while Frances does still love princesses, she has learned to appreciate cars and trucks too.

Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site is a book that takes two popular subjects - bedtime and construction - and combines them.  Even better, it does it in a way that works very successfully.  Rinker and Lichtenheld start by looking at the whole construction site during the day.  All of the trucks and equipment are busily working away at their day job.  As the daylight fades, though, each truck begins to complete their tasks and shut down.
The very first piece of equipment is a crane truck.  Rinker takes two pages for each construction vehicle.  Crane Truck is a perfect example of how this book is set up.  Before bedtime, Crane Truck has to raise one last beam up to the high rise.  Rinker demonstrates in rhyming text how a Crane Truck operates and what his specific task is.  As the sun goes down, Crane Truck finishes work on the building, and begins tuck his boom away to prepare for bed.  Sleepy, Crane Truck holds his teddy bear in his claws and hangs a softly glowing star nightlight from his boom.  The last line of every section reads "Shhh...goodnight, Crane Truck, goodnight" or cement mixer or dump truck or bulldozer or last but not least, the excavator.

I really like the way Rinker has treated her subject here.  This book is equally about construction and bedtime.  So for those readers and listeners who want to know about how construction equipment operates, they'll be able to learn about that.  And the rhyming text and soothing goodnight routines help set the tone for bedtime.  However, the one thing I did notice after repeated readings is that all of the vehicles shown are male.  I wish she could have worked in at least one female vehicle, as I think that would make the book more attractive to girls.

The illustrations add to the comfort and interest of the book.  Lichtenheld starts on the construction site is in full action, pouring cement, hauling heavy beams and transporting dirt.  The pictures of the vehicles are all accurate, with plenty of detail to appease a construction lover. Yet they also all have expressive eyes and features to give them added personality.  As the light dims and the site shuts down, listeners will enjoy all the other things they will spot on the pages.  The moon glows softly as the construction site grows silent.  The cement mixer cuddles up with a security blanket and I've already mentioned Crane Truck's teddy bear.  My favorite, though, is the Dump Truck.  He snores contentedly as a man throws open a window in a building across the alley.  The man hollers "Hey! Pipe Down!" as the snoring extends through the girders of the construction site.  The illustrations are personable and reward a careful viewer.

At the end of the book, the whole construction site is sleeping peacefully.  This is a book I wish I had had at my old library, where I did a monthly pajama storytime.  It would have been a soothing mix of big construction noises and quiet, peaceful sleep.  Goodnight, goodnight.

Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site.  Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld.  Scholastic, 2011.

Reviewed from my personal collection.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters

I am an inveterate reader, and as I've mentioned on this blog before, it often gets me into trouble.  I have overdue books that I have to read quickly before returning them.  I'm always paying overdue fines.  I sometimes (gasp!) let my girls watch movies because I can't stop reading something I really like long enough to play ball outside.  So this week I've been racing through a few overdue teen books, including some nonfiction.  But I saved Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters for last, and I'm glad I did.  I read a review of it in the Sept./Oct. 2010 Horn Book and I had read Standiford's last book, How to Say Goodbye in Robot, earlier this fall, and really liked it.  This one was even better.

The story begins at Christmas in the Sullivans' Baltimore home.  There are six Sullivan children, and straight off the bat, you can tell this family is a little quirkier than most.  All the kids have nicknames - Norrie, Takey, Sassy - that don't seem to hint at their real name.  They call their mother by her first name, and call their father Daddy-O.  The girls drive around in an old baby blue Mercedes, and each child moves into the coveted tower room before they go off to college.  But when they go to their grandmother's house for Christmas dinner, things get a little weirder.

Their grandmother, whom they call Almighty, states that one of the Sullivan children has deeply offended her recently, and if a written confession is not in her hands by New Year's Eve, she will cut them all out of her will.  No one is sure which Sullivan child has offended her, but it seems most likely that it is one of the teenage Sullivan sisters.  Each of them believes they have done it, and they each write their own confessions.  Each of the girls has been very busy that fall, and as their stories unfold, it seems possible that they are the one to offend Almighty.

The confessions are the strength of the book.  They begin with Norrie (short for Norris, if you are wondering).  Norrie is a senior in high school who signs up for a speed reading class at Johns Hopkins early that fall.  It is when she meets a graduate student in her class that Norrie, who has always been responsible and sweet, begins to change.  The big event looming over Norrie's fall is her December Cotillion, which is a very fancy party to introduce young ladies to society.  Her family, especially Almighty, expects her to go and perform admirably at Cotillion, including having a suitable, society date.  But is this what Norrie wants?  Is she able to do it for her family?  I suspect you know the answer to that question, or we wouldn't be reading Norrie's confession.

Jane and Sassy are Norrie's two younger sisters (but both in high school).  They are also in trouble with Almighty this Christmas.  Parts of their confessions are interwoven through Norrie's, but each girl has a chance to speak for herself.  What's interesting to me about all three girls is that these may not be the kinds of confessions you are expecting.  None of the three of them are sleeping around, drinking or taking drugs.  They aren't stealing or breaking the law.  Indeed, to most of us, they seem like good girls.

But not to their grandmother, Almighty.  Part of the problem is that no one is exactly sure what they've done to make Almighty angry,  One of the biggest problems in this book is the gap between the girls' lives and Almighty's expectations.  In their own way, each one of the girls is pushing back against Almighty's society rules.  None of them really want to go to Cotillion, but feel obligated to do so by Almighty's power and influence in their family.  It all comes down to money.  Obviously things have changed since Almighty was their age, when girls did not stand up for themselves and what they wanted.  And all three of the Sullivans feel they cannot escape her disapproval, even though they want to live their own lives.
I also wanted to mention the town of Baltimore.  Standiford's other book, How to Say Goodbye in Robot, is also set in Baltimore.  I love the settings in both of these books, and I felt like Baltimore was almost another character in the book.  The book is full of Baltimore locations, including shops, streets and of course Johns Hopkins.  It is evident that Standiford loves Baltimore, and it really comes through in this book.  The book wouldn't have had the same atmosphere set in New York City or even Washington DC.

I will say this about the Sullivan sisters - I couldn't get enough of them.  I wanted to hear what happened next to all of them, even if it is just their everyday life.  I couldn't bear to say goodbye to them.  So when their confessions ended, I was left feeling deflated by the ending of the book.  I don't want to spoil it, because I definitely recommend this book.  But I just felt the ending didn't have all the thoughtfulness Standiford put into creating the Sullivan family's lives. But I'll still beg her to write more about them, because I loved these girls.

Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters.  Natalie Standiford.  Scholastic, 2010.
borrowed from Lewis & Clark library