Friday, June 21, 2013

Freedom Song

I continue to write posts about some of the books I loved during the Cybils process.  I keep trying to bring as much attention as possible to the Cybils - it is so much fun for me.  The books, the discussion, the exposure to books I hadn't seen before, the discussion... I want everyone to know about these panels!  I can't believe it's summer, almost time to apply for a panel again, and I still have a few more books to write about.  There are so many books that are nominated, and so many of those books strike me, and just don't win the support of the whole panel, but are still worthy of additional discussion.  Two of the things that struck me about Freedom Song: The Story of Henry "Box" Brown were the twin themes of family and music.

One of the ways an author can bring the realities of anyone's life and story to readers is to use those things that are universal.  Even as I sit here, more than 150 years later, in completely different circumstances, some of Henry Brown's feelings about his family are painfully real to me.

This story begins with Henry Brown's birth.  He is born a slave, but far more importantly, he was born into a family full of love.  "Mama blew kisses on his soft, brown body.  Papa named him Henry, held him high to the sky.  Sisters and brothers tickled his toes."  On the next page, Walker notes "The whole family's love grew Henry strong", even as the shadow of Master waiting outside their door threatens the family circle.  Once Henry begins working for Master, his songs begin. Henry has a song for every situation - a workday song, a hidey-hole song, and his favorite, most heartfelt, secret song, his freedom song.  "Henry's freedom song promised a place where families stayed together."

And that freedom songs stays in his heart and mind as he is sent away to Richmond to work in a tobacco factory when he is almost grown. Just as he leaves his family, he meets and falls in love with another slave, Nancy.  When their masters allow them to marry, "Henry and Nancy sang with joy."  Henry and Nancy have their own children, and as their life grows and changes, "Family songs hushed Henry's freedom song."  Then the most heart-wrenching thing happens: their master sells Nancy and their children away.  Henry grieves for his lost family.  He is silent, without the music that accompanied him previously.  Except for that one song that he has always held secret in a corner of his heart - his freedom song.  That freedom song leads him to do something daring - escape slavery to try and save his family.

Henry builds a box to ship himself to freedom, to the address of William Johnson, a freedom-loving man in Pennsylvania.  This is a dangerous escape plan for many reasons - if he is caught, he may be killed as a runaway slave.  But it is also physically dangerous.  Henry plans carefully, and includes water in his padded box. But there are other unpredictable dangers - at one point, the box tips over and slams Henry onto his head.  While he makes it to freedom, the book ends before we know what happens with Henry and his family.

As you can see from the recap of Henry's life story, one of the most beautiful things about this book to me is the circle of family.  Henry begins his life with the tight circle of family.  Their life isn't easy - there are lines of exhaustion and worry on Henry's mother's face as she serves the family dinner.  But there is love in how they sit, facing each other and spending time together.  Walker writes that Henry isn't sent away until he "was almost grown", which is unusual.  He spends a lot of his life with his family.  Then when he moves to Richmond and falls in love with Nancy, he continues that strong family connection that his parents modeled for him. "He named his son, held him high to the sky", just as Henry's father had done with him.  The illustrations show Henry's family gathered around each other, singing while Henry plays the banjo.  All connected, loving, despite their slavery, despite the harsh realities of their lives.

Then there are those heartbreaking moments when first his children and then his wife are sold away from him.  When Henry hears his older son calling, he runs to the wagon.  "Henry fought to reach his son, to clutch him in this arms."  But he is restrained.  Then when he finds Nancy, "Henry clasped her hands.  He held on tight and walked for miles, until men tore him away."  Walker tells Henry's story with stark, raw, painful details.  It puts me right in the middle of his grief, his despair and desperation.

Walker's writing is amazing - the way that she incorporates the musical words is so natural and yet all-pervasive.  When he is told that his family is gone, Walker says that "Henry's song died in his throat."  Those songs have sustained him his entire life, been the songs that celebrate love and family.  And then they are silent as Henry huddles under a worn blanket, staring out the window in misery.  But the freedom song revives Henry's heart and speeds him on his way to freedom.  His music keeps him determined and keeps him moving towards freedom.  The combination of the song and and the family in his heart drive him to risk getting away.

Qualls' illustrations are incredibly striking.  They are historically accurate and yet feel modern too.  Qualls does an amazing job of bringing Henry and his family to life.  The expressions, hard work, and hard life are etched on their faces.  As Henry's family is taken away, you can recognize his despair from his upraised arms, his fall to his knees.  The colors are blues, browns and blacks which give some peace to the family scenes, and some starkness to the emotional pages.  And there is a circle motif throughout the pages, reminding me of the movement and travel depicted there - both the movement Henry chooses and the movement he cannot control.

While there is an author's note and an excerpt from a letter from the man Brown shipped himself to, I do wish there was more back matter.  Walker refers to the fact that Henry gave lectures about his escape, and I wish she could have cited those, or included a bibliography of sources for his story.  But I love the construction of this story and how Walker creates such an emotional gripping story.  Its strengths don't disappear just because I would have liked stronger back matter.  It is one of those nonfiction picture books that would work well at a number of age levels and levels of comprehension.  Because we all have a family.

Freedom Song: The Story of Henry "Box" Brown.  By Sally J. Walker; illustrated by Sean Qualls.  Harper, 2012.

sent by the publisher for Cybils consideration

Note: I was on the Cybils nonfiction picture book panel, but this blog post only reflects my personal ideas and  thoughts on this book.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Hold Fast

I wish I could remember who mentioned Hold Fast first.  I read a lot of blogs that mention children's literature, and I apologize for the fact that I can't remember who it was.  But they mentioned that the book was about homelessness and that it was written by Blue Balliett.  I read both Chasing Vermeer and The Wright 3 when they came out, but I hadn't read anything since then.  I thought this book sounded like it was something I wanted to try.  So I put it on hold, and then finally picked it up at the library.

The reason it appealed to me especially was because of its subject matter.  My cubicle at the MT Office of Public Instruction is quite close to our State Coordinator for Homeless, Neglected and Delinquent Education's desk.  I've heard her advocate for homeless children over and over again.  And I was hoping this book would make this situation real for children all over, while also being something children who are currently homeless would also be able to relate to.  I think Balliett scored on both points.

The book begins with the Pearl family.  There is Dash (Dashel) - the father, Sum (Summer) - the mother, and Early and Jubilation.  Early is in fifth grade, and Jubilation (who is mostly called Jubie) is still at home with Sum at four years old.  The Pearls' life is not easy - there is only one income, and that isn't very much.  Dash works at the Chicago Public Library as a Library Page.  Balliett says "The Pearl family rents the biggest apartment they can afford.  It is one room." (p. 8)  There isn't much there, but what is there is crucial to their growth and survival - words and books.  Dash often says to his children "'Words are free and plentiful'" (p. 6).  They use their library to its fullest extent - checking out books upon books and absorbing them.  They are learners.

But money is scarce, and when Dash is asked to do a side job, for which he's paid in cash, he agrees.  It's book-related, but has an air of mystery about it.  And then, one day, on his way home from work, Dash disappears off the street.  All that's left is his bicycle, a notebook, and a bag of groceries.  What could have happened to Dash?  Is he even still alive?

While Sum and Early are trying to find out what happened to Dash, they are visited by people claiming to be the police.  The "police" break down their door and rip apart all of the Pearl family's belongings.  Oddly, the "police" take all of the family's books, except one that got pushed under the coffee table.  It's rescued by Early - it is a book her father saved for her, Langston Hughes' The First Book of Rhythms.  At this point, the family doesn't feel safe in their home any longer (and the apartment is totally destroyed).  A neighbor tells Sum "' You and the babies shouldn't be where they can find you again.  No place near.  You best get you to a city shelter..." (p. 60).  The family has nowhere else to go, and any money they had was taken by the criminals.

I don't want to give away the plot's twists and turns because they are intricate and well-done, just like all of Balliett's books.  What interested me about this book were its two main themes - homelessness and books/reading/words/libraries.

The family's time in the shelter is difficult, for sure.  When they first arrive, they are placed in a large room of bunkbeds, called a cluster, crammed with families.  Balliett is compassionate in her descriptions, but realistic too.  The rules are laid out in a matter of fact way by the director" "Know where your kids are at all times, and never leave the shelter without them... You can use the shelter phone to make fifteen minutes of calls anytime between nine A.M. and four P.M....patience and politeness go a long way.  Everyone's call is important." (p. 82-3).  There is no privacy, but there are shelter residents who hold fast to their kindness and generosity, even in bad situations.

The shelter tests the Pearl family's strength.  Already frazzled beyond the breaking point and worried about Dash, Sum is trying to make calls - both to notify people of their whereabouts and also to try and find some job to sustain them.  But even after Sum waits in the endless phone line, she quite often has to leave messages, and there is no way for anyone to call her back.  The family is required to eat meals at specific times, and if they miss a meal, there is nothing else to eat, so the Pearl family also has to shuffle errands around their meal times.  It is constantly noisy, even at night.  Sum is beginning to shut down, and stop functioning.

Early and Jubie are the ones who "hold fast" - to their belief in finding Dash, and to their belief that they will get out of this shelter.  As Sum begins to give in to her depression, the Pearl children, particularly Early, encourage Sum to hold fast and keep fighting.  "Hold fast" comes from a Hughes poem in The First Book of Rhythms.  The words of that poem inspire Early to dream: "Dig down, fly high, remember where you want to go, and one day you'll get there: Roots + Wings + Dreams = Home!" (p. 42-3).  She, like many children, is resilient enough to take this experience and use it to propel her forward, instead of collapsing under its weight.

Of course, as a former librarian, I love any book that incorporates books and reading into its pages.  But this one does so much more than that.  It is instilled in almost every word of this book, and Balliett does that with such love and tenderness.  Reading is what saves this family over and over again.  Balliett writes about their relationship with words and books so beautifully.  "Dashel Pearl offered words to his kids from the day they were born.  A man who loved language almost as much as color or taste or air, he explained to his daughter, Early, that words are everywhere and for everyone." (p.6)  "This was a family of important words and their important histories." (p. 15)  This family has little besides words, but to them, words are all that matter.

This book is sad, joyous, scary and thoughtful.  It is chock full of energy, compassion, misery and struggle.  But most importantly, it is full of reading, learning, and the love of words all wrapped up in a mystery.  Don't miss it.

Hold Fast.  Blue Balliett.  Scholastic Press, 2013.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Finish Line - 48 Hour Book Challenge

So, I am calling it done as of 6pm  (Friday night I started at 6:30 pm).  Here are my stats, for those of you who are curious:
Friday night I read for 4 hours.  I read two books - The Trouble Begins at 8, and The Flight of the Maidens.
Saturday I read for 2 1/2 hrs, and didn't finish anything.
Sunday I read for  4 1/2 hrs, and finished Jepp, Who Defied the Stars and Real Solutions for Busy Moms.  I also read part of Blink & Caution.

Total number of hours: 11 (sigh!)  

I would definitely participate again next year - I did get some books out of my To Be Read pile.  This weekend turned out busier than I thought - we had three playdates and dinner with friends, and I walked a half-marathon on Saturday morning.  The 4:45 am wake-up time and 13 miles definitely cost me when it came to reading time later in the day.  By the time we got home from dinner with friends, I was exhausted.  Today included a playdate with friends, a birthday party and a tasting get-together, so it was pretty full.  I am now making dinner and folding laundry and trying to catch up with the weekend!

A fun way to spend the weekend, and a good reminder that I can always carve out time for reading.

Real Solutions for Busy Moms

This is actually the picture of the devotional that actually goes with this book, but it will work for my purpose.  This book took me a long time  to read.  It was on a list of books I had checked out from my old library, years ago, and then I finally got around to reading it.  I'm not sure why I wanted to read this book in the first place - although I suspect that I was looking for actual solutions to the problems I saw in my life.  This is not the book to solve my problems, though.  I found a couple of little quotes in it that I liked, but in reality I didn't find Kathy Ireland very believable.  The book has a Christian tone to it, which didn't resonate with me either. I'd love to de-clutter my house, put myself first, and talk to my children about all of society's evils, but that just isn't necessarily going to happen for me. I had had this book for more than six months, which probably says something about me and my priorities. I am glad I finished this book, so  I can move on to other things in  my To Be Read pile, and that's what this challenge was all about.

Real Solutions for Busy Moms - Kathy Ireland.  Howard Books, 2009.
from my personal collection

Jepp, Who Defied the Stars

Before I start with my review of this book, I have to say this challenge has been really great for me in a number of ways.  I am at hour 8 1/2, and I have gotten three books read so far.  If it was a regular weekend, I may have finished one book at the most. It's made me realize that many times I don't take advantage of my time to read.  I woke up this morning at 7am, and realized I should just get up and read.  And I did, gaining about 45 minutes before Gloria woke up.  I read two hours this morning, including scrambling eggs with Jepp on the counter next to the stove - perilous, but it worked out fine!  Yesterday I had very limited time to read (only 2 1/2 hrs), but I'm hoping to include more time today.  But today my girls are home, and so far they've had a lot of needs (that is the nice way of saying I've been a short-order cook), so we'll see how the rest of the day pans out.  Now, on to Jepp.

I read this because it had been one of the books in the SLJ Battle of the Books.  At first I thought it would not be my kind of book – after all, it is historical fiction, which isn’t one of my favorite genres.  But Jepp’s questioning , intelligent, thoughtful nature is all-encompassing, and you tend to forget that it is also historical fiction in a way.  Jepp is a dwarf who is living in his mother’s inn, contentedly, when he is approached by someone from the Infanta’s court, who wants Jepp  to become a court dwarf.  This sets off a series of events that leads Jepp to question the fate that he has been dealt by the stars, and what he can make of himself.  By the end of the book, I was wowed by the work that went into including a huge cast of characters, each of which has some crucial place in helping Jepp determine his destiny.  Jepp, too, is a remarkable character – someone who knows himself, even at the beginning of the book, but continues to learn more and more about who he has been and who he will become.  There are so many real, historical figures in this book, and the reader also gains so much knowledge about the time period of the late 1500’s and Europe.  Amazingly written.

Jepp, Who Defied the Stars.  Katherine Marsh.  Hyperion, 2012.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Flight of the Maidens

I don't usually review my grown-up reads on this blog, but since it's for the 48 Hour Book Challenge, I will.  I finished this book last night.  It was recommended in the May/June 2010 Horn Book by someone who has loved it, and it sounded interesting to me, so I thought I would give it a try.  It is about three young women, who are friends in England after WWII.  They are all on their way to college, and this book takes place in the summer before they leave Yorkshire.  Each of the girls - Una, Hetty and Liselotte - have a very different experience.  One finds love, one finds herself, and one solves the mystery of her family.  While they each have different experiences, there is a lot for them to learn about life outside their sheltered village.  I didn't love this book, but then I don't love books about World War II anyways.  There is a lot of pain in this book,and angst, and while I think Gardam handles it well, it just didn't connect with me very much.  It took me an abnormally long time to read (maybe it's been in my To Be Read pile for more than a year?) which definitely says something.

The Flight of the Maidens - Jane Gardam.  Penguin, 2000.
from my personal collection

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Trouble Begins at 8

This is a rollicking, fun biography of Mark Twain, focusing primarily on the time he spent in Nevada, California and Hawaii.  Fleischman has a great way of writing, and his tone is very well-suited to Twain’s story.  He is pretty careful to point out where there are questions about Twain’s claims, which there are many.  He doesn’t necessarily dispute what Twain says, but he does include quotes from Mark Twain about telling the truth.  I took a class on Mark Twain in graduate school, and I don’t remember much of this information about Mark Twain and his life, but I found it very interesting.  One of the things I found so interesting about his biography was how many get-rich-quick schemes he and his brother were involved in, including mining, a newspaper, and other ideas that lost them both money (of course).   Life then was all about money, how to earn it and stay afloat.  The back matter is very rich, including an excerpt from The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, a timeline of Clemens’ life, references (one of my favorite things for encouraging additional research), and an annotated bibliography.  This book tied in so nicely with the review I did a few weeks ago of Bambino and Mr. Twain - the events of that book happen later in Twain's life.   This was a surprisingly quick read for a biography, and made me want to read more Twain.  On to the next book!

The Trouble Begins at 8: A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West - Sid Fleischman.  Greenwillow Books, 2008.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

Getting Ready to Start - 48 Hour Reading Challenge

So, for the first year EVER, I am excited to announce that I am participating in the 48 Hour Book Challenge (hosted this year by Ms. Yingling Reads.  

 I know that most of you are thinking "But what about Frances and Gloria??"  I am just going to do my best to read as much as I can, working around the girls and their schedule.  They are with their father until 4pm tomorrow, and then have a birthday party to go to Sunday afternoon, so I'll try to maximize my time.  And realistically, they may watch a movie or two this weekend!

But not only is it a challenge having young children and participating in this challenge, but I am also doing a half-marathon in the morning!  I am a walker, not a runner, so it will take me about three and a half hours to do that.  However, I expect that when I am done, I will look forward to spending the rest of the day reading on the couch.

Without further ado, here is a picture of my weekend TBR pile. 

I am not going to read these in the order they are pictured, but most likely in the order mentioned below (to get as many overdue library books out as possible!):

The Trouble Begins at 8: A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West  - Sid Fleischman
Jepp, Who Defied the Stars - Katherine Marsh
Doll Bones - Holly Black
The Cow-Tail Switch and Other West African Stories - Harold Courlander
Blink and Caution - Tim Wynne-Jones
The Flight of the Maidens  - Jane Gardam
The Orchid Thief  - Susan Orlean
Real Solutions for Real Moms - Kathy Ireland
Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids - Dr. Kathy Markham
So Brave, Young and Handsome - Leif Enger
Love Medicine - Louise Erdrich

I am really looking forward to the reading.  I'll be sharing reviews of them as I finish, but they will be shorter than my usual posts.  I still have a couple of hours more work to get done this afternoon, plus some errands and cleaning to do, and a blog post I am hoping to get written this afternoon, so I am anticipating beginning around 5pm.  I can't wait to see what others are reading!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Minette's Feast

It is interesting to me how sometimes related books come into your life.  Does this ever happen to you?  You read a fictional book set in South Africa, for instance, and then you come across an informational book on Desmond Tutu.  Or you pick up two seemingly unrelated books from your library's new books shelf and they have a historical figure in common.  That happened to me not that long ago when I read Dodger (a Printz Honor winner) and Splendors and Glooms (a Newbery Honor winner) and found the same character (a historical figure) in both.  I love when connections between books reveal themselves.  This year while I was on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book panel, it happened again.  Two picture books on Julia Child were nominated - Bon Appetit! by Jessie Hartland and the book I am going to write about today, Minette's Feast.

When the books arrived in the mail, I couldn't wait to read them.  After all, I discovered Julia Child at about the same time everyone else did - when the book Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously came out.  My then-husband bought it for me since it combined some of my loves - cooking, reading and blogging.  I continued to read about Julia's life over the years, and couldn't wait to see how it was interpreted for children.

But then I began to wonder if children would sustain the same interest in the subject of Julia Child as I had.  After all, I was interested in how Julia learned to cook, her cool job during WWII, and her connection with France.  Would a child (remember these are nonfiction picture books) be interested in any of that?  If Gloria and Frances are any indication, they don't care how their food is made or what technique I used, just that it is served in a timely fashion!  I don't have a good sense of whether kids really would seek out books about Julia Child, but I suspect not.  So Reich uses a different point of view to examine Child's life - through the eyes of her cat.

Even before Minette comes to live with Julia and her husband, their life in Paris is full of cats.  When they walk down the road, cats peek out of the alley; they curl up on seats in the cafe.  And then the couple decides that "A house without a cat is like life without sunshine" and adopt Minette.

When Minette first comes to live with them, Julia isn't a cook.  And that is fine with Minette, who would prefer to hunt her own birds and mice to eat.  But soon Julia becomes inspired by living in France, exploring the markets and getting advice from the locals.  She wants to really learn to cook, and enrolls at Le Cordon Bleu.  All of the enticing smells are alluring to Minette, but ultimately Minette prefers mouse.  Then one day Julia brings home a large cut of meat.  As she prepares it, Minette shows interest, perching on Julia's shoulder while she cooks.  It develops its flavor on the windowsill for three whole days.  Julia serves the meat to dinner guests who rave over it.  When all the leftovers are finally gone, Minette gets what she's been waiting for - the bone!  She rubs on the bone, chews on the bone, and plays with the bone.  In the end, no matter how much Minette loves that bone, though, she would still rather eat mouse.

Reich's writing brings life and rhythm to the story.  Many of the cooking terms are alliterative, and lend a swinging rhythm to the reader's voice.  For instance, as Julia learns to cook, "She baked and blanched, blended and boiled, drained and dried, dusted and fried."  It's quite a feat to assemble a dinner, and this particular combination of words emphasizes the whirlwind effort Julia goes through.  Reich also uses the terms appropriately and the rhymes make them fun to say.

The same thing happens when Minette is given the bone, with a tiny bit of meat left on.  She sniffs, then pounces, then attacks: "She frisked and flounced, darted and batted.  She tiptoed and hopped, danced and pranced."  Here, too, Reich uses lists of words to convey movement.  The words flow together effortlessly, like a dance.  You can envision Minette (or any cat, really) attacking, prancing and hopping.  These are typical cat behaviors that any cat owner will be familiar with.  After all of Minette's effort, "she licked herself all over and took a nice long nap".  That sentence is all cat!  

My only complaint about the writing is that this mysterious cut of meat that Julia prepares for three days is never named in the text.  We can tell that the meat is delicious - not only do the guests rave about the meat, but Julia and Paul savor the leftovers for days before Minette gets the bone.  We see Julia preparing the meat - both rubbing it with herbs and spices before its time on the windowsill and cooking it with vegetables.  But this recipe is never named (nor is any other).  Child's techniques are described, but it seems like this would be an appetizing place for a recipe.

Minette is the star of the illustrations too.  Bates creates these in pencil and watercolors, and they are fairly realistic.  I've talked before about books with historical figures in them (like The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau) and Bates does a great job of drawing Julia Child and giving readers the impression of her personality without perfectly imitating her.  This allows Bates to work within her own style, but still give a feeling of authenticity to her illustrations.  And she also adds period detail, bringing France to life for readers.

Bates also does a terrific job of conveying Minette's personality through her illustrations.  In the scene at the end of the story, when Minette attacks the bone, there are a multitude of spot illustrations scattered across the page.  You can clearly see the frenzy of activity, legs akimbo and whiskers twitching.  Minette's movements are hilarious and very realistic.  The final full-page spread shows Minette eye to eye with a mouse clutching a crumb of cheese.  It encapsulates Minette's personality perfectly.

The back matter is rich in this book.  There is a two page afterword that summarizes Child's life.   Reich includes notes of all the citations for the quotes used in the story - she used quite a few, and I love seeing them treated seriously here.  There are also additional sources of information on Child's life, including a link to an online exhibit of Child's home.  And there is a glossary and pronunciation guide for many French  terms used in the story.  I didn't talk about it, but I really appreciated the way Reich not only used many French phrases and vocabulary, but also incorporated their definitions in context very naturally.

The last piece of back matter is very important to me.  It gives the author's personal connection to the story - Reich met Julia Child in 1993.  But it also explains why Reich created this story, and how she used Minette to make the story more relatable to children.  Reich notes "...Julia never actually said that Minette preferred mouse."  So some of this story is fictionalized, but I still think it does a good job of bringing the unusual aspects of Child's time in France to life for children.  I am still not wholly convinced that a child would request a book about Julia Child, but this one does combine facts with fictional elements in a natural way.  And its strong back matter satisfies my expectations for children wanting to continue their research.  It's a book that will stay in my collection of books about Julia Child.

Minette's Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and her Cat.  Susanna Reich; illustrated by Amy Bates.  Abrams, 2012.

sent by the publisher for  Cybils consideration

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.