Monday, October 28, 2013

Eleanor & Park

This was my second time reading Eleanor & Park.  Usually I read the books I'm going to blog about twice - that way I can mark quotes I'd like to use in my review.  But I usually read books twice in a row, pretty quickly, so that I can remember all the things that struck me the first time.  This time, however, I had to read it the first time and return it - there were holds on it.  And that's fairly unusual - even though my public library is small, there are rarely holds lists there for more than the most popular titles.  I was gratified to see the long holds list.  I love when someone else in my town sees how great a book is without me having to shout it from the rooftops!  When I finally got it back, I dog-eared many, many pages with quotes I wanted to share.

Eleanor & Park would have been a sure win for me, no matter what.  It combines school (I love books set in schools, for whatever reason) and romance.  But the icing on the cake is that Rowell chose to set this in the '80's.  Without dating myself too much (yeah, right!), I grew up in the '80's.  So reading this didn't feel like a blast from the past, it felt like the way things were for me.

A side note about the time period - at my old library, they started putting historical fiction genre labels on books set in the 1980's.  While I technically agree that books set more than 20 years ago are historical fiction, boy, does that make me feel old!

Now back to Eleanor & Park.  It begins on the day Eleanor first gets on the bus.  It's a bus full of high school students, and like any group of students who have been riding the bus together for any length of time, they have created a stratification.  The coolest (and most obnoxious) kids sit in the back, freshmen in the front, and everyone else somewhere in the middle.  When Eleanor first stands tentatively in the front of the bus, Park notes that she is "not just new - but big and awkward.  With crazy hair, bright red on top of curly...She had on a plaid shirt, a man's shirt, with half a dozen weird necklaces hanging around her neck and scarves wrapped around her wrists.  She reminded Park of a scarecrow or one of the trouble dolls his mom kept on her dresser." (p. 8).  Eleanor looks so different from everyone else, and she is harassed from this very first moment.  By the time she has reached the seat where Park slumps down, she has been told she can't sit in multiple seats.  So Park tells her to sit next to him.  And not in a nice way, either.  Having grown up with these kids, he knows the comments he is in for even by sitting next to her.

And yet, from that small action, something huge grows.  They very slowly develop a friendship based first on the comics Park reads on the bus.  Then they begin listening to and sharing music.  One of my favorite pieces in the book was when Park gives Eleanor a Smiths tape - the album "How Soon is Now?" Park hears the lyrics as "I am the son... and the heir."  When Eleanor listens to it again, she hears "I am the sun...and the air." (p. 54)  It is one of those little moments where you see how different, how separate they each are.  And it makes their eventual romance that much sweeter.

Eleanor's life is very,very difficult.  She has just recently returned to her mom, siblings and stepfather.  She was living with another family for a long time after her stepfather kicked her out.  He's a drinker, a druggie, and has a temper.  Richie is just skeevy, and I can only imagine how exhausted Eleanor's mother is with the effort of keeping them all out of Richie's way.  There is no money.  The children don't have shampoo, toothpaste, clothes that fit.  Eleanor's daily reality is heartbreaking and the courage and grace that she carries is amazing.  She purposefully dresses in wild colors so people won't notice she's worn the same jeans three days that week.  That way, Eleanor feels like she can control what people say about her.

Eleanor lives in a carefully constructed house of lies and half-truths.  Her stepfather is fairly out of control, but no one can know about it.  They all live with an excruciating amount of tension.  And Park's life is almost the polar opposite.  His mother is Korean, and she met Park's father while he was serving in the military there.  Eleanor is astonished by Park's family - so content, so put together, so different.  "Eleanor imagined Park's dad, Tom Selleck, tucking his Dainty China person into his flak jacket and sneaking her out of Korea." (p.126).

Park sees how Eleanor looks to everyone else: "Eleanor, today, was wearing her sharkskin suit jacket and an old plaid cowboy shirt.  She had more in common with his grandpa than with his mom." (p. 122).  But he genuinely loves her, too.  "As soon as he said it, she broke into a smile.  And when Eleanor smiled, something broke inside him.  Something always did." (p. 163).  He loves her at first in spite of his wanting to fit in with everyone else.  Then, as their romance continues, he loves those things that stand out about her best of all.

Rowell has constructed an amazing book.  Of course, I love the music, but I also love many other things  about this book.  The romance is tender, juxtaposed against the suspense of Eleanor's family life.  I physically hurt for the whole family - their desolation is piercing.  Park's family is fascinating.  They are quirky, endearing, but not perfect.  Once Park's mother knows more about Eleanor's life, she tells Park "' In big family,' she said, 'everything, everybody spread so thin.'...'Nobody gets enough.' she said.  'Nobody gets what they need.  When you always hungry, you get hungry in your head.'" (p. 189).    This is such a strong description of Eleanor's family.  Eleanor often feels like whatever she might have comes at the expense of her siblings or her mother.

I also love that Eleanor and Park are not your typical romance characters.  I just read another teen romance (which shall remain nameless) where both of the main characters were gorgeous, blond and tanned.  It is a relief to have characters who aren't perfect.  They are originals.

Finally, Rowell's writing is extraordinary.  I said at the beginning of the post that I dog-eared lots of quotes.  I probably marked thirty quotes in this book - that moment of recognition happened over and over again for me.  There were places where truth shines, where romance shows its face, moments of breathtaking cruelty, moments of sheer perfection.  Teen romance feels like something to smile at, to marvel at.  And this book is no exception.  I can hardly wait to read Rainbow Rowell's next book!

Eleanor & Park.  Rainbow Rowell.  St. Martin's Griffin, 2013.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Fire Horse Girl

I am sure that I have written here before about my feelings about historical fiction.  I'll read it, but I usually feel like I'm getting a history lesson, and it is hard to get through the story.  I find myself drifting off, picking up and then finishing other books...that's not a good sign.  But The Fire Horse Girl had me from the very first paragraph.  In fact, the writing was so good that it made me want to improve my writing too.  So before I published this post (and hopefully my posts going forward), I used Grammarly to check my spelling and grammar. It was easy to use and made cleaning up my own post simple. It also offers an online plagiarism checker too.  I still can't compete with Kay Honeyman though!

The book begins this way:

"In Chinese astrology, the Year of the Fire Horse is a bad year for Horses.  All of their worst traits - their tempers, their stubbornness, their selfishness - burn with increased strength.  Girls should never be born in the year of the Fire Horse; they are especially dangerous, bringing tragedy to their families.

But desperation flowed fast and thick through my mother's veins..." (p. 1)

In Jade Moon's village, she was marked from her very first breath.  She's a girl in a culture that reveres males, her mother died giving birth to her, she's the last of her line, and worst of all, she is a Fire Horse.  The entire village judges her every move and Jade Moon feels their scrutiny.  It is a heavy burden.  When she meets a neighbor, Jade Moon "...quickly shifted my gaze to a point in the air just in front of [the neighbor's] forehead.  This was a technique I used often.  It blurred people's faces and kept me from seeing the disdain in their eyes." (p. 7)

Jade Moon isn't stupid, despite what the other villagers believe.  She just doesn't feel like she can fit into their traditions, into the way things have always been.  That isn't who Jade Moon is.  The village blames this on her being a Fire Horse.  Jade Moon already knows "my mind constructed ideas that no one seemed to understand, and my heart held hopes that were far beyond my reach." (p. 8)  She is viewed as an oddity, and her father is having a difficult time finding a match for her.

Until Sterling Promise arrives.  This young man comes to their home with news of Jade Moon's only uncle, who has recently died.  Before he died, he sent Sterling Promise with papers to allow both Jade Moon's father and Sterling (masquerading as his son) to America to earn their fortunes.  Surprisingly, Jade Moon's father tells her she will be traveling to America along with them.  Jade Moon sees America as a place where she can grab her destiny, where she can shake off other people's expectations and become fully herself.  This trip is an unexpected gift, and she isn't quite sure why it has been given to her.

Sterling Promise is an enigma as well.  He is a smooth talker, someone who can talk business with her father and grandfather.  Yet there is emotion below the surface.  And it seems Sterling Promise (how can you call him anything but his full name??) feels the same desperation Jade Moon feels - that need to grab onto the chance to start anew.  It is intriguing, and she knows there is more to his story than he is willing to share.

I really don't want to ruin this story for those of you who will read it.  Suffice to say that I learned many new facts about immigration to America in the 1920's.   I was raised in California, but most of what I read about Angel Island, where Jade Moon starts the immigration process, was new and very stark.  Immigrants much like Jade Moon stayed there for weeks on end.  We all know about Ellis Island, of course, but on Angel Island conditions were very different.  I found this part of Jade Moon's story fascinating.  It is also very painful.

As the immigrants wait for permission to enter the United States, or for someone to come and get them, they spend a lot of time together.  The women's bunk has its share of anger, frustration, and sadness.  So when Jade Moon is asked to tell a story to the others, she knows: "These women needed a story about people trying to get somewhere impossible.  They needed a story about promises kept and broken, a story about sacrificing everything at a chance for something beautiful." (p. 113)

Eventually, Jade Moon finds a chance to get off Angel Island and the story twists again.  In each of the twists of this narrative, there are interesting people, people who you want to get to know further.  But the key to the whole novel, of course, is the Fire Horse girl, Jade Moon.

It is Jade Moon who kept me glued to each page.  All of the things she has believed about herself throughout her life in China - that she is selfish, stubborn, full of temper - are in reality strengths.  She is smart, savvy and a shrewd judge of character and emotion.  Jade Moon isn't afraid to say what she thinks but can also play the game if it is necessary to get what she wants.  America is her destiny.  She asks another character in the novel where stories come from.  Spring Blossom tells her they come from "deep inside me, where we must bury what we desire in order to protect it."  (p. 105).  Jade Moon has always tried to bury her dream of freedom deep inside, but it cannot stay there any longer.  This is her one chance to change the life she has always been expected to lead, and she takes it.  The journey changes her in unexpected ways.

I've quoted liberally from the text because I think Honeyman's writing is so beautiful.  There are gorgeous turns of phrase on almost every page.  Honeyman describes characters by how they look, but also by how they seem and who they are.  For instance: "She looked like a woman who decided things, who molded the world around her instead of letting it push against her. (p. 264)  What does that look like?  This character would most likely look different to each of us, depending on which women we had known.who had that same determination Honeyman describes.  But her assessment is so well-crafted and correct.

The book is a smart use of historical fiction where it doesn't feel like the history gets in the way of the story.  Instead, it is a vehicle for the story - Jade Moon would not be the same in any other decade or even if she had stayed in China.  She becomes more herself through this experience.  And by the end, being a Fire Horse is something to be celebrated, not reviled.

The Fire Horse Girl.  Kay Honeyman.  Arthur A. Levine Books: Scholastic, 2013.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark library
post sponsored by Grammarly

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Alphabet Trucks

I am sure I've written before about Gloria and her love of cars and trucks.  She loves the movie Cars and the book I Stink!, and many, many other books about vehicles (like Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site).  On the day I opened a package from Charlesbridge and found the promised copy of Alphabet Trucks, Gloria quickly ripped it out of my hands.  We had stopped home briefly before swim lessons, and she took the book to the car with her and read it the whole way there.  Frances was the only one participating in swim lessons that session, and so Gloria spent the entire 45 minutes looking at Alphabet Trucks.  It had been sent to me for review, but I actually couldn't read it for a few days because Gloria wouldn't let me.  We are all big Samantha Vamos fans in our house, and this book was no exception.

  There are twenty-six different kinds of  trucks in this book.  Vamos has carefully constructed a rhyme for each type of truck.  It is tricky to come up with twenty-six different kinds of trucks, much less rhyming text that describes their function.  And Vamos packs a lot of information about each of the trucks into two short lines.  One of my favorite trucks is the zipper truck, which I didn't know existed before this book.  "Z is for zipper truck, lifting barrier walls."  But there is also "T is for tow truck, with a hook, chain and boom."  When I read that line, I realized I had never known what the boom was called.  I learned quite a lot about trucks through this book!

A pitfall of alphabet books is what I like to call the "infamous problem letters".  You know the ones - most often, they are the letters Q,U, V, and sometimes Z, depending on the book's subject.  We've all read alphabet books where the author dodges these letters (using the U as the second letter, or coming up with some way to use the Q without really tying it back to the concept) or their rhyme scheme falls apart around those letters because they are hard to incorporate.  Vamos stays strong through the Quint truck (a fire truck), a U-haul, Vacuum truck, and the Zipper truck I already shared.  There are plenty of trucks to go around!

Another pitfall I sometimes see in alphabet books is when the rhyme scheme becomes shaky - sometimes an author has a set rhyme scheme, and then has to contract words or use less familiar words just to fit the rhyme scheme.  This book scans well throughout.  To continue the smooth rhyme through 26 trucks is no easy feat!  I think of trucks as bumpy, choppy and a little teeth-chattering.  But Alphabet Trucks doesn't sound or feel like that at all.  It isn't forced, and is a great read-aloud.

The illustrations extend the text in a natural and clever way.  O'Rourke uses the letters of the alphabet in consistent ways throughout the book, which also helps reinforce the concept.  Each truck has the letter on its side, marked clearly and in capital letters only.  This choice helps extend the text.  If a young reader weren't sure what a quint truck was, they could match the capital Q at the beginning of the text to the capital Q on the truck.  This information, along with the  text's explanation that there are ladders, a hose, a tank and pump, helps the reader make the connection between the quint truck and the fire truck that is pictured.

There are so many cool trucks in this book, and the individual illustrations are one place where O'Rourke plays with letters again.  One of the trucks I like best is the ore truck.  Vamos writes "O is for ore truck, carrying tons in weight."  The ore truck is enormous, dwarfing the pickup truck next to it.  The tons of weight that Vamos cites are actually O's - big O's, little o's, in all sorts of fonts.  It adds a twist of whimsy to the illustrations once you start noticing all the ways O'Rourke has used the mentioned letter.  I am also fond of the tow truck, where t's make up the tow truck's chain.  It is a simple thing, but it adds so much to the illustration.

This book will be popular with many different audiences, but the truck-lovers in particular will pore over it repeatedly.  And the brief text means that parents will remember information about all the different kinds of trucks long after the book is finished.  Vamos is already at work on Alphabet Trains, and I can't wait to see it when it is published!  I know it is going to fill a need at our house, since I know even less about trains than trucks.  I hope Alphabet Trucks fills a need at your house too!

Alphabet Trucks.  Samantha Vamos; illustrated by Ryan O'Rourke.  Charlesbridge, 2013.

sent by the publisher for review