Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Inquisitor's Tale, or, the Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, by Adam Gidwitz

Ok, it is really time for me to get on the ball and read the 2017 winner, because I can not FATHOM why this is not it.  I have not enjoyed a children's book this much in a very long time.  If we had a *favorite* favorite tag, I'd be applying it right now.

The author spent six years researching and writing this book, part of which was spent in Europe with his Medieval-scholar-wife, researching history and poking around in ruins.  Although the story is completely fictional, the characters are all based on actual historical figures (Joan of Arc, Guillaume d'Orange, Guinefort, and many religious and political figures).

I really hesitate to even try to summarize this book because it was published to so much acclaim that I could scarcely begin to do it justice.  Set in 1200's France, it follows the journeys of three very special children (and one holy dog) who discover that they have special gifts which, unfortunately, make them targets of the Church.  They meet quite randomly and form a close bond as they seek sanctuary and safety.

Beyond the fantastic story, the book addresses (and not in a heavy-handed way) gender roles and classes, as well as religious conflict and race relations (all anchored in this time period).  This book is so crazily well-rounded and engaging that I finished it in about 24 hours.  Go read it.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt de la Peña

Has it really been nearly three months since the last post on this blog?  It's seriously time to get moving.

I actually read this title last week with no intention of blogging it; my children borrowed it from the library and I just assumed from its dimensions that it was a Caldecott medalist and not a Newbery.  Silly me!

It's such a brief story that there isn't much to say that won't give away *everything*.  But here is the nutshell version.

CJ and his grandmother leave church on Sunday, and CJ starts to notice some differences between himself and others.  His friend gets to ride home in a car with his dad instead of waiting for the bus in the rain. He doesn't have an MP3 player like some of the older kids on the bus.  Every Sunday after church he doesn't get to go home; he has to go. . . to the location disclosed at the end of the book.  But  Nana's perspective on the things CJ complains of is completely different, and soon he starts seeing things her way, too.

My kids were a little young to appreciate this one, but it's a great story for kids who have a little more exposure to an urban environment than my own, or are old enough to stretch their imaginations just far enough to join CJ in his world.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Davy Crockett, by Constance Rourke

I don't have too much to say about this book.  It covers what is known of Davy Crockett's life, from his birth through his death at the Alamo, and all of his journeys in between.  It is peppered throughout with a number of legends about his feats, and often gives probable explanations for their sources.

I found it a pretty dry read and a struggle to get through, but the detailed illustrations were very well done.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Wonderful news!

Several years ago I reviewed The Winged Girl of Knossos, by Erick Berry.  One of the sad parts of reviewing older books is that when you find a real treasure, you often can't share it with people because you know they won't be able to get their hands on the book.  Winged Girl was one such case; fewer than 75 copies exist in libraries (per WorldCat), some of which aren't even in the United States.

Well, there is happy news!  It's being republished!  I was contacted by the publisher and could not be more thrilled.  Due out in June (any day now!) this book is a wonderful pick for those who love adventure, mythology, ancient cultures, or just strong female protagonists of all sorts.  And the starting price is under $10!  Do yourself a favor.  I did receive a review copy from the publisher, and I enjoyed it every bit as much as I did when I first read it.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

New Land, by Sarah Schmidt

I'll admit that it's nice to be able to fill in a gap in my list.  This one had been unavailable through the local library system and on a whim I decided to search online.  I found fulltext with illustrations, hooray!  A decision was made that the "pioneers" tag should also apply to homesteading for brevity, so this book will have no covered wagons in it for you!

New Land actually takes place in roughly the 1920's.  The Morgan family (seventeen-year-old twins Charles and Sayre, younger sister Hitty, and their father) are migrating from Chicago to greener pastures in Wisconsin.  Their father is the restless type who has never been able to stay in one place for long without becoming discontented, so the family has been unsettled for a long time, and especially since the death of his wife three years prior from pneumonia.  A coworker had tried homesteading and had failed at it, and offered the land and buildings to the Morgan family to try to settle themselves on.  Sayre is truly hoping that this will finally be their long-term home.  The book is told from her perspective.

Upon arriving in Upton, Wyoming, the family settles into the little house and gets to know the town.  Since the area is already settled and somewhat established, there is a town center with store (run by Mr. Hoskins, the town's most prominent citizen), a high school, and a small community.  But when Mr. Morgan goes to the land office to register his claim, he learns that he is simply not qualified to file.  He has no farming experience and no equipment, and because so many farmers had failed in this particular area, the government had become more selective.  Sympathetically, the land agent tells them that they can certainly remain where they are, but they will have no legal claim on the land they farm.

It's at this time that Sayre develops a plan.  She's fallen in love with this new land and won't leave willingly.  She goes to the local teacher and meets the agriculture instructor there.  Although he's surprised that a girl wants to register for his classes, he agrees to seek permission from the board on her behalf.  As Mr. Kitchell is also the football coach, she hopes that he will be able to use that influence on her football-loving brother to encourage him into the class as well.  Sayre hopes that they can, between them, learn enough about farming to keep their family in its place.

Although Sayre is decisive and optimistic, not everyone is rooting for their success.  The Morgans quickly discover that Upton has a lot of small-town politics, and that those who are ahead wish to remain there, on the backs of their neighbors.  Additionally, the man who originally leased his claim to them returns to "visit," and Sayre quickly intuits that he has misled them, intending to lay claim to their hard work on the land to "prove up" the claim for himself.

There are a lot of factors working against the Morgans, and they are all well-developed (as are the characters).  I especially enjoyed reading this one; the Little House series primed me to enjoy a good homesteading success story, and this one is exceptionally well-written.  I won't spoil the resolution here, you can rest assured in the fact that the final chapter is entitled "The Happy Ending."

Friday, May 5, 2017

Moccasin Trail, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw

The book begins with our protagonist Jim Keath checking his traps and lamenting the state of trapping this season.  Jim is a wanderer, traveling only with his horse and dog, and occasionally a friend.  Over time his history is revealed to the reader: as a child he fled his strict upbringing to follow his uncle, also a trapper, into the forests.  But during a fight with a bear, he was gravely injured.  When he woke, he was in a teepee being cared for by an Indian woman.  She had lost a son and, since she was able to restore him to health, claimed Jim as her own.  He learned the language and culture and lived among the Crow Indians for six years before striking out on his own, not feeling like he truly belonged with them or with white men.

While Jim is tracking animals, he's also being tracked down by two Indians.  A paper letter has been making its way from hand to hand trying to reach him, and it had finally arrived.  Neither Jim nor his companion can read well enough to interpret it.  All he knows is that it may have come from his (biological) brother.  So he heads to the nearest fort to find some one who can read the letter for him, a trip that takes more than a week.

When Jim reaches The Dalles, he learns that his parents have died and his siblings, all youth, are on their own heading to Oregon to homestead.  But they need his help: the oldest, Johnnie, can't make a land claim because he isn't yet 18.  Jim is their last hope to establish a home, even if he only signs the paperwork before leaving again.  And coincidentally, the family is at the fort now.  Jim feels the pull of them, even though they haven't seen each other in ages.  He agrees to travel with them, but chafes under their rules and expectations.  His sister, Sally, doesn't care for his braids and medicine bundle.  Johnnie gets angry when he teaches the youngest, Dan'l, the ways of the woods instead of helping.  And once they complete the journey and find land in the Willamette Valley, it seems that everyone is angry with him: he's not a farmer or a carpenter.  He doesn't understand the need to plow and sow when the land is rich with game and natural crops.  He doesn't like feeling confined in a cabin when his teepee goes up much more quickly, is more snug, and is portable.  This lifestyle doesn't suit his inclinations, but he realizes that he has become lonely for his family and desperately wants Johnnie's approval.

This was a really well-written book that did a fantastic job of developing the main characters.  The reader really comes to sympathize with Jim's inner struggles and to hope he finds his place in the world.  I was admittedly disappointed in the ending (Jim settles down and goes "full white"), but it may seem a far more fitting conclusion to others.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Bears on Hemlock Mountain, by Alice Dalgliesh

I've had to break my own rule here.  Generally I try to include the cover images that matches the copy of the book I read, whether or not it's a first edition.  This time around, the library's copy of the book has a one-of-a-kind cover hand-drawn years ago by an 11-year-old back in the 1990's.  Her name was on the back.  I wrote her; she's in her 30's with a child now.  She was amazed that this is still in a library somewhere :-)

We've encountered our good friend Alice Dalgliesh twice before.  However, unlike the other youth novels we've covered in the blog, this is intended for much younger readers.  Although it's divided into chapters, this is definitely a one-sitting read.

Jonathan lives by the foot of a mid-sized hill, named (not especially accurately) Hemlock Mountain.  His family is planning to host a christening, but because they have such a large extended family they will need to borrow aunt Emma's giant soup tureen.  Because the adults are busy with preparations, Jonathan is sent over the hill to bring it back.  Although no bear has been seen there in recent memory, Jonathan is still concerned about heading out alone (he's never been before).  Not especially reassured by his parents' insistence that there are no bears on Hemlock Mountain, he heads out and reaches his destination safely.

Stomach full from aunt Emma's cookies, Jonathan naps in her chair and forgets that he was charged with returning with the soup tureen before dark.  He wakes up just in time to lug it back up the hill.  But as dusk falls, Jonathan sees two sets of eyes attached to two dark, hulking bodies, moving through the trees. . . what to do?

This book would make a fantastic read-aloud for younger children.  I may read it to mine before it goes back to the library!