Friday, October 6, 2017

Hurry Home, Candy, by Meindert DeJong

Yes, you read the cover right.  Illustrated by Maurice Sendak!  However, most of the pictures in the book are similar in style and quality to what you see here (that is, mostly lacking the charm and detail I recall from his picture books).

This book covers the journey of a dog who was adopted by two siblings as a puppy, but was then lost in a storm on a road trip.  He then spends the next few years skirting the fringes of where his home had been, scrounging for food, almost finding home but not quite.

I didn't find this exceptional as a stray-dog sort of book, but those who love dogs will enjoy it.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Magic Maize, by Mary and Conrad Buff

It took me a few books to figure it out, but our friends Mary and Conrad Buff definitely have a format that they enjoy.  Books too long for a conventional picture book, and long enough to be a short juvenile novel, but printed in a way that allows generous space for rich illustrations, many full-page.

This particular book takes place in Guatemala.  Fabian, our protagonist, lives with his family (parents, two sisters, livestock, and one parrot) at the foot of a hill that holds the CITY UP YONDER, the place that his Mayan ancestors once called home.  His family are largely subsistence farmers, but try to raise enough corn and animals each year to sell some at the market.  This money and the corn they harvest will last them the winter; without it, the entire family will have to hire themselves out to pick coffee berries to survive.

The book begins as the family prepares for the new growing season by burning last year's growth away from their fields and offering gifts to the various gods of their ancestors (and offering Christian prayers as well).  While his parents are away offering one such gift, Fabian's oldest sibling, his brother, Quin, returns.  Quin has vastly disappointed his father by not remaining home to continue the family's traditions.  Instead, he travels the country peddling food and objects from a pack on his back.  Before heading back to work, Quin gives Fabian a gift: 12 uniform kernels of yellow corn that the "gringos" developed from their own Indian corn.  He says that it is growing beautifully and enriching farmers in Mexico and elsewhere.  Fabian is excited about the potential of this "Magic Maize", but knows that his father distrusts the gringos and would sooner throw the corn to the chickens than plant it.

With the help of his friend Augustin, Fabian plants his corn in a secret place on the hillside.  He figures that if his father sees the results, he may be more willing to put his faith in this new corn.  While the friends are digging and sowing their seeds, Fabian finds an old jade earplug that may have once belonged to Mayan royalty.  Impressed by its novelty, Fabian saves it with his other treasures (the usual findings of a small child).

The days pass, and the family's corn grows.  And during the rains, gringos appear. Since his father is away traveling, Fabian's mother makes a judgment call and at the polite request of their Indian guide, allows them to come in until the rain stops.  Fabian realizes that these men are friends of Quin, and the ones who gave him the yellow corn.  They are on a mission from the President, who has commissioned them to dig artifacts from the CITY UP YONDER to preserve them for the people.  Fabian receives his mother's reluctant permission to assist them.

Fabian enjoys his time with the three men.  He quickly learns enough Spanish to converse easily with them, and adapts to their different foods (meat in a can!).  Then the gringos discover a jade ear plug.  Fabian shows them the one that he had found as well; it appears to be a match!  The gringos know that it belongs to him, and agree to buy it from him on behalf of the President.  This offer comes at a fortuitous time, because when they descent the hill together, they see that Fabian's father's corn has been destroyed in a cloudburst.  He can hardly believe that a piece of green rock from the dirt is worth so much money, but he is so relieved that he even agrees that Fabian can go to school (a privilege previously denied as unnecessary).  Fabian also has some of his corn's first healthy ears to show.  It looks like things are turning around for his family.

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."