Friday, April 3, 2015

Repost: 1924 The Dark Frigate

The following post was originally written by me in 2010:


In 1921, 33-year-old author Charles Boardman Hawes released THE GREAT QUEST, a story of a young man on a high seas adventure in search of gold. The novel was Hawes' first published work and it earned him a Newbery Honor in the Newbery's first ever year of existence. Two years later, Charles Boardman Hawes' third novel THE DARK FRIGATE won the Newbery Medal. Sadly, Hawes was not alive to celebrate it. Many have compared Hawes to Robert Louis Stevenson and fully expected that within his lifetime, creating a true masterpiece like Stevenson's TREASURE ISLAND could have been well within his reach. Instead, we're left with THE DARK FRIGATE, the best of the three Newbery Medal winners thus far, as his crowning achievement.

To summarize the book . . . Phil Marsham is just shy of twenty-years-old and has recently become orphaned. His father, a sailor, was lost at sea. The money left to him by his father is abandoned in London when Phil accidentally fires Jamie Barwick's rifle in Moll Stevens' alehouse, causing quite the commotion. He's run out of town. On his journey he encounters many interesting characters (too many) before meeting Martin Barwick (Jamie's brother) and Tom Jordan (Old One). Phil makes for the port town of Bideford with Martin as a traveling companion and the two board the Rose of Devon, an impressive "frigate". Once on board, Phil's skills (he takes after his father) impress the ship's leader, Captain Candle, and he's made "boatswain" while Martin is assigned to kitchen help. Phil befriends a boy his age on the ship, Will Canty.

Before long, the Rose of Devon encounters a damaged ship on the waters and rescues its passengers. Much to Phil and Martin's surprise, the ship is led by Tom Jordan, the Old One. The survivors are friendly at first, but something is amiss. Soon, their true intentions are revealed. They are pirates. They kill the Devon's Captain Candle and convince its crew to join them in search of riches. The crew does. All but Phil and Will. The Old One takes a liking to Phil and allows the two to stay on board. After many failed attempts of ship raids, the crew attacks a small village. Will tries to escape, is captured by the pirates, and murdered. Phil successfully escapes to a British warship which he convinces to easily takes over the Old One's crew. They are taken to trial in England, and Phil is lumped in as one of them.

Phil refuses to testify against the crew, despite his unwillingness to join them, and the Old One is so impressed that he testifies instead. Phil is set free and the Old One and his crew are executed. Phil joins the crew of Sir John Bristol, an impressive Lord, Phil met along his earlier travels. Sir John reminds Phil of his father and the two quickly form a tight bond. While fighting in the English Civil War, Sir John is killed in battle and Phil decides to set off on foot again, tired of England. He finds himself back in Bideford by story's end and much to his surprise, ironically, the Rose of Devon is docked there. He sets sail onboard at the story's close.

THE STORY OF MANKIND was just too massive to keep anything straight. DOCTOR DOOLITTLE was just too odd and random to enjoy. THE DARK FRIGATE, despite it's slow beginning, is actually one heck of a well-rounded story. The archaic style of language, makes this story very difficult to understand and I found myself writing brief summaries after every chapter, just so I could keep my thoughts straight. So much energy is put into deciphering the language though, that when I came to page 75 and the Devon had finally set sail, it felt like I was on page 200! But credit Hawes for truly giving this book a 17th Century feel.

Once the Old One and his crew are on board the ship, this book becomes quite the page-turner. Right up to the end. However I did feel the book suffered from having too many "endings". The story could've ended with Phil being set free, escaping execution, but it doesn't. He joins Sir John Bristol and has many more adventures. Even when Sir John is killed in battle, the story could end, but it doesn't, as Phil sets foot again and finds himself in Bideford. I will say, I like the idea of ending with him on board the Rose of Devon again, sort of as if the story has come full circle. So in the long haul, the multiple endings are worth it, because if he hadn't had those adventures with Sir John, he never would've boarded the Devon again so soon.

I'm not sure how many children would be able to handle a book of this style on their own. The plot of this story, is very exciting and would surely appeal to many. Who doesn't love a good pirate adventure? But the work involved in getting to the plot is rather extensive for children under the age of 14. Parents and Newbery committee members must have had tougher skin in the 1920s, to allow a book with an abudance of violent, high-seas murder and drunk men lusting over women in taverns to be awarded a medal so esteemed. But compared to the two Newbery Medal winners that preceded THE DARK FRIGATE, this one was at least enjoyable.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Repost: 1923 The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle

I originally wrote the following post in 2010:


My first thought upon completing book #2 of my journey, THE VOYAGES OF DOCTOR DOLITTLE by Hugh Lofting (Newbery Medal winner from 1923), was 'Whoa . . . there must not have been much competition in the 20s'. Doctor Dolittle has a knack for picking up languages, and he's mastered the skill of speaking to animals. Don't get me wrong, Hugh Lofting has created a memorable, original, polite character in Doctor Dolittle, one that is able to stand the test of time (Eddie Murphy, Ace Ventura anyone). It's really quite the creative concept, especially in 1923! But this particular story has sooooo much going on. The many detours make it hard to follow and much of this story could have been trimmed down quite a bit (Where were all the editors in 1923?). It could've made for a much more enjoyable, and bearable read!

For example: Part II of the book kicks off introducing readers to Luke the Hermit. Tommy (our narrator) and the Doctor are recruiting some helping hands for the voyage they are about to embark on. Luke is their top choice. We're given a back story, we're given a mystery, and we're given some suspense. The Doctor helps clear Luke's name in a trial of sorts by talking to animal witnesses (Luke had previously been accused of murder). At the end of Part II, once Luke's name has been cleared and the good Doctor has saved the day, Luke declines the invitation to join them on their voyage. What?! Seriously?! What is the point in introducing us to a character like Luke, only to dump them by the wayside? The story of Luke the Hermit felt like a complete waste of time. Sure, he pops up a short while later as a stowaway, changing his mind about the voyage, but even the Doctor is annoyed and quickly disposes of him. We never hear from him again.

It takes nearly half of the story to pass by before the Doctor and his sidekicks finally set sail and the first place they stop is Spain. Spain was not in on itinerary, but they needed to get rid of some stowaways. While in Spain, the Doctor is lured off task by the possibility of ending the cruel sport of bullfighting once and for all. He hustles the Spaniards and steps into the ring as a matador turning the bulls on the fighters and angering the crowd in the process. The Doctor and his crew are run out of town and again, I was left scratching my head. Did Hugh Lofting think all these sidebars were fun? The book and all it's adventures reminded me of a bedtime story that your Grandpa tells you after you're tucked in and ready for sleep. Except the story is making less and less sense because Grandpa is making it up as he goes but you continue to listen and fight off sleep because Grandpa's a funny guy and even a little crazy in his own way!

Another annoyance with this book is the excessive politeness displayed amongst its characters. Now I'm a teacher. I'm all for "please" and "thank you". I'm all for politeness. But the politeness found in this book is on a whole other level! It's distracting! "May I please share an idea with you Doctor?" asks Tommy. "Why certainly my dear boy," responds the Doc. "I think you are the best Doctor in the world," states Tommy. "Well thank you for sharing that pleasant thought," thanks the Doctor. "Thank you so much for letting me share it," coos Tommy. "You are so very welcome," says the Doc. Imagine 300+ pages of conversation exactly like that . . . Argh! And what kind of parents agree to let their ten-year old move out of the house and live with the crazy, polite, old doctor down the block who happens to talk to animals? And then agree to letting that child set sail across the globe with that Doctor? Come on! I know this is a fantasy story but seriously . . .

After THE STORY OF MANKIND, I was really looking forward to this book, but I almost found it more unbearable than that first one. There is some good stuff . . . the mystery of Long Arrow's disappearance and the mystery of the shellfish language keep you engaged, despite the fact that they are never really solved (or even "mysteries" to begin with). There's a good message buried in these pages about doing work you love, not just work that pays good. And the writing at times is top notch. I love Tommy's description of the ship: "This ship, which was to be our house and our street, our home and our garden, for so many days to come, seemed so tiny in all this wide water - so tiny and yet so snug, sufficient, and safe." But in the end, this book is a snoozer.

I even tried to get my cat Elliot to read it, thinking the good Doctor could "speak" to her. But all she did was sniff it.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Revisiting My Newbery Project (Repost of "1922: The Story of Mankind")

Almost 5 years ago, I wanted to read all of the Newbery Medal winners and keep an account of each on a blog. I wanted to read them in order too, so that I could see the progression of the different styles of writing awarded each year throughout the decades. At that time, there were 89 winners. Since then, 5 more have been added making the grand total of winners 94.

I gave up after the first three.

I have decided to give it a try again. To get me back in the mood, I'm going to repost the first three reflections I wrote and hope it motivates me! The following reflection of Hendrik van Loon's THE STORY OF MANKIND, was written back in 2010!

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1922: The Story of Mankind


That's me. Sleeping. That's what seemed to happen naturally every time I picked up Book Number 1 of my journey, THE STORY OF MANKIND by Hendrik van Loon. Let's just say, I'm kind of relieved to get this one out of the way!

532. That's how many pages this first ever Newbery Medal winner clocked in at, or at least the edition I read. I've seen upwards of 600 pages in more recent prints as the book keeps growing and growing with history. I'll count myself lucky . . .

As a Christian man, I personally became bothered after reading page one. If anything, I found his scientific summary of man's origin ("the first living cell floated upon the waters of the sea") just as "far fetched" as he claims religion is. I was deeply disturbed by the way he portrays Christians throughout the book as a clan of poor, uncivilized men; imbeciles, who had nothing better to do than fantasize. The sarcastic tone he takes when poking fun at the Jews and Moses is unflattering and it cuts at his credibility, in my opinion. Especially when he raves on and on about Buddha and the Age of Science later in the book. Ugh!

I tried to set my personal bias aside and read the book with an open mind . . . I enjoyed his explanation of hieroglyphics and the Sumerians' and the Phoenicians' inventions of writing. I liked how Van Loon constantly reminded us that throughout history, time periods blended together and didn't end abruptly, like time line's sometimes show. The story of Heinrich Schliemann's search for the city of Troy was fascinating, and one I had never heard before. And I'm sure nonfiction lovers everywhere would enjoy the quote "Why should we ever read fairy stories, when the truth of history is so much more interesting and entertaining?"

I can tell that Van Loon is trying to speak to children but when he's in his history-story-telling groove, this really doesn't speak to children at all. At one point, he casually directs the reader to think of a specific song by the poet Heine in order to truly "feel" the history of Napoleon. Children don't know who Heine is! I didn't know who Heine was without Googling him! Besides, I don't know of too many children searching the library for good 600+ page nonfiction reads.

In the end, THE STORY OF MANKIND is little more than a modern Social Studies textbook, grades 1-6 combined! It's a remarkable feat, summarizing history the way Van Loon has, but it's also way too much. This book has to be absorbed in small doses. After a while, the dates and the battles and the wars and the discoveries and the leaders all jumble together, making it difficult to take away much substance from this book. You know when you read something and your mind can't help itself from wandering? Before you know it, you've read a page or two without really reading any of it, causing you to go back and re-read . . . this entire book felt like that after a while! It was always the same thing . . . it was kind of refreshing to get it off my plate.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Night Gardener

Scary stories are difficult to write for a child audience. If your concept is too scary, it will no longer be a story for children. If your concept isn't scary enough, it will be GOOSEBUMPS, wildly popular, but more cheesy than scary. There is a fine line between too scary and GOOSEBUMPS.

Jonathan Auxier's THE NIGHT GARDENER rests right on that line.

THE NIGHT GARDENER is not for the faint of heart. It will undoubtedly give children (and some adults) nightmares. That being said, this is the best, most complex work of fiction I have read this year.

I can tend to be long winded, so I will keep my summary of this story short. Molly and Kip are the main characters of this story. They are orphans, working in a dilapidated Victorian mansion, for a creepy family, The Windsors. From the onset, Molly and Kip feel as if they should leave this place, but they have nowhere else to go. Then, scary stuff happens.

The visuals in this novel are incredible.

"But strangest of all was the tree.

The tree was enormous and looked very, very old. Most trees cast an air of quiet dignity over their surroundings. This one did not. Most trees invite you to climb up into their canopy. This one did not. Most trees make you want to carve your initials into the trunk. This one did not. To stand in the shadow of this tree was to feel a chill run through your whole body.

The tree was so close to the house that they almost seemed to have grown together--its gnarled trunk running up the wall like a great black chimney stack. Palsied branches crept out in all directions like a second roof--including a few that appeared to cut straight through the walls. 'It's almost a part of the house,' Kip said softly.

Why any person would build a home so close to such a terrible tree was beyond him."

Often times, whether or not a story ends up GOOSEBUMP material, depends on the handling of the bogeyman. All scary stories have a bogeyman, and the bogeyman makes or breaks the story. Kids either run and hide and have nightmares of the bogeyman, or they laugh at him because he's covered in slime. Take the movie Signs for instance, directed by M. Night Shyamalan. This taut, alien invasion story is all kinds of creepy until the final 10 minutes of the film. The fear and tension build off screen for the entire movie, then all of the sudden, this gangly, awkward, dumb-looking alien is standing in the family's living room and Joaquin Phoenix is beating it with a baseball bat. Movie, ruined.

THE NIGHT GARDENER does NOT suffer from this. That's all I'm going to say.

All aspects of this story are top notch. The description of the Victorian-era setting is fantastic. Each character is given their own arc making the character development highly distinguished. The twists and turns of the plot are dizzying, yet impressive. Just when you think one seed of a mystery has been planted, it sprouts, ripens, and is plucked from its vine within just a few pages. The plot moves along briskly, balancing so many questions and subplots brilliantly, never giving the reader more than they can handle and always giving the reader just enough answers to entice them along.

I could have finished this book in just a few sittings (it was that enthralling), but I found myself slowing down and savoring the story and the language. You will not find more descriptive sentence level writing and prose than Auxier's work in THE NIGHT GARDENER. As demented as it sounds, I didn't want it to end.

Word of warning though: You will want to read this one during the day time. Or with the lights on. Every light on.

And away from trees. Definitely away from any trees.

Nuts To You

A not-too-secret ambition of mine is to someday write a children's novel. An idea I've been stuck on for some time involves an obsessive-compulsive squirrel who's nuts have been stolen. I've always loved watching squirrels and with my novel idea, have even dreamed of writing the First Great American Squirrel Novel.

Lynne Rae Perkins seems to have beat me to the punch.

Perkins is a Newbery Medal-winning author, best known for her novels ALL ALONE IN THE UNIVERSE, CRISS CROSS, and AS EASY AS FALLING OFF THE FACE OF THE EARTH. She has dabbled in juvenile fiction before but those three popular books all fall squarely upon young adult shelves, typecasting her as an author of more young adult fare. Suffice it to say, NUTS TO YOU seemed to me, to be a bit of a change of pace for Perkins, which I love seeing authors try from time to time.

NUTS TO YOU begins with Perkins herself, sitting on a park bench. A squirrel approaches her and begins to tell her this story: Jed the squirrel is captured and carried away from his village by a hawk. While contemplating his impending death, Jed miraculously escapes from the hawk's clutches and falls into a neighboring squirrel village, many many trees away. Jed's friend TsTs witnesses the entire thing and is determined to rescue him. She enlists fellow squirrel friend Chai to accompany her along the "buzzpaths" (electrical power lines) to rescue Jed and bring him home. Call it, THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY, just with squirrels instead of dogs and cats. 

Maybe I'm just juvenile myself, but I found myself cracking up occasionally throughout NUTS TO YOU. The redneck squirrels who rescue Jed are particularly funny ("Be loik wooter!"). I love how Perkins doesn't take her voice too seriously, keeping this tale light and swift-moving. Too serious of a tone and the reader would not care for these furry creatures as much. Instead, by showcasing them as the small-brained, short-attention-spanned, little animals that they are, allows the reader to have fun with them, and in turn, develop an affection toward them. I'm sure there are some readers out there who will find the squirrels annoying, but those readers probably don't like squirrels in general and they probably shouldn't pick up a children's novel about squirrels in the first place!

I thought Perkins captured the squirrels voices, thoughts, and actions perfectly. The squirrels themselves never fully realize the danger they are sometimes in, because they cannot focus long enough to be scared! There are surprising themes of friendship, acceptance, and adventure as well as an in-your-face lesson to humans about nature. Perkins' involvement in the story is clever too!

I found NUTS TO YOU to be a fun read. If you get a kick out of watching squirrels chase each other up trees, you probably will have fun with this book too. If you don't like squirrels, well, nuts to you!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Port Chicago 50

Steve Sheinkin is on fire! His thrilling, atomic bomb Newbery Honor book BOMB, was one of my personal favorites from 2013 and prior to that, THE NOTORIOUS BENEDICT ARNOLD wowed readers not too long ago, in 2010. Sheinkin has become an author to take notice of. When I learned that he discovered the Port Chicago story while researching BOMB, and was passionate enough about it to immediately publish the story and get it out there, I was sold.

Everyone knows about the atomic bomb and its effects, so in BOMB, Sheinkin's storytelling abilities really shone. He took a topic many had extensive background knowledge of, and wove an intricate, yet thrilling narrative of the scientists and countries behind creating the atomic bomb. BOMB was recognized as distinguished by many because of the way Sheinkin crafted that story.

THE PORT CHICAGO 50 goes like this: During World War II, the Navy finally allows African-Americans to serve in roles other than mess hall attendants and cooks. What should have been an advancement in Civil Rights, quickly turned into further segregation as enlisted African-Americans were sent to California to load ammunition (sometimes "hot") onto ships. Someone had to do the job and the Navy thought it was the perfect job for their new black enlistees. Late one night, a cargo ship explodes, killing many, and soon after, the Navy marches the black groups back out there to continue loading ammunition. 50 men, "led" by Joe Small, refuse to load ammunition and are court-marshaled and tried for mutiny.

I'm willing to bet that not many have heard of the Port Chicago incident, especially younger readers. I'm in my 30's and I had never heard of it. So with THE PORT CHICAGO 50, Sheinkin has a head start in captivating his readers because the story feels so new. While he doesn't have to rely so much on his storytelling abilities to weave together the research and narrative here, he still proves to be a master at it. The character development of Joe Small and other members of the Port Chicago 50 is top notch, and the courtroom drama is on par with A Few Good Men.

This is a story that needs to be read. There is an extensive canon of civil rights literature out there, with heroes like Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, and Martin Luther King Jr. Much like Phillip Hoose did with CLAUDETTE COLVIN in 2009, Sheinkin has uncovered a story that needs to enter that canon. I hope teachers wouldn't be too scared of the language (Sheinkin does drop a few censored f-bombs) to introduce this to young readers. Any 5th grader on up, learning about World War II or the Civil Rights Movement needs to read this story.

"These are the stories we think of as the foundation of the civil rights movement, and rightfully so. But it's important to remember that before Brown v. Board of Education or Truman's executive order, before Rosa Parks or Jackie Robinson--before any of this, there was Port Chicago."

This is my top read of 2014, so far.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Absolutely Almost

I have always found books like ABSOLUTELY ALMOST by Lisa Graff, a bit disingenuous by default. In order to pull off the first person narrative effectively, the author must crawl inside the mind of a child. In ABSOLUTELY ALMOST's case, that child is a very complicated 10 year old boy. As much as adults believe we know what goes on in the mind of a boy like Albie, based on his actions and behaviors and responses to situations, the fact is, we don't.

Which makes the voice in a novel like this a tough sell. For the most part, Graff does a nice job depicting Albie, a socially awkward, learning disabled 5th grader. There are times however, where Albie comes across as too socially ignorant (think Sheldon, from The Big Bang Theory) for the sake of the narrative, a plot point here and there or a funny line of text. There are times where Graff writes Albie very black and white, yet there are times where Albie is able to see the gray between. Sometimes these moments come when the reader would least expect it. Which again, is because Lisa Graff is an adult, writing as if she was a 5th grade boy with a learning disability. As genuine as some of his voice may be, (certainly the intent behind the voice), Lisa Graff is not a 5th grade boy.

But none of that makes ABSOLUTELY ALMOST a bad book. It's actually far from being bad. It's a quick read because Albie narrates in blunt, short sentences. Its themes of friendship, fitting in, struggling in school, bullying, and working parents are very relevant. This book's child audience would find a lot to relate to.

I thoroughly enjoyed the supporting characters in Albie's world. His mother and father try as best they can to be loving parents, but instead are as ignorant of Albie as Albie is of others. Darren, the bully, is as mean as they come (and SPOILER, don't expect him to necessarily get what's coming to him either; Bullies in the real world don't always get what's coming to them). The Oscar for Best Supporting Actress however must go to Albie's babysitter for the majority of the novel, Calista. I loved Calista as much as Albie loved Calista. And my heart broke for Albie following the "sad day" Calista allowed him to have.

In a way, I feel like ABSOLUTELY ALMOST is Newbery bait. This feels like the type of novel the Newbery committee would love. Interesting first person narrative. Emotional learning disability. Bullying. Realistic fiction... Thankfully, I think many kids would enjoy it too.