Tuesday, September 27, 2016


PAX is the type of book I would have stayed away from as a young reader. My 4th grade teacher read WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS to my class and it almost turned me away from reading. It ruined animal books for me. My family did not have any pets and looking back, I wonder if part of the reason was because we were a sensitive bunch, and hated the thought of losing them someday. Sensitive readers, like me, will have a difficult time with PAX.

Peter rescued Pax as a kit and the two have been inseparable ever since. That is, until Peter’s father heads off to war and makes Peter release Pax back into the wild before going to live with his grandfather. Shortly after arriving at his grandfather’s house, Peter finds a photograph of his father as a boy. In the photo, his father is with a pet dog Peter never knew he had. His grandfather tells him they were “inseparable.” Filled with anger and guilt for abandoning Pax when he knew it was wrong, Peter leaves his grandfather’s house in the middle of the night and starts out on a journey to get Pax back.

PAX is a difficult book to digest because it is filled with such visceral, raw, emotion-packed scenes. Pennypacker leaves nothing to the imagination. A pair of foxes are brutally and graphically slain, right in front of the reader’s eyes. Another animal loses an appendage in a terrible way and that same appendage reappears as the story nears its conclusion. Blood scatters the landscape and a creepy fear permeates many of Peter’s scenes with Vola, an isolationist that rescues Peter after he suffers a major (and also graphic) setback on his journey. If you struggled through Kathi Appelt’s THE UNDERNEATH, which is the most recent comparable I can think of, you will struggle with many of the images in PAX.

The chapters alternate from Pax’s point of view to Peter’s point of view. Pax’s chapters are filled with wonder and confusion, as he discovers things about the wild and as he learns more about the behavior of humans. Not all humans are like his boy Peter. As the bond between he and Bristle and Runt grows stronger, the happy reunion readers may hope for becomes less likely. Pennypacker’s writing is best in these scenes with Pax. Peter’s chapters are filled with anxiety and dread as he suffers setback after setback in his journey to find Pax. Vola is a fascinating character. If Pennypacker had any interest in centering a prequel around her, I believe it would find some interested readers.

If I had one small gripe with PAX it is that Pennypacker’s themes often seem a bit heavy handed and spelled out for the reader. War is bad. Humans ruin everything. What were the humans even fighting for? What was the war about? By keeping these issues vague, Pennypacker turns them into statements instead of plot points. The political statements Pennypacker seems to be making are very overt and sometimes they held me back from enjoying the story unfolding or investing in the characters.

Perhaps a more subtle theme in the story is the loss of the family unit:

"It hadn't happened for several years, but sometimes at the end of the day, his humans would sit together on his boy's nest. The father would lay a hard box, flat and thin and made of many layers of paper, across his lap. Paper, like Pax's own bedding, but not shredded, and with many marks. His humans would peel these layers, one by one, and study them. Pax remembered that his humans were most linked together on those evenings, and with their harmony he could let down his guard."

When Peter chooses to make right his mistake of leaving Pax in the woods, he's doing more than going against his father. He is going against what his father stands for. He is realizing that sometimes, the apple does fall far from the tree. He recognizes the mistake his father made when he was a boy and vows to not make the same mistake. Which makes PAX above all, despite the heart-breaking, gut-wrenching narrative, a story of hope. Hope for a more harmonious future.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Goodbye Stranger

I have been told that girls are easy to raise while they are young. Being the father of two little girls, that is comforting to hear. I have also heard that while girls are easy to raise in their elementary years, they are nothing but headaches in their junior high and high school years. A fellow, more experienced father once told me that as his daughter grew older, he found himself worrying about her safety and well being far more than he worried about his son's. That makes me feel stressed and anxious, and let's just say up front, that reading Rebecca Stead's GOODBYE STRANGER did nothing to quell my fears!

Bridge, Tab, and Em have been best friends for a long time, and they don't fight with each other, by rule. Bridge survived a horrific accident when she was eight years old and often questions why she was left on this world. Tab is stubborn and opinionated and is beginning to see through the stereotypes present in society and the mean games kids play with each other. Em is growing into her teenage frame rather nicely and is even beginning to receive attention for it, from boys and girls. And she kind of likes the attention! As their interests and situations change, these three girls struggle to maintain their friendship.

One of the biggest strengths of GOODBYE STRANGER is its supporting cast of characters. Characters that seem to be secondary at first, begin to play larger roles as the story progresses. No one is exactly who they seem to be either. Sherm is a boy that befriends Bridge. Their friendship and chemistry is strong but neither can tell if they want to be more than friends. Patrick is an older boy who begins flirting with Em through texts. One of his requests causes things to spiral out of control for everyone about halfway through the book. Jamie, Bridge's older brother, competes tirelessly with his frenemy Alex at ridiculous bets. Adrienne is the new barista at Bridge and Jamie's father's coffee shop. She takes an interest in Bridge. Celeste is Tab's older, wiser sister, who imparts wisdom on the girls. All of these characters play integral roles in the girls' developing and changing friendship.

And then there's the Valentine's Day girl... an unnamed character narrating chapters in the near future in second person ("You wake up. You head down the stairs. You put your headphones on.") From the moment this unnamed character is introduced, we are drawn in, wondering who this person is and how they are connected to the story. This character is skipping school in the near future because something bad has happened. As the novel steamrolls toward it's closing, bits and pieces of details are referenced in these chapters that have been mentioned in the novel elsewhere. How do they fit? How did things come to this? How do we know this person?

If GOODBYE STRANGER seems like a lot to keep track of, it is. Because it is Stead though, it is worth it! It can be a confusing read. The three main girls are different, yet so similar that it was hard to tell them apart in the early pages. There are so many other characters in the story and it can be difficult at times to remember what was said by which character, because they all do so much talking! Dialogue is another one of Stead's strengths though, and she understands kids.

GOODBYE STRANGER is a book that needs to be read by teenagers. There is a scene early in the novel where the students gather in a gymnasium and sign up for a theme club. The existential crossroads these students are at in their lives parallels this scene nicely. It is the primary theme of this novel. Friendships change. People change. We change. How do we navigate it all? How do we not lose sight of ourselves while everyone and everything around us is changing? Stead is one of the best working today and her style and approach to these themes should prove to be poignant with young readers.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Graphic Novels: Sunny Side Up and Roller Girl

Some year soon, a graphic novel is going to win the Newbery Medal. The day is coming. A graphic novel has received an Honor in each of the last two years (EL DEAFO and ROLLER GIRL) and this year a picture book took home the Medal (LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET). As children readers change and interests widen, and as more authors begin exploring this medium, I envision the quality of stories being told to only get better and better.

Two popular graphic novels from 2015 were SUNNY SIDE UP and ROLLER GIRL. Both are designed in bright, friendly packages and both include a selling quote from Raina Telgemeier. Despite these physical similarities the stories inside these covers are very different from each other.

SUNNY SIDE UP was written by Jennifer Holm who is no stranger to the graphic novel format (BABYMOUSE series) or the Newbery Medal (she has Honored three times with OUR ONLY MAY AMELIA, PENNY FROM HEAVEN, and TURTLE IN PARADISE). SUNNY SIDE UP is her first graphic novel that is not a part of her BABYMOUSE series.

In SUNNY SIDE UP, Sunshine Lewin heads to Florida for the summer to stay with her single grandfather in his over-55 retirement community. She has dreams of Disney World and playing in the pool but instead, gets trips to the grocery store and early-bird buffet dinners at Morrison's Cafeteria. She meets a boy named Buzz who introduces her to comic books and his company begins to help her take her mind off of the real reason she is in Florida with her grandfather.

SUNNY SIDE UP is a quiet story. It has the feel of an Alexander Payne film. It is a quick read. I read the entire graphic novel in about an hour. Not a lot happens and Sunshine doesn't say much, but often times her expressions do the talking, as do the flashbacks to time spent with her troubled older brother Dale. There is humor in the book, in a fish-out-of-water kind of way, but most of this humor resides in the shadow of the much heavier plotline of Sunshine's older brother's issues. Sunshine loves him but feels partly responsible for what is currently happening to him (which is a mystery to readers at first, but unfolds through the flashbacks). Kudos to Holm for addressing this subject matter and not watering it down. This will probably find a niche among younger sibling readers.

ROLLER GIRL by first time author and former roller girl Victoria Jamieson, is an entirely different story. It's similarly serious but a much bigger story. In ROLLER GIRL, Astrid and Nicole have been best friends forever but during the summer before middle school, their interests change. Astrid impulsively attends a roller derby camp and falls in love with the sport while Nicole heads to dance camp. Astrid struggles with losing Nicole as a friend, making new friends, and riding out the (literal) ups and downs of learning the sport of roller derby.

ROLLER GIRL is as much about friendship and growing up as it is about the sport of roller derby itself. Jamieson does an awesome job of using the book to introduce the sport to readers without devoting pages and pages to rules and terminology. We learn the ropes as Astrid learns the ropes. Her struggle with the sport is a great parallel to her struggle with losing Nicole and making a new friend. Astrid is an imperfect, yet endearing character and you can't help but root for her as she discovers herself. ROLLER GIRL is the type of book that could be loved by grade 5-8 girls for a very long time.

While I would never want to separate the text from the illustrations, hypothetically ROLLER GIRL is the type of story that could survive and be just as endearing without the graphic novel format. I'm not sure the same can be said for SUNNY SIDE UP. Holm doesn't provide us with an inner monologue the way Jamieson does with Astrid. SUNNY SIDE UP is told primarily through parse character dialogue and pictures. This isn't a bad thing at all, just a different thing. Astrid's thinking is present on every page of ROLLER GIRL which gives the text an extra depth. While the illustrations are great, they just add to an already distinguished coming-of-age story. I enjoyed SUNNY SIDE UP thoroughly because I enjoy everything Holm does! ROLLER GIRL however, caught me by surprise and completely lived up to its Newbery Honor hype.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

1926: Shen of the Sea

In 1926 for a second year in a row, the Newbery Committee recognized a collection of folktales as the most distinguished work in children's literature. Just as Charles Finger brought TALES FROM SILVER LANDS out of Latin America in 1925, Arthur Bowie Chrisman brought SHEN OF THE SEA out of China in 1926.

Arthur Bowie Chrisman developed a love of Chinese lore and culture while living in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1920’s. He befriended a few older Chinese men who told him stories. SHEN OF THE SEA is his collection of some of these stories, as well as a few of his own original tales snuck in for good measure. Many Chinese historians have not found any of Chrisman’s humorous tales to be grounded in any real Chinese folklore, so it’s difficult to tell which of the tales were told to Chrisman and which of the tales are from his own imagination.

SHEN OF THE SEA contains 16 short stories, told as Chinese folk tales. Six of the stories could be categorized as tales of invention, where characters haphazardly stumble upon the invention of random items. For example, in the story “Chop-Sticks,” Ching Chung and Cheng Chang were good friends. Ching Chung was charismatic while Cheng Chang was a fantastic cook. Ching Chung loved Cheng Chang’s roasted duck and promised him one day, if he was ever fortunate enough to be king, that he would make Cheng Chang a wealthy man. As luck would have it, Ching Chung was in fact named king but decided that Cheng Chang’s roasted duck was so good that he deserved to be king instead. Cheng Chang’s nasty wife begins abusing her power as First Lady by promoting her brothers to undeserved positions. When Cheng Chang denies her requests at dinner, her and her brothers toss silverware at him. Fearing for his life, Cheng Chang outlaws knives and forks and replaces them with two thin sticks, thus chopsticks are born.

Other stories detail the invention of the printing press, gunpowder, a kite, tea, and fine China, all in similar fashion. Most of the other stories in the book are humorous tales of irony where characters use their clever wit to escape from situations or simply learn lessons. For example, in the story “Many Wives,” an Emperor was tired of his kingdom always being threatened by attacks so he asked a wise old soothsayer what he should do. The soothsayer replied, “marriage.” So the Emperor set out to find a wife. He called for any potential wife to come live in the palace and he would choose the most suitable bride. Many women came to the palace, including Radiant Blossom, the most beautiful woman in the kingdom. Since the Emperor could not tell the women apart, he hired an artist to paint portraits of them. Ying Ning, the ugliest woman in the palace, bribed the artist to portray her as beautiful and Radiant Blossom as ugly, so the Emperor chose Ying Ning as his wife and assigned Radiant Blossom to be married to his enemy. As Radiant Blossom was being transported, she disappeared never to be heard from again. The Emperor learned the truth of what had happened and assigned men to search the kingdom for her, but she was never found.

I seem to be in the minority among Newbery Completionists, because I didn’t mind SHEN OF THE SEA, whereas others continually rank it near the bottom of Medal winners. The stories were humorous and entertaining and were for the most part, easy to read. Unlike TALES FROM SILVER LANDS, these stories actually resemble folk tales, and each story progresses with a moral discovery or lesson learned. I even think children today would find humor in these tales, if read aloud by a proper storyteller.

In researching a bit about Chrisman, I feel that history has been unnecessarily harsh on him and his work. He was open about where he heard some of these stories from and he was honest about adding some of his own original stories to the collection. He never claimed to have traveled to China. He just loved Chinese stories and this collection was an homage to the stories he had been told while living in San Francisco. In regards to what it set out to do, I think SHEN OF THE SEA accomplishes its goal rather well. And while some of the character names and themes in the book could poke fun at the Chinese culture, it’s obvious that it is a culture that Chrisman was genuinely passionate about.  

Thursday, January 7, 2016

1925: Tales From Silver Lands

TALES FROM SILVER LANDS is a collection of folktales from author Charles J. Finger. This 1925 Newbery Medal winner, the fourth ever book to win the gold, is comprised of nineteen short stories that the author picked up while traveling throughout Central and South America. After a few long snoozers and an old-fashioned pirate epic, nineteen short stories was a welcomed sight for my attention span. Besides, who doesn’t love folktales?

The first tale, titled “A Tale of Three Tails,” tells the story of how the tails of the rat, the deer, and the rabbit came to be. Typical folktale kind of fare. Instead, the story has something to do with an evil spirit and its pet owl who tricks a father into beheading his two sons for failing to complete work that the evil spirit had assigned to him. By the end of the tale, I figured out how the rat, the deer, and the rabbit got their tails, but wasn’t sure what the moral or lesson was. Isn't that the point of a folktale?

The rest of the tales featured in the book, were similarly bizarre. Most featured strange, fantastical creatures, magic spirits, talking animals, wise old men smoking tobacco, etc, etc. There seemed to be a theme of good versus evil present in most of the stories (“But evil, though it may touch the good, cannot for ever bind it.”), but often times the evil that transpired was so unusual and dark, that it was difficult to find any good left in the end. 

Take the third tale, “The Calabash Man,” for example: A young married couple travels to the bride’s land to rid it of an evil spirit that is possessing her father. The father forces the son-in-law to complete a lot of impossible tasks and upon completing the final task, the father screams and runs off into the forest never to be seen or heard from again, taking the evil with him. The couple meanwhile, lives happily ever after. Huh?

In “The Tale of the Lazy People,” Christians are warned that monkeys in tree tops will toss nuts and branches at their heads while walking through the forest. This is in revenge of being mistreated earlier in the tale. Or tricked. Or something. I don't remember. So are Christians the lazy people or the monkeys? Who is good and who is evil? The good versus evil theme doesn’t seem to carry evenly throughout the tales.

Another fault I found with many of the folktales was the lazy ways in which some of the stories were resolved. Instead of the characters learning from their mistakes and figuring out their own problems, something unexpected often happened, resolving the story for the characters. Too much deus ex machina. This was present in the seventh story, “El Enano.” “El Enano” is a story about an old woman whose home is taken over by a mischievous impish creature, hell bent on eating her out of house and home and wreaking havoc upon all her neighbors. The creature gives the people its reasoning and just when you think the people of the old woman’s village are going to find a way out of their predicament, a silver fox strides into town and saves the day in some ridiculous fashion. What is the takeaway here?

I keep trying to picture school librarians in the 1920's, sitting around and discussing this book. It's not Charles Finger's fault that none of the tales make a lick of sense. He's just passing along stories he heard while traveling through Latin America. But what are the school librarians excuses? The only way I can imagine them selecting this was due to an extremely weak crop of children's literature available. The publishers of the Scholastic Apple Paperback version I got my hands on didn't even want to be associated with it. Look at the image chosen for their cover:

Click on that image and view it a little larger. Check out the look on the kids' faces! The camp counselor with the preppy polo on the cover doesn't even look like he's enjoying telling these stories to these four unlucky souls!

It took me longer to finish this book than any of the other three. Here's to hoping SHEN OF THE SEA has more to offer.

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.