Friday, March 24, 2017

Scar Island

I recently became caught up on SLJ's Battle of the Kids Books and really liked Mexican-American author-illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh's clear and straightforward critique of FREEDOM IN CONGO SQUARE and FREEDOM OVER ME. I thought this format would help me get through my own thoughts on SCAR ISLAND, Dan Gemeinhart's latest...

What is it about?

SCAR ISLAND is about a group of juvenile delinquents attending a reformatory school on an Alcatraz-like island.

How is it structured?

SCAR ISLAND checks in at a relatively slim 249 pages. The story unfolds over 30 quickly paced chapters and the third person narrative focuses on Jonathan Grisby and his arrival and assimilation at Slabhenge Reformatory School for Troubled Boys. Interlaced occasionally between the chapters are letters Jonathan is forced to write home to his parents.

The story begins in a creepy way, as Jonathan arrives at Slabhenge by boat during the onset of a big storm. He is introduced to the villainous Admiral and his cast of grotesque adult minions and it is clear that Jonathan's extended stay at Slabhenge is going to be anything but pleasant. The plot quickly twists however, when a freak accident leaves all the adults on the island dead and the boys left on their own. There is some psychological intrigue as the boys wrestle with their longing to return home, and their desire for independence and freedom after being treated so horribly.

There are a few mysteries that string readers along, such as what is lurking behind The Hatch, a mysterious, century-old metal hatch buried deep in the tunnels beneath Slabhenge, and the reader is left in the dark about what Jonathan did to find himself in Slabhenge (although there is plenty of foreshadowing along the way).

What did I like?

The opening chapters of SCAR ISLAND are fantastic. Gemeinhart does a great job of pulling the reader into this very grim, atmospheric setting. He writes "a dark and stormy night" really, really well! It feels a little bit dated (we are never given a time period, the characters speak with thick, almost archaic accents, the Admiral carries a sword, and Slabhenge feels like a centuries-old castle) and I liked this obscure feeling.

Once we get to Slabhenge, Jonathan's arrival is filled with tension. The Admiral is so creepy that you naturally start fearing for Jonathan's well-being. He had the makings of a great villain. Likewise, Jonathan's first night in his cell is wrought with suspense.

I also liked the confusion among the boys once they were left alone on the island. Some boys wanted to stick around after being mistreated and experience some freedom and have some fun. However, others just wanted to go home. This confusion felt genuine and I was intrigued by the moral dilemma they found themselves in. There's a line where Sebastian and Jonathan are talking and Sebastian says, "You want to stay so you can be nothing. I want to stay so I can be something." I thought this was a great line and summed up their motivations.

What did I dislike?

Unfortunately, the wheels of the story come off when the adults die. In fact, I almost found myself wishing they hadn't and that Gemeinhart had a different story to tell. Sebastian's rise to power among the boys happened so quickly and I found myself highly doubting that any single boy in that situation, surrounded by so many like-minded boys, would be able to wield so much power so quickly. It did not feel genuine to me, the way the other boys just went along with everything Sebastian commanded. Especially when he starts to punish other boys publicly.

Likewise, I did not find myself connecting to Jonathan. This is the problem when you shroud so much of your protagonist's life in mystery. Readers will want to keep reading for the sake of getting to the bottom of the mystery, but there's not a lot of the character to grab onto. By the time we find out the truth about Jonathan, I found myself not caring much about him. Furthermore, we really don't find out much about any of the boys' pasts. We get tidbits from time to time but without any real glimpses into their past, it makes redemption impossible because we don't even know what they are redeeming themselves from! Being mistreated at Slabhenge for one chapter? I needed more...

Overall, I did not think the story was very exciting or suspenseful. At least, not as much as it was disguising itself to be. The boys acted so stupid, blindly following Sebastian as the hurricane approached, that I didn't really care if they made it out or not. I thought the Librarian character was just plain weird and given way too much page-time and I was disappointed when the mystery surrounding The Hatch turns out to be not much of a mystery after all. I had a difficult time picturing the facility. I also wanted more closure in the end than we are given.

Final verdict?

SOME KIND OF COURAGE by Dan Gemeinhart is one of my favorites in recent memory so my hopes for this one were high. It had all the makings of a HOLES-type book, but fell short of that because the characters (outside of Colin), just weren't very likable. I'm sure some students will find this very enthralling (Gemeinhart is a very good writer), but it just didn't work for me.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

1928: Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon

It is generally difficult to explain to others my motivation for reading all the Newbery Medal winners. It is especially difficult to explain it to a 5th grader who is eyeballing you from across the room and can't for the life of him understand why anyone would spend time reading a 100 year old story about a pigeon, when they could be reading Rick Rjordan's latest adventure novel!

In GAY-NECK: THE STORY OF A PIGEON, a baby pigeon (Gay-Neck) is born on a rooftop in India to a young boy. Gay-Neck's mother and father teach him to fly but soon, both die and Gay-Neck is hurried off to the Himalayan Mountains with his master (author Dhan Gopal Mukerji as a boy) and Ghond, a hunter. In the mountains, Gay-Neck faces many of his fears and eventually trains as a carrier pigeon to be used by Ghond in World War I. Gay-Neck and Ghond are both sickened by the death and carnage they witness in the war and in nature and reflect on the meaning of it all.

Kids love animal stories, especially when the animals can talk and are placed in interesting situations. On the surface, GAY-NECK checks off those boxes! Maybe kids in the 1920's saw those characteristics in this title and appreciated it like the Newbery Medal committee apparently did. I can tell that author Dhan Gopal Mukerji has put more thought into his presentation for a child audience than let's say, Will James did with the previous year's winner SMOKY THE COWHORSE, but that's not saying much...

GAY-NECK: THE STORY OF A PIGEON felt like an old house with good bones, but in desperate need of a remodel and fixing up. There are components of the story that I can appreciate, but in the end, the age of the language and the clunky pacing of the plot bored me.

So what is there to appreciate in GAY-NECK? Dhan Gopal Mukerji treats his subjects (Gay-Neck the pigeon, and the Himalayan Mountains) with tenderness and care, again, similar to the way that Will James treated Smoky the horse. Mukerji is very descriptive in his detailing of Gay-Neck's travels and the natural beauty of the Himalayas. The fact that he gives Gay-Neck a voice in some chapters, allowing him to tell his own story, is also evident of this. I appreciated how this was done in a realistic way, instead of an anthropomorphic way. Gay-Neck doesn't "speak" to Ghond or Mukerji in the text, instead we get a peek inside Gay-Neck's head for certain parts of the story where Gay-Neck wanders off and the two humans aren't present.

I was semi-interested in the idea of carrier pigeons, too. I thought this was an intriguing topic for a children's novel. The idea of carrier pigeons helping in WWI is kind of fascinating because it seems somewhat archaic. A quick Wikipedia search however, provides you with tons of information that supports Mukerji's story. The scenes of Gay-Neck training for the war were somewhat humorous, in a Top Gun for pigeons kind of way. There was also some humor in "The Mating of Gay-Neck" chapter, in which Gay-Neck comes out of his wartime funk by getting romantic with another pigeon!

For the most part though, GAY-NECK was a bore. I had a very difficult time understanding what was happening. The long paragraphs and rambling narrative were mostly to blame for this (look for a paragraph break in the photo... you won't find one!). Furthermore, there were issues of consistency with Gay-Neck's voice that I don't think would have made it past Newbery discussions today. For instance, in one scene, Mukerji works hard to make Gay-Neck sound like a pigeon, unaware of what he is witnessing in the war. He refers to airplanes as "metal eagles" that "spit fireballs" yet later, he refers to them as "aeroplanes with sharpshooters." The naivety of Gay-Neck's animal voice did not always ring genuine.

Mukerji's heart is in the right place in GAY-NECK, whether I enjoyed the story or not. There are some relevant themes present throughout about the costs of war and the violence we inflict on each other. Above all, Mukerji wants readers to stop and reflect on the beauty of the world that is preset all around them in nature. I can certainly appreciate that.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Some Kind of Courage

I have held off writing about this one for a long time. I purchased it in a Scholastic book order over a year ago, in the beginning of 2016. I read it merely because it was the only "new" book I could get my hands on at the time. The Newbery Medal had recently been awarded and I felt compelled to get a jump start on titles for the upcoming year. Some of the books I really wanted to read had not yet been released and I have zero access to ARCs. Since I first read SOME KIND OF COURAGE, I have finished roughly 30 other books published in 2016 by some truly incredible authors. Still, SOME KIND OF COURAGE by Dan Gemeinhart remains one of my personal favorites from 2016.

SOME KIND OF COURAGE is set in Washington state, in the late-1800's. After both of his parents (and younger sister) die, Joseph Johnson sets out to recover his family horse, Sarah. Sarah has been swindled away from him by a dirty horse trader. Sarah is all he has left of his family and it is his responsibility to take care of her. Getting Sarah back however, proves to be more difficult than Joseph could have ever imagined. Along the way, he encounters bears, Native Americans, raging rivers, and even a mother in labor! Joseph is accompanied by Ah-Kee, a Chinese speaking boy who has been separated from his own family. Each obstacle they overcome brings Joseph closer and closer to his horse.

It's difficult to pin down exactly why I love this book as much as I do. While my affection for historical fiction has been growing over the years, it is still not a genre I gravitate toward. And I've never really been into westerns. But for some reason, SOME KIND OF COURAGE works for me. I found Joseph to be a very endearing character and I loved his relationship with Ah-Kee. The adventures they encounter are exciting, funny, unpredictable, and paced nicely. This was an easy page-turner. I think my real love for this book however, stems from the reactions I have witnessed from students while reading it. I have read this with two different classes of 5th graders now and many of them have recommended it to other friends. I gushed about this book to a coworker and they too, read it with a group of 5th graders and enjoyed it as much as I did.

I have read reviews that found Joseph's voice to be too good. Too wholesome, and Boy-Scouty. To each their own. I tend to disagree. Yes, Joseph is guided by a strong moral compass, instilled in him by his late mother and father. Doing them proud is all he feels like he can do to honor them. Because of this, I found his voice to be very genuine. Besides, he is not always perfect. He makes some harsh choices along his journey and acts in some unholy ways by the book's end. He has an inner voice that wrestles with this throughout, doing what is right and doing what is easy. But he continues to be guided by his mother and father's wisdom. Because of his determination to do what is right, given his bad, unfortunate circumstances, students have an emotional desire to see things work out for Joseph.

And I don't think this emotional reaction comes from cliched cheap tricks either. Kids today are a tougher audience than they were when I was 12 years old. You can't just kill off the dog in the final chapter and expect children to cry anymore. Kids have so many avenues for entertainment in today's society and many shows they watch and books they read approach material in a more mature way than was done years ago. Kids tend to be a bit numb to plot twists like the death of a major character, because it's done so often now. Suffice it to say, there is an art to making readers care about your characters. Consider Gemeinhart's recent novel SCAR ISLAND, which I just wrapped up reading with my 5th graders. Despite being in a similar heart-breaking situation, my students did not connect with the main character of that story. My 5th graders cared deeply about Joseph and Sarah.

When picked apart, some of the subplots of this story lose their punch. There is a scene where the boys are attacked by a bear and just as the tension rises to a fever pitch and you wonder how in the world they are going to get out of the situation (SPOILER)... Ah-Kee approaches the bear and talks a blue streak in Chinese. The bear is confused and leaves! Later, when Joseph and Ah-Kee barely survive a raging river, they stumble upon a picturesque cabin housing a mother in labor. (SPOILER)... Ah-Kee steps right in and takes care of her and even delivers the baby! I admit, despite my affection for this story, both of these situations seem like stretches of the imagination. Both scenes generated quite a rise out of students, but when stripped down, they could have been handled differently.

I tend to disagree however, with complaints over Gemeinhart's treatment of Native Americans in the story. At one point, Joseph and Ah-Kee stumble upon an injured Native American teenager. Joseph describes him in the following way: "He bared his teeth like a wolf and snarled a word low and mean in his native tongue." Some reviewers take offense to Joseph's comparison of the boy to an animal, but I find this to be a reach. Joseph is a boy living in the late 1800's with little to no experience interacting with Native Americans. Some reviewers have pointed to the Native American chief's willingness to loan Joseph a horse at one point in the story, as being out of character. I happen to appreciate the way Gemeinhart connects their two plights. This shows of compassion in the chief. I'm not sure why this would be considered uncharacteristic.

Despite a few over-the-top moments of belief suspension, I still love this story. I love Joseph and Ah-Kee's friendship and how Joseph has to rely on facial expressions and body language because of the language barrier. This theme of language is present in many of Joseph's interactions with characters other than Ah-Kee throughout the story. "A smile broke across Mr. Strawn's face, and I saw his shoulders relax. He looked past me at the three Indian men and talked to them in their native tongue. A ripple of relief ran through the crowd at whatever it was that he said."

This message of friendship and kindness beyond barriers was powerful and relevant. Joseph's mother tells him, "There ain't no problem between people so big that it can't be solved by folks sitting down and talking about it." Joseph wonders though, "if that particular piece of wisdom would work if the folks sitting down didn't speak the same language." Turns out, a lot can be accomplished by folks working together despite not speaking the same language. Joseph and Ah-Kee are proof of that. This message should speak loudly and carry some meaning in today's culture.