Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Blitz on Britain, by Brian Williams

Around the 4th grade, children begin to look for facts about life. This is an age of inquiry that can also be a new jumping point for literature in a child’s life. This particular book will provide a story and view of a more recent event. After reading this book, the mature child can be told who in his family might have fought in this war. While the child might not understand all the underlying facets that caused the Second World War, this book will provide a look at what life was like for a people under attack.

Williams traces life during the Blitz, from the beginning to the aftermath, and describes life in the subways, the different occupations that helped the people to hold together and fight the battle in the air above them. He also provides photos of the destruction, as well as the survivors. While the devastation of the Blitz can be clearly seen in many of these photos, Williams does not focus on it. Instead, his writing and descriptions reflect the mindset of the British people under attack: grim, hopeful, and united. A child looking at these pictures will not remember the book for the destruction, but for the amazing accounts of bravery and survival.

One last point also brings this book in high standing: no where are the Germans degraded throughout the book. There is a cartoon from the era depicting Hitler and his cohorts, but the German people themselves are never vilified. I appreciated this aspect, since I am of German descent. A child of German heritage, or British will both agree that the stories of bravery and survival are fascinating, and they will learn about the true history of a people who came together to fight and survive together.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party, by Marian Calabro

In the case of the Donner party, the truth is stranger than fiction. The story of the wagon train that left Illinois for California along an ill-fated route has horrified historians and storytellers alike. This is why, at first, I was surprised to see this book for children. Surely such a topic should be taboo for children’s literature. After reading this book, however, I was wonderfully surprised at the level of humanity, dignity, and care which Calabro took to present this tragic story in a way that children will remember the history, and the hardships, but will not come away with fears of cannibalism. Calabro’s language and treatment of the story provided dignity to the members of the Donner party, the author, and the readers. While I would not suggest this book for any child, simply because of the topic, I find this book to be perfectly reasonable for a child of the proper age who has interest in the wagon trains, and the perils of moving west in those days.

This informational book is told mostly from the experience of Virginia Reed, whose father was one of the primary members of the Donner party caravan. It was his stubbornness that pushed the Donner party into the “shortcut” that ended up stranding most of the caravan. The book follows the sad and often disquieting history of the wives, husbands, bachelors, children, and pets who encountered every possible obstacle, roadblock, and decision, and left soo much behind them on their trek.

Again, I was amazed at the dignity and humanity offered to the reader and characters from the author. Calabro obviously wants the reader to understand that these people were human beings who simply wanted to live in the good land of California with their families, and did everything they could to get there. While the deaths are still tragic, Calabro does not brush over the deaths, the cannibalism, or the accusations and hurt feelings of the different members of the Donner Party. She does not dwell on the tragic, but she provides a clear and understanding perception of what real people will do to keep themselves and their families alive.

While I would not keep this book lying randomly around my own house, or in my children’s room, I would certainly recommend it for a child of the right age and maturity. Western Expansion was dangerous, treacherous, and often tragic, and this book displays the glories, adventures, and the tragedies in the same humane and dignified light.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Rapunzel, by Paul E. Zelinsky

This Caldecott Award Winner relates the age-old story of the beautiful woman, locked in a tower, visited by a prince, and the adventures that lead to their happily ever after. The author went to great lengths to research the story’s origins, and the writing and illustrating elegantly depicts this work and dedication.

The author dedicates a few pages after his retelling to inform his readers of his research, thought process, and hopes for the book. The child may not care too much about the original “Petrosinella”, or how the story slowly evolved through Italy, France, Germany, and England into the popular tale known today. But the information explains to the parents and teacher exactly what the author hopes the child and reader will gather from his tale. He sought to bring the best mixture of the different variations of the story that reinforced the plot, structure, and characters from the book. His inspiration for the pictures, which are elegant, colorful, almost medieval, and vibrant, draws from the Italian Renaissance, where the story originated. While the strange depth perception might cause some confusion among the more realistic of children, the reader is slowly drawn in to the story, and doesn’t notice the stylistic twist by the end of the book. In fact, the illustrations are very good examples of Renaissance art, with Rapunzel in flowing purples, the witch in black and red, and the prince in browns and golds. The final image is especially powerful and evokes a Renaissance style: the prince and mother lounge easily and pristinely on a bench, with their cherubic children playing at their feet.

There is no doubt, Zelinsky certainly meets his goals of showing the origins of the story, and grabbing the interest of the reader to both the art and the story.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Saint George and the Dragon: A Golden Tale, by Margaret Hodges from Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene

The masterful artwork of Trina Schart Hyman combined with the beautiful language of Margaret Hodges provide full justice to the ultimate fairy tale of St. George and the Dragon. In this age old tale, the Red Cross Knight fights through rough adventures with the fair princess, Una by his side. She has asked him to save her kingdom from the ravages of a terrifying dragon. He promises to do so, and the illustrations show the magnificent three-day battle, as well as the journey leading up to it.

The text in this work are in formal prose style, making this book for more advanced readers who can enjoy the language as well as the illustrations. For this reason, I have placed this book as appropriate for older readers. But the pictures would provide enough hints for a reader to tell the story aloud without reading the words, and younger children would more than comprehend the flow of the story. As an avid reader of Shakespeare and Spenser, who were contemporaries and friends, I was thoroughly pleased to find an adaptation of this famous story in a children’s book, with such rich illustrations as well. Hodges remains very true to the basic story of St. George, even including the different ways that St. George recovers from each day’s battle, or the different reactions of the village people to the dead dragon. Her vocabulary is also very closely borrowed from Spenser himself, which made my reading all the more enjoyable.

My favorite part of this book, however, was the illustrations. There is always one page of text, with a tapestry like border surrounding it. This tapestry look is mirrored on the opposite page, where the detailed illustrations seem to grow beyond the pages of the book. The battle with the dragon is done with great imagination, and very little gore, which allows the reader to dwell in the illustrations without any feelings of fear, terror, or beastliness. The greatest touch that Hyman has given to her readers, however, is in the borders of the tapestry around the text. For, one sees that each border is different for every page. Fairies, flora, and fauna of different shapes and sizes are discreetly couched in various stances in every border. And each one follows a theme mentioned in the text within. The reader can get a sense of the story, including the struggles, emotions, and possible outcomes of the main characters, simply by watching the changes in the borders.

A book like this provides a child with ample food for the imagination to feast upon. The reader learns about English lore, virtue, and old storytelling methods. In a sense, the child will come away with a better understanding of medieval English culture and fantasy through this book, simply by absorbing the beautiful artwork and language of the author and illustrator.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Story of Ferdinand, by Munroe Leaf

I first heard this story through a Disney short film. I learned later in my life that Disney was not the most original man ever. In fact, he liked to let other people do the writing, and he simply illustrated with moving pictures. He did a wonderful adaptation of this short story about contentment and a hilarious misunderstanding.

Ferdinand the Bull is quiet, unassuming, and happy to just sit in the shade and smell the flowers. When an unfortunately timed bee-sting sends him to the Bull Fights in Madrid, we find that character rarely changes, even if incited. While the world vents their frustration at the Bull who will not fight, Ferdinand is perfectly happy to return to his pasture, his corktree, and his favorite pastime: contentedly smelling the flowers.

While Disney did a wonderful job of illustrating this story, Robert Lawson provided the obvious inspiration for Disney’s later footsteps. The drawings are both realistic, and cartoonish, in different ways. When Ferdinand is happy, and content, then the pictures seem romantically real. When people are involved, however, the world becomes slightly more cartoonish, though the drawings never stray too far from reality. These black and white drawings seem to jump out of the page for the reader, but never with any violence. Lawson instead seems to draw out the happiness that Ferdinand feels, and make that same contentment more easily touched and felt in the daily life of the reader.

The language is also very endearing and humourous. While the bulls do butt their horns, it’s only in play. The Matador really does want to poke the bull last of all with his sword, but the intentions are humorously outwitted by their own misunderstanding of Ferdinand. In all, the language is very good for beginning readers, who will also be able to keep track of the story simply through the pictures. This books matches illustrations with language to a delightful tale that is just as irresistible to the reader as it was for Disney.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Animals of the Bible, by Helen Dean Fish

Children have an uncanny ability to receive pictures into their minds, linked with a certain phrase, word, or text, and retain that picture well through their adult life. Teachers, parents, and illustrators must recognize this immense power, and few do so better than Dorothy Lathrop. In this short picture book, she brings a quiet, and yet very living portrayal of the popular stories of the Old and New Testaments. These black and white pictures provide images of the stories of the Bible that include animals, where the animals are portrayed with as much dignity as the humans.

I was stunned at the grace, power, and gravity that these pictures hold, while also retaining a memorable simplicity. Eve, with her hair flowing over her body, is as poised and beautiful as the dove in Noah and the Ark. The simplicity of the manger is portrayed with as much common sense, gravity, simplicity, and beauty as the depiction of the leopard and the lamb, and the lion and the child in the Kingdom to Come. One does not see personification in the animals, but does see the realism within the stories simply because the animals are present. I admit, I wish there had been more color in the illustrations, simply because the colors in the cover are very intriguing and welcoming.

I also really enjoyed the Old King James text. As a Christian from a conservative background, the King James Text is still the translation I recite from memory, and it’s the text that brings me the most comfort as an adult. I still have pictures in my mind that are permanently linked to King James, and I can certainly see these pictures providing the same link for children in the future.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Mirette on the High Wire, by Emily Arnold McCully

This book tells the story of a young girl who lives in the bright and festive city of Paris, at the peak of the city’s cultural and entertainment climax. Mirette’s mother owns an Inn, and she houses guests of many talents and nationalities, including Monsieur Bellini, the greatest tight rope walker of the age. Mirette cannot help but yearn for the chance to walk the HighWire, and she slowly learns to walk along the wire, with Bellini teaching her. In the end, however, Mirette and Bellini both learn more than just the High Wire.

Mirette accidentally spies the newest of her mother’s tenants walking on a high wire in the alley behind the Inn. Mirette is fascinated, and decides to try it herself. Though she fails at first, she works hard to practice, while still getting her chores done every day. Bellini finally sees her, and agrees to give her lessons, since she is so persistent. Then, one night, Mirette discovers that Bellini had done amazing things, like cook pancakes above a waterfall, cross the Alps with baskets tied to his feet, and other such daring deeds, balanced only on the high wire. She runs in to Bellini, to ask why he had never told her of his adventures. “Because I am afraid… Once you have fear on the wire, it never leaves.” He had refused to try anything outstanding on the High Wire for years. Finally, however, Bellini agrees to try once more over the streets of Paris. But when he steps out onto the wire, he is too afraid. Then, Mirette walks out on the other side of the wire. They meet in the middle and the future is made of the both of them.

In this highly imaginative story, the illustrations match nicely with their impressionistic style. One does not see any clear pictures, but one sees the girl struggling every day to walk the wire. One can see expressions on the faces of the crowds, but the little details are left to the imaginations of the readers. The story would be excellent for reading aloud to children with active imaginations, who would most certainly spend the rest of the day, pretending to perform amazing deeds of skill and courage on a high wire.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Midwife's Apprentice, by Karen Cushman

In this story, a young girl named Alyce comes to the realization that she is called to be an apprentice midwife. She is strong, clever, courageous, and a hard worker. The book describes her adventures from a few short years in a small village in England. Here she deals with a cantankerous old midwife, mocking village boys, and villagers who rarely show any real affection for the young girl. But, despite the mistakes, discouragements, and frustrations, Alyce and her cat, Purr, finally find a home, and a challenge for the rest of their life.

The story begins in a warm dung heap. A girl called Brat has found it a warm place to sleep, but is kicked away by village boys and Jane Sharp, the Midwife. She begins work for Jane Sharp, keeping the house clean, taking care of their few animals, and preparing herbs and such for when needed. But Jane Sharp refuses to let Alyce learn anything about the trade, for fear of competition. Alyce figures this out, and begins to secretly watch and learn what she could. Then, as a poor woman struggles to give birth, Jane gives up on her, and leaves to attend the birth of a rich woman. For Jane was cold and had little heart for those in need. Poor Alyce helps to birth the baby through kindness and gentleness. Later on, however, when a woman calls on Alyce and refuses to have the Midwife, Alyce fails to bring forth the baby, and Jane must do it instead. Alyce then runs away, and works at an inn, where she learns to read. There, she helps an old woman to give birth, after struggling with her own feelings of unworthiness and failure. At that moment, Alyce then knows that she wishes to return to the Midwife, to be a Midwife’s Apprentice.

The story takes place in a small village somewhere in England. The characters vary from Alyce herself, Purr the cat, Jane the grumpy Midwife, to Edward, a small boy that Alyce befriends. The narrator tells the story from the angle of a third person, but still with the language and thought-process of Alyce: as the main character gains greater vocabulary and confidence, the sentence structures also grow more complex. These sentences were filled with descriptions, figures of speech, using language to lead the reader from paragraph to paragraph with ease. The only difficulty in the writing style that I found was Cushman’s tendency to use very long sentences, filled with ‘ands’, which bogged the reader down with all the detail. Overall, however, the language is accurate to the main character, the reader’s comprehension level, and the English setting.

This story provides an insightful story of a young waif, who had a keen wit, a sharp eye, and enough persistence to keep trying. The moral of the story lends itself to a young age group, but long sentences, language, and information content seems to be a bit mature for young readers. So, while it is an easy chapter book, good for 3rd graders, I would probably give it to older readers, especially girls, of the 4th-6th grade age. I greatly enjoyed the story myself, and would certainly recommend it to a child that I thought of the proper maturity and reading qualifications.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Tuesday, by David Wiesner

Before pigs will fly, frogs will go sailing. In this Caldecott Award winning book illustrating a funny story about frogs soaring through town on their lily pads, the author also demonstrates a sort of clear passage of time. The only words in the story are times of night and early morning, and then the title, a day of the week. The story traces the adventures and the aftermath of the flight of the frogs as the moon slowly rises above the horizon until the frogs splash back into their pond in the early morning light. The illustrations have a cartoonish feel to them at times, while also retaining a very realistic consistency. This book would be a delight to young children with wild imaginations and yet realistic perceptions of the world around them.

The book begins with a cartoon style strip of a few frogs drowsing as the moon begins to rise. The frogs, much to their surprise and ours, suddenly begin to levitate on their little lily pads. As hundreds of frogs float into the sky, one can see the clock tower in the distance showing the time of “a little before eight P.M.”. The frogs continue on their adventure into town, where hundreds of houses with a few lights shining in the windows. The frogs careen through the sky, terrifying some sleeping birds, performing barrel rolls through the night, and even chasing a dog or two through the yard en masse. While the dog will certainly never forget the incident, only one person seems to have noticed the daring-do of the frogs: a man eating a sandwich at “11:21 P.M.” As the morning draws closer, however, the lily pads suddenly lose their flying ability, and the reader sees the astonished look on the frogs’ faces just before they plop to the ground. They hippity hop back to their lily pond, leaving their lily pads for astonished adults the next day. While the frogs are disappointed to end their fun, the story ends with the shadows of pigs soaring away from their barn on the “Next Tuesday, 7:58 P.M.”

While this book is very enjoyable to read and look at, I did not find myself very drawn into the story. I am not a fan of large bull-frogs, however, and I had trouble registering the emotions of the frogs even after several read throughs. The realistic nature of the frogs and the town, mixed with the cartoonish look of the different expressions left me confused and slightly disappointed with the story. But I certainly believe that this story would be much more enjoyable for all involved if read out loud and walked through very slowly with a very small group of children. Then, I as the reader could make sure the kids were registering what I struggled to notice so that they can see the hilarity, as well as the clear passage of time. One clever hint that I greatly enjoyed was on the inside dust-jacket to the story, where the author states, “The events recorded here are verified by an undisclosed source to have happened somewhere, U.S.A., on Tuesday. All those in doubt are reminded that there is always another Tuesday.” This, I thought is what redeems the confusion and bemusing illustrations in the story, for just as time clearly passed in the story, so time will clearly pass till the next Tuesday. And who knows what is happening late at night when the rest of us are asleep.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Slave Dancer, by Paula Fox

Jesse Bollier is a thirteen year old youth from New Orleans in the early 1800's. The slave trade is booming, but his poor seamstress mother forbids him from going to see the slave market down the street from his house on Pirate Ally. While he is out fetching candles for his mother, Jessie is captured and pressgained into service on the slave ship, The Moonlight, on which he works as a young hand until they reach Africa near the Bay of Benin. After picking up the slaves there, Jessie is made to play is fife to induce the Africans to dance. The cold-hearted and calculating captain forces the slaves to dance under harsh conditions in order to keep them healthy for the market. Jessie watches, unable to act in help to the slaves, or even his shipmates in their cruel conditions. After a long and dangerous journey, frought with punishments, murders, insanity and cruelty, The Moonlight sinks in a storm off the coast of Mississippi. Jessie and another African boy of his own age escape the wreck and are saved by a runaway slave to health, and finally to home and freedom, respectively. Jesse goes on to move himself and his mother and sister to Massachussetts, and he later serves in the Civil War as a Union Soldier, even spending a year in Johnsonville until the war was over.

In this book, children will come face to face with a controversy as old as our country: are any humans superior to others? In his sad adventures, Jessie struggles to retain his own dignity as a human as he strives to simply survive the cruel life on a ship far from home. Jessie comes to the conclusion that he is no better than any of the slaves in the hold, or the Captain, or the other members of the crew. And yet, because of this knowledge, he is able to pity the slaves as fellow- albeit, foreign- human beings. The language of the characters as well as the narrative is varied and strong in most areas, though I often became lost while reading through the more rapid events in the middle and end of the book. I believe this book provides an excellent narrative for the Pre-Civil War period, with amazing accuracy to the history of slaving in America, while also drawing attention to the racial issues prevalent today. Fox does not have a chip on her shoulder, or a message she is trying to beat into the reader's head. She simply has a story of how a terrible tragedy of history can in fact prepare a human for the decisions and events to come.