Friday, July 30, 2010

Book Review: Take Me With You, by Carolyn Marsden (Candlewick Press, 2010)

Recommended for ages 8-12.
Carolyn Marsden  is well known for her middle-grade novels set in other countries or focusing on multi-cultural themes.  In her newest novel, she takes us to Naples, Italy, a few years after the end of World War II, where Pina and Susanna are best friends who have lived together since they were babies in a Catholic orphanage.  Both girls believe they are orphans, and hope with all their heart to be adopted.  A nice family is sure to adopt the beautiful Pina, with her golden hair and creamy skin.  But who will want Susanna, a mulatta, or mixed-race child, whose father must have been a black American soldier.  Perhaps La Befana, an angel who hides presents on Three Kings' Day, will grant her wish for parents to adopt her.

Imagine Susanna's surprise when Sister Anna calls her into her office one day and tells her that she's received a letter from a man who may be her father.  An American sailor, he is on a "tour of duty."  Will he come soon? Pina, too, is in for a surprise, when she discovers that her mother is indeed alive, and living right there in Naples.  Whose parent will show up?  Will the two friends have to abandon one another?

Finally, a very dark man in a blue sailor's uniform visits the orphanage.  Susanna's big moment has arrived, but instead of throwing herself at him, "she wanted to cover her face with her hands."  But he soon leaves, promising to return.  Pina, on the other hand, is desperate to find her mother, and together with Susanna, discovers her address and goes off to find her in Naples.  But for both girls, their fantasies about their families do not work out exactly as planned. Will both girls get the loving families they deserve?

This bittersweet tale of two Italian orphans will capture the hearts of middle-grade readers, particularly girls who are drawn to orphan stories.  Marsden captures for young readers the atmosphere of the Italian orphanage, with its (mostly) kindly black-garbed nuns who drag the girls around Naples to sing for funerals and teach them to crochet blankets, which are sold to support the orphanage.  Life is not all drudgery, however, with outings to the movies and to the beach also described. 

At 160 pages, this slender novel is a good choice for students in grades 3 through 5 who are ready to graduate from beginning chapter books to slightly more complex stories. 

Take Me With You was selected as one of Booklist's Top 10 Historical Novels of 2010, and I would recommend this book for both school and public libraries.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Book Review: The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall, by Mary Downing Hahn (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010)

Recommended for ages 8-12.
Mary Downing Hahn, best known for her scary  ghost stories for young people, will be sure to please her many fans with her newest creepy tale, The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall, which will be released in September.  

In this new novel, set in 19th century England, we meet ten-year old Florence Crutchfield, who has been living in a London orphanage since her parents died when she was five and no relatives came forward to claim her.  But, surprise!  After five years a great uncle surfaces, who invites her to live with him, his unmarried sister, Eugenie, and her cousin James.  In classic gothic tale fashion, Eugenie arrives at Crutchfield Hall after being soaked by a violent rainstorm.  Eugenie's first impression of the house is not a positive one:
Below me was a gloomy stone house, grim and unwelcoming, its windows dark and lifeless...a writer like Miss Emily Bronte would have been entranced by its Gothic appearance, but I hung back again, suddenly apprehensive of what might await me behind those towering walls.
Although her uncle is kind to her, her aunt takes an immediate dislike to Florence, who bears an unfortunate resemblance to her cousin Sophia, who died in a mysterious accident some time before.   With a nod and a wink to The Secret Garden, we learn that Florence's cousin James is so sickly that he never leaves his room, and Florence is forbidden to visit him.  

All is not well in Crutchfield Hall, and before Florence is even there for a day, she has a strange sensation that someone is watching her.  "A chill raced up and down my spine, and my scalp prickled."  Although her uncle insists that ghosts do not exist, Florence becomes more and more convinced that Crutchfield Hall haunted by the ghost of her cousin Sophia. And what does the ghost want from Florence?  

Florence soon discovers that Sophia is not the ideal child her aunt recreates, but rather an evil spirit who wants someone else to die in her place!  Can she bend Florence to her will, and force her to help her in her devious plans?

It is easy to see after reading this story why Mary Downing Hahn's books have sold over 2 million copies and have received more than forty child-voted state awards.  She manages to create a spine-tingling atmosphere without the novel becoming too frightening for the 8-12 year old crowd.  And you have to love the deliciously macabre cover, of a photograph of two young children (James and Sophia, we assume) in Victorian garb, with Sophia's face obscured by a splash of blood.  While ghost stories are not personally a favorite genre of mine, scary stories are perennially popular with kids, and this quick read is perfect for reluctant readers as well as fans of ghost stories.  

Release date:  September 2010

Monday, July 26, 2010

Nonfiction Monday Book Review: Sparky: The Life and Art of Charles Schulz, by Beverly Gherman (Chronicle Books, 2010)

Recommended for age 8 through adult.

Like so many millions around the world, I grew up reading Peanuts, perhaps the most beloved comic strip ever. So I was excited to learn from Betsy Bird at Fuse #8 of a new biography of this comic book icon for young people. Beverly Gherman's book is sure to find a place on library shelves everywhere, and is a must-have for Peanuts fans as well.

Gherman's book, at 125 pages, provides enough biographical information to be useful for school reports, but the striking layout and graphic design, along with the abundant illustrations, make it a relatively quick book to read, even for the youngest comic fans. Personally, I learned many interesting facts about Schulz from this book. Born in 1922, he was nicknamed Sparky before he was a week old, a suitable nickname as it turned out since Sparky was a character (a "sad-eyed horse") from the then-popular comic strip Barney Google.

Sparky never wanted to be anything but a cartoonist from early childhood, and always had a pencil or paper handy for a quick sketch. Gherman intersperses the text with Peanuts cartoons that match the topic; for example, while talking about Sparky's father's barber shop, we read on the opposite page a strip about Peppermint Patty visiting a barber shop. The book also features many personal photographs from the archives of the Charles M. Schulz Museum. We meet people and see interests in Schulz's life who later will appear in his comics, such as Sparky's best friend Shermy, and his mother, a classical pianist, Sparky's great love of baseball, or his failed romance with a redhead who later will appear as "the little red-haired girl."

Schulz was particularly proud of his military service in World War II, where he was honored for excellence in combat. When he returned from the war, his comics were rejected by many publishers, but he finally found work lettering comic strips for a company that produced Catholic teaching aids. At this time he developed his first comics featuring kids, which he finally sold to the St. Paul Pioneer Press as a weekly comic, Li'l Folks. But his career really took off in 1950 when United Feature Syndicate offered him a five-year contract to develop a comic strip, which they renamed Peanuts. Sparky didn't like the new name, but he had little power to do anything about it.

Gherman describes how innovative Peanuts was at the time, with its spare drawing style and its focus on kids dealing with their daily concerns. Peanuts quickly caught on with readers; by 1956, Sparky had not only become financially successful but was honored by his fellow cartoonists with the Reuben Award as cartoonist of the year.

In the book, we also learn about Sparky as a devoted father and family man. His first marriage, however, ended in divorce in 1972 (this is discussed very briefly in the book). Although this was a difficult period for Sparky, he persevered, and later said he had drawn some of his best comics during this time.

Gherman does not neglect to talk about how Schulz worked as a cartoonist. She writes:
Sparky prided himself on always drawing and writing his own strips. He was the only cartoonist who managed to do that for fifty years. He tried to keep his drawings simple and "pleasant to look at." And always funny. He once told an interviewer that he wanted to be remembered for making people happy.
Not only did Schulz make millions of people happy with his beloved Peanuts characters, he continues to do so even after his death, since Peanuts Classics are still published in many newspapers. Gherman, too, will make many people happy with her delightful biography of this king of comic book artists.

The extraordinary design of this book, done by Jennifer Bostic of Paper Plane Studio,deserves special mention. No boring white pages for this book--every color in the rainbow seems to be used for the page backgrounds, with different contrasting colors chosen for the text. In fact, each time the reader turns the page, the page color and text color changes. While some of the combinations (i.e. white text on a bright green background) are a bit difficult to read for older eyes, the energy and vitality that these bright and ever-changing colors lend to the book make the reader eager to turn to the next page.

Here is a excerpt from the book that allows you to see the unique design:

Sparky: The Life and Art of Charles Schulz

The book includes a bibliography of books, magazine articles, interviews, and television programs about Schulz.

I can't resist sharing my own personal Schulz a little girl in the 1960's, I sent Schulz a copy of my "book" Misery is, inspired by his book Happiness is a Warm Puppy.  He sent me a personal letter back--I remember being particularly impressed by his special Snoopy stationery, something that wasn't commercially available in those days.  I still have the letter in my house somewhere, if I could only find it  in all my clutter!

Peanuts fans should plan a visit to the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa (I haven't had a chance to get there yet, alas, but on my next visit to Northern California...)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Got Books contest winner!

Congratulations to Ashley at Books from Bleh to Basically Amazing who has won my beautiful, brand-new from Amazon (with cool graphic novel-style cover) Penguin Classics edition of The Three Musketeers. I only wish I could afford to send a copy to all the 43 people who entered the contest! Fortunately, this is a book that's fairly easy to find at the library--I highly recommend reading it before next summer's new 3-D movie of this classic comes out. It would be a great book to read aloud with your kids, although it would take a while!  and although they're not as well-known, Dumas wrote four sequels to this classic (a long series from the pre-Harry Potter era).  If you're an e-book sort of person, you can also read it on-line or on your e-book reader for free, although not in this newest, very well-reviewed English translation, courtesy of Google Books.

I'm a big fan of the Michael York-Richard Chamberlain movie from 1973 but I'm always open to something new and am looking forward to seeing D'Artagnan and his musketeer buddies in all their 3-D swashbuckling splendor. According to Wikipedia, there have been 22 feature films made of this classic, starting with silent films, with the most recent English version being The Musketeer (2001), apparently a very loose adaptation, in a style imitating Asian action movies! I have to say I missed that one, although I've seen the 1993 Charlie Sheen/Disney film and the really old (1948) Gene Kelly/MGM version.  There have also been TV series, animated movies (including Tom & Jerry), a Russian musical (!) and more! Check out the link below for up-to-date information on the upcoming film. 

Thanks so much to everyone who entered my contest.
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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Author Interview: Margi Preus, author of Heart of a Samurai

Author Margi Preus
Thanks so much to author Margi Preus for agreeing to be interviewed by me for today's blog post. Yesterday I reviewed her first novel, Heart of a Samurai. Margi (pronounced with a hard "g" like Margo!) lives in Duluth, Minnesota, where she spent 20 years directing Colder by the Lake Comedy Theatre while writing comic plays, adaptations, libretti, short fiction, and “short short fiction." She also teaches children’s literature at the College of St. Scholastica’s School of Education. She has previously published several books for children.

Q: Please tell us a little bit about how you learned about the story of Manjiro and why you decided to write a novel about him.

A: I was introduced to Manjiro by a friend, an astute elementary media specialist, while I was researching a picture book, The Peace Bell (Holt, 2008) (also based on a true story with Japan-America themes). She gave me Shipwrecked! by Rhoda Blumberg, and said "read this." Manjiro's story was compelling, and resonated with the same themes I was working with in The Peace Bell--fostering peace and friendship between antagonistic nations, which turned out to be a timely subject as we were deep into war in Iraq and Afghanistan at the time. Unfortunately, I guess it's always a timely subject. I decided to write a novel because I didn't think it was possible to cram everything about Manjiro's life into a picture book. I had no idea what that meant--writing a novel. I thought it'd take me a couple of months--ha ha!

Q: I understand you made two trips to Japan to research this story; did you rely mostly on primary or secondary sources?

A: Secondary. I have an enormous stack of books, only a few of which are about Manjiro himself. The others are about whaling or life in traditional Japan or nautical reference books. Also, of course, my constant companion, Moby Dick.

Q: As an animal lover, I found it difficult to read the fairly graphic whaling scenes in the book. How did you approach balancing a realistic portrayal of whaling practices versus writing something that would be palatable to young readers?

A: Is it palatable? I thought it was pretty gruesome. It took me days and days to work up the courage to even read about whaling, and then many more days to work up the courage to write about it. I wasn't sure I could do it. Writing those chapters felt like cleaning gravel out of a bloody knee after falling off a bike, you don't want to look at it; you don't want to do it, but you have to grit your teeth and do it, don't you?

Q: With your background in comedy theatre, have you considered writing funny books for young people?

A: I want to! I'm working up to it. Writing well for young people is hard. Writing good humor is even harder. It's harder than anything. I have great respect for good comic writers.

Q: What new projects are you currently working on?

A:I have a picture book about famous trees of the world (Celebritrees, Holt) coming out early 2011. I'm also working on a picture book length story based on the extraordinary adventures of a treehouse builder and a YA mystery--which is humorous! I hope. At least a little bit.

Q: What books do you have on your nightstand? (that is, that you are reading or plan to read)

A: I always have an enormous pile of books which occasionally topple over in the middle of the night. I just finished The Madonnas of Leningrad. Go read it right now! I've also been reading the Stieg Larsson mysteries, like everyone else in the whole world. And now I've started Hotel on The Corner of Bitter and Sweet and The Omnivore's Dilemma (which everyone else has already read). I'm also reading the YA novel Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd.  I listen to a lot of books for young people on audio books when I drive. They're short, for one thing. I positively adored The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie who also reads, or perhaps I should say shouts the whole thing, yet makes you cry and laugh and sit in the car in the driveway when you get back from your trip, listening until the car battery finally wears out.

Q: What were some of your favorite books as a child? Were you especially interested in history?

A: My favorite book was National Geographic's Indians of the Americas, especially the very colorful depictions of Mayan ritual sacrifice. Let's just say, I'm pretty sure it wasn't meant to be a kids' book. But the illustrations were riveting. I don't think I was interested in history as a subject. Some junior high history teacher took care of that. Fortunately, I loved to read, so when I read Green Mansions, I spent time in a 19th century Venezuelan jungle. When I read A Tale of Two Cities, I lived through the French Revolution. Reading Kristin Lavransdatter, I breathed medieval Norway, as sure as if I had been transported there by time machine. Ever since reading Huckleberry Finn I feel as if I, myself, have drifted down the Mississippi on a raft. If you read enough, sooner or later you are going to learn to appreciate history. And everything else, for that matter. Literature gives one the privilege of living in a different time, a different place, and getting to know a host of people--wonderful and terrible--intimately.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Got Books contest!
Got Books? is a celebration about books and the bloggers that help tell the world about them.  Follow the link to discover more great book bloggers, both general blogs and ones specializing in particular genres.

For this event, I am hosting my first ever contest!  I had such a hard time determining an appropriate prize, but I finally decided on a copy of the newest edition of (guess what?) Dumas' The Three Musketeers.   Here is the description from Penguin Classics:

A major new translation of one of the most enduring works of literature, from the award- winning, bestselling co-translator of Anna Karenina-with a spectacular, specially illustrated cover.  The Three Musketeers is the most famous of Alexandre Dumas's historical novels and one of the most popular adventure stories ever written. Now in a bracing new translation, this swashbuckling epic chronicles the adventures of d'Artagnan, a brash young man from the countryside who journeys to Paris in 1625 hoping to become a musketeer and guard to King Louis XIII. Before long he finds treachery and court intrigue-and also three boon companions: the daring swordsmen Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. Together they strive heroically to defend the honor of their queen against the powerful Cardinal Richelieu and the seductive spy Milady.

 The winner will supply his or her home address to me via e-mail, and I will have the item shipped directly to you.  To enter, leave a comment below with your e-mail address.  The winner will be selected at random through a random number generator.  Note:  you do not need to sign up to follow my blog to enter the contest (although of course it's much appreciated!)  The contest will end at midnight on Saturday, July 24.  Good luck!

A bit of movie news:  a new 3-D version of the Dumas classic is about to go into production, starring, among others, Orlando Bloom (see link below).

And check out today's book review on my blog (in a separate post):   Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus, an action-packed novel based on the true story of a shipwrecked Japanese fisherman who becomes the first Japanese citizen to visit the United States.  This exciting new title will be released in August, and I will post an interview with the author tomorrow.
Also, check out Mila Jovovich in her stunning costumes as Milady de Winter in the upcoming movie!

Book Review: Heart of a Samurai, by Margi Preus (Amulet Books, 2010)

Recommended for ages 10 and up.

Inspired by a true story, Heart of a Samurai, by debut novelist Margi Preus, tells the fascinating tale of young Nakahama Manjiro, who at the opening of book is a 14-year old fisherman from a small village in Japan and goes on to become the first Japanese person to visit the United States.

In 1841, when the book begins, Japan's Sakoku policy under which no foreigner could enter or leave Japan under penalty of death had been in effect for nearly two centuries, and Japanese children were taught that Westerners were blue-eyed demons and barbarians. Yet when Manjiro and his comrades are shipwrecked on a tiny island, he is rescued by a passing American whaling boat when he and the others are nearly at death's door. Everything about the Westerners is strange to the Japanese fisherman, from their bizarre way of sitting on chairs, with their legs swinging under them, to eating with a fork, to their strange clothing with buttons and pockets. Manjiro is quick to learn their language, and is encouraged by the ship's kind captain, a New Englander named Whitfield, to ask as many questions as he likes. To begin with, he's never even heard of America!

While on the American ship, Manjiro is introduced to American-style whaling. When he proves his bravery during the whale hunt, the captain gives him a new American name: John Mung. Whitfield explains to Majiro that America is the land of opportunity, where men can fulfill their hopes and dreams. In Japan, Manjiro had never ever thought about such things; if your father was a fisherman, you, too, were a fisherman, and so it went, from generation to generation. When the Captain offers Manjiro the chance to go to America with him as his adopted son, Manjiro accepts, leaving his friends behind in the Sandwich Islands.

When Manjiro arrives in America, he is puzzled by the prejudice he encounters. Boys laugh at him openly, as well as making faces and gestures behind his back, even pulling at their eyelids. At church, the elders think he would be more "comfortable in the seats reserved for negroes." He must cope with intolerance at school as well. Although the captain and his wife are kind to him, Manjiro is homesick for Japan, but how will he ever be able to return?

When Manjiro is offered a position on a ship that will be sailing in Japanese waters, he sets sail, but years pass, and many adventures, including time spent in the California gold fields, before he is able to make his way back to Japan.

When he finally lands in his homeland, the much-anticipated reunion with his family is not to be; instead he is arrested and imprisoned as a Western spy! Not until 1852, eleven years after he originally left Japan, is he reunited with his family. At the conclusion of the story, Manjiro is called into service by a Japanese lord who wants Manjiro to teach his samurai more about the "barbarians." Perhaps Manjiro will even become a samurai himself, an unheard-of-dream for a former lowly fisherman.

In an epilogue, Preus explains that just months after Manjiro began teaching, Matthew Perry demanded access to Japanese ports for a fleet of American ships. Suddenly Manjiro's knowledge of America was in high demand by the shogun himself, and Manjiro indeed was elevated to samurai rank, an unprecedented event for someone of such low birth. His many accomplishments included translating navigational books into Japanese, writing the first English book for Japanese people, interpreting at the first Japanese embassy to the U.S., and teaching navigation, shipbuilding, English, and mathematics.

I found this action-packed historical fiction/adventure story to be a real page-turner.  Moreover, after having read a number of books where young Westerners find themselves in Japan (see my reviews of The Young Samurai series, for example), it was interesting to imagine just how strange America and the West would have seemed to a Japanese person at this time.  One caveat for sensitive readers:  there are quite graphic descriptions of the whaling activities, which may disturb some young animal lovers.

The author includes a glossary of Japanese words, whaling terms, and sailors' lingo, as well as a bibliography for further reading.

The story of Manjiro has so many classic adventure story elements--a shipwreck, rescue by "barbarians," violence, danger, mutiny, a "fish-out-of-water" theme, even gold fever. Not surprisingly Manjiro's amazing story has inspired several other books for young readers as well. These include:

Manjiro: The Boy Who Risked His Life for Two Countries, a picture book by Emily Arnold McCully (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008) and Shipwrecked!: The True Adventures of a Japanese Boy, by Rhoda Blumberg (Harper Collins, 2003), a biography aimed for ages 9-12.

Release date:  August 1, 2010

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Book Review: A Giraffe Goes to Paris, by Mary Tavener Holmes and John Harris (Marshall Cavendish, 2010)

Recommended for ages 6-10.

This charming picture book tells the true story of Belle, a giraffe presented by the great pasha of Egypt to the king of France, Charles X, as narrated by Atir, her Egyptian caretaker.  But how to transport a giraffe all the way from Egypt to Paris?  First, she had to be transported down the Nile along with her entourage of three cows (to produce milk for her to drink) and two antelopes (to keep her company).  Then, a special hole had to be constructed in the deck of the ship, so Belle could be kept below but still have room for her long neck!  When she finally arrived in France, the citizens of Marseille marveled at this strange animal.  No one in France had ever seen a giraffe before.

But how to get her to Paris? It was decided that she should walk the 500 miles across France, equipped with a special raincoat and boots to protect her from the elements. Belle's entourage attracted curious crowds all along the journey. When she finally arrived in Paris, 30,000 people came out to greet her, and Paris went crazy for giraffes, with Belle inspiring songs, poems, paintings, pottery, jewelry, and even a giraffe shaped piano and a giraffe hairdo! When Belle finally met the king in July, 1827, she ate rose petals from his hand.

Belle lived for 18 years in Paris, housed at the Jardin des Plantes, where a special home for Belle and her keeper was constructed in the Rotunda.

This is a delightful picture book to share with elementary school-aged students; the author is an art historian and museum curator who has also written My Travels with Clara, another story about an exotic animal, in this case a rhinoceros.   The book features whimsical watercolor and ink illustrations combined with photographs of actual objects from the period, such as a barber bowl decorated with Belle and her keeper, Atir.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Book Review: The Other Half of Life, by Kim Ablon Whitney (Laurel Leaf Books, 2009)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.
Kim Ablon Whitney has written a riveting fictional account of the doomed voyage of the M.S. St. Louis, a luxury ocean liner which sailed from Germany to Cuba in 1939 with 937 passengers, nearly all German Jews desperate to escape Nazi Germany.  Refused safe haven by Cuba and the U.S., the St. Louis was forced to return to Europe; this journey has become symbolic of the indifference of the United States and the rest of the world to the plight of European Jewry on the eve of World War II.

Whitney tells the story of 15-year old Thomas, a fictional character who is representative of the young people who travelled alone on the ship.  His Christian mother is able to afford passage only for one, and with his Jewish father already arrested and in a concentration camp in Germany, she takes the opportunity to send him off to safety in Cuba.  

Once on board, Thomas is befriended by the beautiful teenage Priska and her family, who are sailing in first class.  Priska and Thomas are attracted to each other, and soon there is romantic tension to our story.  However, the irony of sailing on a luxury ocean liner, with caviar, swimming, and dancing, is not lost on Thomas or the largely Nazi crew, who are ordered by the Captain to treat the Jewish passengers with the same respect as they would treat the passengers on any other luxury ocean crossing.  From the outset, Thomas has a feeling that, despite their landing permits for Cuba, arriving safely is not guaranteed.  When he overhears the crew whispering about Cuban quotas possibly already being full, he resolves to keep his ears and eyes open.  

When the ship drops anchor outside the Havana harbor, Thomas and the other passengers realize there is a problem.  While negotiations with the Cubans proceed, Thomas and his friends organize a chess tournament to distract the passengers.  Thomas is a skilled chess player, and chess serves as a metaphor for the passengers of the St. Louis, who are being used by the Nazis as pawns in an elaborate propaganda game.  Was the whole trip a ruse on the part of the Nazi government--to show that  no one in other countries wants the Jews either?  

When Cuba refuses the passengers entry, the Captain sails to Miami, in the hope that the United States will take in the refugees, but the U.S. government, too, refuses to allow the ship to dock.  Forced to turn around, the St. Louis returned to Europe, where the passengers were taken in by England, France, Belgium, and Holland.  Sent to different countries, Thomas and Priska vow to meet in five years in Miami, never dreaming how the war would change their lives.  Will they reunite?  

The author concludes the novel with a moving account of Thomas and his family, 70 years later, visiting an exhibit on the St. Louis at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, where he sees life-size photographs of himself and others he befriended on the voyage.  In this final chapter, he tries to explain to his children why the United States didn't let them in, especially since over 700 of the passengers already had quota numbers for the U.S.  This is a question with no good answer.  

On the author's blog, she reports on a talk given by Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel on the 60th anniversary of the St. Louis' fateful voyage.  In his talk, he calls the St. Louis "the Moral Titanic," and spoke of the shame of the leaders of the free world who "failed the test of humanity" in turning the St. Louis away.  Wiesel singled out for praise, however, Captain Schroeder, whom he called the hero in the story (Schroeder was later honored as a "Righteous Gentile").  Wiesel, according to Whitney, ended his talk by concluding that all questions regarding the St. Louis remain unanswered. He stressed that what we can take away as students of history is that, as proven by Captain Schroeder, choice always exists.

As Whitney explains in an author's note, nearly all the characters in the book, with the notable exception of Captain Schroeder, are fictional, but are based on extensive research on the voyage, including her own interviews with survivors.  This outstanding novel has been honored with numerous awards, including the 2009 National Jewish Book Award, the Silver Parents Choice Award, and it was selected as a Sydney Taylor Notable Book for teen readers.  

A Teacher's Guideauthor interview, and excerpt from the book can be found at the author's website.

A concise article summarizing the facts about the St. Louis as well as an on-line exhibit  can be found at the U.S. Holocaust Museum's website.

Also, the U.S. Holocaust Museum published in 2006 Refuge Denied:  The St. Louis Passengers and the Holocaust, a comprehensive study of what happened to the 937 passengers on board the ship.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Book Review: Candy Bomber: The Story of the Berlin Airlift's "Chocolate Pilot" , by Michael O. Tunnell (Charlesbridge, 2010)

Recommended for ages 8-12.

"This is a true story of chocolate, bubble gum and hope."

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Michael O. Tunnell's inspirational account of how one person can make a difference in the world. Tunnell tells the story of U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Gail Halvorsen, who was one of a group of U.S. and British pilots transporting food to the citizens of West Berlin in 1948 during the Soviet blockade of West Berlin. Tunnell provides concise and well-written background on what happened in Germany at the end of the war and how this blockade came about in the first place.

When Halvorsen first encounters the children of West Berlin, he is struck by their dignity and their commitment to freedom. After briefly conversing with a group of children on the other side of the airfield fence, he decides, on a whim, to give the children the two sticks of Doublemint gum in his pocket. Breaking them in half, he is sure that a fight over the four little sticks will break out among the candy-starved children. Instead, he is astonished to see that there was no fighting:
The lucky four who had plucked the half sticks from his fingers kept the gum, but they ripped the wrappers into strips, passing them around so everyone could breathe in the sweet, minty smell. "In all my experience, including Christmases past," he [Halvorsen] recalls, "I had never witnessed such an expression of surprise, joy, and sheer pleasure."
Suddenly, Halvorsen had an inspiration; why not drop some gum and candy on his next trip to Berlin? He told the delighted children of his plan, and they asked how they would recognize his plane. Halvorsen explained that he'd give them a signal--"When I get overhead, I'll wiggle the wings."

Halvorsen began his drops by asking his buddies to donate their personal candy rations, rations that were as valuable as currency in Germany. Not asking permission of his superiors, Halvorsen started his candy drops, using handkerchiefs to make parachutes in order to drop the candy in small packages. Soon mail began to pour in for Uncle Wiggly Wings or the Chocolate Pilot, and Halvorsen's superiors discovered his secret. Halvorsen was sure his candy dropping days were over, but instead the military was delighted with the terrific publicity the candy drops were generating. The Air Force adopted the name "Operation Little Vittles" for the candy drops and even hired two German secretaries to deal with all the incoming mail. The campaign soon spread, leading to candy drops all over the city, and donations of candy from individuals and companies in the United States, and as far away as Australia.

Lt. Halvorsen became a media celebrity, and became a hero to the children of West Berlin. It's hard for us to imagine today what these gifts of candy meant to the children of Berlin, and Tunnell has collected many anecdotes which allow us to experience their feelings. One Berliner remembered walking to school when he was ten:
"Suddenly, out of the mist came a parachute with a fresh Hershey chocolate bar from America," he recalled. "It took me a week to eat that candy bar...the chocolate was wonderful, but it wasn't the chocolate that was most important. What it meant was that someone in America cared. That parachute was something more important than candy. It represented hope."

Halvorsen continued his career with the Air Force long after the candy drop ended, but he and the children never forgot. In fact, when he returned to Berlin in 1970 as Commander of the base there, he was deluged with dinner invitations from grateful children, now grown. Halvorsen was even given the honor of leading Germany's team into the arena in Salt Lake City during the 2002 Winter Olympics. The book concludes with a biographical note about additional humanitarian missions Halvorsen has participated in, including candy drops to other war-torn regions such as Kosovo. At 87, he was even able to attend a ceremony in Germany commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift.

The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs and memorabilia from Halversen's personal collection, including some of the hundreds of letters he received from Berlin's grateful children. The author also includes a brief bibliography as well as a historical note providing additional background material on World War II and its aftermath.

This book would be an outstanding addition to school and public libraries, and could be read in conjunction with Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot,, a lovely picture book on the same topic by Margot Theirs Raven (Sleeping Bear Press, 2002).  This picture book focuses on the story of one particular child and her encounters with Lt. Halvorsen, but also provides background on the entire chocolate bomber story.

A side note:  today's Los Angeles Times ran a front page article on Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, the airport used by the candy bombers and other pilots who airlifted supplies to post-war West Berlin.  The airport is now used as a big, unplanned, and very popular park, according to the Times.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Book Review: Picture the Dead, by Adele Griffin and Lisa Brown (Sourcebooks, 2010)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Adele Griffin and Lisa Brown have written a unique illustrated young adult novel that is difficult to categorize. It's carefully researched historical fiction but also a ghost story and a mystery with graphic novel elements as well. With illustrations that mimic the look of a Civil War scrapbook kept by our heroine, our story is told in the first person by orphan Jennie Lovell, who together with her twin brother has been raised for the last four years by her aunt and uncle alongside their two sons, Will and Quinn. Before the novel opens, Jennie and Will have fallen in love and become engaged.

Jennie's girlish dreams of happiness vanish as all three young men in the household go off to fight for the Union cause. First her brother dies of disease (which killed many more soldiers than did the battles themselves), then her cousin Quinn staggers home with a terrible wound to his face and the news that her fiance, Will, has died in combat. Or has he?

Jennie soon realizes that Quinn has a secret he's not telling--"and the dead cannot defend themselves." With the death of her fiance, Jennie has no status in the household. She writes:
I am sixteen years old, nearly grown, my school days finished, my fiance dead on the battlefield, my future as valuable as a wooden nickel.
She tries to make herself useful as a nurse to Quinn, and helps with various household tasks, becoming more like a servant than a member of the family.

But when her uncle asks Jennie to contact a photographer who also has a reputation as a medium, strange things begin to happen. Is Will trying to communicate with her from the grave, or is the spirit photographer playing tricks on her? How can she explain the mysterious events that lead her to discover a lost locket, Will's last letter, and perhaps the secret as to how Will really died--not on the battlefield at all, but as a prisoner at the infamous Andersonville prison camp?

There is certainly no shortage of novels for young people about this period, but Picture the Dead, with its genre-bending story, makes an important contribution to Civil War novels and would be an excellent purchase for school or public libraries, as well as for any reader who enjoys a good mystery and ghost story.

What is unique about this book is the way the author/illustrator integrate both spiritualism and photography into their tale, both of which played a critical role in this time period. Spiritualism, or the belief that the living can communicate with the dead through mediums, attracted enormous numbers of followers during this time period, capitalizing on the millions who grieved for loved ones lost during the war. Photography, too, was tremendously important at the time; the Civil War was the first major combat to be widely photographed, with teams of photographers sent out to cover the action. Because of the unwieldy equipment, photographers could depict only camp scenes, preparations for or retreat from action, or the horrifying aftermath of battle.

In this novel, the many illustrations are integral to the story, even providing clues to the mystery; Brown based her images on Civil War-era photographs from the Library of Congress. Here's an example: In fact, the models for the different characters are one of the many topics that can be explored on the book's terrific website, which also includes lots of additional information about the Civil War, the authors, photography during the period, and more, as well as useful links to other informational sites.

An interview with Lisa Brown about Picture The Dead can be found here:

To read the first chapter of this book, click here.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Book Blogger Hop #5

Crazy for Books hosts a weekly Book Blogger Hop! Please feel free to hop around my site to read reviews of current historical fiction and history-related nonfiction for children and teens.

Our question for the week from our fearless blog leader:  RIGHT THIS INSTANT, WHAT BOOK ARE YOU DYING TO GET YOUR HANDS ON (PAST, PRESENT, OR FUTURE)?

Hmm, that's a hard one.  Right now I'm really looking forward to British YA/historical fiction novelist Celia Rees' upcoming release The Fool's Girl--I'm supposed to be getting an ARC and I can't wait to read it!  

What's new on my blog? Check out my reviews of two new YA books that have been getting a lot of "buzz"--The Water Seeker, by award-winning novelist Kimberly Willis Holt, and Three Rivers Rising, by Jame Richards, a wonderful new YA novelist.   And Friday I'm reviewing Picture the Dead by Adele Griffin and Lisa Brown, a genre-busting mystery-ghost story-historical fiction-graphic novel. Let me know if you visited through the hop and I'll come visit your blog as well.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Book Review: Best Friends Forever: A World War II Scrapbook, by Beverly Patt (Marshall Cavendish, 2010)

Recommended for ages 9-14.

Tweens are likely to identify strongly with the sensitively-drawn characters in Beverly Patt's new scrapbook/novel that tells the story of a close friendship between 14-year old Louise and her best friend Dottie Masuoka during World War II. Louise starts the scrapbook when the Masuoka family and all other Japanese families are "relocated" to internment camps at the beginning of the war; it's her way of keeping a record of everything that happens to share with Dottie upon her return, from the goings-on at school to the growth of Dottie's puppy, Roxy, who she was forced to leave with Louise and her family because pets were not allowed at the internment camps. With yellowed pages and old newspaper clippings, photos, and miscellaneous period items such as hair ribbons and margarine box labels attached with yellowed tape, the book looks like it could indeed be a old scrapbook, which adds to the realism of the story.

Louise includes Dottie's illustrated letters to her describing life in the camp, from the boredom, the constant dust, to her worries about her grandfather's declining health. Dottie wonders poignantly in one of her letters to Louise, "Why was I born with this Japanese face? No one can see my American heart."

Louise has her own troubles at home; because of their German last name, neighbors throw rocks through their front window, together with a note "Go back to Germany, Nazis." She can't help wondering why, since America is at war with Germany and Italy too, they aren't locked up in camps like the Japanese? How can America be "the land of the free and the home of the brave," Louise wonders, when her friend Dottie and her family are forced to live behind barbed wire. Not to mention the small dramas of teenage life that Louise must cope with, including how to knit socks for soldiers without holes, squabbles with friends, growing a Victory Garden, her worries when her own brother joins the Navy, and even a flirtation with a wounded sailor.

When Dottie and her family are moved to another internment camp, Louise's letters go unanswered. Why doesn't Dottie answer? Louise begins a letter-writing campaign to the Office of War Relocation Authority in a desperate (and ultimately successful) attempt to find out the whereabouts of her friend's family.

The scrapbook covers just a year, and at the end, many questions are unresolved, including when Dottie will be able to come home. But Louise knows in her heart that their friendship will endure.

This was a very well-done and well-researched book that would be enjoyed by girls who read the American Girl series of historical fiction, and are ready to read something aimed at a bit older audience. The book also recalls the series of handwritten historical journals by fictional girls by Marissa Moss (i.e. Hannah's Journal). The only jarring note I found in the book was on the end-pages, where it looks as if Louise has written in by hand: "Louise + Dottie = BF4Ever." This type of abbreviation, which will be easily interpreted by contemporary young people who are used to texting, doesn't seem to fit into the World War II context of the book.

The book includes an excellent Author's Note which provides background on Japanese involvement in World War II and the internment camps set up by the U.S. government. Patt also provides a bibliography at the end of the book. Additional resources are available on the author's website, which includes a teacher's guide, an interview with the author about the book, and a recipe for sugar cookies referred to in the story.

Those interested in further exploring Japanese internment camps may want to read Cynthia Kadohata's novel Weedflower, as well as the classic Farewell to Manzanar.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Book Review: Two Miserable Presidents: Everything your Schoolbooks Didn't Tell You About the Civil War, by Steve Sheinkin (Roaring Brook, 2008)

Recommended for ages 10 and up.

"History--with the good bits put back!"

My teenage son and I are big fans of Steve Sheinkin's graphic novels about Rabbi Harvey, and I wasn't surprised to find out that his series on U.S. history for young readers is just as entertaining. His website describes these books as "guaranteed-never-boring history books, packed with all the true stories and real quotes he was never allowed to use during his career as a textbook writer." Three have been published to date: one on the American Revolution, (King George: What Was His Problem?), another on Western expansion, (Which Way to the Wild West?) , and the one on the Civil War that I am discussing today.

I have been on a bit of a Civil War reading binge since spending three days in Gettysburg last summer (where my daughter complained of Civil War overload); my 14-year old son and I have recently been spending evenings since school got out watching Ken Burns' mammoth Civil War documentary (5 DVD's and 11 hours worth). I watched the series when it was first broadcast on PBS 20 years ago, but it's the first time for my son.

For those who don't want to spend 11 hours watching Ken Burns' documentary, however, Sheinkin, a former writer of American history textbooks, includes much of the same information in a much briefer format, complete with cartoon illustrations by Tim Robinson. Despite the comical look of the series, Sheinkin includes a serious historical overview of the war, which highlights all the key events leading up to the war, from the Fugitive Slave Act to John Brown, the Dred Scott decision, and the Lincoln-Douglas debates, among others, as well as the key events of the war itself. Like Ken Burns, Sheinkin includes many anecdotes from ordinary citizens, as well as highlighting lesser-known participants such as Rose O'Neal Greenhow, a Confederate spy known as the Wild Rose of Washington.

Sheinkin does not forget to profile some of the famous colorful personalities of the war, who continue to fascinate us, such as Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, George McClellan, Ulysses S. Grant, and of course, Lincoln. Did you know Lincoln was a terrific wrestler? The author also provides plenty of details on ordinary life for soldiers, especially how hungry they were. One story that appears in both Burns' documentary and Sheinkin's book is the following:

John Billings of Massachusetts remembered that the most popular way to eat hardtack (the basis for the Yankee soldiers' diet) was to crumble it up into coffee. One problem: hardtack was often home to weevils and maggots and other bugs. "It was no uncommon occurrence for a man to find the surface of his pot of coffee swimming with weevils," he said, "but they were easily skimmed off and left no distinctive flavor behind." That gives you an idea of how hungry these boys were.

Sheinkin's book ends with Lincoln's assassination, but he provides an excellent "What Ever Happened to" appendix which provides follow-up information on key personalities who appear in his book. He also provides a bibliography of many of the sources he used, which is divided into specific categories including general books on the war, biographies of major Civil War figures, books about everyday life during the war, books on specific battles, memoirs by Civil War personalities, and more.

I highly recommend this book for young readers, not only those who enjoy history but more importantly for those who think history is boring; unfortunately, this is an attitude which is not surprising given how dry our history textbooks for young people are. It even makes a great review of the Civil War for adults who want to brush up on this fascinating period of our history.

I love this quote by Sheinkin about history textbooks:

Why are textbooks so boring? I could explain--but it would be boring. I'll just mention one serious problem with textbooks: they always seem to avoid quotes that are at all funny, amazing, surprising, disgusting, confusing, stupid, mean, or anything else interesting. One of my main goals with this book was to fill it with all the quotes I never got to use in textbooks.

One of the quotes his editors probably cut is the following delightful anecdote about the Confederates' fighting spirit: Sheinkin relates that Southern school books of the era included math problems such as the following:
If one Confederate soldier can ship seven Yankees, how many Confederate soldiers can whip forty-nine Yankees?
Here's some pictures of Sheinkin's other history books with the good bits put back:

Friday, July 9, 2010

Versatile Blogger Award!

Thanks so much to JL at An Avid Reader's Musings for presenting me with my first blog award!

Here's how this award works:
1. Thank and link back to the person who gave you this award.
2. Share 7 things about yourself.
3. Pass the award along to 15 bloggers who you have recently discovered and who you think are fantastic for whatever reason! (In no particular order...)
4. Contact the bloggers you've picked and let them know about the award.

Here are 7 interesting things about myself:

1) I learned to read on my own before school from a Dr. Seuss dictionary, according to my mother.
2) I love all kinds of movies and once went to a movie marathon where we watched movies for 24 hours straight.
3) My miniature poodle is my best-behaved child.
4) I read the first Harry Potter and Twilight books when they first came out, before most people had heard of them.
5) My bucket list includes going on a photo safari somewhere in Africa.
6) I once went to the Queen of England's public birthday celebration in London.
7) The bonobo is my new favorite animal.

Some blogs that I enjoy (in no particular order):

1) Abby the Librarian
2) Afterthoughts
3) Rebecca's Book Blog
4) The Book Maven's Haven
5) The Book Nosher
6) There's a Book
7) YA Bookmark
8) What We Read and What We Think
9) The Almost Librarian
10) Reading the Past
11) Bees Knees Reads
12) Books are a Girl's Best Friend
13) Alison Can Read
14) Bookie Woogie
15) The Heart of Dreams

Book Review: Young Samurai: The Way of the Sword (Hyperion, 2010)

Recommended for ages 9-14.

British author Chris Bradford continues his action-packed saga of samurai and ninja in the second installment of The Young Samurai series: The Way of the Sword. Jack Fletcher, shipwrecked, orphaned by ninja pirates, and then adopted by a samurai in 17th century Japan, has completed his first year of samurai school. His problems are not over, however; his classmates still taunt him as a "gaijin" (barbarian foreigner), anti-Christian sentiment is spreading, and worse yet, the evil ninja Dragon Eye is still after Jack and his father's rutter, which contains the secret routes to navigate the world's oceans.

Once every three years, the samurai students have a chance to compete in the ancient ritual of the Circle of Three, testing their mind, body, and spirit. Those who pass this test will be allowed to learn Two Heavens, a secret martial art technique. Selection trials are held, and only the top five students progress to the Circle. Readers will not be surprised that Jack is among this elite group, as is his female friend, Akiko, and Kazuki, his arch-enemy at school. But will Jack be able to survive the competition?

Once again, Bradford peppers his action-adventure story with many details of Japanese life and culture, including four hour tea ceremonies, zen gardens, origami cranes, and more. I would not advise reading these books out of order; readers might be confused without the background from the first book in the series. One observation: the Circle of Three competition reminded me more than a little of the Tri-wizard tournament in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, moved to Japan, with its all-but impossible tasks to complete. Perhaps Harry fights the samurai could be a good topic for a fan-fiction writer!

As in the prior volume, the author includes a useful Japanese glossary, complete with a guide to pronouncing Japanese words. Much of the vocabulary is likely to be familiar to anime and manga fans, however.

You can read an excerpt from this book here.

Four volumes of this series have been published to date in the U.K.; the next volume, The Way of the Dragon, will be published in the U.S. in 2011.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Book Review: Three Rivers Rising: A Novel of the Johnstown Flood, by Jame Richards (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Debut novelist Jame Richards has written a mesmerizing novel in verse set against the shocking backdrop of the Johnstown Flood of 1889, a disaster that could perhaps be compared to Hurricane Katrina in our time. According to the National Park Service website, there was no larger news story in the latter nineteenth century after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

The story of the Johnstown Flood has plenty of juicy ingredients to make a compelling novel: an exclusive resort, where the wealthiest of Pittsburgh society vacationed, an intense storm, the failure of a dam, perhaps due to negligence, the destruction of a working class city, and an enormous national and even international relief effort, which included Clara Barton and the Red Cross.

The story, told in free verse by multiple narrators, begins the summer before the flood, giving us ample time to get to know the characters before disaster hits. We first meet Celestia, daughter of a wealthy Pittsburgh businessman, who comes with her older sister, Estrella, and her parents to spend the summer at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, far from "the filth and crowds of the city." The club is at South Fork Reservoir, created by a seventy-foot earthen dam and better known to the owners of the club as Lake Conemaugh. Celestia soon begins a forbidden romance with one of the laborers at the club, Peter, who is from nearby Johnstown. Peter is a boy "not of her rank," and their secret courtship is described in very romantic verse:
No artifice,/no pretending to faint/or slipping so he could catch me./Just our locked gaze/tightening the space between us/until our voices/need only whisper,/lips to ear,/then lips upon lips.
Their love is not only taboo, but could get Celestia disowned and cut off from any contact from her family, not to mention getting Peter fired.

We also meet local resident Maura, not much older than Celestia but already with three babies, her husband Joseph, who is a train engineer and will play a key role when the tragedy hits, and Kate, a young widow who leaves the area to attend nursing school.

When Celestia's parents realize she's becoming too friendly with a young man from the wrong side of the tracks, she is whisked off to boarding school in Switzerland, where she soon learns her parents have arranged a suitable marriage for her. But Celestia has her own ideas, and when she arrives at the South Fork club the following summer for what her parents intend to be a quiet vacation before her marriage, she leaves her comfortable life behind and sets off in pursuit of Peter.

What neither she nor anyone else (except, of course, the reader) realizes is that disaster is about to strike. Richards works into the poems that the locals at Johnstown have been joking for years about the dam breaking, but the dam always seems to hold. However, the outlying communities' luck has run out. An unusually heavy rainstorm has clogged the screens put in by the club to keep the lake stocked with fish for the vacationers. With the clogged screens, there is no other outlet for the extra water, and as the people at the club watch in horror, "the better part of the dam just melts,/disappears./The water cannot get out fast enough,/far enough."

When Celestia's father realizes his daughter has run away and is likely in Johnstown, about to be hit by the flood waters, he is filled with regret, and can think only of finding her. Despite his knowledge of the imminent danger, he sets off for Johnstown in pursuit.

As the dam floods the nearby communities, the stories of our different narrators converge, as many residents escape but thousands die, washed away by the flood waters and the debris. Richards also portrays the terrible aftermath of the disaster, as morgues fill with bodies (many of whom were never identified), people look for loved ones, and struggle to survive and rebuild their lives, with the help of both neighbors and strangers alike.

According to her website, Richards was greatly inspired by Karen Hesse's Newbery-winning novel Out of the Dust, inspired by another natural disaster brought on, like this one, at least partially by human neglect.

Richards' novel has received starred reviews in School Library Journal and Kirkus. You can read more about the author's background on her website or you can follow her on her blog. Her website also features a reader's guide for this book.

For more on the Johnstown flood, the author provides a timeline of events concerning the South Fork dam, as well as a bibliography with suggestions of further reading (both fiction and nonfiction) for both young readers and adults. In addition, a great deal of information on the flood is available online: see the Johnstown Flood Museum's website and the Johnstown Flood National Park Service website for this historic site.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Book Blogger Appreciation Week

Book Blogger Appreciation Week
was started by Amy Riley of My Friend Amy as a week long festival (September 13-17, 2010) celebrating the community of book bloggers and their contribution to preserving a culture of literacy through book reviews and recommendations, reading reflections, and general bookish chat. BBAW also includes an awards component. For more information on the BBAW 2010 Awards and how to participate, please visit the BBAW 2010 Awards Blog. BBAW events include daily blogging topics, blogger interview swaps, special guest posts, and so much more!

I have registered my blog for consideration in the Kidlit Book Blog category (even though I have only been blogging for 2 months I have already posted 35 reviews). Here are the links to the 5 representative posts for consideration:

Review of Alligator Bayou by Donna Jo Napoli;

Review of One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia;

Review of Is it Night or Day by Fern Schumer Chapman;

Review of A Nest for Celeste by Henry Cole;

Report on Lemony Snicket/Lisa Brown appearance at Skirball Museum.

These same posts can be used for consideration for Best Written Blog and Best New Blog categories.

Book Review: The Water Seeker, by Kimberly Willis Holt (Henry Holt, 2010)

Recommended for ages 10 and up.

Award-winning children's author Kimberly Willis Holt offers a lyrical coming-of-age story set against the harsh reality of pioneer times and the Oregon trail in her newest novel. The central character is Amos, born in 1834, the son of a dowser, or water-seeker. His father, Jake, has the mystical gift of finding water, a gift handed down from son to son in his family. His mother, Delilah, died while giving birth to Amos but appears repeatedly in the novel as a ghost visible to those women who care for her son. Because his father is away most of the year trapping and dowsing, Amos is raised by his childless aunt and uncle at an Indian mission. Amos is an unusual child who has inherited both his mother's gift for drawing and his father's gift for dowsing.

Life on the frontier was not easy, with a smallpox epidemic killing off not only a slew of Indians but also Amos' aunt, the only mother he has known. His care is given over to neighbors, until his father comes back to town with a new wife, Blue Owl, a Shoshone Indian. Amos, who wants to stay where he is, joins his father and Blue Owl in their itinerant lifestyle, until, a few years later, his father decides to join a wagon train to the Oregon territory as a scout.

The second half of the book tells the story of the journey on the Oregon trail; almost fourteen by this time in the story, Amos' journey takes him from a boy to a man. From the trail's jumping off point in Independence, Missouri, Amos' father recruits a diverse group of people for their wagon train, characters who will populate the rest of the book. Among them are a British family with a young girl, Gwendolyn, whose face has been disfigured by her father's abusive behavior. Also joining the group is a beautiful young girl Jubilee, her deaf brother, and her parents. Amos is enchanted by Jubilee, but Blue Owl knows that she is not meant for him.

Holt brings us into the preparations for this almost unimaginable journey--the purchase of supplies, the outfitting of wagons with oxen or mules, the decisions on which route to take, even the preparations of coffins of cloth, in case the worst happens. We see the travelers' distrust of Blue Owl; many had never seen Indians up close.

The action in the book steps up as the wagon train leaves for Oregon; terrible accidents, sickness, death, buffalo hunts, and young love are among the experiences that turn young Amos from a boy to a man. At the conclusion of the book, Holt takes us to 1859, when we see Amos, now with his own family, carrying on the family tradition of dowsing, "as his father had done, as his father had done before him...the gift never failed Amos."

This is a beautifully written, poetic tale that I would categorize as literary fiction for young readers. The book starts out with a very quiet, slow pace, and I can easily imagine many children abandoning the book after the first 25 pages or so unless they are required to read it for class. The story certainly would fit well into curriculum units on Western expansion, the Oregon Trail, and other pioneer themes, but the book does not have the action-packed pace that many children are accustomed to in other books. I do not see this book as having broad child appeal, but I can imagine that it might fare well in the awards season, since its more leisurely style may appeal to many adult readers of children's books.

Also, the book does have an unusual mix of paranormal elements with historical fiction, which may appeal to some readers. Not only do we have Amos' mother, who appears throughout the book as a ghost, but also the phenomenon of dowsing in general. Since I was not familiar with the word, I did a bit of research on the Internet. Apparently Holt's husband and father-in-law are both dowsers, but other than sharing this fact in the acknowledgments, there is little background provided on the subject. From Holt's book, I didn't quite realize that dowsing, also known as water witching, is considered a form of divination. According to the Sceptic's dictionary, dowsing has been around for thousands of years and there are large societies of dowsers in America and Europe as well as other parts of the world. However, limited scientific studies have shown that the dowsers do no better than chance and no better than non-dowsers in locating water. Here is a contemporary photo of a dowser using a tool much like Amos might have used:

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Boys of Summer #3: Clemente!, by William Perdomo and Brian Collier (Henry Holt, 2010)

Recommended for ages 5-10.

In honor of summer's baseball season I am continuing my series of recommendations of baseball picture book biographies for young readers. Just released this year is a vibrant new picture book on beloved baseball hero Roberto Clemente by award-winning writer Willie Perdomo, with dynamic illustrations by Caldecott-honor illustrator Bryan Collier. In the story, a little boy named in honor of the baseball star learns about his namesake. The text is written in a kind of free verse poetry, some of which rhymes and some of which doesn't. The language incorporates Spanish words as well as English. Here is an example of the very lively and rhythmic text:
Clemente!Clemente!/It's us, tu gente!/Clemente! Clemente!/Prince of the baseball diamante/Canon-arm Clemente,/Puerto Rican prince Clemente,/Hall-of-Fame Clemente.

The author presents basic biographical information on Clemente, including the anecdote that by the time he learned to walk, he was always throwing something: "a can, a tomato, a rag ball, hitting bottle caps against a wall." We learn of his many baseball records, including 4 batting titles, and 12 Golden Gloves. The author also recounts the story of Clemente's "last sacrifice fly." Sadly, he was killed in 1972 in a plane crash while on the way to Nicaragua to help victims of a massive earthquake. In the end, this is a highly inspirational story, which points out that "with faith, with hope, with belief in yourself...that anything is possible in this world." A few months after his untimely death, Clemente became the first Latino player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The illustrations in this book really enhance the text and make Clemente's story come alive. The artist explains in a note at the end of the book that he used a watercolor-and-collage technique with multiple repeated layers to express the speed, power, impact, and sound Clemente embodied when he played. There is a particularly noteworthy two-page spread where the artist uses three overlapping images of Clemente and about seven baseball bats to show the player at bat.

This book is highly recommended for public and school libraries, as well as for baseball fans of all ages.

Hear the author read this book at

The author provides a brief bibliography of other books for young people about Clemente, as well as a number of useful on-line resources, including a virtual exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution.