Monday, August 30, 2010

Nonfiction Monday Book Review: The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P.T. Barnum, by Candace Fleming (Schwartz & Wade Books, 2009)

Recommended for ages 8 and up.

Candace Fleming is one of my favorite non-fiction writers for young people, and I thoroughly enjoyed this fascinating look into the life of the renowned showman P. T. Barnum.  I was surprised to discover that my two teenagers, however, had no idea who he was, so apparently he is not as well-known among young people.  I hope this biography will change that fact, since it is a highly entertaining and informative work that is perfect for school reports as well as for recreational reading.

This larger-than-life figure is not easy to capture on paper, but Fleming does an admirable job capturing his elephant-sized personality.  I especially liked the sections on his early years, where we learn how a small time boy known as Tale from the tiny village of Bethel, Connecticut evolved into P.T. Barnum, the world-famous showman.  For example, we learn how Tale came from a family of practical jokesters who were also thrifty Yankees, and Tale began saving his pennies at an early age.  By the time he was eight years old, he became a peddler, selling candy and other items to volunteer soldiers who trained nearby.  He excelled in school, particularly in math, but often had to miss school to help out on the farm.  
But business was his talent, and he had many clever and funny business ideas that are detailed in this biography.  Early on, he realizes he wants to be his own boss, and at the age of 24 relocates to New York City, now with a wife and child, to make his fortune.

Barnum starts his show business career by purchasing an exhibit of an ancient slave, Joice Heth,  who was thought to be 161 years old and the baby nurse of George Washington. Fleming explains that exhibits of unusual people like Joice Heth were common in Barnum's day, and although it seems distasteful to our modern sensibilities such shows could be perfectly respectable in that era.  When Heth died, Barnum even made money by charging for her autopsy!   It didn't matter that she turned out to be only around 80 years old--Barnum had started his career as a traveling showman, and he didn't look back.  

One of the fascinating aspects of Barnum's life was his cycle of rags to riches, repeated numerous times in his life.  His highly successful American Museum, which made him rich exhibiting everything from live exotic animals, including an aquarium with live whales, giraffes, and a rhinoceros, to human curiosities such as Chang and Eng, the Siamese Twins, and assorted oddities, burned to the ground, was rebuilt by Barnum, and burned again.  He went bankrupt through bad investments in a clock company, ran--and served--in public office, and finally, in his later years, became a circus man.  

In profiles of Barnum's relationship with opera singer Jenny Lind and miniature man Tom Thumb, Fleming demonstrates how Barnum was one of the first to exploit the cult of celebrity that we take for granted in the 21st century.  He was brilliant at generating publicity, and knew how to generate a media frenzy before the phrase was coined.  

Barnum was such a celebrity that the New York Sun, as a favor to Barnum, printed his obituary early so that Barnum could read it; within a month of its publication, Barnum died at age 81.  

Although she writes with obvious affection for her subject, Fleming does not glorify this huge 19th century figure.  We see, for example, that Barnum the private man could be cruel to his first wife, who bore him four daughters.  Also, although he loved children in general, he paid little attention to his own children (although he had more time to lavish affection on his grandchildren).  Fleming brings into her narrative many interesting aspects of Barnum the man.  For example,  at the young age of 13, Barnum turned his back on his strict Calvinist upbringing, and became a Universalist, who believed God's nature was love.  Religion was important to Barnum throughout his life, and when misfortune struck, he believed it was the will of God.  He even took the pulpit from time to time; according to Fleming, one churchgoer remembered that Barnum "talked about the nature of the Gospel and of God's love...[he] mentioned neither tigers or elephants."  

The book features the very effective use of many sidebars, photographs, drawings from the period, and ephemera such as ticket stubs, broadsides, and programs, much as in Fleming's book about the Lincolns (The Lincolns:  A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary).  Kudos should go to illustrator Ray Fenwick as well as designer Rachael Cole for their role in making this such an attractive book to browse through as well as read cover-to-cover.  

The Great and Only Barnum has received multiple awards, including:  ALA Best Books for Young Adults 2010; ALSC Notable Book 2010; Kirkus Reviews Best Young Adult Book 2009; New York Public Library 100 Books for Reading and Sharing Title; Publishers Weekly Best Book 2009; YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults 2010 (nominee).  The publisher suggests this book for ages 8-12; I would add that it is equally suitable for young adults and adults as well.  

Fleming provides an annotated bibliography, useful links to find Barnum on the web, source notes, and an index.  

Related reading:  A new novel based on the lives of several of the human curiosities housed in Barnum's museum makes an interesting read for teens (not recommended for younger readers due to some mature content). Barnum also appears as a character in the novel, entitled The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno, by Ellen Bryson (Henry Holt, 2010).  

Also, a new biography for young people of Tom Thumb, discovered by and made famous by Barnum, will be released in February 2011 by Clarion Books (Tom Thumb:  The Remarkable True Story of a Man in Miniature, by George Sullivan).  

Friday, August 27, 2010

Book Review: Crossing the Tracks, by Barbara Stuber (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2010)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Don't you love discovering a wonderful new author? I was so mesmerized by debut novelist Barbara Stuber's Crossing the Tracks that I just couldn't put it down, even when it was time for lunch, doing the laundry, or walking the dog. I fell in love with the main character, 15-year old Iris Baldwin; when the novel opens, it's 1926, and Iris' father, a shoe-store owner and widower who's soon to remarry, hires Iris out for the summer to be a companion to a country doctor's invalid mother in rural Missouri, far away from her only friend, Leroy. Iris, who narrates the novel, lost her mother when she was five, and isn't at all close to her father. He's going to Kansas City to open a new shoe store, and clearly doesn't want her along.

When Iris arrives at the Nesbitts, nothing is as she expects. Mrs. Nesbitt has fiery eyes, gold silk slippers, and a bamboo cane named Henry. Dr. Avery Nesbitt is as kind as can be, even saving an injured dog from the train tracks. Although Iris is wary of the Nesbitts' violent and abusive tenant farmer, Cecil Deets and his nasty 13-year old daughter, Dot, she begins to settle in to life at the Nesbitts, even helping Dr. Nesbitt out when he goes to deliver a neighbor's twins. The Nesbitts try to make her feel welcome and let her friend Leroy come to visit.  During the course of the novel, their friendship develops in new and more romantic directions.

But suddenly tragedy strikes, and Iris' life is turned inside out. She is forced to confront the real meaning of family; is it the people related to you by blood, or the people who cherish and nurture you?

This tender, funny, and heartbreaking novel touches on many themes that will resonate with a teen audience: the meaning of home and family, love and loyalty, dealing with grief and loss, and facing domestic violence. Iris must deal with all these in the course of one summer.  There is a suggestion of an incestuous relationship in the novel, although there are no graphic details, and because of that aspect I would recommend this book for middle school and above.  There are several romantic scenes between Iris and Leroy, and these are also handled in a tasteful manner.

One part of this novel I particularly appreciated was how much the reader grows to care about not only our main character, Iris, but the minor characters as well, who are exceptionally well-drawn.  We meet many of the people who populate the small town where the Nesbitts live, and come to know them well.  These range from the adorable dog, Marie, to Mrs. Nesbitt and even the abusive Cecil Deets and his daughter.

Warning: have plenty of tissues on hand. This is a "3-hanky" read!

See the author's website for a book club guide, a book trailer, and an excerpt from the book.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Book review: The Twin's Daughter by Lauren Baratz-Logsted (Bloomsbury, 2010)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

The Twin's Daughter is a delicious gothic tale of murder, mystery, love, and more in Victorian London. Lucy Sexton's comfortable, upper-class life is turned upside down when the doorbell rings, and the woman at the door has the identical face as her mother. It turns out they are twins separated at birth, and brought up in dramatically different circumstances--one, as a privileged, beloved adopted daughter of well-to-do-parents, and the other, in a London workhouse. Lucy's mother takes in Aunt Helen, the sister she never knew existed, and she and her husband are determined to transform her into an educated, society lady.

But what seems to be an innocuous Pygmalion-type story--there is even a ball where Helen could have danced all night--is transformed into a dark mystery when murder occurs at the Sexton house. When a horrified Lucy discovers the two sisters tied up and bloodied in the back parlor, one is dead, and the other still alive.
"But which one is it?" My mind suddenly, silently screamed. "WHICH ONE?"
And therein lies the mystery, my friends. Is it her mother who has survived this awful scene, or her aunt? Who is behind the grisly murder? and what is the motive?

Without spoiling the story, let me just say that the plot includes many twists and turns that will surprise the reader and make the novel difficult to put down, as well as a shocking ending. The book also features a romantic sub-plot involving our heroine Lucy and her neighbor, Kit. It turns out their houses are connected by a mysterious underground passage (never fully explained), where they meet for stolen kisses, at least until Kit leaves for the army. When Kit returns, will they be able to have a happy life together and will the mystery be solved?

This is the first novel I have read by Lauren Baratz-Logsted, whose other works include "chick-lit" for adults, books for children, including The Sisters Eight series, and other teen books, with both contemporary and historical settings. I would definitely read other books by this author now that I have been introduced to her very entertaining style.

Release date:  September 2010

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Boys of Summer #5: Book Review: Henry Aaron's Dream, by Matt Tavares

Recommended for ages 5-10.

Somewhere in my childhood scrapbooks, I have the 1974 Sports Illustrated cover and article from when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's home run record, and I can remember the excitement of that time.  In this beautifully illustrated oversized picture book, award-winning author/illustrator Matt Tavares concentrates not on his home run record, but on the childhood and early career of baseball legend Hank Aaron.  Tavares has previously published three other picture books about baseball:  Oliver's Game (Candlewick, 2004), Zachary's Ball (Candlewick, 2000) and Mudball (Candlewick, 2005).

The book opens with a full-page illustration of a baseball field, seen through a fence with a large sign, prominently featured, reading WHITES ONLY.  We then meet Henry Aaron as a young boy in Alabama who wants to be a big-league baseball player.  So poor that he can't afford a bat or a ball, Henry's father  reminds him that there "ain't no colored ballplayers."  There were no baseball diamonds, either, in Mobile, Alabama, either, where black kids could play ball.  When a baseball field for "Colored Only" finally opens, young Henry spends all his time there practicing, till he can hit the ball harder than anyone else.  Henry's whole world changed in 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Tavares depicts a glowing young Henry watching his idol play an exhibition game in Mobile.

Henry started his career in the Negro Leagues, figuring that might be his best chance to be discovered.  His teammates knew he wouldn't be in the Negro Leagues for long, and soon a scout for the Braves spots Henry, offering him a minor-league contract.  Like Robinson, Aaron was called racial epithets by white fans, and sent threatening letters.  He even had rocks thrown at him.  Tavares writes:
Henry didn't understand why they hated him.  All he wanted to do was play baseball...but then he remembered Jackie Robinson and all he had gone through to pave the way.  And he remembered his teammates from the Negro Leagues, who never got the chance to live their dream.  Henry focused on the ball and tried to ignore everything else.
During spring training in 1954, Henry got his chance with the majors, traveling with the big-league club during spring training.  When two outfielders were out injured, Henry was put in, and before spring training was over, he had signed his first major-league contract.  Henry's impossible dream had come true!

Oversized illustrations done in watercolor, ink, and pencil spill onto two pages, and convey a monumental, sculptural quality, especially in the use of action close-ups, that suit very well the great accomplishments of Henry Aaron.  The use of earth tones and glowing light also evoke the not-so-long ago era when black and white players began to play baseball together, but couldn't stay in the same hotels in Southern cities or even play checkers together.  We see Henry and the other two black players on his minor-league team sitting in the kitchen playing cards while their white teammates celebrate at a big party in a Savannah restaurants, where blacks were not allowed.

Here's another illustrations from the book; Aaron's classic pose in the outfield reminded me of a Greek or Roman statue of an athlete.  I particularly liked the perspective, in which the artist makes Aaron huge and everything else in the image is very small, which emphasizes his great stature as a baseball player.

An author's note provides additional biographical information about Aaron, including not only how he broke Babe Ruth's home run record in 1974, but how he spoke out about the racial injustice he faced in baseball.  A chart of Aaron's baseball stats is also included, as well as a bibliography.

An interview with Matt about this book can be found at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

For adults or teens wanting to read more on Hank Aaron, a biography entitled The Last Hero:  A Life of Henry Aaron by Howard Bryant (Pantheon, 2010) is available.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Shakespeare Fan Fiction: Reviews of Fool's Girl and Lady Macbeth's Daughter

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Shakespeare and his characters not only live forever in his own plays, but seem to inspire an endless stream of what I call "professional fan fiction"--that is, authors who use characters from other works to write unique literature of their own.  Today I'll be looking at two recent additions to the trove of Shakespeare-inspired fiction for teens:
The Fool's Girl by British author Celia Rees (Bloomsbury, 2010); and Lady Macbeth's Daughter, by American author Lisa Klein (Bloomsbury, 2009).  

The Fool's Girl:  I was eagerly anticipating reading The Fool's Girl, since I have read many of Rees' other historical novels, including Pirates!, Witch Child, and Sorceress, and have always found her books to be very compelling.  However, I have to say I was disappointed with her newest work, which I found confusing to follow and which just didn't sweep me away as her other books have done.  Inspired by Twelfth Night, which Rees says in an afterword is her favorite Shakespeare play, the novel centers around a young noble girl Violetta and her companion, Feste, the fool.  They have come to London from Illyria to rescue a holy relic, her country's greatest treasure, which the evil Malvolio has stolen and brought to England to help unite Catholics in a convoluted plot against Queen Elizabeth.  Somehow she turns to a young poet and actor, Will Shakespeare, for help in outwitting Malvolio and saving her country's heritage.  

Shakespeare himself is a key character in the story, and we meet him as a young poet and businessman trying to manage the Globe, write the plays, even serve as an actor.  We also see him as a family man, visiting his wife and daughters in Stratford-on-Avon.  

Violetta tells Will her story and that of her mother, Viola, which at the end of the novel he begins to weave into a new play, one which will turn into Twelfth Night.  Other Shakespeare plays also figure into the novel; parts of the story take place in the Forest of Arden, a wooded area near Stratford-on-Avon that is the setting for As You Like It, and the players put on Midsummer Night's Dream during the story, with Violetta playing a minor part (despite the fact that it was illegal for women to act on the stage at the time).  

Rees alternates the narration between Violetta, telling her story in the first person, Maria, formerly in the court of Violetta's mother, Feste, the fool, and a third person narrator; the profusion of narrators makes the complex story even more confusing.  For those who are intimately acquainted with Twelfth Night, the story may be less difficult to follow, but I fear this novel will be a hard sell with teens who aren't familiar with the play, or that they will start the book but not complete it.  Certainly many will be drawn to this book by the gorgeous cover (another YA novel continuing the trend of partial faces....)

I did enjoy how Rees captured the spirit of Elizabethan England with many evocative period details; I thought the section of the novel where the players travel and put on plays in the various towns where they stop was particularly well done, showing how the players transformed ordinary inns into magical theaters for the common folk (and how rare such entertainment was for those in the countryside!) 

Lady MacBeth's Daughter:  I found Lisa Klein's re-imagining of Shakespeare's Macbeth much more successful than The Fool's Girl.  In her afterword, Klein says she wanted to give an "entirely new perspective on the events of Shakespeare's play, using a protagonist who is outside the main action but crucial to its unfolding."  Instead of using a character already in the play,  Klein adds an entirely new character to Shakespeare's mix--a daughter, Albia, born to Lady Macbeth and her husband.  While in the play Lady Macbeth is barren, Klein was inspired by a scene where Lady Macbeth says to her husband, "I have given suck, and know/How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me..." (1.7.54-55).  This passage certainly suggests that Lady Macbeth had a child who subsequently died, a common enough occurrence in those times.  

In the prologue of this novel, Lady Macbeth gives birth to a girl child with a crippled leg--a child considered so worthless that she is put out for the wolves to eat.  However, Lady Macbeth's servant rescues the baby, and brings her to the woods where she is raised with no knowledge of her royal heritage by three strange sisters (the witches in the play).  

We see the essential events in Shakespeare's play unfold through two different narrators, Grelach (Lady Macbeth), and her daughter, Albia.  When Macbeth's fortune is foretold by the weird sisters, Albia's life becomes intertwined with theirs.  Sent to live with Banquo and his family to serve as companion to his wife, Albia falls in love with their handsome son, Fleance, who teaches her to use a sword and hone her "warlike spirit."  While she learns to fight, the romantic sparks fly between the two young people as well.  

It is only when her foster mother lies dying that Albia learns the truth--Macbeth, now Scotland's king, is her father, and she receives a valuable gold bracelet that belonged to her mother as proof.  Albia, like the three sisters, has the gift of sight, and realizes with horror that she is the daughter of a murderer and his wife, who are making all of Scotland suffer.  Can she save the man she loves, and her country as well?  

Albia is a take charge heroine who should appeal to girls who like characters like Katniss in The Hunger Games.  I am familiar with the original play of Macbeth, but felt this novel could be read by those who hadn't read or seen the play, and might in fact inspire them to seek out the play either for reading or to watch on DVD.  I particularly enjoyed how Klein's writing invoked the gloomy mood of the original, with its pervasive violence, witches, and battles, while still including a spark of romance that appeals to her teenage audience.  

An author's note provides some useful background on Shakespeare's own sources, as well as information on the "real" Macbeth and some of the sources the author used to so effectively recreate the atmosphere of ancient Scotland.  

Watch my blog for more on Shakespeare-inspired novels for teens in a future post.  

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Book Review: The Wake of the Lorelei Lee: a Bloody Jack Adventure, by L.A. Meyer (Harcourt, 2010)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

One of my favorite characters in young adult literature, the now 16-year old intrepid Jacky Faber, is back in her 8th action-packed adventure, having somehow survived everything from life on London's streets as an orphan, to pirates, life at a snooty New England girls' school, spying in Napoleon's army, serving as a naval lieutenant, and diving for Spanish gold (these are only a few of Jacky's many adventures that take place in prior novels in the series). 

Now rich after skimming just a little bit of gold from the treasure she dutifully turned over to the Crown , Jacky has purchased and outfitted the Lorelei Lee to carry immigrants across the Atlantic.  Our Jacky is never one to miss a potentially lucrative business opportunity!

Jacky docks in London to finally marry her beloved Jaimy and hire her crew, but alas, things never go smoothly for our spirited heroine.  She discovers Jaimy has been imprisoned and she herself is arrested and will surely hang for her supposed crimes against the Crown.   But once again, Jacky escapes the hangman's noose and instead is  sentenced to be transported along with more than 200 other female convicts to become "breeders" in the newly formed penal colony in Australia.

Having confiscated Jacky's ship, the Crown uses the Lorelei Lee to carry Jacky and a motley passenger list of madams, whores, and petty thieves. But all is not lost, for who should sign on as purser but Jacky's dear friend and frequent savior Higgins.  

Not knowing whether she'll ever see her Jaimy again, she decides to make the best of things on her long voyage.  Never one to succumb to boredom, Jacky takes advantage of the ship's stops to take on fresh food and water to dive for coins like a mermaid, to the amusement of sailors on other ships.  On their long journey to Australia, Jacky manages to pick up an "untouchable" orphan in India, who joins the ship's crew.  Along the way, Jacky later becomes the personal pet of Cheng Shih, a female Chinese pirate who controlled one of the largest pirate fleets in history.  While Jacky is travelling the world on her way to Australia, what has happened to Jaimy?  Meyer doesn't shy away from coincidence (or is it fate, or karma?), and Jaimy, too, is on his way to Australia in a convict ship.  Will they ever be reunited?

As usual, Meyer incorporates real historical events and personalities into Jacky's somewhat fantastic adventures.  In this novel, Meyer was clearly inspired by the real voyage of the British ship Lady Juliana, which sailed in 1789 (some years before 1807, when this novel takes place, according to the author's timeline for the series).  The Lady Juliana carried 226 female convicts sent to help increase the population of the fledgling colony. The ship became known as a “floating brothel,”with crew members and possibly some of the ship’s female cargo making money from the sex trade in various ports of call.  Meyer uses the names of the actual women on this ship, including Mary Wade, the youngest of the convicts (sentenced to hang at age 10 for stealing clothes), and Esther Abrahams, a Jewish prisoner who married one of the ship's officers and later became the first First Lady of Australia, as characters in his story; these women are often known as Australia's founding mothers and have been the subject of several documentariesJacky's pirate friend, Cheng Shih, was also a real person.

Although Jacky and Jaimy never seem to get together long enough to consummate their relationship beyond passionate kissing (and in this volume, a racy scene in a bathtub), Meyer hints at a possible love relationship between Jacky and pirate Cheng Shih, although no details are provided.  The extent of this relationship is left largely to the reader's imagination. 

As a huge fan of this series, I enjoyed reading Jacky's newest adventures, although I must say this was definitely not my favorite volume in the series.  Meyer alternates the narration from Jacky to Jaimy, and I didn't find the Jaimy sections as interesting.  My 15-year old daughter, also a Jacky fan, said she skimmed over all the Jaimy parts to get back to Jacky, and I did a bit of the same.  I found that this switching back and forth didn't work well, since it distracted from the main character.  

Still, fans of the series will definitely want to pick this one up.  For readers new to the series, you'll want to read them in order, starting with the first volume, Bloody Jack.  This series is also available on award-winning audiobooks, which are some of the best I have ever heard.  For more on Jacky, visit her website or see my earlier post about this character.  

Release date:  September 2010

Monday, August 16, 2010

Nonfiction Monday Book Review: Lost Boy: The Story of the Man Who Created Peter Pan, by Jane Yolen and Steve Adams (Dutton Children's Books, 2010)

Nonfiction Monday
Recommended for ages 5-10.

Jane Yolen's newest offering is a lovely picture book biography of J. M. Barrie, author of many works but known today primarily as the creator of the beloved character of Peter Pan.  This new book is particularly timely because this year is the 150th anniversary of Barrie's birth.

I'm afraid the little I knew about the real J. M. Barrie comes mostly from the 2004 Johnnie Depp/Kate Winslet film Finding Neverland, which focuses on his friendship with the family whose boys inspired the Peter Pan stories; like many historical movies, it takes plenty of liberties with the actual events.  

Yolen's book begins, appropriately,"once upon a time," with Barrie's birth in a small town in Scotland in 1860.  Born into a large family that lived in a tenement row house, Barrie liked to talk about his poor beginnings; Yolen points out, however, that he exaggerated his humble start, and his family was in fact "moderately prosperous" for the time.  We can see the inspiration for Wendy in Barrie's mother, who gathered the children around her in the evening to tell stories and read aloud from library books.  Young Jamie is a storyteller from the beginning, writing stories and plays that he would read to his mother or act out with his friends.  When he is sent away to school, he becomes enamored of the theatre, starts a theatrical society, and becomes determined to become a writer.  

Within a few years after he completes his education, his stories begin to be published in many magazines, and he became well-known.  But as Yolen writes, "he was still as small as a boy, just over five feet tall...he hardly looked famous."  While walking his enormous St. Bernard dog, Porthos (coincidentally one of the Three Musketeers!) Jamie meets the Llewelyn Davies boys, whom he begins playing with in the park, making up wild stories about pirates, Indians, fairies, islands, and more.  This family became very close to Barrie, but it was not for another six years or so that he began writing his masterpiece, Peter Pan.  Written originally as a play, the extravagant production, complete with flying actors, was an enormous success, and because Barrie donated the copyright to London's Great Ormond Hospital for Sick Children, the financial rewards continue to benefit needy children.  Yolen remarks that while most of Barrie's other works have been forgotten, the boy who never wanted to grow up will indeed live forever, not only as a play, musical, movie, and book, but even remembered in other products as mundane as peanut butter. 

The rich layout of this oversized picture book features two page spreads consisting of a one-page full-color painting depicting a real scene from Barrie's life, while the facing page contains biographical text along with a small inserted painting, depicting a related scene and quotation from one of Barrie's Peter Pan stories.  This juxtaposition of the real and imaginary is very effective, and makes the quotes from Barrie's stories even more poignant.  The artwork, with its elongated oval faces and muted palette, reminded me of Italian artist Modigliani; while it is very beautiful, I would have preferred a more Victorian look for the artwork to fit in with the time period.  However, there is a melancholy quality about the illustrations which seems to suit the sadder episodes in Barrie's life.

Peter Pan fans will be interested to know that a spectacular new theatrical production, straight from a sold-out run in London, is currently playing in San Francisco and will be coming to Orange County, California at the end of September.  From the San Francisco Sentinel: "Conceived by an award-winning creative team and featuring 22 actors, puppets, epic music, dazzling flying sequences and the world’s first 360-degree CGI theatre set, Peter Pan is a complete theatrical adventure. The cast features members of the original London production joined by local...actors making it a truly international company. The production is done in a tent theatre in the round, with state-of-the-art CGI effects." In this version, Peter Pan is actually played by a male actor, not an actress!  It's on a 20 month U.S. tour, so clearly the show will be traveling to other U.S. cities as well, but as of yet these other stops are not announced on the play's web page.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Book Review: Leaving Gee's Bend, by Irene Latham (Putnam Juvenile, 2010)

Recommended for ages 8-12.  

Although my local libraries hadn't purchased this debut novel by Irene Latham, I decided to buy it after a glowing recommendation from Jame Richards, author of Three Rivers Rising.   Leaving Gee's Bend has been getting some well-deserved pre-Newbery buzz, and was also picked for the Spring 2010 Indie Next List.  

Latham was inspired to write this book by an exhibit she visited in New York on the quilts of Gee's Bend, a small rural community in Alabama. After the Civil War, the freed slaves, who worked as sharecroppers, founded an all-black community nearly isolated from the surrounding world. The town’s women developed a distinctive quilting style passed down through at least six generations; these quilts have been exhibited in a museum show which toured major museums around the country.  

Here are some examples of some of their unique quilt designs:

Set in 1932, the novel Leaving Gee's Bend incorporates both the inspired quilting heritage of this small community and its isolated geography to tell the story of ten-year old Ludelphia, who may have only one eye that works but still has plenty of chores to do. 

Her mama's about to have a baby any minute, and is sick with a terrible cough, but the one thing that can make Mama smile no matter what is stitching quilts.  Ludelphia tells us:
Mama always says every quilt tells a story.  Every piece of cloth, every stitch and every bit of cotton stuffed between the seams tells a secret about the one who made the quilt. 
Ludelphia's beginning a quilt all about her own story, intended as a special gift for her Mama.  She's always got a needle and bits of cloth in her pocket, and has been sewing since she was a "little bitty girl."  Her Mama says she was "born to stitch," but their family's so poor she makes use of scraps from patched up clothes.  

When Mama's baby comes too soon and Mama gets even sicker, Ludelphia decides she has to go fetch a "real doctor" all the way from Camden, even though there's no money to pay him.  But to get there, she has to cross the river, and she's got no time to wait for the ferryman.  Crossing by herself, she winds up way downstream, where Ludelphia discovers a new world, one with fancy houses for white people with real glass panes, motor cars, delicious food, and even genuine Coca-Cola.  But there's danger too, with a crazy white lady who threatens to come to Gee's Bend and take everything they've got.  But Ludelphia knows she can't give up, no matter what.  She's got to help Mama, and also help her neighbors in Gee's Bend.  

Quilting throughout this book is a metaphor--as she pieces a quilt, Ludelphia has to figure out where to put the pieces of cloth, but also the pieces of her life.  And some stories just can't go in a quilt, Ludelphia tells us--you have to keep them in your heart.

While this story is fictional, the author incorporates some real incidents in the history of Gee's Bend into her narrative, which she discusses in an Author's Note.  This is a heartwarming novel with a strong female protagonist who takes charge of her own destiny, no matter how frightening.  
Latham is definitely a new talent to keep your eye on; her next middle grade novel, Don't Feed the Animals, is about the son of a zoo director mom and elephant keeper dad who struggles to escape the confines of zoo life.  I'm looking forward to reading that one!

Also, take a moment to check out Latham's terrific blog; I especially liked her recent post Embracing My Inner Barbie, inspired by Toy Story 3 (I am a closet Barbie collector--quite literally, since they are all in my closet these days!).  

Those interested in learning more about Gee's Bend might also enjoy reading a recent picture book on the topic by Patricia McKissack and Cozbi Cabrera,  Stitchin' and Pullin': A Gee's Bend Quilt (Random House, 2008).  

Leaving Gee's Bend is the third excellent book published this year that's set during the Great Depression and features a memorable girl heroine; perhaps it is our own economic crisis that is inspiring writers for young people to reach back to the 1930's, another difficult era in our history.  The other two are Kimberly Newton Fusco's The Wonder of Charlie Anne and Jennifer Holm's Turtle in Paradise.  

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Book Review: 90 Miles to Havana, by Enrique Flores-Galbis (Roaring Brook Press, 2010)

Recommended for ages 8-12.

Author and artist  Enrique Flores-Galbis has written an exciting coming of age story based on his own experiences as one of the 14,000 Cuban children sent from Cuba to the U.S. without their parents in 1961 in Operation Pedro Pan, the largest exodus ever in the Western hemisphere of unaccompanied children.

The book opens with Julian, his two older brothers, their father and their family cook, Bebo, on their annual New Year's Eve fishing trip.  Julian's main concern is his embarrassment over losing the enormous fish he had hooked, since he desperately wants to impress his older brothers with his heroism.  But more serious problems will soon be facing Julian and his family.  Revolution has come to the streets of Havana, and their affluent neighborhood begins to turn into a ghost town, as families leave the country.  Soon Julian and his brothers board a plane to Miami, with the hope that their parents will soon be joining them.

But the refugee camp where they are sent is nothing like the summer camp that they expect; the overcrowded facility is ruled by a nasty bully, Caballo.  Because there are not enough adults to properly supervise the facility, the adults rely on Caballo to keep order.  But when Caballo takes Julian's prized drawing-pad, which is one of his only precious objects from home, Julian has had enough.  Dolores, the kind camp cook, suggests that Julian use the democratic way to organize a resistance movement to get back at Caballo--their own revolution against the bully dictator.  When Julian plays his last trick on Caballo, he knows he has to leave the camp--or else. 

Luckily for Julian, he is taken in by Tomas, who's fixing up a boat that he intends to use to illegally transport people from Cuba.  Julian desperately wants his parents to be included, so his family can finally be reunited.  When he sails to Cuba with Tomas to pick up the refugees, he's in for the adventure of his life.  Will Julian finally become a hero?

Flores-Galbis does an excellent job in this novel of showing us the Cuban revolution from a young child's point of view.  While Julian doesn't understand everything that's going on, he has to deal in his own way with the trauma of being separated from his parents and everything he has ever known.  Julian has to grow up in ways he never expected and fight against bullies, loneliness, and loss.  This is a book that is likely to appeal equally to boys and girls, who will identify with the very sympathetically portrayed main character.

This mass exodus of children from Cuba immediately called to mind for me the Kindertransport of Jewish children to England during World War II.  However, unlike the Jewish children who were sent away to escape death at the hands of the Nazis, these children were sent away by parents who feared that their children would be taken from them by the new revolutionary governments and sent away to be "re-educated," or indoctrinated with Communist beliefs.  Many also believed that their teenage sons would be forced to become soldiers in the military, and sent them to the U.S. to escape that fate. While about half of the minors were immediately reunited with relatives or friends at the airport, the rest were placed in temporary shelters in Miami, and eventually relocated to orphanages and foster families in 30 states.

Children arriving through Pedro Pan
For more on the history of Operation Pedro Pan, see the website for alumni of the program.

This is the second novel for young readers to be published on this previously little-known topic this year, the other being the critically acclaimed novel The Red Umbrella by debut novelist Christina Gonzalez.  

An excerpt from 90 Miles to Havana can be read here.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Tween Tuesday

Artemis Fowl: The Graphic NovelImage via Wikipedia
One of my favorite bloggers, Sarah over at GreenBeanTeenQueen, has kindly allowed me to write a guest post for her blog today on the Artemis Rocks show, in which Irish author Eoin Colfer interviewed his famous anti-hero, Artemis Fowl, on stage in Pasadena, California.  Check out her blog to read all about this inside look at Artemis!
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Monday, August 9, 2010

Nonfiction Monday Book Review: My Uncle Martin's Big Heart, by Angela Farris Watkins and Eric Velasquez (Abrams, 2010)

Recommended for ages 4-8.

There are many books for young people available about Martin Luther King, Jr., but this new picture book adds a different and welcome dimension to the usual biographies of the famous civil rights leader.  

Written by Martin Luther King's niece, Angela Farris Watkins, who was almost 4 years old when King was assassinated, the book offers a highly personal reminiscence of the man, not the icon.  

The author's voice used throughout the book is Angela herself as a young girl (although a bit older than she actually was at the time), and although she is aware of her uncle as a great leader and an American hero, she concentrates on the man she knew as Uncle M.L., the family's special nickname for him.  We see a man who loved to laugh and make others laugh, who loved to spend time with his family, and who although he worked very long hours, managed to find time not only for his own immediate family, but for his nieces and nephews as well!  We even see Uncle M.L. spread out sleeping on Angela's family sofa with his shoes on, obviously a big no-no in the house, but OK for uncle M.L., since he was so tired from his hard work.

Angela also talks about Uncle M.L. the preacher and his great voice, and there's a delightful depiction of one of her favorite memories of her uncle, where she would run up to him after he finished on the pulpit for a great big hug, dressed in her "very best church dress."  

In the end, the author emphasizes that Uncle M. L.'s big heart full of love was what made him so special--his love not only for his family, but for America.  In an author's note, she writes:  
I wrote this book so that children could get to know Martin Luther King Jr. the way I knew him when I was a child, through his love...I want them to see how much love he really had--enough to share with his family and his friends, enough to encourage his church, enough to strengthen his community, and enough to change the world.
With this lovely new book, Angela Farris Watkins has succeeded admirably in her goal.  This will make an excellent addition to both school and public libraries, and would be a terrific read-aloud for elementary school classrooms when learning about Dr. King.

The beautifully realized painted illustrations by Eric Velasquez, who has illustrated many other historical picture books, capture the warm relationship King had with his family, as well as carefully detailing the period setting through use of archival photographs.  

This would be an excellent book to combine with My Brother Martin:  A Sister Remembers Growing Up with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Simon & Schuster, 2003), written by Christine King Farris (the author's mother).  

Friday, August 6, 2010

Book Review: Resistance: Book I, by Carla Jablonski and Leland Purvis (First Second, 2010)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

The variety and quality of graphic novels for both young people and adults that are published in the U.S. and abroad is growing every year, and Resistance, the first in a new trilogy of graphic novels about the French Resistance during World War II is a worthy addition not only to graphic novel collections but also to the wealth of Holocaust literature for children and teens.

The author opens the story by providing some necessary historical background on the Nazi innovation of France in 1940 and the subsequent division of the country into Occupied France, run directly by the Nazis, and "Free France," run by the Vichy government, who collaborated with the Nazis.  Paul, a budding artist, his sister, Marie, and his mother live at the Hotel Tessier; Paul's father is a prisoner-of-war.  Paul's own drawings, with ragged edges that make it look as if they were torn straight from his sketchpad, provide a running commentary on the plot, and are interspersed with the story panels, offering his personal insights into the characters he encounters.  

However, Paul's problems are nothing compared to those of his friend Henri Levy, a Jew who they hide in their wine caves when the Nazis take over their hotel.  As the Nazis begin deporting Jews and closing Jewish businesses in the Occupied Zone in 1942, Paul, Marie and the other children in the town struggle to understand what is going on.  "Is it bad to be Jewish?" Marie asks her brother.  "Of course not," he replies, but he's unable to explain to her why the Jews are being taken away.

When Paul learns of the secret Resistance movement fighting in many ways against the Nazis, he wants to help.  While initially he's told he's too young, the local leader realizes that young children could be perfect for transporting information, since no one would suspect them.  Soon they are given a test, to see if they are trustworthy.  Paul's drawing talent even comes in handy, when he is asked to draw vehicles the Nazis have at the hotel and anything that they install on the grounds.  Quickly they are entrusted with a dangerous mission--transporting information to Paris right under the Germans' noses--and helping their Jewish friend Henri locate his parents.  

The suspense builds on the train ride, as violence erupts.  Will Marie and Paul be able to complete their first mission successfully?

Jablonski does a terrific job in recreating the confusion and moral ambiguity of the period.  In a thoughtful Author's Note at the conclusion of the story, she discusses the role of ordinary people who took action against the Germans to liberate France.  However obvious right and wrong seems to us now, Jablonski points out that there "are different versions of 'the truth,'...History as lived is anything but clear!...what seems obvious to us now was probably not at all obvious to anyone then."  She emphasizes the difficulty of making choices--even if that choice was doing nothing.  Purvis' illustrations, ranging from his grim depictions of Nazi roundups and deportations, colored in dark tones of blue and gray, to the angst-filled expressions on the passengers' faces while having their documents inspected by Nazi soldiers on the trains, greatly enhance the suspense and drama of the story.

Jabonski is the author of numerous other novels for teens and middle-grade readers, and she is also an actress, playwright, and trapeze performer (!)  Purvis has illustrated numerous other graphic novels for young readers, including several historical fiction titles.  

There are not a large number of graphic novels for young people focusing on this period; however, teen readers who are interested in the period might want to read the graphic novel classic Maus I:  A Survivor's Tale, by Art Spiegelman; younger readers (9-12) may want to consider the graphic novel Goodbye Marianne:  A Story of Growing Up in Nazi Germany, by Irene Watts and Katherine Shoemaker (Tundra Books, 2008).

Two other excellent historical fiction titles for young people about the French Resistance are For Freedom:  The Story of a French Spyby Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Laurel Leaf, 2005), and Sirens and Spies, by Janet Taylor Lisle (Aladdin, 2002).   These are both suitable for ages 10 and up.

On a related note, a graphic novel of the iconic Holocaust book, Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, has just been published in Europe and will be published in the U.S. later this summer (see link below).

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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Author Interview: Kimberly Newton Fusco

Thanks so much to Kimberly Newton Fusco, the author of the terrific new middle-grade novel, The Wonder of Charlie Annefor agreeing to this author interview!

Q:  Charlie Anne has such a distinctive voice in this novel.  What inspired you to tell her story?  

A:  There was a little girl who lived across the road from my grandmother’s house in Maine .  She had to watch her little brother and do chores from morning till night, or so it seemed to me. This was very upsetting because she had a pony and I wanted to play with her and ride the pony! I have thought about her a lot over the years, about how she didn’t have time to play. So she was the first twinkling of an idea that led to Charlie Anne.

The first chapter actually began as a poem for my writing group.  I am very interested in what “women’s work” has been through the ages.  When I heard Charlie Anne’s voice for the first time, I was nearing the end of another novel. I scrapped that book because Charlie Anne’s voice was so powerful and strong. There was no looking back!

Q:  I loved how the cows in this book were almost extensions of Charlie Anne, providing mirrors into her feelings, particularly her grief over her mother's death.  I understand from your author's note that you spent a lot of time on a dairy farm as a young girl.  Are cows a particular favorite of yours?  And what is the story with vinegar pie?  I was hoping for a recipe at the end of the book!

A:  I loved being on family farms in Maine when I was young.  I live with my husband and children in a rural town in Rhode Island now and although we don’t have cows (we have our sheep, Daisy and Wilbur) there are many cows on neighboring farms.  While writing Charlie Anne, I rode my bike to the fields up the road, crawled through the barbed wire fence and watched them..

As for vinegar pie, I got that idea while I was researching the Great Depression.  Here’s the recipe I found (and tried) while I was writing the book. 

1/2 c. butter, softened
2 tbsp. cider vinegar
1 (8 inch) unbaked pie shell
3 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 1/4 c. sugar

Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, vinegar, and vanilla. Pour into unbaked pie shell. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes or until inserted knife comes out clean.

Q:  Before turning to children's fiction, you spent many years as a journalist.  How does your writing process differ writing novels vs. when you were a journalist?  Are you still involved in journalism or are you writing fiction only now 

A:  I only write fiction now, but journalism taught me that everyone has a story if you only take the time to listen.  Journalism taught me that the difference between a great story and a lousy one is research. I was on cloud nine when two women who attended a one room schoolhouse in Rehoboth , Massachusetts, during the Great Depression shared their memories with me. Where else could I have found the “standing in the trash bucket” punishment?

Q:  You have four children; do their personalities and experiences influence your writing?  If so, how?   

A:  Many, many parts of my books come from ideas I get from watching my children.  My sons and daughters have all loved climbing trees and fishing and running all over our six acres and splashing in the brook that runs across our land.  The chicken races that Mirabel gets so angry about were actually something my daughters made up as a birthday party game when we had a flock of Rhode Island Reds.  Also, the song that Rosalyn sings when combing Phoebe’s hair is a song that I made up so I would remember to brush my daughters’ hair gently.

Q:   What writing projects are you currently working on?  

A:  I have just finished a draft of my next novel and sent it to my editor at Knopf.

Q:  You mention on your website that Harriet the SpyIsland of the Blue Dolphins, and Where the Red Fern Grows are particular favorites from your childhood.  What current authors for young people do you particularly admire?

A:  I love Karen Cushman.  I have also recently enjoyed The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and The Underneath by Kathi Appelt.   I can’t answer a question like this without saying that The Diary of Anne Frank is the best book for young people that I have ever read.

Q:  What books are currently on your nightstand?  

A:  The novel, Les Miserables. When I read it in high school, I knew that my decision in sixth grade to become a writer was the right one!  The novel is amazing.  The action is so fast-paced that I have to force myself to slow down and enjoy the prose. I am halfway through now and can’t wait to get back to reading it.

Q:  Charlie Anne clearly suffers from dyslexia, although it's never named as such in the novel, and the heroine of your first novel, Tending to Grace, has a severe stutter.  Could you comment on whether you are particularly drawn to characters with disabilities?  

A:  I was a child who stuttered, so yes, I am drawn to characters who have the courage to put on bigger boots and keep going, no matter what the difficulty.

Q:  What is the funniest question you've ever been asked at a school visit?  

A:  “Do I really eat all the food that Agatha serves Cornelia in Tending to Grace”?   The answer is yes!  Or at least I have tried   them all.  My parents used to take us hiking and foraging for wild foods when I was a child.  My father is very knowledgeable and we collected fiddleheads, dandelions, wild mushrooms, poke, sorrel and more.  I can still brew a pretty good cup of sassafras tea!