Finishing School?

Reading out of my comfort zone and almost out of my vocabulary has fulfilled the advice by TV pundits this week. I’ve been reading a series of books by Gail Carriger in the steampunk category. Now, steampunk is not in the dictionary I normally use, and my computer keeps underlining it in red, hence the “almost out of my vocabulary.” However, Google comes to the rescue with several sources that define it as a subgenre of science fiction based on steam power inventions taking place in an historical period or fantasy world. First recorded use of the word is 1987, and it now covers clothing styles as well as literature.

Better than the definition, let me take you to the recipe Gail Carriger uses for Etiquette and Espionage, Courtesies and Conspiracies, and Waistcoats and Weaponry. Start with a world reminiscent of Jane Austin with a mother who sends her daughter Sophronia off to finishing school where the cover of learning the niceties in life cloaks a course in intrigue and espionage. Locate the school on a floating dirigible. Stir in an element of trust problems with werewolves, vampires, Picklemen, Pistons, and flywaymen. Blend in catty girls, sibling rivalry, and romance.  Add mechanicals, hurliers, and crystalline valve prototypes. Season to taste with Victorian vocabulary and humor.

Given a chance to review the advance copy of Waistcoats and Weaponry that was released early this month, I decided I needed to read them all in order. That worked well with each building on the previous book. In this case, each one seems to improve on the last which does not always happen in series.

Bumbershoot, Sophronia’s mechanical, in the form of a reticule demonstrates Carriger’s ability to combine Victorian language, the steam power mechanical, and fun. In fact, her humor sometimes delves into deliberately inserting something of the modern day into this fantasy world – “with a maniacal laugh that, if inscribed for posterity, might have been written as ‘Mua ha ha’.”

These are books for readers who like this genre and for those like me who could live in a world of historical fiction and nonfiction but like to expand their horizons. The advice from the TV pundits advocated taking on something different outside your comfort zone for continuing mental sharpness. I’ve done that and feel infinitely sharper for having followed Sophronia and her friends and enemies through an unusual world. Now, I have a biography calling.


It's Back

It may come as a surprise to those unacquainted with the system that the Army takes into no consideration the need of employment for military spouses in its timing of orders. Let me tell you about it.

We arrived in Germany at the end of September, too late for this diehard teacher to be employed. The woods were full of other spouses in my predicament to the point that the schools could, and did, require even substitutes to be qualified to teach their appointed grade or subject. Only one fulltime job came open during that year. With twenty-five qualified applicants, I felt honored to make the final four, even though I did not get the job. Knowing that I needed to be in a classroom for my own satisfaction and having heard that subbing was a foot in the door for next year’s placements, I signed up.

One of my first gigs was a week or so in my daughter’s fifth grade classroom. I wondered how she would handle this, but I was not to worry long. Two girls tried out the new sub before the first recess. Let’s just say I drew a deep line in the sand. They cornered Anna before she was far out the door, “Your mama’s mean.”

Unmoved, Anna replied, “She wouldn’t be if you didn’t make her.”

Having lost their battle with both Anna and me, they settled down and became part of a class that was a joy. They reminded me, in case I had forgotten, that Mrs. San Filippo had a read-aloud started. They expected the routine continued after lunch every day. Fine by me. The book was The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill.

The close of each chapter left them begging for more. Inclined in the same direction, I promised an extra chapter if all work was completed in time to read before the buses ran. You wouldn’t believe how those fifth graders stayed on task!

The problem came in explaining to Mrs. San Filippo when she returned why she didn’t have at least a week left on the book. The librarian resolved the issue by recommending another book chosen especially for that teacher and that class.

I was excited to see in the latest Horn Book Magazine that The Pushcart War has a fiftieth anniversary edition coming out. I do think I’ll have to have a copy – and maybe find a fifth grader to share it with.

Oh, yes, that foot-in-the-door thing? The next year that same librarian recommended read-aloud books chosen especially for this teacher and her second graders.


Discovering Picture Books

Oddly enough, my love for picture books began the summer I was thirteen. Before that time, libraries were largely nonexistent in the rural communities and schools where we lived. Stories came from our reading books at school and orally from Mama who could have competed with any of the professional storytellers I’ve ever heard. Once we got past Dick and Jane, the readers had some pretty nice tales. I remember one I read in third grade about a little girl who made omelets for soldiers. From an exotic place (France) with an exotic name (Yvonne), she enticed me to decide I’d like to go there one day. Of course, the name was only exotic after I learned that it was not pronounced “Y-vonne.” The Army fulfilled my wish for two and a half years with my husband’s assignment just outside Paris, but I digress.

In a bargain with the State of Mississippi, Mama taught with what was termed an “emergency certificate” in a remote rural community – even more rural than the one in which we lived. Her end of the bargain was completing six hours of college classes toward her teaching certificate every summer. Ironically, word got out that the county superintendent of education said her best first grade teacher was at Laws Hill. That would be Mama. Laws Hill didn’t have two.

On this particular summer, Mama took Kiddie Lit, or Children’s Literature, if you want to be proper. My contribution to her returning to class was baby-sitting one ornery and two agreeable sisters, doing piles of ironing including two or three starched white shirts per day for my preacher father, and cooking in a hot kitchen to keep meals for six on the table. My well-earned and quite adequate reward was exposure to Mama’s homework. I enjoyed her text, Anthology of Children’s Literature, edited by Johnson, Scott, and Sickels, but the picture books were the best – Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag; Blueberries for Sal by Robert McClosky; Petunia by Roger Duvoisin; The Little House and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton and that funny Dr. Seuss guy with his And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street and Green Eggs and Ham. By the end of the summer, I was gleefully hooked on picture books.

November is picture book month, and I’m celebrating with Mama’s old text, generously returned to my possession by the youngest sister, and an array of picture books – the oldies that are well worn from children and students and some new ones from last week’s Louisiana Book Festival. I invite you to join me, at least virtually, in your local library or bookstore for the celebration. You’re never too old for picture books – at least until you are too old for a turn in the porch swing, a cone of ice cream, or a trip to the zoo.


The Poppy Lady

If you've wondered at all about how the red poppies associated with Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day came to be, you’ve probably thought of Lt. Colonel John McCrae’s poem, “We Shall Not Sleep.” It concludes with the memorable line, “We shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields.” You would be partially right.

In her book The Poppy Lady, published by Calkins Creek and illustrated by Layne Johnson, Barbara Elizabeth Walsh tells the story of Moina Belle Michael. Concern for soldiers led Moina to join efforts to knit socks and sweaters.

Wanting to do more becomes a theme in the book. She rolled bandages for the Red Cross. She formed personal relationships with the soldiers and gave them a small remembrance as they headed overseas. She trained to become a canteen worker and established a place for soldiers to come and relax when they had time off.

Reading John McCrae’s poem led her to her most lasting contribution to soldiers and their families just two days before the war’s end. She went on a poppy hunt in New York, finding twenty-four small silk poppies and one large one. She wrote her own promise of a continuing remembrance in a response verse to “We Shall Not Sleep.”

This picture book includes well-researched additional resources in the back matter, making it a good choice also for older children and adults who are interested in the origin of the poppies distributed on Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day by the VFW, its Ladies Auxiliary, and the American Legion. As a bonus, a portion of the book’s proceeds support the National Military Family Association’s Operation Purple which benefits children of the U. S. military.

I recommend reading the book and John McCrae’s poem together.


The Walled City

Tension begins with the three rules of survival in the first paragraph of The Walled City by Ryan Graudin and builds relentlessly until the very end. “Run fast. Trust no one. Always carry your knife.” Based on the now demolished walled city of Kowloon, Hong Kong, the gripping story rings true.

Three young people caught in the midst of human trafficking and drug dealing look for a way out of the walled city and the circumstances of their lives. Mei Lei, sold by her father into a brothel where she has been locked up and used for two years, appears to have no hope for anything better. Jin, her spunky younger sister, passes for a boy with swift legs in a hard scrabble existence among the homeless trying to keep herself safe while never losing hope of finding Mei Lei. She will leave the problem of where they will go when she finds her sister in the back of her mind until later. Returning home is not an option since her father would only sell Mei Lei again. Dai, hiding secrets from his past, traffics drugs from the drug lord and looks for a way to his own freedom and to redemption from the guilt he carries.

The calendar turns, beginning at 18 Days. The time belongs to Dai who has been trapped for seven hundred and thirty days with eighteen left to work his risky plan.  He needs someone who can run fast. To be sure the reader does not relax, occasional page breaks mark the time 16 Days . . . 14 Days  . . . 9 Days . . . 6 Days . . . 1 Day.

While the book is fiction and the time is long ago, it brings awareness to real problems that have not gone away since drug dealers and human traffickers are still in business. The author includes the drugs, violence, and prostitution that are necessary to the story but not in a gratuitous or sensational way. I recommend the book to those on the upper end of the 12 – 17 year old group for which it was written and for those who want a compassionate look at how and why young people, and those not so young, get trapped into this lifestyle.