Monday
Apr142014

Across a War-Tossed Sea

Wrap a cherry in dark chocolate and you’ve improved both the cherry and the dark chocolate. Weave accurate history into a good story and you’ve improved both the history and the story.

L. M. Elliott in Across a War-Tossed Sea does just that in her middle grade novel that begins on Labor Day 1943 just east of Richmond, Virginia. Charles and Wesley Bishop, two of the lucky group of children able to flee the German bombings in London, come to America to live with the Ratcliff family. Charles, as the oldest, bears the burden of being father, mother, and big brother to Wesley as well as rising to the challenge given by British officials as they leave to "be good little ambassadors for England.”

Wesley struggles with hallucinations and nightmares recalling the Nazi submarine bombings of the ships in their convoy at night. In daylight, he waffles between wanting Charles’s protection and his independence as he strategizes how to deal with bullies.

The boys are drawn into community activities – salvaging items to use in the war effort, playing football games, collecting milkweed pods to stuff life preservers, and creating the Halloween haunted house.

Their English background causes problems as Wesley learns capitals of states that have little meaning to him, loses out on the spelling bee when he uses the English spelling of n-e-i-g-h-b-o-u-r instead of the American n-e-i-g-h-b-o-r, and sometimes has his intent brought into question because of the difference in British and American meanings for words.

Interwoven with their personal stories are difficulties around them. There are war related challenges to daily life. Prejudices between those who share a language but not a nationality, toward native Americans who were here first, and especially against the Negros living in the segregated community accurately influence the characters in the story.

A good story with history that rings true makes this quite right for a historical fiction fan like me. I think I'll celebrate with a chocolate covered cherry.

Friday
Apr112014

Noah and Junior High

“Everybody get out a pencil and piece of paper and write a poem about peace.” Mrs. Fried gave the command to a junior high class back in the eighties. Darron Aronofsky, director of the movie Noah, described her as a “magical teacher” on CBS This Morning on March 29, 2014. I rewound the interview several times to be sure I heard and recorded it right.

Darron dutifully wrote his poem about Noah, though I have no idea how he connected it with peace. He entered and won a contest with the poem and from that point saw himself as a writer. Thirty-two years later, he became the director of the movie.  Thinking that he needed to honor the teacher who put him on this track, he looked her up and cast her in a scene with Russell Crowe. This was a story to warm a retired junior high teacher’s heart until her picture came up. He cast her as a one-eyed crone! She gets maybe thirty seconds of time in the movie.

I think I did better with the junior high student who wrote me a recommendation to send to the selection committee when I was nominated for Teacher of the Year. He did characterize me as a “sorceress” and said I taught him to “soak my writings as well as my decisions in a deep cauldron of thought to rid them of mistakes.” His accompanying portrait was a good likeness, embellished with a sorceress ruff and a wand.

With this connection, I had to see the movie. It was a creative telling of the story with a passing nod at the Noah of the Bible and none at all to the Sunday school version where the animals line up gently two by two to march into the ark. Truth to tell, you’ll get closer to that in Shel Silverstein’s poem “The Unicorn.” The Lord in his quest for two of everything said, “Noah, don’t you forget my Unicorn,” but the unicorns kept playing silly games out in the driving rain until Noah had to close the door because “We just can’t wait for them Unicorn.” The poet’s conclusion was, “You’ll see catsandratsandelephants, but sure as you’re born, you’re never gonna see no Unicorn.”

Mrs. Fried lived up to the standard for junior high teachers everywhere and portrayed the stereotype of an old crone, as they are often seen by students – at least until they’re mature enough to appreciate what they’re learning. I’m sure Mrs. Fried is proud of the success of her student as I am. You may wonder what happened to him. He’s making a name for himself in the field of graphic arts. My story – and I’m sticking to it – is that he got his start when he drew pictures in his corner desk during class discussions and impartations of great wisdom from his teacher.

Monday
Apr072014

New Life, No Instructions

Trust me, this book is not what you think from looking at the title. When I saw New Life, No Instructions: A Memoir in the list of possible choices of advance reading memoirs, I assumed it would be a new mother saga. While I have had that experience and thought I could relate, there are many ways of finding new life. This one has nothing to do with children, but it addresses the often overlooked truth that improvement in one’s life carries adjustments that may not be easy.

Gail Caldwell hardly had been introduced to life when polio struck her at six months old and left its mark even as she recovered from the disease. Her mother’s determination egged her on to do “just a few more” exercises until she learned to walk after her second birthday. That determination could not make her an athlete. Gail accommodated and made a life with the residual limp an accepted part of her existence. She substituted things she could do – hunting and fishing with her father, swimming, reading.

Gail’s life contained many of the things common to other people – loss by death of a close friend, her parents, and a beloved dog; struggles with alcohol; relationships that soured. Her lifetime of living with the aftereffects of polio that left one leg shorter than the other seemed almost normal to her. She was so young when she had polio that she did not remember a difference. When she developed intense pain well into adulthood, both she and the doctors mistakenly assumed it to be adult outcome of the same disease. There would be several doctors and much time before a more accurate diagnosis came.

Finding the doctor who finally diagnosed correctly that she needed hip replacement coincided with her acquisition of a new Samoyed puppy. The dog and surgery, which also lengthens her leg, bring new adjustments even though both are positive changes in her life. The added 5/8 inch in her right leg didn’t sound like much difference to me. She said the number didn’t sound that different to her either. However, her perceptions of height in her friends and even her animals changed, and it took a while for her to walk comfortably with what would seem like a “normal” leg to the reader.

With a couple of friends who deal with adult leftovers from polio as a child, I related to her well-told story. She weaves together the story of the dog who brings emotional therapy with the physical healing as her hip is replaced and her leg lengthened. I recommend the book to those who are close to someone whose life was touched long ago or who struggles today with the enduring or recurring effects of polio or to those who love a story of someone who can cut the good parts out of a life filled with wormy apples to make applesauce.

Friday
Apr042014

Awards Season

You might think that awards season is over. We’ve had the Emmys, Oscars, and Golden Globes. In these awards, who won the fashion show on the red carpet seemed almost as important as the award itself. I was quite pleased that I had actually seen a couple of the movies in the running this year. My non-involved attendance was via TV.

A much louder award presentation came at the American Library Association with the list of their awards, climaxed by the Caldecott and Newbery Awards. I felt more involved, thanks to modern technology, as ALA made it possible to tune in the live action by computer and hear the announcements as they were made. Let me tell you, librarians can rival basketball fans at the Final Four in their noise for favorite winners. I cheered along at home for books and writers I knew. I had read or will read many of these, and several have appeared in my blogs.

The awards are not over yet! Next week, during the Faye B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival, the Ezra Jack Keats Awards for New Writers and New Illustrators will be presented. These awards may not be as famous as some of the others, but they have highlighted writers and illustrators at the beginning of their careers when recognition might otherwise be scarce. Writers and illustrators like Deborah Wiles, Faith Ringgold, Bryan Collier, Meg Medina, Don Tate, and Jennifer Lanthier have gone on to win many other awards that are perhaps better known to the public. Those awards include Caldecott, Newbery, Coretta Scott King, Pura Belpre, and many state and humanitarian recognitions. Check out the entire list at http://ezra-jack-keats.org.ejk-new-writer-and-new-illustrator-awards.

The Keats Award winners will be recognized next week at the Thursday luncheon of the Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival at the University of Southern Mississippi. If past experience is an indicator, the recipients will have attendees laughing and crying in their acceptance speeches at this honor early in their literary journey. Those of us who have followed where honorees have traveled after winning this award will be taking notes as we get in on the ground floor of who to watch for in coming years as wea few of my favorite Keats Award Winners from my collection buy children’s books.

I’m moving closer to the award presentations all the time This time I’m aiming for the front row! Since this is poetry month, I’ll borrow from Robert Frost and say, “You come, too.” All you need to know about attending is at https://www.usm.edu/childrens-book-festival.

Monday
Mar312014

The Mark of the Dragonfly

For the scrapper child Piper and for the reader, questions abound in The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson.
•    Does Piper dare stay out during the meteor storm in order to beat the other scrappers to the best finds to sell?
•    Why are two horse-drawn wagons breaking the rules by being out during the meteor shower?
•    Will her friend Micah survive after being hit by flying debris from the storm-tossed caravan?
•    Who is Anna and why was she traveling on the caravan?
•    Why does Anna have the mark of the green dragonfly indicating protection by Aron, king of the dragonfly territories?
•    If Piper helps Anna, will this bring her a huge reward or will it help the enemy who caused her father’s death?
•    Why can’t Anna remember her past and who she is?
•    Why does the sarnun Reanoll give Piper the prediction, “You should know if you abandon her, she will certainly die.”
•    What does mysterious sarnun mean when she says “I sense the reward you will receive for helping the child get to Noveen will be greater than anything you can imagine”? And what is the danger for Piper and Anna if she follows through as Reanoll adds, “It will also be so horrifying to you. Neither of you will be able to stand it”?
•    Who should Piper trust? – Gee, the green-eyed boy guarding the entrance to Train 401; Trimble, the fireman; its conductor Jeyne; the sarnun Reanoll, or the man who claims to be Anna’s father.

Getting me involved in reading fantasy is a challenge. My preference is historical fiction, biography, or realistic contemporary fiction. Yet I found myself reading “just one more chapter” more than once before I could bring myself to turn out the bedside lamp, recalling the 9-12 year old girl in me that has never quite gone away.

As for the questions, they were all answered to my satisfaction except the one about Micah. It seemed a loose green thread left hanging. Perhaps Ms. Johnson is coming back with a sequel to take care of him.