Monday
Sep292014

Ready, Set, Celebrate!

Since this is my birthday, I have only one thing on my “To Do” list – my customary Monday greeting to my regular [and occasional] loyal blog readers. I’m prepared to celebrate another wonderful year past and to anticipate the one ahead for the rest of the day. I have my Almond Joy bag, a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle, and the first two books in Deborah Wiles trilogy.

I requested our library to purchase these books that are getting a lot of chatter among book lovers – Countdown published in 2010 and Revolution that came out this year. I love the Oak Grove public librarians! They bought the books and had them shelved face out the next time I came to the library. I checked them out.

The following week, buzz began as Revolution made the longlist for the National Book Award! I’ve even heard it mentioned in Newbery speculations, but it will still come second. I’m reading them in order.

Will I get the candy eaten, the puzzle completed, and the books read today? Probably not. It might have to be a week-long celebration, but I’m starting right now!

Friday
Sep262014

The Giver

None of my students thought Jonas was dead at the end. Yet, “Does Jonas die?” was the most asked question about The Giver, according to Lois Lowry in her speech a few years ago at the Faye B. Kaigler Book Festival. For seven years, I read the book aloud to eighth graders. My students and I never even thought of that question since we felt assured at the end that hope and joy had come to Jason and the baby Gabriel. We did ponder a different question.

Seeing the movie brought back memories of discussions that rose from the book. I give credit to parents who were willing, even eager, for their children to think and reason about difficult issues and never questioned my selection of this frequently banned book.

As always, I wondered if the movie would measure up to the book. Though the time frame and age of the protagonists were altered, I was reassured that Lois herself felt the movie had remained true to the spirit of the book.

I enjoyed the movie and found Lois’s assessment essentially correct. Of course, when one loves a book that is made into a movie, there is almost inevitably something amiss or lacking. I found the mark on the arm that distinguished those destined to become The Receiver less effective than the “pale eyes” of the book. I did, however, like the hand to hand transition of memories as Jonas and The Giver faced each other better than the book’s version of giving them with The Giver’s hands on Jonas’s back as he lay on a bed.

In the end, I would give my usual evaluation when I have enjoyed both a book and the movie made from it. The movie was good, but the book was better. I recommend experiencing both.

My different question about the book requires a spoiler alert so read further at your own discretion. In the very end of the book as Jonas and Gabriel approach Elsewhere, “Suddenly he was aware with certainty and joy that below, ahead, they were waiting for him; and that they were waiting, too, for the baby.” Since the time is obviously Christmas with its room filled with lights of red, blue, and yellow, my question is “Which baby – Gabriel or the One normally associated with Christmas?”

Did I ask Lois the answer when I had the opportunity at the Book Festival? No. I love the ambiguity.

Monday
Sep222014

Gabriel Finley and the Raven's Riddle

I only knew about one raven that could talk, and his only word was, “Nevermore.” But that was before I read Gabriel Finley and the Raven’s Riddle by George Hagen. It seems that in parts of Brooklyn, ravens not only carry on conversations with people but tell riddles and paravolate with their human amicus.

Perhaps this needs an explanation. In this enjoyable middle grade fantasy, Gabriel needs to find his mysteriously missing father. He belongs to a line of people who use their amicus ability in a special bond to talk to ravens. Somewhere the magic has played havoc with his father, and it becomes his job to find him and set him free.

Helping him along the way are Somes, a bully who becomes a friend; Abby, a nonconformist in cat’s eye glasses who wears one red boot and one blue one; and Pamela, the violinist daughter of his aunt’s old friend whom she takes in when they are down on their luck.

Danger comes from many sources, but the worst are the valravens that look exactly like ravens but have no sense of humor. They can be recognized by their lack of laughter when they hear an answer to a riddle. They don’t get the joke. For other dangers, paravolating is the solution. The amicus and raven become one, taking either the form of the bird or the form of the human, depending on which is safer choice.

Challenges also come in several forms, but my favorite is the writing desk with feet that moves from place to place and disguises itself by wearing a rose printed pink nightgown or a yellow rain slicker. Thankfully, it likes to dance so Pamela’s violin comes in handy for enticement when they need it to stand still and produce another clue.

Humor shows up in places along with both old and new riddles. Simply describing Pamela’s mother’s cooking as unappetizing would be too easy – “Judging by the colors bubbling around the lid, the evening dinner was a brown sweater.”

Like a middle grade reader, I spent an enjoyable Sunday afternoon believing all of this and sharing the tension as the children sort out which birds and humans are worthy of trust as they navigate the dangers that take them to Brooklyn’s underground.

Friday
Sep192014

Three Questions

A package in Tuesday’s mail reminded me of the three questions of 1999. The first had begun in the spring when I heard new children’s author Kimberly Willis Holt at our Louisiana chapter of SCBWI children’s writers. She had three books out – Mister and Me, My Louisiana Sky, and newly published When Zachary Beaver Came to Town. As I listened, I remembered the grant-writing invitation from the Louisiana Arts Commission that I hoped was still on my desk and not in the waste basket. Dreaming big, I asked if she would share her enthusiasm and writing knowledge in a workshop with my junior high language arts students in Leesville, Louisiana if I could get the grant money. We set a tentative date and agreement.

The second question arose in late summer. I opened the living section of the Alexandria Town Talk and found a spread with Kimberly’s picture announcing that Zachary Beaver was a finalist on the National Book Award list. Would she win? I had ambivalent feelings. Yes, I wanted her to win. No, I didn’t want to lose a golden opportunity for my students, which seemed inevitable with the time demands on a National Book Award Winner. I hadn’t heard from the grant, and we only had the tentative verbal agreement for her workshop.

Soon, the announcement of her NBA win brought another spread for the Town Talk. Kimberly’s grandparents lived a few miles south of Alexandria, and Louisiana is proud of its own. I was excited for her but uneasy for my students as the third question loomed. Would a National Book Award Winner have time for small town Leesville in rural Vernon Parish on the road to nowhere except Fort Polk? I still hadn’t heard from the grant.

I gave her time to enjoy her moment before I called to see if we remained on her schedule. She acknowledged the new whirlwind of her life, but said she’d discussed scheduling promises with her husband Jerry. They’d decided that an agreement was an agreement. Eventually, the grant came through.

What a week my students had! What credibility I had when she left! Here was a “real writer” telling them the same things I’d told them. What a wonderful friendship began that week as Kimberly and I found so many things in common with our military families – included our shared wedding date with her parents. How I have enjoyed the plethora of middle grade and picture books that have come from her pen in the years to follow – including her series on Piper Reed, based on the military childhood she shared with many of my students!

The package took me back to 1999 with a poster, a copy of the fifteenth anniversary edition of When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, and a note from Kimberly claiming memories that match mine. I think I’ll take a break and go renew my acquaintance with Zachary. If you haven’t met him, pick up an anniversary copy and give yourself a treat.

Monday
Sep152014

Nest

One would think a girl on Cape Cod in the Nixon era, nicknamed Chirp for her bird-watching hobby, would be a set up for a lighthearted nature-experiencing life. Instead, in Nest, a debut novel by Esther Ehrlich, two truths emerge. Suicide is only permanent for the perpetrator, and depression is an equal opportunity trouble, striking youth as well as adults.

Chirp watches her dancer mother lose her skills to muscular sclerosis and her spirit to depression. Her psychiatrist father is at a loss to help. Chirp’s Jewish heritage, her difficult older sister Rachel, the neglected and/or abused neighbor Joey, and her birding form warp ribbons while normal middle school ordeals form the woof in this delightfully woven story.

When life overwhelms her, Chirp takes a lesson from the birds and builds a nest for retreat in her room. She makes hers with her pillow, encircled by her clothes and blankets. Her attempt to fly from that nest with Joey amps up the danger.

In spite of its subjects, I didn’t find this a sad book overall. The realism in its dealing with suicide, depression, and even Joey’s dysfunctional family is tempered with fun. Yet, I anticipated throughout that Chirp was going to find her song again. She was just that kind of girl. The characters come alive, and the story line is engaging. I recommend it for pleasure reading at any age or for an adult and child to read simultaneously and follow with discussion.

Bonus: Check out the author website at www.estherehrlich.com for background about the author and beautiful pictures of some of the birds Chirp would have seen.