Friday
Oct062017

Miguel's Brave Knight

Even though I’m a big fan of both Margarita Engel and Raul Colon, I had my doubts that a biography of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra would attract young readers. Why would they care about the man credited with writing the first modern novel?

In their book Miguel’s Brave Knight, Margarita uses word snippets like “If Only,” “Disaster,” or “Hoping” to title each free verse poem that tells Miguel’s story. Her fictionalized biography of a daydreamer whose gambling father keeps the family courting financial disaster doesn’t require a knowledge of Don Quixote to be interesting.  Storytellers and teachers become the quiet heroes in Miguel’s life.

The cover illustration tips off the beauty that will be found inside. Raul Colon’s paintings help tell the story and create shadows of Margarita’s titles. My favorite painting illustrates the poem titled “Comfort.” A pensive dog sits beside the daydreaming boy while his imagination pictured above shows a brave knight on his steed against a starry night – a foreshadowing of the novel Cervantes will one day write.

In words and pictures, Margarita and Raul portray a time when people feared imagination enough to burn books and a boy who already knew that imagination could be saved by a brave knight. Both writer and illustrator add information at the end giving interesting personal experiences with the work of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. There is also a short note about the historical setting and another about the life of Cervantes.

No longer a doubter, I see this book as one that a young reader will return to many times to read the words and savor the art, just like this older reader who wrote the review.

Monday
Oct022017

Sixth Anniversary

Six years! As the calendar turns from September to October, I add an anniversary to this blog. When I started, I followed advice and had several entries written ahead – just in case. I’ve tried with some success to continue that practice so I don’t wake up on blogging morning without something to say. (Some would doubt that I ever wake up with nothing to say, but I’m not going there for this blog.)

I had no idea how well I could stick to my plan of blogging twice a week. Turns out, I’ve been pretty consistent. One skip came during a trip to England with my sister when I had no Internet access. Another blog was late in the day rather than early morning this year because we were making a tour of the national parks, and sometimes lacked Internet access.

This has been an interesting process. Readers that I see regularly may start conversations where the blog left off. Sometimes I’ve been surprised as I began an anecdote with an acquaintance who says, “Oh, I know that already. I read it on your blog.” One of my favorites came when someone began to introduce me to a friend of my sister’s and he said, “Oh, I know who you are. You’re ‘Readin’, Ritin’, But Not Much ‘Rithmetic.”

Over the six years, a fairly consistent pattern has developed with approximately half the entries being some kind of commentary on life and half book reviews. Some might classify as both. The life commentary tends to get the most immediate reaction with the book reviews getting more hits in perpetuity. As I promised in an early blog, I only review books I can recommend.

Since I’ve proved to myself I can keep a twice a week schedule and enjoy it at least most of the time, I’m all set to start year seven.

The sixth anniversary celebration calls for candy or iron in the traditional column or wood in the modern column. Al’s already built everything we can use in wood, and I can think of nothing I need in iron – certainly not if you are thinking of the iron that presses out wrinkles and makes sharp creases in pants. I guess I’ll have to settle for candy. So let’s light the candles and eat the dark chocolate!

Friday
Sep292017

Heidi

Heads around the room nodded as Florence Minor began her talk at the 2017 Kaigler Book Festival by noting Heidi as a favorite childhood book. One of those heads was mine. When Florence mentioned the grandfather’s melted cheese, the audience appeared to be made up of bobbleheads.

I had a very special tenth birthday. Except for a new dress and a generic cake for the family, Mama didn’t make too much of birthdays. However, a decade seemed important to her, and the dress she designed and made came from carefully chosen store-bought fabric rather than the normal feed sacks the dairy farmers in Daddy’s congregation saved for her. The main part of the bodice and skirt was a forest green and pink plaid. The pink yoke that had a tab on the left side coming down matched a pink border on the bottom with a tab coming up. Three pink pearly buttons anchored both tabs. She even went all out on the cake making my favorite white butter creme icing and decorating it with turquoise, my favorite color at the time.

Adding to this best childhood birthday, Aunt Ruth gave me Heidi for a birthday present. Reading in the McGee household was as common as eating and breathing, but owning books all by yourself – not so much. Books came from the school library or the bookmobile and were often loaned back and forth among friends. Any we actually owned would list on the cover page “The McGee Girls” or “Virginia Ann, Beth, and Gwen” and eventually “Ruth.” This book was mine, mine, mine! My sisters had to get my permission if they wanted to read Heidi.

Florence’s talk gave me a hankering to revisit Heidi, Clara, the grandfather, and Peter (also a hankering for melted cheese, but that is another issue). My special book, of course, is long gone, but Amazon had a first-rate translation for an excellent price (free), and I downloaded it for a special treat on the plane as we traveled out west. I found much the same. Heidi still wins the hearts of all those around her, Peter lets his jealousy get the best of him, Clara learns to walk, and grandfather is reconciled to the community around him. The only difference is that when I was ten, the Alps existed only in my imagination. Now I have been there and could place Heidi in a real place that I can see.

Thanks, Florence, for sending me back to an old favorite. 

Monday
Sep252017

Zenobia the First

Following up on Friday’s blog – my great aunt was not the original Zenobia, just the first I ever knew. Originally from Greek, Zenobia means “life of Zeus.” Septimia Zenobia was a third century queen of the Palmyrene Empire. Who knows where Aunt Nobie’s North Mississippi parents got her name!

As I reached my teenage years, Zenobia seemed to fit her more than the mundane family name of “Nobie.” Papaw’s elegant sister came down to visit from Memphis where she had a real job. His other sisters – housewives who raided hen’s nests, milked cows, and canned vegetables – paled in comparison. As you can see, the elegance of her working days in the first picture lingered to her 95th birthday in the second.

My admiration moved to a relationship with her the summer I spent two weeks as companion to my 87-year-old grandmother who lived with her. Aunt Nobie worked all day before talking far into the night as we shared her bedroom with twin beds. Two years later, after Gram’s death, she talked Mama into letting me come up for a weeklong event for sixteen-year-olds at her church. Becoming a BFF as late-night talking continued, she had little idea of the seeds she planted in those conversations.

Revisiting days before she had to go to work when her husband died, she told of having her house full of girls working on projects and memorizing scripture in her church volunteer work while she forgot the supper in the stove. She mentioned the patience of Uncle Charles when he opened the door to smell his supper burning. Her joy instilled a goal to volunteer the same way when I became an adult. (I did, and never burned the dinner as I recall, but Al was also patient with the mess of teenage girls he sometimes found in our house.)

She griped about my mother who lacked a compulsion to answer her letters. Aunt Nobie had taken it upon herself to keep the scattered family informed. If any of them wrote letters, they sent them to her, knowing she would pass news along to the kinfolks. She typed lengthy letters with carbon copies in her typewriter and mailed them out, assuming they would be greeted with pleasure (they were) and answered (not so much). On the few occasions when she wrote one by hand, Daddy would hand it to Mama. “We heard from Aunt Nobie. You can read it and tell me what she said.” Her handwriting looked like it came from that Palmyrene Empire. Again, I thought letter-writing could keep a family informed. While other communication methods work quicker these days, I became the principal letter-writer of my generation with similar luck in getting answers.

Besides her conversations, there was the jewelry. Remember the exotic aunt with a real job? She had a chest of costume jewelry that she allowed me to plunder. If I admired a particular piece, she would say, “You know, I’m kind of tired of that one. Why don’t you take it?” Most of these are long gone, but I still have one necklace in various shades of pink that has been restrung several times. I wear it but resemble the rural sisters more than the elegant one with a real job.

So now you know, in case you were curious, why I had to read a book called Elizabeth and Zenobia.

Friday
Sep222017

Elizabeth and Zenobia

The name Zenobia popped out at me from the offerings of advance reading copies. Aunt Nobie (short for Zenobia) was a favorite relative when I was growing up – more about her in the next blog. I had seen chats about Elizabeth and Zenobia by Jessica Miller from book people, but it was the name that caused me to push “Request” on Net Galley’s website.  

A line from the first page of this middle grade novel let me know I was in for a treat, “I have always paid attention to words and the way they fill my ears. There are words I could hear over and over again, like seashell. And there are other words, like custard, that make my stomach flip.” Elizabeth’s affinity for words and her long list of things she found fearful matched mine. However, the only experience I’ve had with imaginary friends came when I had to supply treats for my oldest son’s buddies (four as I remember).

Which brings us to Zenobia’s disclaimers. She can’t be an imaginary friend simply because someone as dull as Elizabeth would be incapable of dreaming her up. She also is not a ghost but a Spirit Presence. As Elizabeth and her father move back to his morbid childhood home, Zenobia’s antics promise to keep nervous Elizabeth in trouble, but maybe they will also answer questions about why the East Wing is forbidden territory, what happened to an aunt Elizabeth did not know existed, and why her father is so distant.

Normally preferring reality to the supernatural in books, I found myself caught up in the story and scrolling rapidly down the pages as I read on my computer. The writer for The Horn Book for Sept/Oct 2017 had the same reaction, and the magazine gave it a starred review. This is a book for anyone able to suspend disbelief in Spirit Presences, anyone who loves a good story, and especially anyone who has once loved a very real imaginary friend.  

Without giving anything away, note was taken near the end of the book that Zenobia was a rather uncommon name. You’ll find my take on that in next Monday’s blog.