By Mary Elizabeth Bezanson
Professor of Speech Communication at the University of Minnesota, Morris.
While very different, the Caldecott and Newberry winners for 2008 all explore the essential human concern of the relationship between self and place. These are magnificent books well worth reading and sharing.
The house in the night, Swanson, Susan Marie. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008. [email protected], (617-351-5000). 40pp. $17.00. ISBN 978-0618862443. Illustrated by Beth Krommes.
Minnesota author Swanson remarks in her author notes that the cumulative pattern of this book was inspired by a favorite nursery rhyme, “This is the key to the kingdom.” The book builds from “This is the key to the house,” to a magical trip to the moon and back again to a “home full of light.” Krommes’ illustrations capture the coming night as the background moves from white to black. Objects within each frame are drawn using white lines as the shading. Parts of objects are highlighted in gold.
On the first read, I did not find this book appealing. I thought the black was overwhelming providing no color of life to the illustrations. With a second read, Krommes’ intentions become clear. The rhyme provides order and predictability even in the darkness that originally seemed scary and is now starry. The illustrations highlight with light, the gold, all of the things in the dark that are reassuring. A more complex book than one might originally imagine that I think would be best read to a child preparing for bed.
A couple of boys have the best week ever. Frazee, Marla. Harcourt, Inc., 2008. [email protected]ourt.com, (407-345-2000). 40pp. $16.00. ISBN 0152060200.
In this delightful tale, Frazee shares the adventures of James and Eamon as they experience their best week ever. The boys stay at Eamon’s grandparent’s home while at nature camp during the day. Grandpa Bill keeps trying to get them interested in Antarctica and the penguin exhibit; Grandmother Pam cooks banana pancakes and likes people more than penguins.
This is a terrific book. The illustrations are delightful—colorful and energetic. The front and back ends show “pictures” of all the activities at camp while the story focuses on everything at Bill and Pams. One of the fun things about the book is that the text and illustrations interact. The illustrations do not merely show what is happening but are an integral part of understanding the story. For example, the text reads, “[James] had never been away from home for an entire week, so he was very sad when his mother drove away,” the illustration shows James yelling “BYE!” At the very end of the book the boys stay up to make Antarctica on Bill and Pam’s deck. There are instructions on the end flap for how to make a penguin out of small white rocks and mussel shells. This book is so much fun. A wonderful book to start a discussion of children’s’ experiences at camp, or to have camp in a classroom, or to draw pictures or cartoons. And no one might ever notice that while James and Eamon become one person, Jamon, James is black and Eamon is peach.
How I learned geography. Shulevitz, Uri. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008. [email protected], (212-206-5340). 32pp. $16.95. ISBN 978-0374334994
Through this lovely picture book, Shulevitz shares the autobiographical story of fleeing Poland during World War II to live in Turkestan now Kazakhstan. The story is harrowing living in abject poverty with little food and little warmth. One day when his father had gone to market to buy bread he came home with a map of the world. Shulevitz and his mother were understandably angry, but the map “flooded the room with color.” Shulevitz studied the map, drew parts of the map, and was transported by the map. And he forgave his father.
The illustrations deftly convey the emotions of the story. Especially moving are the pictures showing Shulevitz imaginary journeys across the globe. How I learned geography would be a wonderful introduction to the connections between people, place, and imagination.
A river of words: The story of William Carlos Williams. Bryant, Jen. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers), 2008. [email protected], (800-253-7521). 34pp. $17.00. ISBN 978-0802853028. Illustrated by Melissa Sweet.
Of all the types of literature, poetry is probably the one least chosen by children to read. In this lovely, engaging book, Bryant provides a biographical poem of the life of William Carlos Williams. Sweet’s illustrations intensify the experience of the poem through drawings and collages that place the reader in Williams’ time.
This is truly a brilliant book. While designed for the picture book crowd, the book could also be used in upper grades when introducing Williams’ poetry. There is such a nice connection between his poetry, Bryant’s poem, and the illustrations. I can well imagine students using this book as an example for their own illustration.
The graveyard book. Gaiman, Neil. Harper Collins, 2008. [email protected], (212-207-7000). 320pp. $17.00. ISBN 978-0060530921. Illustrated by Dave Mckean.
Adults might initially balk at this book. After all, a man named Jack with a very sharp knife murders a baby’s family in the first two pages. Adults should move pass that kids would. The baby ends up in a graveyard where the Owens adopt him, a couple of ghosts who never had children of their own. He is taught all of the important skills of ghosts like fading, and blending. More importantly he is protected from the man named Jack. Eventually Nobody Owens grows up and confronts the Jacks trying to kill him and the Jack who murdered his family. Freed from that danger he sets out to experience all that life has to offer.
This book resonates with all of the themes of great literature the definition of self, the definition of family, the experience of love, and the power of life. This is truly a great book.
The surrender tree: Poems of Cuba’s struggle for freedom. Engle, Margarita. Macmillan Publishing (Henry Holt and Co.), 2008. [email protected], (646-307-5151). 176pp. $16.95. ISBN 978-0805086744.
This book is challenging to characterize. On one hand the book is biographical written about the experiences of the author’s great-grandparents; on another historical describing events of the Spanish American war told from the perspective of the Cubans who endured it; on another fictional drawn from composite experiences of those who wrote about their experiences. Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, the book is a series of poems juxtaposed to reveal the perspectives of different people around the same events.
I knew relatively little about Hearst’s created war: in the U.S. the Spanish-American war, in Cuba the third War of Independence from Spain, in Spain The Disaster. The book makes vivid that this was not pretend. I had not known Captain-General Weyler creates the first concentration camp to control a population. The book also places the destruction of the Maine, the Rough Riders, and Clara Barton. Most powerfully the book reveals the truth of all wars the powerless suffer disproportionately; those in power often have little care for the powerless.
Frankly, I do not envision this as a children’s book chosen by children to read. The book is evocative and powerful but about a period of time so few U.S. citizens know anything about. I think the book would be better placed in a high school Spanish class that studied the war.
The underneath. Appelt, Kathi. New York: Simon and Schuster (Atheneum), 2008. [email protected], (800-223-2336). 320pp. $17.99. ISBN 978-1416950585. Illustrated by David Small.
The cover would suggest that this novel involves the adventures of a dog and some cats hiding beneath a porch. But the book is far more complex. The novel recounts three tales woven together, the story of a brutalized boy who grows to be a brutal man who hunts and traps in the forest of eastern Texas. He lives a lone life fueled by alcohol, killing a cat protecting a kitten, shooting and starving the dog who once was his hunting partner eventually to be eaten by the alligator he vows to kill. The story of a cat discarded, full of kittens who finds a dog chained under a porch whom she saves with food and kindness, nurtures her kittens and dies trying to save one. And a myth from a thousand years ago involving shape shifting as animals and humans move between their worlds driven by love and hate.
I have rarely read a more evocative story. One feels the forests and swamps of eastern Texas seep into one’s bones. While a novel, the book reads like a poem that sings. Like all mythic tales the reader confronts good and evil as the classic conflict is intertwined in each tale. The intertwining becomes the challenge of the book. The reader moves rapidly between the three tales. Just as one settles in to learn the fate of a kitten one is thrust back a thousand years to watch a snake trick her daughter into returning to her old skin leaving behind a father and daughter. In my view, the book would be a challenge to any but the most sophisticated reader as the twists in time are negotiated.
Savvy. Law, Ingrid. Penguin Group, Inc. (Dial), 2008. [email protected], (800-631-8571). 252pp. $16.99. ISBN 978-0803733060.
Mibs Beaumont is excited about her thirteenth birthday. Not because of the cake or the party, but because on that day she knows what her savvy is. A savvy is a mystical, magical power that will be all her own. Tragedy strikes just days before when her father is nearly killed in car accident. Mibs decides that she has the power to restore health and so she drags her brothers, the preacher’s children, and an unwitting Bible salesman on a bus ride none will forget. Along the way, Mibs realizes she cannot restore health but she can hear the voices of tattoos or even ink written on a hand. After a suspenseful journey, Mibs reaches her unconscious father by writing on his hand.
My daughter turned thirteen and is looking for her savvy. We all have them, though perhaps not as dramatically as the Beaumonts. This is a wonderful coming of age book that will delight girls and boys as Mibs struggles to know herself, control herself, and find her place in her family and world. This should be a must have for all older elementary and early high schools.
Moribito: Guardian of the spirit. Uehashi, Nahoko. Translated by Catrhy Hirano. Scholastic, Inc. (Arthur A. Levine), 2008. www.scholastic.com, (212-242-7737). 288pp. $8.99. ISBN 978-0545005432.
In the first book of the Moribito series originally written in Japanese, readers are transported to a world long ago drenched in the challenges of today. Moribito is a body guard who through no intention of her own must guard the second prince Chagum from those who wish to kill him and the egg he carries. Through her adventures protecting Chagum, Moribito faces her past.
This is an absolutely enthralling book—part quest, part fairy tale, part adventure story, part tale of discovery all with the flavor of Japan. With a female heroine who is not ultimately rescued by a man, the book appeals to girls who often do not have heroes to emulate. The book would also appeal to boys because of the constant drama and adventure. The book engages one so completely that readers literally cannot put it down.
While stunning poetically in the description of people and place the book also works rhetorically when pushing children to consider the issues of destiny and determination in creating the paths we take as adults, when examining a culture’s acceptance of its own historical story and the errors of that story, when exploring the nature of status and of love. This is a great book—highly recommended. Let us all hope that more translations are forth coming.
By Mary Elizabeth Bezanson, Professor of Speech Communication at the University of Minnesota, Morris.