extraordinary–miriam spitzer franklin

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My 9-year-old daughter read this novel while we were camping and she was so engrossed that I had to see what had won out over the beach.  Pansy’s best friend, Anna, has suffered brain damage as a result of spinal meningitis contracted while at a Girl Scout camp that Pansy had promised to attend, but backed out of at the last minute.  Pansy often breaks promises or fails to do what she wishes she could because of fear of failure–or gross bugs.  Pansy feels terribly guilty for leaving Anna alone at the camp, which leads her to pledge to become extraordinary during fifth grade, her first without Anna at her side.  She joins Girl Scouts.  She learns to ice skate.  She hits the top of the Independent Reader list.  She makes jokes in front of class to explain unusual behavior rather than blushing and staying silent.  Along the way she makes new friends and struggles to understand her old friend, Anna’s twin, Andy.

extraordinary is a wonderfully written, fast-paced novel about love and friendship and facing our fears.  Franklin takes on huge themes, but never comes across as preachy.  Pansy is adorable and, apparently, identifiable for young readers.  It was a heartwarming read for a mom on a summer morning, as well.

Finished 8/1/16

Ooko–Esmé Shapiro

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This morning my eight-year-old daughter and I read a new picture book by Esmé Shapiro.  Although my daughter is “beyond” picture books, we were both drawn to the beautiful illustrations rich in texture while echoing the innocent interpretations of children’s drawings of nature. (For more of Shapiro’s work, such as this image from Ooko, check out esmeshapiro.com)

 

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Ooko is a fox in search of a friend.  He sees a little girl playing with a dog and goes in search of his own “Debbie.”  Ooko examines each dog and changes himself to become more attractive to Debbies–he paints on spots, creates floppy ears.  You get the idea.  Ultimately, he finds a friend who likes him for himself.  The message is timeless, and a good one for adults as well as children, but the treasure is in the illustrations.  Each page is so beautiful I want to frame the images and decorate a studio or a nursery.  When Ooko realizes he is lonely, the image begs the viewer to give him a hug.

In good company with the best children’s books, Ooko includes some humor.  In one of his attempts to find a Debbie, Ooko wanders into a yard out of which a little dog has just wandered and cozies up to an elderly woman who is gardening in platform flip flops topped by hairy legs.  She misidentifies the fox as her Ruthie and brings Ooko in, bathes him, and clothes him in a scratchy sweater.  My daughter, even at a cool eight-years-old, giggled.

We read this story three times this morning.  I suspect we will read it again.  Ooko will be my go-to gift for the young children in my life this summer.  Publication date–July 2016.  Thank to Net Galley and Tundra Books for the opportunity to review this delightful new title.

Finished 4/2/16

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane–Kate DiCamillo

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Today was Kate DiCamillo day and am I ever glad I started with The Magician’s Elephant.  Although that tale was about something dark–depression and loss of hope–The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane is darker and the hope is much more subtle.  I cannot wait to hear what my seven-year-old thinks of both.

Edward Tulane is a three-foot tall china rabbit with real rabbit fur ears and an extensive wardrobe of silk clothes and a gold pocket watch.  He belongs to young Abilene, who adores him and talks to him, dresses him, and protects him until the day aboard a ship when young boys get him and he ends up at the bottom of the ocean.  Edward had previously spent his days thinking how fine he was and now he spent his days thinking how badly treated he was.  When a storm tosses him up he goes to live with a kindly older couple, who talk to him and dress him, but cannot protect him from their adult daughter, who sends him to the trash.  From there he lives with a hobo and his dog, is a scarecrow, lives with a dying young girl and her brother, and then spends years on a doll-maker’s shelf until he is once again chosen to by a young girl.

Through these cycles, Edward gets a heart–first in sorrow as he realizes what he has lost, then love.  Love brings him sorrow again and again as he is separated from the people he loves, often without the chance to say goodbye.  He grows a heart and wishes he did not have one.

Edward has a promise of a happy ending, but it’s abrupt and the happiness is outweighed, by and large, by the sadness in this tale.  One of the images of Edward is of him as a scarecrow and I stared at it trying to decide if he was supposed to look as if he were being crucified.  In a later chapter he is broken and has a death experience–the light, seeing the people he loved and lost, moving towards heaven–until he is pulled back.  He is saved.

DiCamillo adds a coda to this novel that recaps, in minimalist fashion, the entire tale, and tells us that Edward did love again–but this is not in the body of the tale.  In music a coda is a passage that brings a piece to an end.  Here it is in a smaller font and titled “Coda.”  It looks like publisher’s material.  Why this choice to tell that Edward had a happy ending?  Once again, this choice helps the darkness outweigh the light in this tale.

She precedes the tale with this quote from Stanley Kunitz:  “The heart breaks and breaks and lives by breaking.  It is necessary to go through dark and deeper dark and not to turn.”

I hope DiCamillo has gone through her dark and deeper dark and has returned to a world with more light, like that of Despereaux.

Finished 3/3/15

The Magician’s Elephant–Kate DiCamillo

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I don’t remember how I came to read Tale of Despereaux, but when I did I fell in love with Kate DiCamillo’s writing.  She plays with words, rolls them around on her tongue, writes for the sound.  Not all authors have this gift. I then had the chance to meet her at a young author’s event and she was as lovely in person as she was on the page.  Her passion for language is evident in her speech as well as her prose.  Kate DiCamillo is an easy sell for me and I have had a few of her books on my wish list for awhile, including The Magician’s Elephant.

I am not a reader who begins at the end.  I am old-fashioned and like the sense of peeling back the story from page one to page last.  For this entry, however, I will start with after-the-end–the acknowledgements, which begin “These people walked with me through a long winter’s night.”  This is a tale about depression and hope and rediscovering the magic of “what if.”

Young Peter lives two centuries before now with an old soldier, Vilna Lutz, who was a friend of his father’s and who delivered the news of his father’s death that sent his mother into labor, which led to her death and Peter’s and his sister’s being an orphan.  Lutz sends Peter to the market for bread, but Peter chooses instead to buy an answer from a fortune teller, who says an elephant will lead him to his sister, whom Lutz had told him was stillborn.  That night a magician, trying to bring lilies through the ceiling of the opera house to the lap of a noble woman, conjures an elephant, which cripples the woman and shatters the ceiling atop the audience.

The magician is imprisoned, the elephant ends up in the ballroom of a superficial noble woman, and Peter becomes desperate to see the elephant.  In an orphanage, a young girl dreams of an elephant coming to take her home and a beggar begins to see all of their dreams.  A childless police lieutenant and his wife help Peter to see the elephant and Peter realizes it’s the elephant who needs help, the elephant who is desperate and lonely and will die unless she is returned home.  He sets aside his own needs and works to save the elephant and, in that process, manages to save himself, his sister, the lieutenant and his wife, the magicians, the crippled noble woman, the beggar and his dog, and the elephant’s caretaker.  Peter brings light by caring for others. He asks “what if,” but, as a child, his asking must be supported by an adult, so the police lieutenant’s willingness to also ask is crucial.

Because DiCamillo loves language, many passages are achingly written, such as this one.  Earlier DiCamillo writes that the townspeople all longed to see the elephant, whom they believed would answer their wishes, their questions, their needs, but that longing is not always reciprocal.  “The elephant was saying her name to herself.  It was not a name that would make any sense to humans.  It was an elephant name–a name that her brothers and sisters knew her by, a name they spoke to her in laughter and in play.  It was the name that her mother had given to her and that she had spoken to her often and with love.  Deep within herself, the elephant said this name, her name, over and over again.  She was working to remind herself of who she was.  She was working to remember that, somewhere, in another place entirely, she was known and loved.”

How many around the world repeat their name for these same reasons?

DiCamillo does bring us back from this dark place and ends with a vision of the way all of us are connected in our search for light, and with a promise that the truth of “what if” can be found, if you can find the right guide.  I think I have found her.

Finished 3/3/15

Wonder–R.J. Palacio

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This book has become a cult classic among middle grade readers and adults alike.  Once I met August, it was easy to see why. The story was born one afternoon when the author was in an ice cream shop with her children and they saw a child with a facial deformity.  The author’s youngest child asked an awkward question and, thinking to spare the other child’s feelings, she rushed herself and her children out of the ice cream shop.  Later, she repented deeply as she thought of how the sight of her and her children fleeing must have made the other child (and her parent) feel. 

August is that child on the page.  He’s going into fifth grade and has been homeschooled due to numerous surgeries, a feeding tube, and general health issues.  All those surgeries later, there’s no feeding tube, but his facial deformity is such that he tells us he won’t describe his face because whatever we imagine, it’s probably worse.  It’s up to the other characters to give us an image of August’s outside while the various perspectives give us a picture of his inside.  The intervening event that kicks off the novel is his parents’ decision to enter him in a mainstream prep school.  Middle school is horrifying as a “regular” kid, much less a kid with a severe facial deformity.  August has all kinds of support from his parents, his principal, and a team of kids the principal hand picks to mentor him, but the kids who are genuine and those who are nice for appearances become clear (as does the parental root of their values in a particularly awful scene where one mom photoshops August out of the class picture and circulates it to other interested parents). 

August is not perfect.  He cries, he rages, he pities himself, he sticks to a world of Auggie’s problems while his older sister struggles to maintain her self esteem as a freshman in high school and the sister of the kid with the weird face whose parents have devoted their lives to making things as right as possible for him since his birth.  Via’s chapters are among my favorites.  Her grandmother sees her in a way her parents cannot and my heart broke when Via tells about her grandmother’s death.  Via is a self-motivated, highly organized young woman because she has to be.  She doesn’t whine about it, however.  She just tells it like it is and she admits that starting a new school where not everyone knows about her brother has been a refreshing change that, despite her guilt, she is not ready to give up, to the point of keeping from her family a role in the school play. 

Auggie is bullied, but the inner strength his parents have instilled and supported in him keeps him going and allows him to be an agent for change for those around him. 

My middle-grade reader did not like this book.  It was predictable, he said.  Isn’t part of the joy the journey, to see how August gets from point A to point B and what happens along the way?  He was not sold, but I was.

Palacio’s impetus for writing the novel hit home with me and probably many others who have acted similarly, wanting to do the right thing as well as the comfortable thing (for us) without making ourselves really consider how it feels to be the “monster” from whom everyone flees.  August is a wonder for changing my perspective, for forcing me to face my own discomfort and fears.  I’m ready for the awkward question.  God creates many wonders, each one unique.  Isn’t that a wonder?

Finished 2/13/14

The Steps Up the Chimney–William Corlett

 

I read William Corlett’s Two Gentlemen Sharing and fell in love with his wit and his style.  When I investigated him as an author and found that he had written a children’s fantasy series, I was intrigued and rushed to order the first in the series.

The Steps Up the Chimney feels, to start, like a bad reflection of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  Three children are sent to live with their uncle in a weird old house isolated in the country.  The opening scene begins on an isolated train platform.  There is no war in the background, but, instead, the children’s parents are off to Africa to help the beknighted on that continent.

Uncle Jack is an engineer who works with nuclear energy, but he’s gone off the grid to refurbish a Tudor mansion, along with his pregnant girlfriend, Phoebe.  They have no television, no central heat, and are vegetarians.  Corlett makes a big deal of their decision not to marry, which is voiced by the youngest sibling, Alice.    Near the end of the novel Phoebe tries to explain to Alice why they’re not marrying (it would be hypocritical to have a religious service since they’re not church-goers) and that it doesn’t matter whose last name the baby carries.  Alice is not quite up for this feminist approach, but there are three more books in which she can be softened.

The magic portion of the story involves the ability to inhabit and communicate with animals and a magician who (sort of) dwells in a hidden room in the old mansion.  Again, like Lewis’ classic, the children explore the rooms of the house and try to explain why the angles do not all add up  This exploration leads them to a magical space that belongs to two worlds.  Like Lewis’ classic, there are talking animals.   Like Lewis’ classic, there is good magic and bad magic.  Even Corlett’s good magician, however, is, as one of the girls describes him, a misogynist pig.  He cannot be blamed too much, however, since he’s over 500 years old.

The story has a rough beginning, but picks up pace about a third of the way through. However, it never quite leaves behind the feel of a formula production, which was disappointing.

As a huge fan of fantasy literature of this type for middle-grade readers, I still found this book enjoyable and look forward to seeing how Corlett develops his three protagonists and plays out the plot lines he establishes in this opening volume.

Finished 3/12/12