Showing posts with label 2008 Newbery. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 2008 Newbery. Show all posts

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz

As a distinguished contribution to children's literature, I can't argue. As a supplement to a unit on Medieval life, I don't know of any better. As a recommended title on the Help Readers Love Reading website, well...no.

Other books set in medieval times have won Newbery awards - Karen Cushman's books The Midwife's Apprentice and Catherine, Called Birdy come to mind - but Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! is unique in that it is a series of nineteen monologues and two dialogues rather than a story. Rather than focus on one point of view, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! gives insight into medieval life from twenty-three different perspectives.

Although the forward states that these monologues can be read in any order, the published order is satisfying, with one leading nicely into the next. Isobel, the Lord's daughter, relates her distress at a gown soiled by a clod of dung thrown at her while walking through the village, then Barbary explains why she did it. Piers, the glassblower's apprentice, describes his anxiousness to learn the skill and please his master. Next, Mariot and Maud, the glassblower's daughters, tell how Piers has won their father's approval and that one may have to marry him. (After much internal debate, Mariot says she will. Maud says she'd rather have the plague or leprosy.)

While the numerous narrators accomplish the task the author intended - to give all her students an equal role in a medieval performance - and give it a uniqueness that makes it distinguished to the Newbery committee, it is this characteristic that keeps me from recommending it. Too many kids looking for escapability in a book aren't going to find it here. Teachers should use it when studying Medieval times. Assign it. Perform it. But I just don't see it being a widely recommended free read.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson

I didn't want to like this book. I really didn't. After reading the reviews I avoided it. Jesus Boy? How hokey is that? I figured it had Newbery written all over it, but hoped it would not win so I would not feel obligated to read it.

But then it did, and then I did, and so read I did. And I was pleasantly surprised.

In 1971 Frannie's town is divided by the highway - black and white. Frannie lives on the black side of town and attends the Price School with all the other kids from her side of the highway. On January 6 a new boy arrives, white as the falling snow, with long brown hair and gray eyes. Jesus Boy. Who else looks like that on the black side of town? Must be Jesus.

As the story unfolds the reader learns about Frannie's family. Her older brother is deaf. Frannie knows how wonderful he is, but too many other people simply dismiss him. Frannie's baby sister Lila died, her mother lost another pregnancy after that, and is now pregnant again. Then there's Samantha, her best friend whose father is a preacher, adding another layer to the Jesus Boy storyline. One classmate is full of anger, while one seems to be the willing victim. Another classmate is the rich stuck-up kid. But all of them, as Frannie realizes, have much more in common than thought at first.

There's a lot of Jesus in this book. Frannie has chicken pox scars on her hands. Samantha wants to believe Jesus Boy really is Jesus, returned to attend their school. Frannie's parents go to church, her grandmother goes to two churches (frequently bonking Frannie's head with her Bible), and Frannie rarely goes at all. ("Don't you want to be saved, Frannie?" asks Samantha.) But Frannie, the least church-y, does the most Christian thing, helping Trevor in a time of need when most others are quietly pleased that he got what's coming to him. The thread of faith runs throughout the story, leaving readers to wonder what makes a person faith-full. What drives a person to God? Sadness and need? Obligation? Tradition? Or the desire to do what's right, even when it's not popular?

I've stated why I'll recommend books here, and following those guidelines, I can't recommend Feathers. But that doesn't stop me from saying that it's a good book, one that certainly made an impression on me, one that I'll tell others about. I just won't be putting it into students hands saying, "Here's one you just have to read!"

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis

Elijah's claim to fame is that he was the first child born free in Buxton, a town established by escaped slaves in Canada. People in Buxton also freely remember him as the baby who threw up everything he ever ate on the famous Mr. Frederick Douglass. Either way, he's well known in the community.

Now eleven, Elijah deals with normal eleven year old situations like school, friends, trouble, listening to the wrong people, and girls. But Elijah (and readers) also learns about slavery, freedom and its value, and respecting his and his community's history. And difficult lessons are sometimes learned through difficult situations.

The book is full of laugh-out-loud funny parts. One favorite is when Cooter, Elijah's eager but sometimes misguided friend, sees "Familiarity Breeds Contempt" printed on the blackboard before class. Using problem solving skills of which all teachers would surely be proud, he accesses his prior knowledge, looks at word parts, and deciphers this yet unknown phrase. His understanding? "Family Breeding Contest." Imagine being eleven and going to class knowing this was the topic of the day!

At the same time readers are exposed to the seriousness of slavery. Elijah encounters captured runaway slaves, shackled to a barn wall, awaiting their return to the south - a trip they don't plan to make. The runaways' torment and anguish over what is to come is clearly evident to older readers. Younger readers, along with Elijah, will learn more slowly, and may not truly understand all of what their future holds. But Elijah understands enough to help. His heart is gold. He does what he can. Through this experience and other related ones, Elijah begins to understand more and more about freedom and its cost.

Like Curtis's The Watson's Go to Birmingham - 1963, Elijah of Buxton is the the tale of two books. As readers are drawn into the story by is humor they may miss the foreshadows of the seriousness to come. Eager readers may leave school laughing at hoop snakes but return the next day confused and angry over Elijah's trip to the circus or encounter with the captured runaways. It is for this reason only that this truly exceptional book does not receive my highest recommendation. (For more information see My Soapbox.)

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt

Anything to get out of school, right? As long as it doesn't get you in trouble or in the doctor's office, that is. Wednesday afternoons are dedicated to religious education at Camillo Junior High in 1967. The Jewish half of class attends Hebrew School at Temple Beth-El and the Catholic half attends Catechism at Saint Adelbert's. That's everyone in seventh grade.

Except Holling Hoodhood, the seventh grade's only Presbyterian.

Due to this theological quirk, Holling is Mrs. Baker's only student on Wednesday afternoons. She's thrilled. And she hates Holling, at least according to him. What more proof would a seventh grader need of a teacher's true loathing than to be assigned...of all things...gasp!...Shakespeare?!? Alone! So, starting with The Merchant of Venice, Holling takes on the Bard. His new Shakespearian education (and appreciation) lands him a gig as Ariel the fairy in The Tempest, complete with yellow tights and feathers on his, well, I'll let Holling disclose the exact location of the feathers.

Not that it's all Shakespeare and feathers on the butt (sorry, Holling.) Holling's career obsessed father refuses to acknowledge his flower child sister's growing political beliefs. The war in Vietnam runs throughout the story, but despite evenings with Walter Cronkite and teachers' husbands serving overseas, the war doesn't overwhelm the reader. There's also a few escaped (monster-sized mutant) rats in the school, Doug Swieteck's brother, unlucky cream puffs, the aforementioned yellow tights, and Holling's relationship with Meryl Lee, the daughter of his father's main competitor. In the end Holling doesn't necessarily choose his destiny, but he does come to terms with the main person who will decide it. Himself. Tights and all.