Unfinished stories

One of my favorite authors, Robert B. Parker, recently passed away at the age of 77. (This article from Spectator magazine provides a view on Parker's literary roots and his legacy.) It's hard to explain how I felt about Parker's work. When I first started reading his books, I remember getting to the end of one of them and thinking, "What? This is it? This is how it ends?" I wanted the story to be tied up in a nice, neat package. Now that I'm older, I realize that life is seldom a nice, neat package. It's chaotic. It's messy. It's unfinished. And I appreciate Parker's books so much more for that.

Parker's most famous character is Spenser, a Boston detective who lives by his own code. He's a tough guy who is well-read, a good cook and a wise-cracking sense of humor. I'm sad that there will never be another Spenser novel. I always enjoyed reading the next chapter in his life. But I think I'm also glad that there's not a novel that neatly wraps up the story.


January 26 feature: Bridge to Terabithia

Another recent Newbury award winner, the title of Bridge to Terabithia drew me in. From the title, I figured it would be a story like the Wizard of Oz, a journey to a magical fantasy land. But Katherine Paterson's book is nothing like that. The main characters meet up the summer before fifth grade begins. Jess Aarons, practicing to be the fastest runner in school the previous summer, is also a sensitive boy who harbors a secret love of art and drawing. New girl Leslie Burke is bold, imaginative--and fast. After Leslie consistently defeats the fifth grade boys in sprints at recess, the two become best friends. Leslie convinces Jess to create a secret kingdom in the woods that they call Terabithia. I was particularly touched by how Paterson paints Jess and his family life. The book's climax is tragic and while I loved Paterson's writing style, I wouldn't recommend this book to younger readers. At the least, read it first to prepare yourself for some hard questions that younger readers may have.


January 22 feature: Poppy

My sister suggested that I read Poppy by Avi. She raved about the clever writing and plot nuances. So, with high hopes, I opened the book. Scarcely do we meet Poppy, a little mouse, when her fiance Ragweed is eaten by Mr. Ocax, the owl who rules over the woods with clever intimidation. This event sets the stage for the little tale, as we see Poppy develop into an independent, courageous mouse. She questions Mr. Ocax's authority and puts it upon herself to seek out new living conditions for mice. I enjoyed the characters, especially porcupine Ereth. I confess that I have a hard time romanticizing mice since I waged a battle with them in my basement this fall! Therefore, I liked Poppy best when I forgot she was a mouse. :)


January 18 feature: Autumn Street

Yes, this is the second Lois Lowry book I've featured this month. But Autumn Street is so different from the first one, in both writing style and character descriptions. It's written from the viewpoint of seven-year-old Elizabeth, who along with her mother and sister, lives with her grandparents while her father is fighting in World War II. Elizabeth's best friend Charles is the grandson of her grandparents' black cook. I found the thread of race relations that runs through the book to be open and plain. We learn about discrimination through a child's eyes. The book's end surprised me, but the pragmatic tenderness throughout the book is wonderful.


January 16 feature: Fairest

Gail Carson Levine is arguably best known for Ella Enchanted, but I thought I'd check out one of her lesser known books first. Some people say that Fairest is loosely based on Snow White. The moral of the story is a good one: don't focus on your outward appearance, but focus on your inner beauty. The problem for me was that I didn't find the story as compelling as I'd expected. Heroine Aza is the adopted daughter of an innkeeper, with a lovely voice. She develops a talent called illusing, which is the ability to "throw" her voice to make it seem as if it's coming from another object--or person. Aza is pressured into illusing for a scheming queen. When the deception comes to light, Aza is forced to flee the country. It's a fairytale, so the story does end well for Aza, but I wasn't fully captured by either Aza or her special ability.


January 14 feature: Catherine, Called Birdy

When I laughed out loud after reading the first couple pages of Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman, I knew immediately that this book would be a gem. Birdy is a 14-year-old daughter of a nobleman in medieval England. The novel reads like a diary and we get a fascinating sense of how it might have been years ago through Birdy's honest eyes. The reader admires Birdy's independent spirit and understands her revulsion of her father's plan to marry her off. She also has a wry sense of humor which really adds to the story immensely. The book might not be an easy read for those under age 11, depending on the reader's skill level. Of all the youth books I've read recently, this is one of my favorites. It's great historical fiction.


January 12 feature: The Whipping Boy

A light, amusing, fairytale story is Sid Fleischman's The Whipping Boy. In this 1987 Newbery Medal winner, whenever the prince does something wrong, Jemmy is on hand to take his punishment. Since the prince is universally known throughout the kingdom as "Prince Brat", we get a sense that Jemmy's job is the roughest one in the castle. Before Jemmy can devise a way to escape, Prince Brat leaves the castle and Jemmy must go with him. The story cleverly twists and turns as Jemmy and Prince Brat weave through the kingdom meeting interesting characters and learning more about each other. The entertaining tale also has a bit of a moral lesson too. It's a fun, easy read.


January 10 feature: Million Dollar Throw

I wanted to cover a variety of authors and time periods, so I took a look at one that was published at the end of 2009. Author Mike Lupica is an experienced sportswriter and syndicated columnist, but I didn't know he wrote sports-themed books for younger readers. Million Dollar Throw is about eighth grade quarterback Nate Brodie and the opportunity of a lifetime. Nate is balancing his worries about his family's finances, his best friend's health, and his team's quest to win their league, when he wins a contest to throw a football at halftime of a New England Patriots game. If he throws the ball 30 yards and hits the target, he wins one million dollars. Nate wonders if he can handle the pressure like his hero Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. The writing is clean and direct and Nate is a realistic and engaging character. I found myself really cheering for a happy ending for him.


January 8 feature: Ozma of Oz

My niece Katie recently told me that one of her favorite books is The Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum. She's right. It's a great story. Of course, the movie filmed in 1939 made this story an enduring part of popular culture, but may also cause us to overlook Baum's other creative books. Dorothy went on to have other adventures. Ozma of Oz is one of those. From start to finish, I was taken with imaginative way Baum weaves the story. Dorothy anchors the story with her positive outlook and "midwest nice" manners. We're introduced to new characters like Tiktok, the bronze man (an early twentieth century robot!) and a yellow talking hen Dorothy dubs Billina. Tiktok and Billina help Dorothy and her friends (the Scarecrow, Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion) rescue the Queen of Ev and her ten children from the Nome King. It's a light, enchanting story.


January 6 feature: The Bronze Bow

I fell in love with Elizabeth George Speare's storytelling ability with The Witch of Blackbird Pond, so I was interested to read The Bronze Bow, the Newbery Award winner of 1962. This is the story of orphaned Daniel, a 17-year-old Jewish boy living at the time of Jesus. Daniel's desire for revenge leads him swear an oath and  join a band of rebels dedicated to overthrowing the Romans. The book describes both the political climate of the time and the actual physical climate and landscape of Israel. As a Christian, it was an interesting fictional look at how some Jews wanted to view Jesus--as military general posed to deliver the Jews from the Romans. Over the course of the book, Daniel's encounters with Jesus lead him to a different view. My reservation with the book was that it doesn't focus on the grace that God gives. It has the tendency to look at Jesus only as a good teacher and not as the Savior. Nevertheless, I found myself wondering how I would have viewed Jesus had I lived during that point in history, a tribute to the author's engaging style.


Sweet 16

My youngest sister turns 16 today.  Happy Birthday, H!


January 4 feature: Anastasia Krupnik

Lois Lowry is a talented author who has published many books for young readers. One of my favorites when I was 11 was Find a Stranger, Say Goodbye. Somehow, I missed reading the Anastasia Krupnik series. I truly enjoyed making up for this lapse some 20+ years later. Anastasia is a 10-year-old girl, daughter of a poet father and an artist mother. She keeps track of her likes and dislikes in her green notebook, always reserving the right to change her mind. Anastasia's struggle to understand her elderly grandmother suffering from dementia and her feelings about a coming baby are handled with tenderness and strike a nice balance. However, the chapter on Anastasia wanting to become a Catholic left me wishing that Lowry would have treated the subject of faith in God differently. Lowry's greatest accomplishment is that she remembers what it's like to be 10 years old.


Aunt Jill's book club

I love giving thought-provoking, creative and--dare I say--educational gifts to my nieces and nephews. This past Christmas, I decided to start a book club for five of my nieces, ages 8-10. The plan is to read four books in 2010. The girls have the months of January and February to read our first book, Beezus and Ramona, and I'll host a sleepover in March where we will talk about the book.

In the second quarter, we'll read Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White. Our third book will be Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell. After that, we'll vote on the book for the fourth quarter.

In preparation for the book club, I put away some of the technical manuals (whew) that I've been wading through to read some great books geared toward youth readers. For the month of January, I will be featuring some of those books. Do some reading in 2010. :)