Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for the ‘Children’s and Young Adult’ Category

The Fifth of March: A Story of the Boston Massacre

Posted by nliakos on October 17, 2019

by Ann Rinaldi (Harcourt 1993)

This is the story of young Rachel Marsh, an indentured servant working as a nanny in the home of John and Abigail Adams in 1768-70. Well-researched, with most of its characters based on actual people, The Fifth of March provides a front-row seat to the events leading up to and following the Boston “Massacre”, which is widely seen as a crucial factor in the beginning of the Revolutionary War. As Rachel narrates the story, we gain an understanding of how some of the colonists began to see themselves as just plain “Americans” rather than subjects of the British Crown, as the concept of individual liberty began to take root.   Along with her friends, her employers, and her employers’ friends and associates, Rachel must decide whether to cast her lot with “the rabble” or with the soldiers sent to keep the peace in a turbulent time. We come to appreciate the British side of the story: how the British Captain Preston tried valiantly to avert violence while the Americans insulted, cursed, lobbed objects at, and otherwise provoked the young British soldiers.

Rachel’s choice is complicated by the fact that she has befriended one of the soldiers, Matthew Kilroy (also a historical figure), thereby jeopardizing her relationship with the Adamses. This is the fictional story woven into the historical events. Even Rachel Marsh’s fictional character is based on an actual person of that name whom the Adamses employed. Rinaldi takes this character, about whom essentially nothing is known, and creates her protagonist.

I found this to be a balanced description of what it might have felt like to live in Boston during this period a few years before the Revolutionary War.

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Gone Away Lake

Posted by nliakos on January 30, 2019

by Elizabeth Enright (Harcourt 1957)

This is a simple story of some children who discover an abandoned community near their vacation home. Only two elderly siblings live there, but they are delighted with the children and they all become friends. At first, they keep it a secret, but soon the secret becomes impossible to keep. Nothing particularly exciting or spooky happens. It’s nice that the children and the old folks befriend one another. I was underwhelmed.

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Follow My Leader

Posted by nliakos on March 21, 2018

by James B. Garfield (illustrated by Robert Greiner; Viking Press 1957)

This novel about a young boy who must learn to cope with blindness after a tragic accident was one of my favorite books when I was a child, and I have actually re-read it many times. It can still bring a chuckle to my lips and tears to my eyes. Eleven-year-old Jimmy Carter loses his sight when his friend Mike inadvertently tosses a lit firecracker in his direction. The book follows Jimmy’s progress as he learns to use a white cane, read and write using Braille, and finally gets a guide dog, whom he names Leader. Almost half of the book describes the training Jimmy does at the guide dog school, both before and after he gets the dog. Jimmy learns a lot from his fellow students as well as from the school staff about living as independently as possible. But possibly the most important lesson he learns is from his roommate, 28-year-old Mack. Mack helps Jimmy to realize that hating Mike is useless and toxic, and when he returns home, in addition to going back to school, getting an after-school job (a newspaper corner), and rejoining his Boy Scout troop, he finds a way to forgive his friend.

Along the way, Jimmy’s widowed mother, his younger sister Carolyn, his best friends Chuck and Art, and others, learn valuable lessons about how to act (and how not to act) around a blind person, and by extension, around anyone with a disability. I think this book may have been the first one I ever read which helped me to vicariously experience the life of a person living with a disability. Despite the tremendous changes we have gone through as a culture since the 1950s, I think children today can still benefit from reading Jimmy’s story.

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The Trumpet of the Swan

Posted by nliakos on February 14, 2018

by E. B. White, illustrated by Edward Frascino (Harper & Row, 1970)

Although I’ve read Stuart Little  and am a huge fan of Charlotte’s Web, I had never read E. B. White’s third classic children’s book, so I have now corrected that error. While it does not compare with Charlotte’s Web, it is entertaining and sends a message that disabilities can be overcome with persistence and resourcefulness.

The principal human character in the story is Sam Beaver, a young boy who grows up as the story of Louis the swan unfolds. Sam loves nature and animals and is always ready to help Louis when asked. But his importance to the story is secondary to that of Louis, the Trumpeter Swan who is born mute (not a Mute Swan!). (He is described as having “a speech defect”.) Louis refuses to accept his fate as an outcast in Trumpeter Swan society, and his parents decide that he should learn to play a trumpet of his own. Louis gets Sam to help him attend school to learn to read and write, and little by little, he accumulates a slate, a piece of chalk, and a trumpet,  all of which he carries around his neck and uses to communicate with both humans and other swans. He has many adventures: he plays the trumpet for the Swan Boat at the Boston Public Garden, and in a Philadelphia night club, and he woos and wins his true love, Serena. With Sam’s help, Louis is able to return to his idyllic life in the wild (but he has to agree to occasionally sacrifice  a cygnet to the Philadelphia Zoo, which seems kind of harsh given that Louis himself refuses to stay there).

It’s weird that a swan would think and communicate in English, use the toilet in a hotel room, know how much to tip a waiter, and other oddities, but there are funny passages that made me laugh, and I guess I can say that I enjoyed the book (but it’s definitely not in the same league as Charlotte’s Web!).

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The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre

Posted by nliakos on November 4, 2017

by Gail Carson Levine (Harper 2017)

When I was at the library recently, I picked up two books for myself (neither was on my to-read list, but they looked interesting) and this one for my daughter, who loves The Two Princesses of Bamarre. I gave up on the two “adult” books (The (Fabulous) Fibonacci Numbers by Alfred S. Posamentier and Ingmar Lehmann; and Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel) and instead read The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. 🙂 And enjoyed it.

Gail Carson Levine has written many books inspired by popular fairytales, such as Ella Enchanted (Cinderella) and Fairest (Snow White, sort of). The two Bamarre books are set in a fairytale world of Carson Levine’s own imagining, but there are elements of familiar tales; for example, the heroine, Peregrine (aka Perry), has hair which grows very rapidly and very long; when her adoptive father imprisons her in a tower with no door, Perry uses her hair to enable her friend Willem to climb up to her with food. Other examples are the seven-league boots which she uses to travel from place to place, the magic tablecloth that produces rich, delicious meals for its owner, and the snail shell that enables a person to hear conversations from a great distance. (The boots and the tablecloth also appear in The Two Princesses of Bamarre.)

Perry is a Bamarre, but the Bamarre have been conquered and subjugated by the fierce Lakti. (They are just too kind and empathetic to resist with violence.) As a baby, she is taken from her parents by the barren wife of Lord Tove, a Lakti aristocrat. They take her older sister Annet along for good measure, to serve as Perry’s nurse, leaving their parents bereft. Perry grows up believing herself to be a Lakti, undergoing the harsh training required of all the Lakti, both male and female, to turn them into fierce warriors.

The story takes place mostly when she is about fifteen. A fairy appears to her and reveals the secret of her birth, and announces that it is Perry’s destiny to liberate her people. Most of the book narrates how she manages to do this. There are dragons, gryphons, ogres, and other monsters to fight in the land beyond the Eskern Mountains where the Lakti came from originally, and in New Lakti (the kingdom stolen from the Bamarre by the invading Lakti), there are cruel Lakti, especially Lord Tove, whose all-encompassing love for his daughter turns to murderous hatred once he finds out the secret of her birth.

The treatment of the gentle, polite Bamarre people by the arrogant Lakti is reminiscent of the treatment of African slaves in America by white landowners. Lord Tove considers the Bamarre to be dirty, simple, and animal-like, and thinks nothing of subjecting them to ever-harsher laws. Perry has grown up with this racism, and must confront it in herself before she can accept herself and her birth family. She also has to learn to exist in a very different culture, where no one tells anyone else what to do and everyone’s speech is sprinkled with “Begging your pardon’s”. I enjoyed the small cultural details such as these that Carson Levine invents for her peoples.

There is only one character who appears in both Bamarre books, and that is Perry’s younger brother Drualt, who appears in The Two Princesses of Bamarre as a legendary hero. Presumably, that story of how Princess Addie saves her sister Princess Meryl from the Gray Death takes place many years after the Bamarre escape the persecution of the Lakti by crossing the Eskerns to resettle Old Lakti for themselves.

There’s a lot of suspension of disbelief required for all Carson Levine’s books, and this one is no exception!

Posted in Children's and Young Adult, Fiction | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

A Christmas Carol

Posted by nliakos on December 25, 2016

by Charles Dickens (edited by Jane Gordon; published by American Book Company in 1904)

Every year on Christmas Eve, my family and I watch the 1984 movie of A Christmas Carol with George C. Scott–it’s our favorite of many versions. This year, after watching the movie, I decided to reread the original novella, which I have in the collection called Christmas Stories (from “Eclectic School Readings”). The book originally belonged to my great-aunt, who was a teacher. I suppose she may have read some of the stories aloud to her classes. Anyway, I was a bit disappointed to realize that the story was edited. (Here is one of several unedited versions I found on Google Books; I should read that!)

Anyway, I read the edited version, since that is what I have. It omits some scenes  (like Scrooge’s visit to the pawn-broker’s shop with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come) which both the film and the original story include. But it’s still a wonderful story, a classic. Everyone should know it, whether by reading the story or watching one of the movies based on it.

Like Miracle on 34th StreetA Christmas Carol manages to be all about Christmas without ever mentioning Jesus, apart from Tiny Tim, who thought “it might be pleasant to [the people in church] to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.”

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I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced

Posted by nliakos on September 13, 2016

by Nujood Ali, with Delphine Minoui; translated by Linda Coverdale (Broadway Paperbacks, 2010; ISBN 978-0-307-58967-5)

Nujood Ali was a child of 9 or 10 (she does not know her birthdate) in 2008, living in poverty in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. Unable to feed his family, her underemployed, khat-chewing father arranged for her to marry a man from their ancestral village.  He claimed that the man (who was about 30 years old) had pledged “not to touch” her until a year after she got her period. This promise was quickly forgotten, and Nujood was brutally raped the night they arrived at her husband’s family home in the village, which was far from Sana’a and almost completely inaccessible. That night, and the next night, and the next. . . . despite her pleas and screams, despite her attempts to run away and hide from the man she began to call “the monster.” She was in constant pain and felt “dirty inside”. She thought of nothing but how to escape this horrible life and return to her family and her school.

Nujood got her chance on a rare visit to her family in Sana’a. She ran away and went to the courthouse, where she somehow managed to be seen by a sympathetic judge by the name of Abdo. Judge Abdo was appalled when he realized that this little pre-pubescent girl was married and suffering the worst kind of abuse. At that time in Yemen, girls could not legally marry before the age of fifteen; but according to the book, in rural Yemen, this law was frequently broken. Nujood’s case was not at all unusual. What was unusual is that Nujood refused to submit to her fate. She managed to escape; she found her way to the court (taking unfamiliar buses and a taxi), she insisted on seeing a judge, and she persisted until the divorce was granted. Following her historic divorce, the age of marriage in yemen was raised, other Yemeni girls found the courage to seek divorces from older and abusive husbands, and even an eight-year-old Saudi girl was granted a divorce. Nujood Ali is a role model and a hero for many women and girls. For herself, Nujood simply wanted to return to her family and to go back to school, where she was resumed her third-grade studies, but now with a specific career goal in mind: to become a lawyer like Shada Nasser, who represented her in court, helping other girls and women to win their rights. Fortunately, the income from this book has enabled her family to have a somewhat better life; at least, the children are no longer reduced to begging on the street.

Young adults and English language learners should be able to understand the fairly simple style and vocabulary in the book, and they will be inspired by the simple courage of this young child who refused to deny her humanity in order to follow the customs of her culture.

 

Posted in Autobiography, Children's and Young Adult, Non-fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Secret Garden

Posted by nliakos on September 6, 2016

by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Harper Trophy; originally published in 1911)

Vicki and I recently watched two movie versions of The Secret Garden; one from 1987, and the other from 1993. This made me curious as to which one was more faithful to the book, so I reread it.  I very much enjoyed revisiting the story of spoiled Mary Lennox, her equally-if-not-more-spoiled cousin Colin Craven, and the strange Dickon Sowerby, who can communicate with wild animals and seems to know everything about animals, gardening, and human nature.

When Mary is orphaned in a cholera epidemic in India, she is sent to live with her eccentric uncle Archibald Craven at Misselthwaite Manor, in Yorkshire. Mr. Craven is still grieving the death of his wife ten years before, is rarely at home, and does not wish to see Mary or anyone else even when he is there.

Mary is an obnoxious child who has been indulged, but never loved. When she follows the sound of crying to her hidden cousin’s room, she meets her match, and so does he. Mary is the first person to refuse to kowtow to Colin, and they become fast friends. Mary finds a way into the locked garden where Colin’s mother had the accident ten years previous that resulted in her death; Dickon helps the two younger children to restore the garden to its former beauty, and Colin finds a reason to live.

It’s a lovely story about the redemption of two lost souls by the eponymous garden. On the negative side is the implication that the climate in India can make people sickly, lazy, and stupid, whereas the climate in England restores them to good health and renders them energetic and clever.

I always wonder why film directors make gratuitous changes in the details (I understand about the changes they have to make to bring a story to the screen.). For example, in the book, Mary’s father was Mrs. Craven’s brother, but in the 1993 film, Mary’s mother was Mrs. Craven’s twin sister, and in the 1987 film, Mary’s father was Archibald Craven’s friend–they weren’t even related. Why not stick to the “facts” as written in cases such as this? Overall, the 1993 film is truer to the book; the 1987 film kills off Dickon in World War I and has Mary and Colin fall in love when they grow up!

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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Posted by nliakos on August 13, 2016

(Parts One and Two) by Jack Thorne, based on a story by J. K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne (Scholastic 2016, ISBN 978-1-338-09913-3)

I’m not actually sure who wrote what here. J. K. Rowling never published the story on which Jack Thorne’s play is based. Did all three people conceive the story together? This is not clear to me. And if this is Parts One and Two, does that mean Parts Three and Four are coming later? Who knows?

Anyway, the book is supposedly the “Special Rehearsal Edition” of the play being performed in London; it is written in the form of a play, with minimal stage direction, so a lot is left to the reader’s imagination. I kept thinking I would rather be watching it than reading it. That said, it sort of satisfied my wish to return to Harry Potter’s world (especially the flashbacks to the story we already know of Harry’s time at Hogwarts and what preceded that, such as the murder of Harry’s parents by Voldemort).

This is the story of Harry’s younger son and youngest child, Albus Severus (named for Profs. Dumbledore and Snape). Albus hates being the son of the famous Harry Potter. He is sorted into Slytherin House instead of Gryffindor, where he befriends Draco Malfoy’s unhappy son Scorpius, who is more cautious and gentler by nature than the impulsive and reckless Albus, who is constantly hatching plans and attempting to execute them without thinking them through–which lands him and Scorpius, and the entire wizarding world, in big trouble, which Harry and his friends (which now include a somewhat reluctant Draco) must sort out.

I hope someone will make a movie of it soon!

English language learners who have read the previous books in the series will probably find this one easier to read because of the screenplay format.

 

Posted in Children's and Young Adult, Fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | 1 Comment »

Between the World and Me

Posted by nliakos on April 2, 2016

by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau 2015; ISBN 978-0-8129-9354-7)

In this three-part essay addressed to his 15-year-old son Samori, Ta-Nehisi Coates considers the condition of being African American in the modern age. His focus is on the physical vulnerability of blackness in a racist nation: how the American culture of violence, and especially violence against blacks, robs black people of their time and energy (spent trying to stay out of the way) but most of all, of their bodies, which can be taken from them (beaten, raped, killed) by “the people who believe themselves to be white” (and equate this with perfect), whom he dubs “the Dreamers”–but the American Dream, if that is what he means, is built on the dead bodies of black people, the plunder of our history.

The danger which haunts Coates is personified by the fate of his college friend, Prince Jones, who was followed by a plain-clothes Prince Georges County police officer (also African-American) through Washington, D.C., and into Virginia, where the officer fatally shot Jones, in  a case of mistaken identity. Jones was in his early twenties, engaged to be married. The officer was not charged with murder and was allowed to continue working as a police officer. In this era of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others, African-American boys and men killed ostensibly because their killers felt threatened–in this era of Black Lives Matter, Coates details for us all what it actually feels like to grow up and live in the toxic atmosphere of American racism. He points out that race is just a fiction, anyway–an excuse to exploit, to kill, to discard. He comes back again and again to the killing of Prince Jones, as if he were trying to process it. Towards the end, he visits Jones’ mother, a doctor, a woman who clawed her way out of poverty to bring up her children in luxury and privilege–only to find that in the end, none of it mattered. The only thing that mattered was the color of their skin.

As a white person reading this book and feeling Coates’ justified rage, I felt chastened. I would have to agree with Toni Morrison’s comment: “This is required reading.”

(P.S. I wish someone would explain to me how Ta-Nehisi came to be pronounced as if it were spelled Ta-Nehasi.)

 

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