Thursday, February 4, 2016

Graphic Novels: Sunny Side Up and Roller Girl

Some year soon, a graphic novel is going to win the Newbery Medal. The day is coming. A graphic novel has received an Honor in each of the last two years (EL DEAFO and ROLLER GIRL) and this year a picture book took home the Medal (LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET). As children readers change and interests widen, and as more authors begin exploring this medium, I envision the quality of stories being told to only get better and better.

Two popular graphic novels from 2015 were SUNNY SIDE UP and ROLLER GIRL. Both are designed in bright, friendly packages and both include a selling quote from Raina Telgemeier. Despite these physical similarities the stories inside these covers are very different from each other.

SUNNY SIDE UP was written by Jennifer Holm who is no stranger to the graphic novel format (BABYMOUSE series) or the Newbery Medal (she has Honored three times with OUR ONLY MAY AMELIA, PENNY FROM HEAVEN, and TURTLE IN PARADISE). SUNNY SIDE UP is her first graphic novel that is not a part of her BABYMOUSE series.

In SUNNY SIDE UP, Sunshine Lewin heads to Florida for the summer to stay with her single grandfather in his over-55 retirement community. She has dreams of Disney World and playing in the pool but instead, gets trips to the grocery store and early-bird buffet dinners at Morrison's Cafeteria. She meets a boy named Buzz who introduces her to comic books and his company begins to help her take her mind off of the real reason she is in Florida with her grandfather.

SUNNY SIDE UP is a quiet story. It has the feel of an Alexander Payne film. It is a quick read. I read the entire graphic novel in about an hour. Not a lot happens and Sunshine doesn't say much, but often times her expressions do the talking, as do the flashbacks to time spent with her troubled older brother Dale. There is humor in the book, in a fish-out-of-water kind of way, but most of this humor resides in the shadow of the much heavier plotline of Sunshine's older brother's issues. Sunshine loves him but feels partly responsible for what is currently happening to him (which is a mystery to readers at first, but unfolds through the flashbacks). Kudos to Holm for addressing this subject matter and not watering it down. This will probably find a niche among younger sibling readers.

ROLLER GIRL by first time author and former roller girl Victoria Jamieson, is an entirely different story. It's similarly serious but a much bigger story. In ROLLER GIRL, Astrid and Nicole have been best friends forever but during the summer before middle school, their interests change. Astrid impulsively attends a roller derby camp and falls in love with the sport while Nicole heads to dance camp. Astrid struggles with losing Nicole as a friend, making new friends, and riding out the (literal) ups and downs of learning the sport of roller derby.

ROLLER GIRL is as much about friendship and growing up as it is about the sport of roller derby itself. Jamieson does an awesome job of using the book to introduce the sport to readers without devoting pages and pages to rules and terminology. We learn the ropes as Astrid learns the ropes. Her struggle with the sport is a great parallel to her struggle with losing Nicole and making a new friend. Astrid is an imperfect, yet endearing character and you can't help but root for her as she discovers herself. ROLLER GIRL is the type of book that could be loved by grade 5-8 girls for a very long time.

While I would never want to separate the text from the illustrations, hypothetically ROLLER GIRL is the type of story that could survive and be just as endearing without the graphic novel format. I'm not sure the same can be said for SUNNY SIDE UP. Holm doesn't provide us with an inner monologue the way Jamieson does with Astrid. SUNNY SIDE UP is told primarily through parse character dialogue and pictures. This isn't a bad thing at all, just a different thing. Astrid's thinking is present on every page of ROLLER GIRL which gives the text an extra depth. While the illustrations are great, they just add to an already distinguished coming-of-age story. I enjoyed SUNNY SIDE UP thoroughly because I enjoy everything Holm does! ROLLER GIRL however, caught me by surprise and completely lived up to its Newbery Honor hype.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

1926: Shen of the Sea

In 1926 for a second year in a row, the Newbery Committee recognized a collection of folktales as the most distinguished work in children's literature. Just as Charles Finger brought TALES FROM SILVER LANDS out of Latin America in 1925, Arthur Bowie Chrisman brought SHEN OF THE SEA out of China in 1926.

Arthur Bowie Chrisman developed a love of Chinese lore and culture while living in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1920’s. He befriended a few older Chinese men who told him stories. SHEN OF THE SEA is his collection of some of these stories, as well as a few of his own original tales snuck in for good measure. Many Chinese historians have not found any of Chrisman’s humorous tales to be grounded in any real Chinese folklore, so it’s difficult to tell which of the tales were told to Chrisman and which of the tales are from his own imagination.

SHEN OF THE SEA contains 16 short stories, told as Chinese folk tales. Six of the stories could be categorized as tales of invention, where characters haphazardly stumble upon the invention of random items. For example, in the story “Chop-Sticks,” Ching Chung and Cheng Chang were good friends. Ching Chung was charismatic while Cheng Chang was a fantastic cook. Ching Chung loved Cheng Chang’s roasted duck and promised him one day, if he was ever fortunate enough to be king, that he would make Cheng Chang a wealthy man. As luck would have it, Ching Chung was in fact named king but decided that Cheng Chang’s roasted duck was so good that he deserved to be king instead. Cheng Chang’s nasty wife begins abusing her power as First Lady by promoting her brothers to undeserved positions. When Cheng Chang denies her requests at dinner, her and her brothers toss silverware at him. Fearing for his life, Cheng Chang outlaws knives and forks and replaces them with two thin sticks, thus chopsticks are born.

Other stories detail the invention of the printing press, gunpowder, a kite, tea, and fine China, all in similar fashion. Most of the other stories in the book are humorous tales of irony where characters use their clever wit to escape from situations or simply learn lessons. For example, in the story “Many Wives,” an Emperor was tired of his kingdom always being threatened by attacks so he asked a wise old soothsayer what he should do. The soothsayer replied, “marriage.” So the Emperor set out to find a wife. He called for any potential wife to come live in the palace and he would choose the most suitable bride. Many women came to the palace, including Radiant Blossom, the most beautiful woman in the kingdom. Since the Emperor could not tell the women apart, he hired an artist to paint portraits of them. Ying Ning, the ugliest woman in the palace, bribed the artist to portray her as beautiful and Radiant Blossom as ugly, so the Emperor chose Ying Ning as his wife and assigned Radiant Blossom to be married to his enemy. As Radiant Blossom was being transported, she disappeared never to be heard from again. The Emperor learned the truth of what had happened and assigned men to search the kingdom for her, but she was never found.

I seem to be in the minority among Newbery Completionists, because I didn’t mind SHEN OF THE SEA, whereas others continually rank it near the bottom of Medal winners. The stories were humorous and entertaining and were for the most part, easy to read. Unlike TALES FROM SILVER LANDS, these stories actually resemble folk tales, and each story progresses with a moral discovery or lesson learned. I even think children today would find humor in these tales, if read aloud by a proper storyteller.

In researching a bit about Chrisman, I feel that history has been unnecessarily harsh on him and his work. He was open about where he heard some of these stories from and he was honest about adding some of his own original stories to the collection. He never claimed to have traveled to China. He just loved Chinese stories and this collection was an homage to the stories he had been told while living in San Francisco. In regards to what it set out to do, I think SHEN OF THE SEA accomplishes its goal rather well. And while some of the character names and themes in the book could poke fun at the Chinese culture, it’s obvious that it is a culture that Chrisman was genuinely passionate about.  

Thursday, January 7, 2016

1925: Tales From Silver Lands

TALES FROM SILVER LANDS is a collection of folktales from author Charles J. Finger. This 1925 Newbery Medal winner, the fourth ever book to win the gold, is comprised of nineteen short stories that the author picked up while traveling throughout Central and South America. After a few long snoozers and an old-fashioned pirate epic, nineteen short stories was a welcomed sight for my attention span. Besides, who doesn’t love folktales?

The first tale, titled “A Tale of Three Tails,” tells the story of how the tails of the rat, the deer, and the rabbit came to be. Typical folktale kind of fare. Instead, the story has something to do with an evil spirit and its pet owl who tricks a father into beheading his two sons for failing to complete work that the evil spirit had assigned to him. By the end of the tale, I figured out how the rat, the deer, and the rabbit got their tails, but wasn’t sure what the moral or lesson was. Isn't that the point of a folktale?

The rest of the tales featured in the book, were similarly bizarre. Most featured strange, fantastical creatures, magic spirits, talking animals, wise old men smoking tobacco, etc, etc. There seemed to be a theme of good versus evil present in most of the stories (“But evil, though it may touch the good, cannot for ever bind it.”), but often times the evil that transpired was so unusual and dark, that it was difficult to find any good left in the end. 

Take the third tale, “The Calabash Man,” for example: A young married couple travels to the bride’s land to rid it of an evil spirit that is possessing her father. The father forces the son-in-law to complete a lot of impossible tasks and upon completing the final task, the father screams and runs off into the forest never to be seen or heard from again, taking the evil with him. The couple meanwhile, lives happily ever after. Huh?

In “The Tale of the Lazy People,” Christians are warned that monkeys in tree tops will toss nuts and branches at their heads while walking through the forest. This is in revenge of being mistreated earlier in the tale. Or tricked. Or something. I don't remember. So are Christians the lazy people or the monkeys? Who is good and who is evil? The good versus evil theme doesn’t seem to carry evenly throughout the tales.

Another fault I found with many of the folktales was the lazy ways in which some of the stories were resolved. Instead of the characters learning from their mistakes and figuring out their own problems, something unexpected often happened, resolving the story for the characters. Too much deus ex machina. This was present in the seventh story, “El Enano.” “El Enano” is a story about an old woman whose home is taken over by a mischievous impish creature, hell bent on eating her out of house and home and wreaking havoc upon all her neighbors. The creature gives the people its reasoning and just when you think the people of the old woman’s village are going to find a way out of their predicament, a silver fox strides into town and saves the day in some ridiculous fashion. What is the takeaway here?

I keep trying to picture school librarians in the 1920's, sitting around and discussing this book. It's not Charles Finger's fault that none of the tales make a lick of sense. He's just passing along stories he heard while traveling through Latin America. But what are the school librarians excuses? The only way I can imagine them selecting this was due to an extremely weak crop of children's literature available. The publishers of the Scholastic Apple Paperback version I got my hands on didn't even want to be associated with it. Look at the image chosen for their cover:


Click on that image and view it a little larger. Check out the look on the kids' faces! The camp counselor with the preppy polo on the cover doesn't even look like he's enjoying telling these stories to these four unlucky souls!

It took me longer to finish this book than any of the other three. Here's to hoping SHEN OF THE SEA has more to offer.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Repost: 1924 The Dark Frigate

The following post was originally written by me in 2010:


In 1921, 33-year-old author Charles Boardman Hawes released THE GREAT QUEST, a story of a young man on a high seas adventure in search of gold. The novel was Hawes' first published work and it earned him a Newbery Honor in the Newbery's first ever year of existence. Two years later, Charles Boardman Hawes' third novel THE DARK FRIGATE won the Newbery Medal. Sadly, Hawes was not alive to celebrate it. Many have compared Hawes to Robert Louis Stevenson and fully expected that within his lifetime, creating a true masterpiece like Stevenson's TREASURE ISLAND could have been well within his reach. Instead, we're left with THE DARK FRIGATE, the best of the three Newbery Medal winners thus far, as his crowning achievement.

To summarize the book . . . Phil Marsham is just shy of twenty-years-old and has recently become orphaned. His father, a sailor, was lost at sea. The money left to him by his father is abandoned in London when Phil accidentally fires Jamie Barwick's rifle in Moll Stevens' alehouse, causing quite the commotion. He's run out of town. On his journey he encounters many interesting characters (too many) before meeting Martin Barwick (Jamie's brother) and Tom Jordan (Old One). Phil makes for the port town of Bideford with Martin as a traveling companion and the two board the Rose of Devon, an impressive "frigate". Once on board, Phil's skills (he takes after his father) impress the ship's leader, Captain Candle, and he's made "boatswain" while Martin is assigned to kitchen help. Phil befriends a boy his age on the ship, Will Canty.

Before long, the Rose of Devon encounters a damaged ship on the waters and rescues its passengers. Much to Phil and Martin's surprise, the ship is led by Tom Jordan, the Old One. The survivors are friendly at first, but something is amiss. Soon, their true intentions are revealed. They are pirates. They kill the Devon's Captain Candle and convince its crew to join them in search of riches. The crew does. All but Phil and Will. The Old One takes a liking to Phil and allows the two to stay on board. After many failed attempts of ship raids, the crew attacks a small village. Will tries to escape, is captured by the pirates, and murdered. Phil successfully escapes to a British warship which he convinces to easily takes over the Old One's crew. They are taken to trial in England, and Phil is lumped in as one of them.

Phil refuses to testify against the crew, despite his unwillingness to join them, and the Old One is so impressed that he testifies instead. Phil is set free and the Old One and his crew are executed. Phil joins the crew of Sir John Bristol, an impressive Lord, Phil met along his earlier travels. Sir John reminds Phil of his father and the two quickly form a tight bond. While fighting in the English Civil War, Sir John is killed in battle and Phil decides to set off on foot again, tired of England. He finds himself back in Bideford by story's end and much to his surprise, ironically, the Rose of Devon is docked there. He sets sail onboard at the story's close.

THE STORY OF MANKIND was just too massive to keep anything straight. DOCTOR DOOLITTLE was just too odd and random to enjoy. THE DARK FRIGATE, despite it's slow beginning, is actually one heck of a well-rounded story. The archaic style of language, makes this story very difficult to understand and I found myself writing brief summaries after every chapter, just so I could keep my thoughts straight. So much energy is put into deciphering the language though, that when I came to page 75 and the Devon had finally set sail, it felt like I was on page 200! But credit Hawes for truly giving this book a 17th Century feel.

Once the Old One and his crew are on board the ship, this book becomes quite the page-turner. Right up to the end. However I did feel the book suffered from having too many "endings". The story could've ended with Phil being set free, escaping execution, but it doesn't. He joins Sir John Bristol and has many more adventures. Even when Sir John is killed in battle, the story could end, but it doesn't, as Phil sets foot again and finds himself in Bideford. I will say, I like the idea of ending with him on board the Rose of Devon again, sort of as if the story has come full circle. So in the long haul, the multiple endings are worth it, because if he hadn't had those adventures with Sir John, he never would've boarded the Devon again so soon.

I'm not sure how many children would be able to handle a book of this style on their own. The plot of this story, is very exciting and would surely appeal to many. Who doesn't love a good pirate adventure? But the work involved in getting to the plot is rather extensive for children under the age of 14. Parents and Newbery committee members must have had tougher skin in the 1920s, to allow a book with an abudance of violent, high-seas murder and drunk men lusting over women in taverns to be awarded a medal so esteemed. But compared to the two Newbery Medal winners that preceded THE DARK FRIGATE, this one was at least enjoyable.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Repost: 1923 The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle

I originally wrote the following post in 2010:


My first thought upon completing book #2 of my journey, THE VOYAGES OF DOCTOR DOLITTLE by Hugh Lofting (Newbery Medal winner from 1923), was 'Whoa . . . there must not have been much competition in the 20s'. Doctor Dolittle has a knack for picking up languages, and he's mastered the skill of speaking to animals. Don't get me wrong, Hugh Lofting has created a memorable, original, polite character in Doctor Dolittle, one that is able to stand the test of time (Eddie Murphy, Ace Ventura anyone). It's really quite the creative concept, especially in 1923! But this particular story has sooooo much going on. The many detours make it hard to follow and much of this story could have been trimmed down quite a bit (Where were all the editors in 1923?). It could've made for a much more enjoyable, and bearable read!

For example: Part II of the book kicks off introducing readers to Luke the Hermit. Tommy (our narrator) and the Doctor are recruiting some helping hands for the voyage they are about to embark on. Luke is their top choice. We're given a back story, we're given a mystery, and we're given some suspense. The Doctor helps clear Luke's name in a trial of sorts by talking to animal witnesses (Luke had previously been accused of murder). At the end of Part II, once Luke's name has been cleared and the good Doctor has saved the day, Luke declines the invitation to join them on their voyage. What?! Seriously?! What is the point in introducing us to a character like Luke, only to dump them by the wayside? The story of Luke the Hermit felt like a complete waste of time. Sure, he pops up a short while later as a stowaway, changing his mind about the voyage, but even the Doctor is annoyed and quickly disposes of him. We never hear from him again.

It takes nearly half of the story to pass by before the Doctor and his sidekicks finally set sail and the first place they stop is Spain. Spain was not in on itinerary, but they needed to get rid of some stowaways. While in Spain, the Doctor is lured off task by the possibility of ending the cruel sport of bullfighting once and for all. He hustles the Spaniards and steps into the ring as a matador turning the bulls on the fighters and angering the crowd in the process. The Doctor and his crew are run out of town and again, I was left scratching my head. Did Hugh Lofting think all these sidebars were fun? The book and all it's adventures reminded me of a bedtime story that your Grandpa tells you after you're tucked in and ready for sleep. Except the story is making less and less sense because Grandpa is making it up as he goes but you continue to listen and fight off sleep because Grandpa's a funny guy and even a little crazy in his own way!

Another annoyance with this book is the excessive politeness displayed amongst its characters. Now I'm a teacher. I'm all for "please" and "thank you". I'm all for politeness. But the politeness found in this book is on a whole other level! It's distracting! "May I please share an idea with you Doctor?" asks Tommy. "Why certainly my dear boy," responds the Doc. "I think you are the best Doctor in the world," states Tommy. "Well thank you for sharing that pleasant thought," thanks the Doctor. "Thank you so much for letting me share it," coos Tommy. "You are so very welcome," says the Doc. Imagine 300+ pages of conversation exactly like that . . . Argh! And what kind of parents agree to let their ten-year old move out of the house and live with the crazy, polite, old doctor down the block who happens to talk to animals? And then agree to letting that child set sail across the globe with that Doctor? Come on! I know this is a fantasy story but seriously . . .

After THE STORY OF MANKIND, I was really looking forward to this book, but I almost found it more unbearable than that first one. There is some good stuff . . . the mystery of Long Arrow's disappearance and the mystery of the shellfish language keep you engaged, despite the fact that they are never really solved (or even "mysteries" to begin with). There's a good message buried in these pages about doing work you love, not just work that pays good. And the writing at times is top notch. I love Tommy's description of the ship: "This ship, which was to be our house and our street, our home and our garden, for so many days to come, seemed so tiny in all this wide water - so tiny and yet so snug, sufficient, and safe." But in the end, this book is a snoozer.

I even tried to get my cat Elliot to read it, thinking the good Doctor could "speak" to her. But all she did was sniff it.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Revisiting My Newbery Project (Repost of "1922: The Story of Mankind")

Almost 5 years ago, I wanted to read all of the Newbery Medal winners and keep an account of each on a blog. I wanted to read them in order too, so that I could see the progression of the different styles of writing awarded each year throughout the decades. At that time, there were 89 winners. Since then, 5 more have been added making the grand total of winners 94.

I gave up after the first three.

I have decided to give it a try again. To get me back in the mood, I'm going to repost the first three reflections I wrote and hope it motivates me! The following reflection of Hendrik van Loon's THE STORY OF MANKIND, was written back in 2010!

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1922: The Story of Mankind


That's me. Sleeping. That's what seemed to happen naturally every time I picked up Book Number 1 of my journey, THE STORY OF MANKIND by Hendrik van Loon. Let's just say, I'm kind of relieved to get this one out of the way!

532. That's how many pages this first ever Newbery Medal winner clocked in at, or at least the edition I read. I've seen upwards of 600 pages in more recent prints as the book keeps growing and growing with history. I'll count myself lucky . . .

As a Christian man, I personally became bothered after reading page one. If anything, I found his scientific summary of man's origin ("the first living cell floated upon the waters of the sea") just as "far fetched" as he claims religion is. I was deeply disturbed by the way he portrays Christians throughout the book as a clan of poor, uncivilized men; imbeciles, who had nothing better to do than fantasize. The sarcastic tone he takes when poking fun at the Jews and Moses is unflattering and it cuts at his credibility, in my opinion. Especially when he raves on and on about Buddha and the Age of Science later in the book. Ugh!

I tried to set my personal bias aside and read the book with an open mind . . . I enjoyed his explanation of hieroglyphics and the Sumerians' and the Phoenicians' inventions of writing. I liked how Van Loon constantly reminded us that throughout history, time periods blended together and didn't end abruptly, like time line's sometimes show. The story of Heinrich Schliemann's search for the city of Troy was fascinating, and one I had never heard before. And I'm sure nonfiction lovers everywhere would enjoy the quote "Why should we ever read fairy stories, when the truth of history is so much more interesting and entertaining?"

I can tell that Van Loon is trying to speak to children but when he's in his history-story-telling groove, this really doesn't speak to children at all. At one point, he casually directs the reader to think of a specific song by the poet Heine in order to truly "feel" the history of Napoleon. Children don't know who Heine is! I didn't know who Heine was without Googling him! Besides, I don't know of too many children searching the library for good 600+ page nonfiction reads.

In the end, THE STORY OF MANKIND is little more than a modern Social Studies textbook, grades 1-6 combined! It's a remarkable feat, summarizing history the way Van Loon has, but it's also way too much. This book has to be absorbed in small doses. After a while, the dates and the battles and the wars and the discoveries and the leaders all jumble together, making it difficult to take away much substance from this book. You know when you read something and your mind can't help itself from wandering? Before you know it, you've read a page or two without really reading any of it, causing you to go back and re-read . . . this entire book felt like that after a while! It was always the same thing . . . it was kind of refreshing to get it off my plate.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Night Gardener

Scary stories are difficult to write for a child audience. If your concept is too scary, it will no longer be a story for children. If your concept isn't scary enough, it will be GOOSEBUMPS, wildly popular, but more cheesy than scary. There is a fine line between too scary and GOOSEBUMPS.

Jonathan Auxier's THE NIGHT GARDENER rests right on that line.

THE NIGHT GARDENER is not for the faint of heart. It will undoubtedly give children (and some adults) nightmares. That being said, this is the best, most complex work of fiction I have read this year.

I can tend to be long winded, so I will keep my summary of this story short. Molly and Kip are the main characters of this story. They are orphans, working in a dilapidated Victorian mansion, for a creepy family, The Windsors. From the onset, Molly and Kip feel as if they should leave this place, but they have nowhere else to go. Then, scary stuff happens.

The visuals in this novel are incredible.

"But strangest of all was the tree.

The tree was enormous and looked very, very old. Most trees cast an air of quiet dignity over their surroundings. This one did not. Most trees invite you to climb up into their canopy. This one did not. Most trees make you want to carve your initials into the trunk. This one did not. To stand in the shadow of this tree was to feel a chill run through your whole body.

The tree was so close to the house that they almost seemed to have grown together--its gnarled trunk running up the wall like a great black chimney stack. Palsied branches crept out in all directions like a second roof--including a few that appeared to cut straight through the walls. 'It's almost a part of the house,' Kip said softly.

Why any person would build a home so close to such a terrible tree was beyond him."

Often times, whether or not a story ends up GOOSEBUMP material, depends on the handling of the bogeyman. All scary stories have a bogeyman, and the bogeyman makes or breaks the story. Kids either run and hide and have nightmares of the bogeyman, or they laugh at him because he's covered in slime. Take the movie Signs for instance, directed by M. Night Shyamalan. This taut, alien invasion story is all kinds of creepy until the final 10 minutes of the film. The fear and tension build off screen for the entire movie, then all of the sudden, this gangly, awkward, dumb-looking alien is standing in the family's living room and Joaquin Phoenix is beating it with a baseball bat. Movie, ruined.

THE NIGHT GARDENER does NOT suffer from this. That's all I'm going to say.

All aspects of this story are top notch. The description of the Victorian-era setting is fantastic. Each character is given their own arc making the character development highly distinguished. The twists and turns of the plot are dizzying, yet impressive. Just when you think one seed of a mystery has been planted, it sprouts, ripens, and is plucked from its vine within just a few pages. The plot moves along briskly, balancing so many questions and subplots brilliantly, never giving the reader more than they can handle and always giving the reader just enough answers to entice them along.

I could have finished this book in just a few sittings (it was that enthralling), but I found myself slowing down and savoring the story and the language. You will not find more descriptive sentence level writing and prose than Auxier's work in THE NIGHT GARDENER. As demented as it sounds, I didn't want it to end.

Word of warning though: You will want to read this one during the day time. Or with the lights on. Every light on.

And away from trees. Definitely away from any trees.