Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Airborn and Shakespeare's Secret

I've been tearing through some great books from the Caudill Award shelf at the public library, one science fiction, one mystery, one geared towards boys, and one for girls, but both terrific reads.

Kenneth Oppel's Airborn is destined to be a classic. I truly hope that someone makes a movie of this "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" meets "King Kong" epic. The setting is a fictional past, where cell phones, GPS, and airplanes do not exist, rather "hydrium" filled airships roam the skies through well traveled shipping lines, carrying cargo and passengers in the style of the Titanic. Our hero is fifteen year old Matt Cruse, born in the sky as his parents emigrated via airship, Matt has spent the last two years as cabin boy aboard the Aurora.

During his routine shift in the crow's nest, Matt spots a hot air balloon, drifting aimlessly over the Pacificus. The Aurora saves her, but the only passenger is seriously ill and does not survive. One year later, Matt meets the granddaughter of the balloonist, wealthy, young Kate deVries. Kate shares her grandfather's journal with Matt, and tells him of her desire to find the uncharted island where her father saw what she believes to be an entirely new species. When the Aurora is attacked by pirates, they find themselves shipwrecked on that very island.

Will they find the new species? Will they get off the island? What if the pirates come back? Oh, it is a thrilling adventure! And beautifully written as well. Oppel's descriptive passages are downright poetic at times. I am very excited to discover a sequel, Skybreaker, has already been published. Highly recommended.

Shakespeare's Secret by Elise Broach is the account of Hero Netherfield, sister of the lovely, popular Beatrice, and daughter of a Shakespearean scholar father, and a graphic designing mother. They have just moved to Washington D.C., where her father is employed as an archivist for the Maxwell Elizabethan Documents Collection. In between horrible experiences at a new middle school, Hero befriends next door neighbor, Mrs. Roth.

Mrs. Roth shares the secrets of the Murphy house, where Hero lives, and the tale of the massive diamond rumored to be hid within. In her quest to discover the diamond, Hero learns much about Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I and the debates of the true identity of the author known as Shakespeare.

I hesitate to "highly recommend" this book for two reasons. First of all, Anne Boleyn's historic charges of infidelity are discussed along with the possibility of Elizabeth I having an illegitimate child. While this material is definitely for the older student, it does not bother me as much as my second reason, namely the way in which the major characters disparage "church-going." When Hero does not wish to speak to a neighborhood boy who has come to call, the author writes,
"Tell him I'm not here. "
"He'll never believe that. It's not even ten o'clock. Where would you be?"
"Tell him I'm at church."
Beatrice laughed loudly. "Really?"
A minor moment in the whole of the novel, granted, but worth mentioning. I get defensive when I see that Christians are still sport for the pagan world. Despite this one scene, I enjoyed the book, liked the characters, and loved reading about Shakespeare.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Old Willis Place

Some readers believe that ghost stories have no place in children's literature, but The Old Willis Place: A Ghost Story by Mary Downing Hahn is one of the best examples of the genre for children that I have seen outside of Edgar Allen Poe.

The story is about Diana and Georgie, two kids who spy on the caretakers of the old Willis place, or Oak Hill Manor. They play by strange rules such as they are not allowed to speak to others, to enter the Manor, or to leave the property. It will not take long for the astute reader to ascertain that Diana and Georgie are the ghosts.

Diana, craving the friendship of the new caretaker's daughter, Lissa, shows herself and breaks the rules. But new rules enter into her mind, namely that their undiscovered bodies must be buried, and they must forgive the old woman who inadvertently caused their death. Diana and Georgie lived sixty years ago, the children of the housekeeper and gardener of the Manor. While alive, they teased Mrs. Willis mercilessly, playing pranks on her and stealing from her. Then one day, Mrs. Willis catches them after they have hid in a secret closet in the cellar. She says they will stay in there until they will apologize, and she locks them in. Unfortunately, she was so upset by this situation that she had a stroke and was hospitalized and unable to speak for several weeks. The children were never found. Eventually, their parents were dismissed from the Manor and moved away. Mrs. Willis lived to be 100, and no mourners came to her funeral. Her ghost has been in the parlor where she died until Lissa lets it out. Then the ghost of Mrs. Willis roams the property looking for Diana and Georgie. In the end, they all seek forgiveness and leave the property, Diana and Georgie reuniting with their deceased parents, once and for all.

Hahn has written a delightfully chilling story with a real redemptive message of forgiveness. I was very impressed with this book, as it reaches far beyond the creepy tales marketed to children. This book is a Caudill Award nominee for 2008 and is Recommended.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Christopher Paul Curtis

Christopher Paul Curtis is an award-winning author of juvenile fiction who focuses on race relations at different points in American history.

My first encounter with Curtis was when my son won the book, Bud, Not Buddy, on audio cassette from our local library. Bud is placed in an abusive foster care home during the the Great Depression after the death of his mother. He escapes with his suitcase of treasured personal objects, including the only clue to his father's identity, a flyer about a musician named Herman E. Calloway, and his jazz band. Bud decides to find his father, by walking to Grand Rapids, Michigan from Flint. During the journey, Bud makes friends, hides from enemies, and successfully avoids setting foot in the town that has outlawed the presence of black people. He does find Calloway, and discovers that Calloway is not his father, but his mother's father. Bud's mother ran away from Calloway when she met Bud's father. The identity of Bud's father is never discovered, nor is the reason he is no longer in Bud's life.

Curtis writes about the Depression for children, from a child's viewpoint, including such iconic scenes as a shanty town, hopping trains, and bread lines. This children's novel won the 2000 Newberry Medal, as well as the Coretta Scott King award. Highly Recommended.

It came as no surprise that one of Amazon's Top Books for Children this year is Curtis's latest work, Elijah of Buxton. Unlike Bud, Elijah lives with both of his parents before the Civil War in a settlement of free blacks in Buxton, Canada. What did come as a surprise was that Buxton was a real place, and the not the only one of it's kind. Curtis writes in the Author's Note, "What an interesting, beautiful, hope-filled place the Elgin Settlement and Buxton Mission of Raleigh was and is."

Elijah Freeman is the son of escaped slaves, and lives a normal life, going to school, struggling with Latin, and chunking rocks. It is his amazing gift for rock chunking that takes him out of the settlement for the first time. The Preacher, a mysterious and slippery character, convinces Elijah that they can earn some money for the Settlement. Elijah sneaks out with the Preacher to the carnival in the next town. They do not earn any money for the Settlement, but they do manage to rescue a young boy enslaved to the carnival owner.

One of Elijah's tasks is to collect the mail, and to read the letters to the largely illiterate adult population. When the wealthy Mrs. Holton learns from a letter that her husband was killed by the slavers that captured him, she gives all of her wealth to Mr. Leroy who has been saving to buy his own family out of America. Mr. Leroy acts too quickly and engages the Preacher to oversee the sale. Mr. Leroy takes Elijah with him to hunt down the Preacher after he has absconded with the money. Shortly after arriving in America, Mr. Leroy dies of a heart attack. Soon after, Elijah finds the Preacher's body in a stable, where he also finds five black slaves, chained by their hands and feet, awaiting to be driven like cattle by the men who have captured them. This scene may be too graphic for young readers and I have included it here. The woman in chains explains to Elijah, "Now I seen everything. A boy holding a man's gun fixing to shoot someone! But if you's set on killing that man, you's too late, chile. Looky there. He breathed his last just 'fore sunset...Had quite the mouth on him, that one did. I knowed they waren't taking him nowhere. I knowed when they brung him in here and bust his teeth out and split his tongue in two. They ain't never gunn treat no one what they's looking to sell like that. What they done with him waren't nothing but play, nothing but sport." Curtis writes, "I could see now it was ropes that were keeping Preacher's arms spread out to the sides. He was strunged up twixt two beams. Another rope was wrapped 'round and 'round his neck and was pinching his throat narrow and tight."

Failing to free the slaves in the stable, Elijah is able to take the woman's baby with him back to Buxton and give her a life a freedom. The lessons in this book are very mature, therefore this book is highly recommended for older readers.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Airborn and Shakespeare's Secret

I've been tearing through some great books from the Caudill Award shelf at the public library, one science fiction, one mystery, one geared towards boys, and one for girls, but both terrific reads.

Kenneth Oppel's Airborn is destined to be a classic. I truly hope that someone makes a movie of this "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" meets "King Kong" epic. The setting is a fictional past, where cell phones, GPS, and airplanes do not exist, rather "hydrium" filled airships roam the skies through well traveled shipping lines, carrying cargo and passengers in the style of the Titanic. Our hero is fifteen year old Matt Cruse, born in the sky as his parents emigrated via airship, Matt has spent the last two years as cabin boy aboard the Aurora.

During his routine shift in the crow's nest, Matt spots a hot air balloon, drifting aimlessly over the Pacificus. The Aurora saves her, but the only passenger is seriously ill and does not survive. One year later, Matt meets the granddaughter of the balloonist, wealthy, young Kate deVries. Kate shares her grandfather's journal with Matt, and tells him of her desire to find the uncharted island where her father saw what she believes to be an entirely new species. When the Aurora is attacked by pirates, they find themselves shipwrecked on that very island.

Will they find the new species? Will they get off the island? What if the pirates come back? Oh, it is a thrilling adventure! And beautifully written as well. Oppel's descriptive passages are downright poetic at times. I am very excited to discover a sequel, Skybreaker, has already been published. Highly recommended.

Shakespeare's Secret by Elise Broach is the account of Hero Netherfield, sister of the lovely, popular Beatrice, and daughter of a Shakespearean scholar father, and a graphic designing mother. They have just moved to Washington D.C., where her father is employed as an archivist for the Maxwell Elizabethan Documents Collection. In between horrible experiences at a new middle school, Hero befriends next door neighbor, Mrs. Roth.

Mrs. Roth shares the secrets of the Murphy house, where Hero lives, and the tale of the massive diamond rumored to be hid within. In her quest to discover the diamond, Hero learns much about Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I and the debates of the true identity of the author known as Shakespeare.

I hesitate to "highly recommend" this book for two reasons. First of all, Anne Boleyn's historic charges of infidelity are discussed along with the possibility of Elizabeth I having an illegitimate child. While this material is definitely for the older student, it does not bother me as much as my second reason, namely the way in which the major characters disparage "church-going." When Hero does not wish to speak to a neighborhood boy who has come to call, the author writes,
"Tell him I'm not here. "
"He'll never believe that. It's not even ten o'clock. Where would you be?"
"Tell him I'm at church."
Beatrice laughed loudly. "Really?"
A minor moment in the whole of the novel, granted, but worth mentioning. I get defensive when I see that Christians are still sport for the pagan world. Despite this one scene, I enjoyed the book, liked the characters, and loved reading about Shakespeare.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Old Willis Place

Some readers believe that ghost stories have no place in children's literature, but The Old Willis Place: A Ghost Story by Mary Downing Hahn is one of the best examples of the genre for children that I have seen outside of Edgar Allen Poe.

The story is about Diana and Georgie, two kids who spy on the caretakers of the old Willis place, or Oak Hill Manor. They play by strange rules such as they are not allowed to speak to others, to enter the Manor, or to leave the property. It will not take long for the astute reader to ascertain that Diana and Georgie are the ghosts.

Diana, craving the friendship of the new caretaker's daughter, Lissa, shows herself and breaks the rules. But new rules enter into her mind, namely that their undiscovered bodies must be buried, and they must forgive the old woman who inadvertently caused their death. Diana and Georgie lived sixty years ago, the children of the housekeeper and gardener of the Manor. While alive, they teased Mrs. Willis mercilessly, playing pranks on her and stealing from her. Then one day, Mrs. Willis catches them after they have hid in a secret closet in the cellar. She says they will stay in there until they will apologize, and she locks them in. Unfortunately, she was so upset by this situation that she had a stroke and was hospitalized and unable to speak for several weeks. The children were never found. Eventually, their parents were dismissed from the Manor and moved away. Mrs. Willis lived to be 100, and no mourners came to her funeral. Her ghost has been in the parlor where she died until Lissa lets it out. Then the ghost of Mrs. Willis roams the property looking for Diana and Georgie. In the end, they all seek forgiveness and leave the property, Diana and Georgie reuniting with their deceased parents, once and for all.

Hahn has written a delightfully chilling story with a real redemptive message of forgiveness. I was very impressed with this book, as it reaches far beyond the creepy tales marketed to children. This book is a Caudill Award nominee for 2008 and is Recommended.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Christopher Paul Curtis

Christopher Paul Curtis is an award-winning author of juvenile fiction who focuses on race relations at different points in American history.

My first encounter with Curtis was when my son won the book, Bud, Not Buddy, on audio cassette from our local library. Bud is placed in an abusive foster care home during the the Great Depression after the death of his mother. He escapes with his suitcase of treasured personal objects, including the only clue to his father's identity, a flyer about a musician named Herman E. Calloway, and his jazz band. Bud decides to find his father, by walking to Grand Rapids, Michigan from Flint. During the journey, Bud makes friends, hides from enemies, and successfully avoids setting foot in the town that has outlawed the presence of black people. He does find Calloway, and discovers that Calloway is not his father, but his mother's father. Bud's mother ran away from Calloway when she met Bud's father. The identity of Bud's father is never discovered, nor is the reason he is no longer in Bud's life.

Curtis writes about the Depression for children, from a child's viewpoint, including such iconic scenes as a shanty town, hopping trains, and bread lines. This children's novel won the 2000 Newberry Medal, as well as the Coretta Scott King award. Highly Recommended.

It came as no surprise that one of Amazon's Top Books for Children this year is Curtis's latest work, Elijah of Buxton. Unlike Bud, Elijah lives with both of his parents before the Civil War in a settlement of free blacks in Buxton, Canada. What did come as a surprise was that Buxton was a real place, and the not the only one of it's kind. Curtis writes in the Author's Note, "What an interesting, beautiful, hope-filled place the Elgin Settlement and Buxton Mission of Raleigh was and is."

Elijah Freeman is the son of escaped slaves, and lives a normal life, going to school, struggling with Latin, and chunking rocks. It is his amazing gift for rock chunking that takes him out of the settlement for the first time. The Preacher, a mysterious and slippery character, convinces Elijah that they can earn some money for the Settlement. Elijah sneaks out with the Preacher to the carnival in the next town. They do not earn any money for the Settlement, but they do manage to rescue a young boy enslaved to the carnival owner.

One of Elijah's tasks is to collect the mail, and to read the letters to the largely illiterate adult population. When the wealthy Mrs. Holton learns from a letter that her husband was killed by the slavers that captured him, she gives all of her wealth to Mr. Leroy who has been saving to buy his own family out of America. Mr. Leroy acts too quickly and engages the Preacher to oversee the sale. Mr. Leroy takes Elijah with him to hunt down the Preacher after he has absconded with the money. Shortly after arriving in America, Mr. Leroy dies of a heart attack. Soon after, Elijah finds the Preacher's body in a stable, where he also finds five black slaves, chained by their hands and feet, awaiting to be driven like cattle by the men who have captured them. This scene may be too graphic for young readers and I have included it here. The woman in chains explains to Elijah, "Now I seen everything. A boy holding a man's gun fixing to shoot someone! But if you's set on killing that man, you's too late, chile. Looky there. He breathed his last just 'fore sunset...Had quite the mouth on him, that one did. I knowed they waren't taking him nowhere. I knowed when they brung him in here and bust his teeth out and split his tongue in two. They ain't never gunn treat no one what they's looking to sell like that. What they done with him waren't nothing but play, nothing but sport." Curtis writes, "I could see now it was ropes that were keeping Preacher's arms spread out to the sides. He was strunged up twixt two beams. Another rope was wrapped 'round and 'round his neck and was pinching his throat narrow and tight."

Failing to free the slaves in the stable, Elijah is able to take the woman's baby with him back to Buxton and give her a life a freedom. The lessons in this book are very mature, therefore this book is highly recommended for older readers.