Category Archives: Review

Paul Mosier’s Train I Ride

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As I’ve written here before, I’m extremely wary of books that are described as heartbreaking, poignant, tender, et al. Too often I feel that I’m being manipulated into tears as regularly happens in the movies with music. Happily, there are books thus described that DO work for me. Such a one is Paul Mosier’s Train I Ride. The structure is that of a girl with a very sad past traveling on Amtrak to a new life. Over several days on the train she meets people, builds relationships. has a romance, and slowly reveals her complicated history. What makes this book work so well for me firstly is the lovely character development. There is, of course, Ryder, but — as the book moves back and forth in time — also her recently departed grandmother, Amtrak employee Dorothea who is looking out for her on the train, Neal at the train cafe, a caring school counselor, some scouts, and a kind crossword puzzler fellow-rider. I’d read that Allen Ginsberg’s Howl featured in the story and was very skeptical, but it works beautifully and in a way that is necessary. Best of all is the sentence level writing which is a delight. Here’s a taste: “It was comfortably dreadful.”  Glad to see this getting some Newbery buzz and hope this little post helps.

 

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Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust Vol. 1: La Belle Sauvage

There will be many paths into this book. Some will come to it cold having not read His Dark Materials, curious about what the fuss is all about. Others will come to it having read His Dark Materials long ago and so with a vague sense of the world they are re-entering. Some may read it because of an encounter with The Golden Compass movie. Others may have had the early books read to them when young.  And some will come to it with a deep love and appreciation of the previous books, having read and reread them many times.

I’m definitely one of the latter. I came across The Golden Compass shortly after publication and fell madly in love with it, a feeling that only solidified when I read The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Since then I’ve read the books and listened to the full-cast audio recordings many, many times. It is a comfort experience, one of solace, one that has me admiring the trilogy more and more with each encounter. When the play was put on at London’s National Theater I went. With heart in my throat I followed the controversies around the movie and finally went to see it — yes, reader, I was disappointed. And now I wait eagerly for the forthcoming BBC series.

All this is to say that I entered La Belle Sauvage with high hopes, with high fears, and with a deep knowledge and appreciation of the previous books and their world, characters, and themes. And so my response to the book is predicated on all of this. Someone on a different path will likely have a different response.

I began with some anxiety — it had been seventeen years after all–but it was like dropping into a scented warm bath surrounded by flickering candles — in other words, a delight. The world was that of His Dark Materials, the characters multi-faceted whether major or secondary. the pacing tense and urgent, the ideas demanding and true. Best of all is the writing — Pullman is a wordsmith like few others. Again and again I just stopped to reread a gorgeous sentence, to admire a word or phrase, a clever construction, or the elegant weaving of information. Just look at this very first sentence:

Three miles up the river Thames from the center of Oxford, some distance from where the great colleges of Jordan, Gabriel, Balliol, and two dozen others contended for mastery in the boat races, out where the city was only a collection of towers and spires in the distance over the misty levels of Port Meadow, there stood the Priory of Godstow, where the gentle nuns went about their holy business; and on the opposite bank from the priory there was an inn called the Trout.

Taking us from the great colleges to mastery of boat races to  misty levels to gentle nuns he lands us at the unadorned (no adjectives for it) Trout. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. As a writer I aspire to create anything even remotely close to that opening.

Moving into the story proper we meet eleven-year-old Malcolm (and his daemon Asta) whose parents run the inn and so he works there too. As good in his own way as Lyra and Will, but a person distinctly all his own, this is a boy who is inquisitive, loves to make things, supremely sensible while also able to dream, honest (but able, in dire circumstances to lie effectively),  solid (with adults and peers), and with a heart that is as big as the flood that comes midway in the story.

In the first half, Pullman chillingly evokes a time when the country is still nominally free, but the various ecclesiastical dark forces that figure so prominently in His Dark Materials (set around a decade later) are rearing their ugly heads. Familiar characters appear or are referred to, notably Mrs. Colter and Lord Asriel. But most of all there is Lyra, a beautifully realized baby of six months old. Pullman’s development of her character at this age is masterful — I mean, it isn’t easy to show personality with a child who doesn’t have words yet. I suspect it is his remarkable invention of daemons that makes this possible as he describes wondrous moments throughout the book of baby Lyra and baby Pantalaimon.  At one point there is a description of the tiny daemon trying to change into another creature, but unable to because he doesn’t know it yet. At another point an adult points out that their babbling to each other (made me think of the private language that sometimes exists between twins) is a way of learning how to speak.

The plot involves saving the baby Lyra from the various nefarious people and organizations who are after her. Among them is an absolutely chilling villain (or malefactor as Malcolm might well call him), George Bonneville, who proves in horrific ways to be completely mad. Pullman sets things up in the first half of the book —- showing Malcolm’s cosy home life with his sensible parents, his enjoyment in helping out the nuns at the priory across the street (where he meets baby Lyra), his stolid firmness with friends and at school (where a creepy Hitler-Youth-like organization takes hold), and his handiness, especially with his beloved canoe, the eponymous La Belle Sauvage. And then things take off literally — there is flood of Biblical proportions and Malcolm along with Alice, a somewhat older and sulky worker in his parents’ inn, are off in the canoe to save Lyra. They are chased, they have narrow escapes, harrowing experiences, and otherworldly encounters.

I enjoyed every moment of the book which I both listened to and read on my Kindle (so as to avail myself of the highlighting option). I attempted to savor it, but it was impossible to slow down during the second half any more than could the children in the canoe as it was born away in the raging flood. Now I’m planning to go back and listen to it again. (I am such a speedy readers that I love listening, especially when the writing is gorgeous, as it is much slower.) And again — in preparation for the next in The Book of Dust, set evidently some twenty years later. I waited seventeen years for this one so I think I can wait a bit longer for the next one.

Thank you, Philip Pullman, for giving all of us, so completely and wonderfully, this chance to be lost again in your remarkable literary world.

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Rick Riordan’s The Ship of the Dead (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, #3)

Just finished this last night and the more I think about it the more impressed I am.  A few months back I wrote a post celebrating Rick Riordan and all the things I noted there are in his latest, The Ship of the Dead. Here’s what I just wrote on Goodreads:

Highly enjoyable. Interesting how Riordan reuses a plot trope (deadly deadline) so freshly and imaginatively in different titles including this one. I think this is because he develops each character so distinctively, brings in the mythology smoothly (so not didactic), and has a crisp and witty writing style. And also, regarding those characters — he is brilliant at weaving in so many different life experiences. The gender fluid Alex and the devout Muslim Samirah stand out here most of all. And in this case, he takes on religious belief — really terrific. Then there’s Magnus’s (the main character) love life. How often do we see this in the main character of a highly popular work of genre literature for middle grade readers? (Right now, as I’m hoping that this will change in the next few years.) Hmm…. started by giving it four stars because the plot seemed a tad standard, but as I write this I am in such admiration for what this writer has done here that I’m bumping it up to five. Yay to Rick Riordan!

 

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Auma’s Long Run by Eucabeth A. Odhiambo

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Set in a 1980s Kenyan Luo village during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Auma’s Long Run is a piercingly honest account of the struggles, pain, hardships, deaths, famine, and challenges faced by a determined young girl and her community with grace and fortitude. Debut author Eucabeth A. Odhiambo, who grew up in a Luo village, beautifully brings out the complicated ways thirteen year old Auma, her family, and neighbors cope with the scourge. Lack of resources, traditional practices, personalities, and more make this a riveting and complex read. While this is not a story that wallows in misery — Auma is too determined to ever give up — there are still many loses; in one case after the death of a friend’s parents, lack of food causes her little sister to die of malnutrition. How to get to the clinic to see a doctor, whether to consult with a traditional healer, where to get money for school fees and school uniforms, frightening cure mis-beliefs (one causing a man to threaten Auma sexually), and more swirl around this tale. Auma desperately wants to go to secondary school, to become a doctor, to then learn more about this disease and help find a cure. But her obstacles are daunting. Odhiambo relates Auma’s story in clear and direct prose, as practical and realistic as her protagonist. Her descriptions of Auma’s life are vivid and authentic, her scenes raw and real.  While there is indeed sorrow and sadness, there is also humor and joy. Highly recommend this one.

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Allen Say’s Silent Days, Silent Dreams

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A few weeks ago I visited New York City’s Whitney Museum and became besotted with a new-to-me artist, James Castle. Obsessed I took the following photos:

Perhaps a week later I saw Betsy Bird’s review of Allen Say’s Silent Days, Silent Dreams, was gobsmacked that this fictionalized overview of Castle’s life was in the works, and eager to get an advance copy. Now I have and think it completely and utterly superb. It is fiction, the text and the art, carefully and respectfully researched. Some have wondered if the art is all Say’s, but I feel confident it is. He writes about his own research, process, and materials in his author’s note and indicates that his wife made the constructions of dolls and birds. There is a solid bibliography. (For more of Castle’s art, check out online exhibits here, here, and here.)

And it is all quite fabulous — the text (a fictionalized memoir of Castle’s nephew) and the art, the hues and viewpoints very much in the style of Castle’s work.

One of my oldest friends is the curator of the American Folk Art Museum so I’ve long been aware of the work outsider/self-taught artists. In fact, one reason Castle’s work caught my eye at the Whitney (along with several others ) was delight in seeing it in such a museum in the same space of more famous conventional artists. Well-known outsider artists include Henry Darger, James Hampton, Achilles Rizzoli, Simon Rodia (who did the Watts Towers), Bill Traylor, Howard Finster, and Adolf Wölfli.

While I don’t want to make any assumptions about those artists whose lives for one reason or another were outside of the world of art as we usually know it, I can’t help being fascinated by those like Castle who, lacking certain ways of communicating, find others in spectacular ways. What we know of his life — being deaf and never speaking and living on a very isolated farm — makes his work all the more wonderful. Say has absorbed the man’s life and given us a gift to know about him, it, and his art.

Thank you, James Castle and Allen Say, for beautiful, beautiful reveries on the world.

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Jason Reynold’s Patina

A year ago I received a box of ARCs from Simon & Schuster and, poking around, came across Jason Reynolds’ Ghost. While I’d heard a great deal about wunderkind Reynolds and read with respect some of his YA work, that he had a middle grade book coming out was a complete surprise to me. About track — my one competitive sport — no less. And so I jumped right in and fell madly in love with it. (You can read my gushy review here.) And so now here we are a year later with the next in the Track series, featuring team mate Patty aka Patina.

On the very first page of Patina we are brought back to the track meet that ended Ghost, Patty telling us what happened and why. No spoilers from me though! Just moving on as this story is Patty’s not Ghost’s. It is one of legs, strong ones, missing ones, relay race ones, and more. These real and metaphoric legs make their way through the novel, effectively raising and highlighting important themes. They serve beautifully as Patty watches, acts, considers, and grows in her understanding of the world.

Where Ghost was about racing for and against yourself, Patina is about teamwork. There is teamwork practice of all kinds for the track team members who will be running relays in an upcoming meet. As well there is the group assignment at school where Patty is resigned to doing the bulk of the work, as usual, sensing no action on at least two of the group members. There is the teamwork of her family — her little sister, her diabetic and legless mother, and the aunt and uncle the siblings live with. The adults around them are good and caring, supporting the girls in the best ways they can. Reynolds’ scenes are beautifully done full of sensory details. You can just see those family meals, smell the uncle’s nasty truck, hear authentic conversations, and feel Patty’s body as she pushes it as hard as she can in workouts. The relationship between the sisters, Patty and Maddy is especially warm and delightful.

What for me elevates this book and its predecessor to such a high level (goodreads five stars:) is Reynolds’ fabulous writing. He’s got a way with a few sentences that stops me in total admiration, again and again. Say these:

Deep breaths, Patty, my mad slowly mellowing. This temper ain’t a new temper. Breaking invisible teacups. Smashing them everywhere. No this ain’t new. I just be keeping it pushed down, all the way down in my legs.

I highly, highly recommend this book and eagerly await the next in the series.

 

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In the Classroom: Ralph Fletcher’s Joy Write

Some may have read or heard this story before, but for those who haven’t here it is again. It is what made me passionate that no young writer I taught ever had the same experience.

So my story. I loved writing as a child — until something happened. This was my high school A.P. English teacher telling my parents I shouldn’t take a role in the school play (my passion at the time) so I could “work on my writing.” He never told me what was the matter, never met with me to show me what I needed to do, and I never asked (as I was shy and he was a strong personality we admired very much). So I messed around and messed around with my school essays, clueless as to what was wrong. My mother remembered me up late at night and feeling so sorry she couldn’t help. I went to college worried and this impact my writing to the point where I was sent to a tutorial for help. I figured out that my problem lay in revision so handed in first drafts full of typos (this was the day of the typewriter) as they were still better than if I tried to revise them. The professor overseeing the tutorial told me it was all in my head and there was nothing she could do. So what I did was avoid all English classes for my undergraduate and graduate studies. (And, boy, did I yearn to attend them. Some sounded right up my alley, but I wasn’t going to risk it. Instead I read voraciously on my own — classics, everything.)

In the early 1980s I became deeply involved with the burgeoning personal computer movement in schools, finally matriculating as one of the first classes for a program in computers and education at Teachers College Columbia University. I was surprised to find out that I was good at programming — doing it and teaching it (having been a miserable math student). And then, as one of my final courses, I took Lucy Calkins’ summer institute in writing. It was the second one and it was a revelation for me in many ways. The idea of the workshop — of a process — has informed my work as a teacher ever since.

A few years later I broke through my own writing phobia by writing an essay that got me a competitive fellowship to study children’s literature at Princeton. At the same time I was becoming more and more active online in children’s literature and educational communities. All of this made me finally believe I could write. And I did — books for teachers, articles, blog posts, etc. And a book for children that was lauded for its writing. I’m currently working on a new project and was elated when recently the editor I’m working with celebrated my ability to write fiction.

All of this informs my beliefs when it comes to teaching writing to 4th graders. These include:

  • Creating situations where students feel invested in their writing
  • That they have audiences
  • That they find joy in the work
  • That they understand that there are many different ways and reasons to write — some being completely private, some to figure out a problem, and more.

Of late my impression is that writing instruction in schools is highly driven by testing, common core curriculum, packaged programs, and consultants. Often these are highly scripted and allow little opportunity for children to write for themselves. As I work in a private school, I have far more freedom than many of my public school colleagues, but this overall approach affects us too as it is now presented in language arts communities and organizations as best practices.

What has struck me is that the focus in now on kids learning structures, on expository writing above all, and no consideration of audience or, worse, joy. And so I was eager to read Ralph Fletcher’s Writing Joy: Cultivating High-Impact, Low-Stakes Writing. It happens Ralph was my writing instructor when I took the TC institute those many years ago and we have run into each other over the years. (His wife, it happens, was my instructor then too.)

Ralph is blunt about the reduction of joy in today’s writing programs. In the book he does a clear presentation of the history, of the current situation, and then makes some very smart suggestions. That is, find places for kids to write for fun, in ways that they truly care about, that aren’t graded, that can be full of spelling errors, etc He suggests “Greenbelt Writing” a sliver of a place in children’s daily school lives where they can play textually, away from the regular writing curriculum. This would be on the side, a sort of recess time (as I understand it), an enjoyable and relaxing place with the goal of kids having fun writing, of finding joy in it.

Last year I started a weekly BoB session to replace reading logs (see this post for details). The kids love, love, love this. They read, they update their BoBs (Book of Books), and chat with me. Sometimes we talk as a group about what we are reading. Mostly it is a quiet and serene time. (I bought a bunch of soft lights that we put on their desks so we can avoid the bright overhead.)

Reading Ralph’s book made me decide I want to do something similar with writing. It will be tricky taking over another period for it, but I’m determined to do so. I’d love a cool acronym for it that goes well with BoB. Any thoughts? I see it as a greenbelt time where kids will write whatever they want, to share or not.

This isn’t a regular review, but a personal response to Ralph’s book. It is a short book, to the point, clear, and may be uncomfortable for some, but also it is kind and offers some fabulous suggestions I hope others consider. As I already wrote, I sure am.

Thanks, Ralph, for writing what really really needs to be said today.

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