Archive for the ‘Newbery’ Category
Time to resume my posting routine!
The past two weeks, I’ve been happily rediscovering The Pydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander. Expect a review of the series on Saturday.
I’ve been collecting biographical notes on Lloyd Alexander. Because I missed posting yesterday, I’ll run my four author teasers right through until Saturday. Next week, I’ll start surprising you again with a mix of mid-week news, questions, or quick reviews.
Regards my biographical notes, I’m changing up their structure. In school, my fourth-grade students just finished writing biographies. They divided their notes into four categories: childhood, education and jobs, accomplishments, and other interesting facts. That seems like a good format to follow. So, from now on, I’ll post author info according to those categories with a couple differences. Because these are authors, I’ll focus on their writing life instead of their general accomplishments. Also, my interesting facts will center on info about the author’s books and perhaps include links to long interviews.
Daily Teaser Archives
Without further ado, let me turn to Lloyd Alexander. Him being one of my favorite authors, it was especially fun to research his life. A stockbroker’s son, Alexander was born in January of 1924. He grew up in the western suburbs of Drexel Hill in Philadelphia, which I had forgotten. I read a biography of him years ago but because his Prydain Chronicles are entrenched in Welsh mythology, I tricked myself into remembering him as being British.
Although his parents read mostly newspapers, the family had lots of books. According to a quote in the Washington Post article “Lloyd Alexander: Fantasy and Adventure Writer,” his parents bought books at the Salvation Army to fill up empty shelves. As for what books Alexander most enjoyed, like me, he felt that he’d need a book to list them all. It should come as no surprise to those familiar with his books that he loved Arthurian legends and world myths. To my delight, he also loved an unabridged dictionary.
EDUCATION & JOBS
Finding pleasure in reading classics, Alexander vowed in high school to be a writer. Although he had no idea how to proceed, he did his best to educate himself. First though he had to appease his horrified parents, who urged him to pursue a more practical job. Alexander accepted a bank messenger job, despite having to use his fingers to add. When he could finally afford it, he attended a local college. He stayed only for one term. Dissatisfied with not having learned enough to be a writer, Alexander joined the army believing that the adventure might better serve his writing education.
The United States had already entered World War II. Alexander was shipped to Texas where he served as an artilleryman, a cymbal player in the band, an organist in the post chapel, and a first-aid man. Eventually, he was assigned to a military intelligence center in Maryland. There he trained as a member of a combat team to be parachuted into France to work with the Resistance, but instead the team ended up sailing to Wales to finish their training. Years later, Alexander drew on the beauty of Wales to create the enchanted kingdom of Pyrdain.
After World War II, Alexander was discharged to attend the University of Paris. There, he married and for a while felt content living abroad. Yet he grew to feel that if he were to write anything worthwhile, he’d have to be closer to his own roots. With his wife, Alexander returned to Philadelphia where he earned a living working for a small magazine. On the side, he wrote novel after novel. Alexander experienced seven years of constant rejection before his first novel was at last published. Tomorrow I’ll tell you about his life as a writer.
Alexander didn’t start out a children’s writer. Instead, he wrote for adults about subjects he knew well, including his wife (“Janine Is French”) and cats (“My Five Tigers”).
After ten years of writing for adults, Alexander turned to writing for young people. He called it, “the most creative and liberating experience of my life. I was able to express my own deepest feelings far more than I ever could when writing for adults.”
Alexander relied on extensive outlines. Although those outlines regularly changed, they served as a blueprint and gave him some sense of how small or big his project would be.
Despite this being a childhood love, Alexander also didn’t start out being a fantasy writer. While doing historical research for Time Cat, he stumbled across Welsh mythology and enjoyed remembering all the hero tales, games, and imaginings of my childhood. The material inspired him to write his Newbery award-winning fantasy series The Prydain Chronicles.
Regarding fantasy, Alexander felt it served as great nourishment for imagination. He told Encountering Enchantment that he believed that imagination to be at the heart of everything we do. It leads people to ask “What if?” and helps develop intelligence. Alexander encouraged everyone to read fairy tales, and then read more, and to keep reading them. He believed that “If we nourish imagination, we nourish everything else.
MISCELLANY & INTERVIEWS
Time for other interesting facts! Did you know that Lloyd Alexander was one of the creators of the children’s literary magazine? He wrote over forty books, including his most famous work which I’ll review on Saturday, a set of five high fantasy novels called The Prydain Chronicles. Its conclusion The High King received the 1969 Newbery Medal.
Alexander played Mozart on his violin, drew cartoons, and fed squirrels in his back yard. In the Washington Post article “Lloyd Alexander: Fantasy and Adventure Writer, he admitted to a weakness for doughnuts and wafers before bedtime. His daughter, Madeline Khalil, died in 1990. He died two May 17, 2007, two weeks after the death of his wife of sixty-one years.
To learn more about Alexander’s life, read: Lloyd Alexander Interview Transcript.
To learn more about the creation of The Prydain Chronicles, read: Welsh Mythological Underpinnings of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Cycle.
Unless otherwise noted, the main source for the above information comes from: Kids Read: Lloyd Alexander.
- Book Review (Past Due): Time Cat (theliteraryphoenix.wordpress.com)
How would you react if someone greeted you with a bow or by avoiding eye contact? Captain Whitfield reacted with impatience, which puzzled Manjiro and his fishermen companions. To them, those actions showed politeness. Other similar examples of miscommunication between cultures abound in Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus, the fictionalized true story of how a Japanese teenage fisherman named Manjiro discovered America in 1841 and how as an adult he persuaded Japan to ease open its boundaries. As such, it will interest historical fiction buffs and those seeking multicultural novels. Because Heart of a Samurai also involves sea travel, whaling expeditions, mutiny, and storms, it’ll also appeal to anyone who likes adventure stories.
Margi Preus visited Japan twice, which no doubt helped with her convincing portrayal of Manjiro and his companions. At first, the five are simply steering their fishing boat towards home. Except for their talk of samurai and swords, and geisha and kimonos, the five could have been from anywhere. The details don’t really become more important when the five encounter Americans, yet even then Preus delivers. If your country had shut itself off from the rest of the world, how would you react to meeting outsiders? Would your clothes differ? What about your mannerisms? Perhaps most telling, if you and the outsiders spoke in different languages, how would you communicate? In every situation, Preus helps me see what five fisherman in 1841 might have felt.
All of these situations are also explored within the context of a story that is already incredibly interesting. Manjiro and his companions get caught in storm. Even when they find land, their peril has just begun. Their boat capsizes, Jusuke injures his leg, and starvation becomes imminent. Then when rescue happens, it comes in the form of “barbarians”. Okay, the strangers didn’t have tails, horns, or fangs, but there were hairy faces and big noses. Manjiro and his companions might have been better off being left alone to die. At least, this is how Manjiro viewed their predicament. On the flip side, the strangers viewed the Manjiro and his companions as pagans and cannibals and spies. In less capable hands, Heart of a Samurai could have amounted to a simplistic story of prejudice, that all too easily transforms into peace and harmony. It could also have easily turned into a condemnatory tale of how American whalers, church leaders, teachers, and students all failed to accept an outsider. To a certain extent, this is what happened. Yet prejudice is rarely that simple. What I appreciated most about Heart of a Samurai is that neither side is portrayed as being right or wrong; rather people from both cultures at times need to work to understand each other’s perspectives.
Heart of a Samurai isn’t flawless. When Manjiro inquires about the disappearance of a shipmate, the rest of the crew respond with lines such as: “Jolly took a dickey run and met his oppos” and “Jolly had the devil to pay and no pitch hot.” Manjiro wonders what they were talking about and decides that English is a difficult language, but to be honest I couldn’t understand the banter either. When Captain Whitfield docks his ship, he takes a wife whom we rarely hear about again. Although the real captain does take a wife at this time, and so Preus is keeping to the facts, it might have been nice to provide her with a larger role. Finally, there’s an incident with Manjiro and a bully, which feels cliché regardless of whether it has roots in truth.
Because of an author’s need to remain faithful to actual events, the risk of historical fiction is that it can read like a dry narrative. In contrast, Heart of a Samurai poignantly explores universal themes. Some are fairly familiar such as that of growing up and finding one’s place in the world. Early on, Manjiro and Goemon share dreams of what they wanted to be when they grew up, declare themselves the Samurai of Bird Island, and play fight with swords made out of driftwood. There is also a subtle but meaningful moment when Manjiro watches a snail and wonders where it is going with such purpose. Other themes have been less frequently explored but are equally important such as how to negotiate the precarious balance between two worlds that one loves. I like Manjiro’s first reaction to seeing a world map. He can’t read the words on it, but imagines that they say: “Come and see!” My favorite scene is a bittersweet one: “He had encountered both beauty and pain. Now he understood that was how it would always be.” Through moments like these, Preus makes Manjiro feel like a real person.
It was fun to read my second book in one month about adventure on the high sea, my first being the equally exceptional Fish by Gregory Mone. I also appreciated learning about a pivotal moment in Japan’s history. Yet what I loved most about Heart of a Samurai is how Preus introduced me to an inspiring individual whom I wish I could have known, within the context of an enthralling story.
My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.
How would you rate this book?