Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Historical’ Category

One-Two by Igor Eliseev is an atypical reading experience. Set in Russia in the 1980’s and 1990’s, when the USSR has just ended and Russia is still in its infancy, One-Two takes you into the mind of conjoined twins Faith and Hope. The style is at first disconcerting, being told from an alternating first and second person, but in the end feels like the perfect choice. A psychological drama, the novel reflects on how difficult but also how important it is to remain human.

Faith and Hope do not have an easy life. Their own mother, aghast at the sight of them, signed their death certificate. The twins were handed over to one institute and then another as experimental subjects. When the scientists wearied of the twins, they were transferred to boarding school where they experienced some measure of happiness. The windows had no grids, the air smelled of moss and pine, and the twins felt like normal children for the first time. They even developed friendships. Unfortunately, due to a suicide by one of the boarders, their stay was short-lived. The next stop was an orphanage, where once again the twins were viewed as objects of curiosity and sunk into misery. Their one relief was a library and the news that successful operations were being performed to separate conjoined twins. But again, these comforts were short-lived. One-Two is a hard story at times to read, as there seems be no redemption in sight.

But I want redemption for Faith and Hope, who from start to finish I am rooting for. I like who the twins are. They value friendships from their peers, the knowledge to be found in libraries, and the kindness of strangers. They’re also self-aware and know when they are being cowardly or mean, but also how to be strong in the face of relentless suffering and pain. I empathize with the twins who wish for a different appearance, just as many of us are dissatisfied with our looks. Faith grows up knowing the story of the Ugly Duckling by heart, because she wants to undergo a similar transformation. She treasures artwork of a friend who depicts them as beautiful. Whether accurate or not, I find enlightening the insights into life as a conjoined twin. One teacher tells the class that anyone cheating will be seated at separate desks, and Faith laments how impossible that would be. Then there are the constant questions from bystanders of how the two function day-by-day with bodies that are conjoined. Perhaps the most bittersweet is how the twins at times encourage other and at other times wish desperately to be their own person. Finally, I feel abhorrence at their treatment. When the twins take a bus ride, passengers make comments such as they’ll never get used to them and they’ll one day turn into haggish toads. At the orphanage, when staff see them, the twins are told to cover themselves. And these are among the least cruel reactions.

The style is initially what I least cared for. The first person is used when Faith describes her traumatic childhood, and the second person is used when she talks to her conjoined twin. There are times when I wanted to simply stay inside Faith’s head and times when I wanted to know what her sister thought not what Faith said to or about her. At the same time, the technique serves to increase tension, and thereby creates a frightening foreboding. While narrating her story Faith occasionally presents philosophical truths that seemed too mature for her to know at the age being depicted. At the same time, her emotions swing from optimism to despair, and feel agonizingly real. By the novel’s end, I felt as if the author could not have chosen any other way to tell his story.

One-Two by Igor Eliseev is one of those books that need to be reread due to its complexity. The twins manage to struggle past thoughts of revenge, suicide, and other dark emotions to hold on to the belief that their life has been amazing and full of miracle, and therein they teach us how to be human. Upon the initial reading one will grasp the essentials of the plot and the characters, but an additional reading will be needed to fully comprehend all the truths being imparted.

Graphic novels have grown in popularity over the past decade. In some libraries, the hottest children’s books are often graphic novels. Here are three graphic novel recommendations for different ages groups.

The Boy, the Bear, the Baron, the Bard features a young boy who finds himself whisked back to the 16th century England while exploring an abandoned theater. He emerges on the stage of the Globe Theatre in the middle of a performance, much to the chagrin of William Shakespeare himself. A chase erupts, wherein the young boy frees and then befriends both a caged bear and an imprisoned baron. Kids and their parents will want to study the detailed illustrations to get the most out of this wordless paneled graphic novel.

Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute, the first title in the Lunch Lady series, introduces an uncover hero who assumes the guise of a lunch lady. A group of school friends who call themselves the Breakfast Bunch take a stand against bullies, agonize over what clubs to join, laugh at each other’s food choices, and debate who should win Teacher of the Year award. One day they follow the Lunch Lady home to see what she does when not serving meals. This leads to them teaming up with the Lunch Lady, her sidekick, and their crime-fighting gadgets against a suspicious substitute teacher. Mayhem abounds in this fast-paced madcap adventure, which has been a hit with both boys and girls.

For older readers comes the autobiographical novel called Smile. It tells of Raina who just wants to be a normal sixth-grader, but one night after Girl Scouts she trips and falls, damaging her two front teeth. This seemingly simple incident leads to years of agonizing over braces, headgear, surgery, and even a retainer with fake teeth. As if all this wasn’t already enough, Raina must maneuver her way through the confusion of changing friendships, dating, and self-identity. Although Smile takes place in the 1980’s, it still feels fresh. Anyone who has experienced the pain of dental work and adolescent angst will relate. Just as important, the novel will resonate with anyone who has ever struggled to find their creative voice.

Reprinted with permission from Lincoln Kids. This article is original in content and not to be reproduced without permission. Copyright 2018.

From the ravaged tiny Polynesian island of Vaitea arises a hero and heroine for our times. Based on his ten years of Easter Island research, Edward Stanton has written an inspiring adventure about a brother and sister, their island, and how they saved it. In Wide as the Wind, Miru and Renga face tough choices and much hardship when they set sail to a distant island to find the seeds and shoots of trees that could reforest their homeland. Their return to Vaitea reaps romance and additional challenges in this teen historical novel.

Adventure is at the forefront of this tightly-written novel. Prior to embarking on their journey, Miru and Renga learn the sailor’s craft. Their grandfather teaches them to weave sails of pounded bark, cut full-sized paddles, make nets of mulberry cloth, and fashion birdbone hooks. He also teaches them to coast the island in a longboat, navigate by the sun, moon, and stars, recognize winds, currents, and constellations, and to fish. After recruiting a third crewman, the brother and sister duo set sail. On their journey, they brave the elements. The wind gusts. The sea roars. Supplies are washed overboard. The sun burns, parching their throats. They encounter sharks and their third crewman is attacked. Miru, Renga, and their third crewsman sail fifty-two days before finding land, and this is just the beginning of their adventure.

At the heart of Wide as the Wind also lies a theme. Years of tribal wars have devastated Vaitea. Tribes people who survived are now facing starvation. To save them, Miru must personally sacrifice romantic love, suffer injury and loss, and even risk his life. Even when they return from their journey to a distant island with the seeds and shoots of trees necessary to reforest their homeland, the tribal wars threaten to continue. Although some historical accounts suggest that extinction of natural resources of the real-life Easter Island inhabitants started long before internal conflicts, the latter certainly didn’t help. In basing his story on a real place, Stanton has crafted a parable that shows how mankind’s violence can lead to environmental destruction and even the end of a world.

Wide as the Wind has many other positives. The characters are realistic. Miru and Renga are likeable teens to which every reader can relate. Miru disagrees with his father’s choices, enjoys swimming with dolphins, and sneaks away to spend time with his girlfriend. The descriptions are vivid; the diction is strong. Here’s just one phrase for example: “He sat down with them on paving stones that glittered with brine and fish scales….” There are even moments of humor. One of the funniest is when birds poop on Miru’s head, just after he’s received the call to save his people. My one complaint is that I felt at times the action moved too fast and kept me at an emotional distance from the characters.

Author Edward Stanton has written eleven books. His fiction, poems, and essays have appeared in publications across the world. He is a professor of literature, and has won grants for his travel, research, and writing. Wide as the Wind is a worthy addition to his literary accomplishments. It has won the 2017 silver Moonbeam Award for Young Adult Fiction and the 2018 silver Feathered Quill Award for Teen Fiction.

Horse lovers will appreciate, as will history buffs and fantasy fans. The first title in a trilogy, Eclipsed by Shadow, tells the story of Meagan and her horse Promise, who just might be the “Great Horse” spoken of in legends. When Meagan attempts to rescue Promise from persistent thieves, the two of them end up taking an unexpected ride back through time in this well-written novel aimed at young people.

In many ways, Royce gets everything right. The ever so-critical first chapter is a gut-wrenching one. In it, Meagan and her parents face the choice of whether to save a pregnant mare or her foal. The mare had been raised by the family and had been their constant companion. But the foal would represent her only legacy, as the mare’s health wouldn’t allow her to have a second foal. The third-person omniscient characterization is meticulous. I knew not only how Meagan and her parents felt, but also how the veterinarian, potential buyer, and crafty thieves felt. This deepened my understanding of everyone involved, as well as heightened the suspense. When the thieves revealed that someone was attempting to collect seven interconnected horses, this made me suspicious until the potential buyer confessed her reason for wanting to own all seven horses. Then I instead felt concern for what might happen should she not succeed with her mission. The multiple settings are described in detail. Primitive North America, ancient Rome, nomadic Asia, and finally medieval Europe all come alive. My favorite periods were Rome and Europe. In the former Meagan encounters a suitor and in Europe she finds kindness from monks. In every situation, she also faces danger, which creates many instances of cliff hangers.

What about the novel doesn’t work? Between the first chapter and the time travel, the narrative drags. The three years between when Promise is sent away to pasture with other horses and is brought back to stay with Meagan are condensed into the about seventy pages, leaving me disconnected to the characters. True, it’s in these pages that I learn about that Promise should never be rode, and so my curiosity is piqued. Unfortunately, it’s also in these pages that Meagan turns rebellious, goes on dates, and turns into a typical teen. This plot line lacks spark. The good news is that once Meagan starts to time travel, John shows his talent as a storyteller. My one overriding concern at this point is not enough is revealed of the reasons why Promise could be a dark horse, and so I’m confused about why Meagan continues to time travel. The novel more closely resembles the episodic nature of a television series where each section contains a new story rather than the unified quality of a movie or full-length book. Yet that’s not necessarily a bad thing; I’ve faithfully followed many television series over the years.

Eclipsed by Shadow has won awards for both gifted and reluctant readers. It’s also praised as a novel for readers of all ages. Despite some minor roughness, it’s a diamond in the world of horse books. There are two sequels, and I look forward to finding out what lies in store for Meagan and Promise.

Gene Lune Yang, the 2017 National Ambassador for Children’s Literature picked the platform “Reading Without Walls”. As part of it, he challenges readers to:

  1. Read a book about a character who doesn’t look like you or live like you.
  2. Read a book about a topic you don’t know much about.
  3. Read a book in a format that you don’t normally read for fun.

With these criteria in mind, I’ve started posting roundups once a month on the theme of diversity. This is my third post highlighting picture books about the immigration experience.

We Came to America, written by Faith Ringgold, is dedicated to all the children who have come to America. A refrain emphasize that the children were of different colors, races, and religions. The rest of the text tells readers that the children came by boat and by airplane, and were from every country in the world. Once they arrived in America, they brought their own songs, dances, art, stories, and fashion. A final scene depicts a gathering of diverse children paired with the moral: We are ALL Americans, Just the same.” The text is simple, reminding readers that United States has a multifaceted lineage. My favorite part is the illustrations. Places and faiths are never named in the text. Rather, Americans’ global origins are portrayed through the artwork. Each vibrant two-page spread has a vibrant backdrop, providing contrast for the parade of bold patterns and styles of various traditional attire from across the world.

Their Great Gift by John Coy, with photographs by Wing Young Huie, tells the story of immigrants whose courage and sacrifice provided hope in a new land to their children. The immigrants came from far away to land of plenty. Their journey was difficult. And when they arrived, they faced even more hardships. No one understand what it cost them to move to a new country, work long hours, and shift between languages and customs. There was much about this picture book that I liked. The text is easy to read. One line made me think of my step-mom who came from the Philippines. To this day, she sends from her earnings to her siblings and relatives in her home country. The switch in the narrative from talking about the parents to the children is particularly poignant. Now the young ones are in America, all with their own stories. One line made me think of how rich of a heritage I have from my dad. All of us, wherever our roots, would do well to do the best with the lives our parents gave to us. The end pages include “arrival stories” from the author and the photographer, which are just as touching as the book’s narrative.

Naming Liberty by Jane Yolen contains two parallel stories. The first is of a family who decides to move to America. The dad says that life will be better across the ocean. There will be no more burning of houses, killing of family livestock, and taking sons into the army without permission. But to have this better life, the family must give up their home, their names, their language, and everything familiar to them. They must also endure long train rides and filthy packed boats. The second story is of M. Edouard de Laboulaye, who lives in France, and wants to celebrate America’s birthday in a big way. He decides to build a memorial to their independence, a monument that we now know as the Statue of Liberty. The nonfiction text serves as both a lovely account of Yolen’s parents’ immigration experiences and of the origins of Liberty’s journey. I’d recommend it for older readers due to the demanding style. The narrative is presented as stanzas even though it does not read as poetry. In addition, the vocabulary is complex. The end pages provide a little more background to both stories, along with details about Yolen’s research.

Stick up for what you know is right. This land was made for you and me.—Woody Guthrie

This Land is Your Land is a picturesque version of the famous folk song by Woody Guthrie. Although I am Canadian, this song has long been a favorite of mine. It’s also of late become a protest song for those who support immigration, and so seemed appropriate to include in a round-up of books about immigration. The detailed paintings by Kathy Jakobsen burst with color and invite readers on a lively journey across the United States. In several multi-paneled spreads, Guthrie is shown carrying his guitar from landmark to landmark and coast to coast. Some of the spreads are also bordered with geometric corners that contain hand-lettered snippets of Guthrie lyrics and quotes. The end pages contain a tribute by Pete Seeger, who played with Guthrie, and an illustrated biography of Guthrie. The musical score and lyrics to the song are also provided. A real keepsake!

Yang concludes his “Reading Without Walls” challenge by encouraging readers to take a photo of themselves and their books and post to social media. In doing so, he says, readers will inspire others. Will you join me over the next year in reading books that take you outside your comfort zone?

 


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2018

I am focusing this year on other commitments. Once a month, I’ll post reviews of Advanced Reader Copies. Titles will include: Freddy Frogcaster and the Flash Flood by Janice Dean, One Two by Igor Eliseev, Incredible Magic of Being by Kathyrn Erskine, Dragon Grammar Book by Diane Robinson, and Wide as the Wind by Edward Stanton.

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