Friday, October 28, 2011

Esperanza Rising

"Be patient and the fruit will fall into your hand."  This quote is from Esperanza Rising, a middle grades book by Pam Muñoz Ryan.  It is also the words the author wrote to my twelve year old niece, Lindsay, when she autographed the book for her in 2001.  The story of Esperanza is one of hope and patience, and what it truly means to be rich.

I loved the story of Esperanza, the wealthy Mexican landowner's daughter who becomes a campesina living and working on a company farm in the San Fernando valley during the Great Depression.  I thought that Muñoz Ryan did a commendable job of portraying the plight of the Mexican farm worker, accurately describing their struggles with a MG-age appropriate story.

I was worried when I first started the book that Esperanza was going to be a stereotypically spoiled rich girl who transforms into a hardworking farm worker and a union hero.  Thankfully, she wasn't.  Esperanza did come from a life a privilege and was accustom to nice things, but she did what she had to do to support her family.  Muñoz Ryan does make the distinction between migrant of the working/peasant class and those that came to the camps from wealthy backgrounds.  The working class families endured the hard work and living conditions of field workers in San Fernando Valley with the hope of making a better life for themselves.  They viewed the work they did as an opportunity to improve their lives.  Their wealthy counterparts had fallen from positions of power and luxury.  The prospects of hard work were daunting, but the emotional toll was even more difficult.  In the minds of the formerly wealthy campesino, life was cruel and farm work was about survival, not self-improvement.

I loved the author's use of frutas y verduras as the chapter titles.  Esperanza learns to mark the passage of time not by seasons or months, but by cosechas.  The book also delves into the early efforts of migrant workers to unionize and strike for better living and working conditions and for fair wages.  Valley Fever, an illness that still exists, is another of the risks that field workers of the San Fernando Valley faced as they strived to provide for their families.

Muñoz Ryan peppers her dialogue with spanish word and phrases and gives young readers a taste of life in Mexico and in Great Depression-era California.  It's a great book for the classroom or the home.

This book brought to mind other amazing stories of class, power, adversity and the struggle for equality. Here are a few that come to mind:

The Lemon Grove Incident (movie)
Me Llamo Rigoberta Menchu y Así Me Nació La Conciencia
Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez
The Grapes of Wrath
Angela's Ashes

Add to my list.  I'd love to read your examples.

Blog you later!

Ali B

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Island of the Blue Dolphins

I must have been ten or eleven years old when I first read Scott O'Dell's, Island of the Blue Dolphins.  To this day, when I hear the word 'abalone' I am transported to La Isla de San Nicolas.  The story of this extraordinary girl made me appreciate the power of literature.  As a young girl, sitting in my bedroom in the small town of Kahoka Missouri, I was swept away to an island off the coast of California.  I made my own weapons, tamed wild animals and built a house with my bare hands.  The story of Karana was an escape.  I was lost in the romance of her solitary existence and I admired her ability to survive.  All I needed was to find a pack of wild dogs, and I knew I could tame one.

Today I read the story with the same sense of romance.  Almost.  Karana's life on the Island of the Blue Dolphins is romantic, but it's lonely as well.  As a child, I wanted Karana to spend her life on the island.  I never wanted her adventure to end.  As an adult I understand her decision to leave.  She was alone, and as much as she loved her home and her animals, they could never replace human contact.  Early in her story, Karana is visited by a young woman who is part of a otter hunting party.  It is the only brief human contact Karana has during her time alone on the island.  The two don't speak the same language, but they are drawn to one another.  They leave gifts for each other and delight in learning words in their different languages.  Karana is crushed when the otter hunters leave taking her new friend with them.

Island of the Blue Dolphins is a book about the human condition.  Karana's story is one of isolation, fear of death and the struggle to survive, but it is also about her need to connect physically and emotionally to other beings.  In the end, her humanity drives her off the island where she has lived alone for 18 years, and gives her to courage to trust in strangers in hopes of regaining a community.

Things I Loved about Island of the Blue Dolphins:
*The voice of Karana, the narrator
*The book as a chronological journal of Karana's time on the island
*The descriptions of her tools, house and clothing

Okay Followers, this book made a lasting impression on me.  It helped make me the reader I am today.  What book(s) made you a reader?  Why?

Blog you soon!

Ali B

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The City of Ember

This amazing MG novel is the first story in the Books of Ember series.  Ember is an underground city powered by a large generator that provides the town with light and energy for 15 hours a day.  During the remaining nine hours, the city is completely dark.  The citizens of Ember have lived here for generations.  They know no other way of life.  In fact, they believe that they are inhabitants of the only city in the world, or at least most of them believe this.

Lina is twelve years old.  Like all twelve year olds in the city of Ember, she has recently been assigned to a work duty.  She ends up with the job she had hoped for, messenger.  A messenger is responsible for taking communications back and forth across the city.  There are no phones or computers.  There are no cars.  And unfortunately, the food, medicine and essential supplies are dwindling fast.

Doon, a former classmate of Lina, has recently been assigned to work in the pipeworks, the tunnels below Ember that carry electricity and water to the city.  Doon wanted this assignment because he suspects the city's generator is growing old and will soon give out.  The city has been plagued with a number or recent blackouts.

Eventually, Lina and Doon team up.  Lina discovers a note, partially destroyed, that hints at a way out of Ember.  Lina and Doon believe that a way out is the only chance of survival for the citizens of their city.  Unfortunately, Ember's leaders are corrupt, and instead of helping the two kids, they attempt to capture them and discredit their ideas.  Lina and Doon eventually decipher the note and find the way out of Ember.  Without any idea of what lies beyond the city, the two friends decide they must leave or face certain capture.

Along with Lina's little sister, Poppy, Lina and Doon follow the instructions in the note and are able to leave Ember.  What they discover shocks them.  They have been living underground.  There is a whole other world above Ember that no one knows about.  At least not the people of Ember.  They find a small journal along the way, written by one of Ember's first inhabitants, it leads them to believe that there is much more to the story of their underground city and what initially prompted the builders to build it.  However, they are more convinced than ever that they must warn their family and friends to leave Ember immediately.

I love the book.  I think it is a smart, beginning level dystopian novel and is a great introduction for middle grades readers into the dystopian genre.  I see it as a great series for future lovers of The Hunger Games trilogy.

I did find a few problems with the story.  We learn, from the journal written by the first inhabitants, that Ember was originally populated by 100 older adults, 50 men and 50 women.  These 100 adults were paired up and given the responsibility of raising two infants, one boy and one girl. The people of the city have had no connection with the outside world for generations.  Wouldn't that lead to most of Ember's citizens being related to one another?  I don't bring this up because of the "how to find a mate that isn't your cousin" issue, but because extended family, cousins, aunts, uncles, aren't part of the plot at all.  Lina and Poppy's parents are dead and their grandmother's death is part of the plot of the book, but the girls must move in with a helpful neighbor.  Why?  They have no relatives in a city that should be full of them?

I am also a bit perplexed by the issue of currency and jobs.  Money is mentioned in the story and Lina is paid a wage for her job as messenger, but how goods and money are exchanged isn't clear.  There is a supply depot and various Mom & Pop store selling different wares, but it is never explained how the stores get supplies.  And are the citizens allocated rations or do they make requests at the supply depot?  Do you have to pay for supplies from the depot?  It is very clear that supplies are running low and that some goods are no longer available, but I never completely felt the fear and panic of the citizens.  Maybe that was DuPrau's intent.  Maybe she didn't want the mood to be fear and panic.  Perhaps compliance and blind acceptance of their conditions better fit the mood of Ember.

Readers, what do you think?

Blog me!

Ali B

Monday, October 10, 2011

Interview with a Fourth Grader - The 39 Clues

 My amazingly expressive son agreed (enthusiastically) to be interviewed for my children's literature blog.  He is a fan of the adventure series The 39 Clues.  The "answers" in this interview are his own words (minus some umms and ahhs.)  

Q:  How would you describe the 39 Clues series?

A:  I think the 39 Clues series is the perfect balance of action, sorrow and betrayal.

Q:  Who are the main characters?

A:  Amy and Dan Cahill are the main characters.  They are kids who decide to join the clue hunt in the ultimate quest for a power source that can make you “almighty.”

Q:  So, are they the protagonists?

A:  Yes. 

Q:  Who is the antagonist?

A:  Pretty much anyone who goes against Amy and Dan.  Specifically, The Kabras, they are pure evil.  There are different bad guys in each of the books.

Q:  What are the four family groups in the 39 Clues?

A:  Lucian – The strategic and cunning family group.
      Ekaterina – The smart, inventor-type family group.
      Janus – The artistic family group.
     Tomas – The strong, athletic family group.
*There is actually a secret, fifth family group revealed in Book #4.

Q:  Did you have one book in the series that was your favorite?

A:  I’m not sure.  They are all so perfect I can’t have a favorite.

Q:  What is the setting of the story?

A:  Actually, the whole world is their setting.  Grace Cahill, the leader of the Cahill family, sets up this quest by putting clues all over the world.  There are two locations in every book.

Q:  Is the 39 Clues series scary, suspenseful or romantic?

A:  The books are scary and suspenseful, but not romantic.  In at least three of the books a character dies.  Actually, there are deaths in only two of the books because one of the deaths was faked.  The fake death was in Book #4.

Q:  How would you summarize the plot?

A:  Amy and Dan Cahill have to make a choice between inheriting one million dollars and joining the clue hunt to discover the ultimate power.  The ultimate power is the combination of the 39 clues.  Amy and Dan choose to join the hunt and face all sorts of danger and adventure.

Q:  What else would you like to tell me about the book?

A:  Amy and Dan Cahill aren’t just on a clue hunt.  The books lead up to a whole legacy of betrayal.   Some of the books are sad, but you’ll get over it.

Q:  Would you recommend this book to a friend?

A:  I would recommend this book.  I’ve already recommended this book to my friend, Jacob.  I would also recommend this book to a friend with a lot of spirit who loves to read fun books.

Q:  On a scale from 1 – 10, what would you rate this series of books?

A:  That’s a hard question.  I’d go with a 9. 

Tell me what you and your kids thought about The 39 Clues.

Blog you later!

Ali B.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

A Wrinkle in Time is TIMELESS

Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time is a timeless classic.  Almost anyone who reads it will agree.  In fact, in my well-loved copy there is a forward (An Appreciation) by author and columnist Anna Quindlen where she writes about the contemporary feel of the novel.  The only hint of age being the protagonist's desire for a typewriter to compensate for poor penmanship.  The blind obedience to IT, the conformity of the inhabitants of the planet of Camazotz and the impenetrable walls of the CENTRAL Central Intelligence building are all Cold War inspired references to Communism. But does that make these images any less timely in today's world?  Whether L'Engle's audience in 1962 would find it less scary today than during the height of the Cold War is up for debate.  It is a question worth asking but impractical to answer.  As Mrs. Whatsit told Charles Wallace, "Only a fool is not afraid."

God and Jesus are regularly spoken of in A Wrinkle in Time and there are various biblical quotes and references.  Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace talk of God and Jesus as do Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which.  Jesus is heralded as a fighter of the Dark Thing, along with Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, Madame Curry, Gandhi and Einstein.  Fighters.  Artists.  Scientists.  Religious thinkers.  They are the fighters from planet Earth who keep the Dark Thing from enveloping our world.

The evil IT also represents himself as a god, but not a kind and benevolent god, rather one who rules with fear and the threat of violence.  IT also refers to himself as a savior, a Jesus figure willing to accept the pain and suffering of others provided they submit to his will.  "For why should you wish to fight someone who is here only to save you pain and trouble?  For you, as well as for the rest of all the happy, useful people on the planet, I, in my own strength, am willing to assume all the pain, all the responsibility, all the burdens of thought and decision."  So, while L'Engle portrays Jesus as a hero, blind adherence to a religion without the ability to think freely is a fate worse than death.

Along with communism and free-thinking, the theme of equality is also addressed in Madeleine L'Engle's classic novel for kids.  Charles Wallace, already under the control of IT, tries to convince Meg to let go and join IT by telling her, "But that's exactly what we have on Camazotz.  Complete equality.  Everybody exactly alike."  But Meg is not swayed by his words.  In fact, she uses his word against him.  "Like and equal are not the same thing at all."  It is Meg Murry's minor epiphany.  In this and many other parts of the book, L'Engle's characters fight conformity.  In doing so they fight communism and blind adherence to religion and religious intolerance.

Light and darkness.  Good and evil.  These aren't unique literary struggles, but A Wrinkle in Time is unique in its portrayal.  A mere mortal from a "little planet out on the edge of a little galaxy" is able to defeat hate using love as her only weapon.  Love as a tool to fight hate is Meg's great epiphany.  L'Engle's protagonist saves her little brother by loving him.  Meg Murry is an unlikely hero.  She's impatient, strange and unattractive, but her appeal is universal.  Unlikely or not, Meg Murry is a hero for all times.

Questions for fans of A Wrinkle in Time:

Is Meg Murry your favorite literary heroine?  If not, who is?

Blog you later!

Ali B.