Friday, December 31, 2010

Mercy Watson: Something Wonky This Way Comes

My son enjoyed this book. He has developed a partiality for pig books after the Babe and Ace books by Dick King-Smith. Who knows why pigs appeal to an eleven year old boy's heart? I found the book maddeningly repetitive but since this is the type of monstrous rhythm that young children appear to find so amusing, I gritted my teeth and read the book. The pig is cute. The humans-assorted law enforcement types pitted against a lively, butter addicted porcine character--are less so; the owners dull and solid. The story seems to revolve (as all of them in this series) around the butter loving antics of this pig, in a cruel world designed to imprison/capture/limit her quest for said butter with popcorn/butter with bread/butter with...you get the idea.
My son listened raptly. I writhed in discontent. We compromised with a 3/5

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Charlotte's Web

I've been trying to get through a collection of E.B. White's essays for a while now and although they delight me they haven't been as easy to meander through as his children's books. I've read this particular book over and over again to my son and he never tires of it and I think the reason for it is the lovability of the main character--Charlotte and the side character, Wilbur.   The fierce desire of Charlotte to save her friend is what makes this story interesting.  Desire is what propels all of us to do great, generous deeds--I have a great respect for it and its ability to translate us into evolved life forms.  And it does the same thing to the animals at Mr. Zuckerman's farm.

E. B. White never talks down to the children in his books or the childish readers of his books. The animal (and spider) characters are drawn out in loving, kind detail; Charlotte's tricks upon the humans are fully believable since humans try so hard to fit reality to their awkward systems of  values and beliefs; and the little girl Fern's love for Wilbur is understated but passionate.

I love this book just as much as my son.  I admire Charlotte's courage--her willingness to help Wilbur survive the killing fields even when she was about to die; it seems as if we could almost be as selfless and brave as her--if we believed in ourselves and others as much as Charlotte believes in herself and Wilbur.

A book that shows who E.B. White was in the center of himself--for how could he make such a fable without being a wide open, compassionate soul himself?

Rating:    5/5

Friend or Fiend? with the Pain & the Great One

A quick read that covers several areas-bullying, teasing, divorce, sibling rivalry and pet care. My son likes this series of books. Even though he doesn't have a sister he does have an older brother who also considers himself to be "the Great One," who--similarly feels that the younger child is favored, cossetted and spoiled by everyone while he suffers from the older child syndrome of having to be responsible, adult-like and always a "good example for the younger one."  Yes, the stories in here come out of the great well of parenting experience that this writer must be drowning in. The part where the Pain eats nothing but white foods is true to life. My younger son won't eat foods that are not pure--i.e. in pieces virginal and intact (no casseroles, no new exotic meals, in fact nothing but foods that do not touch each other on a plate).  I ran through the book. And it was a good read. I would rate it a 3/5 but the child indicates to me that it is 4/5 so this is what it gets.

Rating:  4/5

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

I've just finished reading this story to my son. I have to admit that the story started out slow and I was not interested in the rabbit character who of course, being inhuman and incapable of love was impossible to feel any sort of affection for. But then the journey begins, that journey that all of us go through, that the rabbit symbolizes. What journey is this? The journey that is life where each of us get broken in all the myriad inventive ways that life has devised to do us in before actually physically killing us off.

And so Edward Tulane, begins his journey, starting off with a little girl called Abilene, who loves him but who he cannot love because he, at the beginning of his education, has no understanding of what love is. He lives with Abilene, until an accident throws him to the bottom of the ocean, from which luck and a fishing net, delivers him to a fisherman named Lawrence and his wife Nellie, who treat him like the young son they lost and yes, who love him as well. All is well until Lolly, their daughter arrives to shake the rabbit from their grip and throw him into the landfill site. There, he remains buried, slowly beginning to miss the lost couple who had loved him, until he is saved by Lucy, the dog who takes him to Bull, a hobo. He stays with this pair for a long time, disintegrating in appearance and boning up on the interior landscape, until he is tossed off a train they have boarded illegally. He ends up by the side of the train tracks where an old woman picks him up and uses him for a scarecrow. Now up to about this time, he was just getting the first cracks in the heart. After this point it is game over. A little boy picks him off the scarecrow post and takes him home to his sister Sarah Ruth who is dying. It is at this point, the formerly grand and immune to love rabbit falls apart (literally and figuratively) and his soul widens as the little girl slowly dies despite the efforts of her brother--Bryce. And at her death, the rabbit begins to understand what the journey is really about for him and the reader, begins to understand what the real purpose of the journey is about for ourselves.

Of course, it is about love. What is there besides love to make the work of our lives exact and perfected? This force is what remakes us from solitary selfish and hard rocks to gravel, dust and universal.

And the rabbit knows this. He says:
Page 149
Look at me, he said to her. His arms and legs jerked. Look at me. You got your wish. I have learned how to love. And it's a terrible thing. I'm broken. My heart is broken. Help me.
**

But of course no one can help you in these times as the rabbit learns. He is left (given up unselfishly by Bryce to the doll maker who repairs him) to brood on the consequences of his journey, the fatality of his fate for in learning about love, he has learned about loss. The integrity of his freedom from breakage is lost.

When he meets up with a doll in the doll shop where he is displayed he tells the old doll, he doesn't care if he is sold. And the old doll tells him:

Page 188-189

"But, that's dreadful," said the old doll. "There's no point in going on if you feel that way. No point at all You must be filled with expectancy. You must be awash in hope. You must wonder who will love you, whom you will love next."

"I am done with being loved," Edward told her. "I'm done with loving. It's too painful."

"Pish," said the old doll. "Where is your courage?"

"Somewhere else, I guess," said Edward.

"You disappoint me," she said. "You disappoint me greatly. If you have no intention of loving or being loved, then the whole journey is pointless. You might as well leap from this shelf right now and let yourself shatter into a million pieces. Get it over with. Get it over with now."

****
Now since this is rather how I feel about life, I was immensely pleased that the 100 year old doll had also the same philosophy. After all --if we are all going to be dust soon-and we are all democratically entitled to this fate--why not make the best of life as we have it --brief, tenuous and uncertain -and love as many people we can despite the melancholy fate we all will share?

Edward remains resistant though and the old doll encourages him with these words:

Page 191

"Open your heart," she said gently. "Someone will come. Someone will come for you. But first you must open your heart."
**

And dammit that is pretty much the only story we ever write in every essay, short story, novel, poem. We don't have another story folks. We just have to open the bolted, locked, chained heart and let who ever arrives at that chest--to reach in and take all the treasure we have to give. And so, does Edward learn this one and only story, the one and only truth and the one and only way to save his life.

Rating:  5/5

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters

I started reading to my younger son this December when I realized that he was growing up illiterate without the immersion in the ocean of words that I had hoped the presence of a cacophony of a flock of children's books would have been sufficient proof against; but no, no such luck. The proliferation of stupid iPods, gameboys and televisions the size of a small backyard goldfish pool, have been slightly detrimental to the attention span of our youth and my younger son sucks up all the computer time he can get making webpages and using Photoshop to make god knows what for whatever an eleven year old boy finds amusing and instructive. What this means is a failure in the reading habit formation and so, finally, unnerved by the strange fact of having a child who does not like words, (such an alien matter for a mother who worships them) I started reading books and reviewing them.

And I'm going to continue reading to him and reviewing the books that I've delighted over for the most part. Children's literature is so wonderful these days that I can't help gushing over the books. And since most of the writers who enter this genre are open hearted, sweet little creatures with a sense of humor (for how can you write about kids, without understanding the utter inability of adults to manage such traffic in human minnows?) that I often end up laughing at all the appropriate places in these stories that my son often doesn't spot (or is almost asleep and can't navigate through the impending fog to get.)

I've just finished reading the second in the Alvin Ho series by Lenore Look. This book (Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters) follows the first book called "Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things," which I read to him ages ago and don't remember a thing about except my son loved it. Therefore when I found this second book (and thank god, we have a third book now to look forward to) I brought it home immediately since Alvin and my son could almost be twins and if not twins, than at least related by blood.

Who knows why 11 year old pre-men are so cowardly? And who knows how they learn to hide this fear as real men? And who knows why they have to hide this fear, but hey, that's the way our stupid society works and all us cowardly chickens have to mask ourselves in hero/heroine gear and do the work of life like commandos in a war that is ongoing and endless. But let me not go off topic.

Alvin. Hmm.. this kid is a bit over the top. The sister--Anibelly is adorable (hint to author--make another cash cow series based on adorable, fearless, frighteningly intelligent girl character) and the older brother Calvin is equally competent and far more adult than the rather useless but loving father character in this family. Mother is useful and productive and adept at cooking (wontons etc) and so in my books is a goddess since my sons are used to a diet of burnt chicken dinners.

A very good writer. I've marked places in the book where the language quality exceeds the level required for this type of writing and here are some of these sweet lines:

Alvin is having a dream and at the end of the dream:

Page 34

I needed to get home---fast! I turned and shot out the door and ran as fast as I could go, up the dirt road and into the woods, my butt as naked as cake without frosting.
**
Accompanying this page was an adorable rearview shot of said infant running off with hair flocked behind him like a blackened eraser on a pencil. The illustrations by LeUyen Pham were so true to life that what can I say--the artist must have intimate knowledge of the horrors of little human beings and their addiction to making their parents age swiftly.

As this story revolves on fears that Alvin has (as do all the stories in this series) and the overcoming of the particular fear in each story is what provides the storyline, the conflict, the resolution of the misery--and the hilarious parts of the story are the firecrackers that keep you going.

The writer also puts in a few adept notes on female and male relationships as on page 37 where she talks about the parents of Alvin or rather Alvin talks innocently about his parents:

Page 37-38

My dad didn't say anything. He just listened. My mom says she married him because he's such a great listener. You can drop all your words into his ears for safekeeping and none of them will ever get lost. I think it has something to do with being a gentleman--my dad knows all the rules--but I'm not really sure, I don't remember.
***
The writer also puts in some loving details of Alvin's close relationship with his dad which ring true and happily do not squirm into sentimental gibberish:

Page 38

"Son," my dad finally said. I love it when he calls me that. Son. I love it more than my own name.
**
Alvin's particular fear in this book is about camping for as he points out to his dad, he already knows all he needs to know about nature from time spent in front of the idiot box.

Page 38

"I know nature," I said. It was true. I watch it all the time on TV. There's nothing I don't know about nature:

Earthquakes.
Landsildes.
Mudslides.
Floods.
Hurricanes.
Tsunamis.
Tornadoes.
Volcanic eruptions.
Meteorites.
When it comes to nature, I'm practically an entire Web site!

**
Now, I have to admit this kid is a bit more fearful than my kid but certainly, it is useful to have a drastic example of fear to show to my younger son and thereby prove to him that he isn't the only rubber legged eleven year old to walk the earth and that here is proof that there is another eleven year old boy with the skittishness of a beetle disturbed from his night nap under a rotting log.

Adjacent characters such as Anibelly, Calvin and a friend with a disability (Flea), a camping pal he makes who shares his fears, are well made and useful and help to round out the single scream of camping fear running through the book.

Since I don't have a daughter it was bittersweet to see the fearless Anibelly insert herself into the man-to boy camping trip and bring along her own precautions such as a nifty defensive weapon she came up with on pages 93-94:

Hanging from the outside of the bag was a strange device.

"What's this?" asked my dad, inspecting the gadget.

"An eleven-in-one," said Anibelly.

"A what?"

"A mirror, fork, knife, spoon, thermometer, compass, whistle, flashlight, magnifying glass, hairbrush and weapon!" Anibelly said proudly. "I made it all by myself!" She had tied everything around one of my carved sticks, which looked like it was a weapon.

**
What is there not to like about such a girl? If she had been a bit older, I'm sure she would have taken makeup and a cell phone as well and made it into a thirteen-in-one gadget.

Things do not go smoothly from beginning of the camping trip to the end. On page 102-103, Alvin expounds on the start of their trip:

"This is how to know you are in trouble.
It smells like earthworms.
Rain grenades explode on your car.
Lightning splits the sky.
Thunder rumbles like a gigantic stomach.
Hubcaps roll by without cars.
This is how you know you are in grave danger.
Anibelly wakes up.
Then..."We interrupt this program for an emergency weather report..." Sssssssssssssssssssssss.
There is only static on your radio.

And a chicken by the side of the road, being de-feathered by the wind.
**
So many apt images--especially the "de-feathered" chicken with a picture of a fat poultry specimen gradually losing bits.
Alvin, Anibelly and their camping pal continue the disastrous beginnings with a few more sessions of camping difficulties ( failure in tent set up is typical and the trapping of father certain); a heartwarming scene of brotherly and sisterly love interspersed among mayhem and a mad dash home.

My son gave this book a 4/5. I have to agree with him. A good writer, a sweet family and yet not too obnoxiously sugarish, an uncle who has a great imagination, the type of bumbling but openly loving father that thank god, the men of today are becoming unrepressed to become and a new book to look forward to. This writer has talent (sorry I meant to say works like a maniac) and has business smarts.

Bink And Gollie

I absolutely loved, loved, loved this book simply because of the fact that it woke up my eleven year old son just as he was nodding off to sleep with a "What the heck?" And then I could smugly tell him, "This is about the IMAGINATION, sweetie, not about stupid Photoshop stuff."

Illustrations were beautiful. The stories were cute but not too smarmy cute. The second story was a gem. What can I say? I'm in love with this writer.

Rating:  5/5

The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup and a Spool of Thread

My younger son doesn't read. And being a bookaholic this is like having a gene mutating (for the worse) right before your eyes (to the detriment of the owner) and doing nothing about it. So in desperation (yes, I'm terrified he will end up a vacuum without a steady diet of words), I'm reading to him.

This is no horrid sentence. It does take me away from my poems but luckily many of the writers who write juvenile fiction are superior to many poets I read. Kate DiCamillo who wrote this book is one such excellent writer. Not afraid at all to write of the shining beating heart at the nucleus of each cell of every human being. Not unwilling to wax lyrical over the charms of children and mice (and their less desirable qualities as well.) Not able to avoid critical events of every human being's life--loss, death, poverty, abuse, and the inability to fit in.

The role of the bad guys is assumed naturally by the rats in the castle dungeon (assigned to this role just by their appearance and the inadvertent death of the Queen (yes it does have a royal family and a beautiful Princess called felicitously "PEA" )) Reading the book to my son lead me to the author's website and her charming self. The story about how she started writing that she puts up on the website (http://www.katedicamillo.com/onwrit.html) is as sweet, humorous and full of a gentle self mockery that reminds me again--that nothing a writer writes is of any worth --unless the writer herself has a great shining soul within.

But let me get back to the story. There is a runt of a mouse (the obvious underdog merely by the fact that he is a runt and the sole survivor of his litter-the last litter by the way that his mother--a delightful French mouse would have-hence also the reason for his French name)--called Despereaux. Happily for me at least, the mouse can read, and so I can point out to my son--how addicted the mouse becomes to reading a fairy tale featuring a knight in shining armor (Hmm...is this the place where all little girls begin to have these oversize halos that they put on their menfolk?) and a beautiful princess. The story proceeds with a death (Princess Pea's mother), a rat blamed for it (Roscuro), a pawn (a beaten cowed stupid little girl called Mig-the diagrammatic opposite of the Princess but underneath the small head and the cauliflower ears, is still as human and lovable as the Princess, who like her is still crying over her mother's loss) and the mouse hero developing a passionate attachment for the Princess. They are all scrambled together in a mix of hurt feelings, echoes of losses of mothers, the curative nature of making and drinking soup, the dust in the heart that must be cleaned off to start again the hard work of healing, the mess that love creates and the gorgeous miracles it is capable of. The characters are utterly improbable.

The plot centers around the transformation of an ugly duckling girl who would be beautiful (and a Princess, to boot, --not being short of aspirations) , a rat who would be revenged for his shame over being diminished by humans (specifically royalty) and the Princess Pea who has to learn to get over loss, just like Mig and forgive the rat that caused this mess. Of course Despereaux is muddled in here as the gallant knight (very puny and useless but nevertheless a savior in shining fur) bent on saving his woman. A ridiculous plot. The conflict provided by the rat Roscuro who wishes to avenge himself for being considered worthless and evil and ugly by capturing the Princess who looks upon him with the loathing that any rat (but especially a rat that inadvertently kills off her mother) would engender, is not very deepening in terms of emotional reverberations. God knows how this writer does it , but the stupid story works. And everyone, is somewhat healed at the end of it.

Like I said an impossible plot, a stupid conflict, an unlikely hero and yet, the entire story is suffused with such delicate scenes as where Mig and the Princess cry together (despite their differences in every sphere of life and character) over their mothers--that one falls inevitably in love with the simple characters (yes, even the rats). My son held onto the story and kept asking me for more (and not only because he did not want to go to bed). This type of scenario, with my son asking for more words is the only necessary force to initiate a mother's life long devotion to a writer. And so what am I now doing? Finding every book this writer ever wrote.

It boils down to this. To not be afraid. To see clearly what matters. And to not be afraid to show what you have clearly seen --the painful, shattered, wounded heart in everyone of us (and how it has somehow mended to carry on). To be able to speak of the glue of love that makes it possible to do the repairs of that heart that never really mends and that requires forgiveness to prevent it from destruction--self destruction that is. A wonderful book. Not enough filling in the pie for me but it was enough to satisfy my son. And that is all that matters to a mother.

Rating:    5/5