Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Where History Leads Us

This week I’m writing about recently published books ideally suited to time travel, that is, historical novels and biographies. While you’re turning pages, you’ll be “there.” When you finish the book, you’ll be glad to return home, glad you live now and not then, and glad your feet are not actually blistered from walking in the shoes of the main character. Best of all, you’ll want to know more. Warning: history is addictive.

WOODS RUNNER, by Gary Paulsen, Wendy Lamb Books, 2010

The time is 1776. Rumors that Americans are fighting the English in eastern towns and cities seem far removed from the Pennsylvania homestead where 13 year old Samuel lives with his gentle, book loving parents. Then war arrives in their midst with savage brutality. Samuel returns from a hunting trip deep in his beloved woods to discover that British soldiers and Iroquois Indians have attacked and slaughtered his neighbors, leaving their mutilated bodies beside their smoldering cabins. Samuel’s home has been burned, too and his parents have been taken prisoner. Incredulous that his parents weren’t killed and wondering why they were taken instead, Samuel uses his woodsman’s skills to track the captors. His chances of finding them alive, indeed his chances of staying alive to find them, are slim. Yet he meets allies, makes friends, survives, and arrives ready to rescue the people he loves most in the world.

Gary Paulsen is a highly awarded author and a skilled story teller. In a spare 161 pages, the story unfolds about one family caught up in this horrendous war which the author says, from extensive research, “lasted for eight long slaughtering years. Over two hundred thousand men between the ages of 16 and 25 answered the call in the War for Independence and stood to.” He adds, “stood to when that often meant death.”

This is not a rewritten history of the Revolutionary War. The author is very clear that this is not what he intended to write. “All combat is outrageous.” He makes the point. The reader will take Samuel and his family into his heart and the War will “stick” in his memory. This is a job well done.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Yesterday’s Reality Show

What happens to you today is history tomorrow. Whether anybody else cares or wants to write a book about your life may depend on what else is happening. Cataclysmic events make history. What helps us remember history more than 50, 300 or 2000 years ago is a real or imagined person we can identify with. Ah, yes, we know what it is like to...The more skillful the author, the more likely we are to get blisters on our feet walking in the shoes of that character.

CLEOPATRA RULES! The Amazing Life of the Original Teen Queen, by Vicky Alvear Shecter. Boyds Mills Press, 2010

How do you make history interesting to teens? Make it relevant.

Get out of your head which may want to impress with vast knowledge gathered over years of study, and get into their heads. Author Vicky Shecter has done just that. She’s found a way to preserve the flow of history in words that relate to the readers, lacing her recital of fascinating facts with humor a teen will find difficult to resist. Latin can’t be considered a dead language when this author infuses its world with such spirit. One can almost hear Mark Antony walking into the palace he shares with Cleopatra and calling out, “Honey, I’m home. ‘Zup?”

Readers who enjoy puzzles and codes will delight in the jokes in hieroglyphics, just waiting to be de-mystified. Yes, that’s right. Jokes.

Let’s be serious for a minute. What did the rich and famous of their day give each other as gifts? To agree to marriage, Cleopatra asked for certain Roman ruled territories. The one thing Mark Antony held back on was Judea, ruled by King Herod. Yes,“that" King Herod. For a wedding present, Mark Antony gave Cleopatra books (undoubtedly scrolls) instead of jewels. The presents Cleopatra gave her children: a temple, a country, and probably some jewels here and there. And we think we have a difficult time figuring out what to give someone who has everything.

As the clever author puts it, Cleo was Queen of the Nile, not queen of denial. This lady was a shrewd politician. Her goal was to make Egypt bigger and stronger. The many power struggles detailed are familiar and reminiscent of present day. To me, the biggest difference is that our senators wear suits, not togas.

Cleopatra is considered the last pharaoh of Egypt. Certainly, she was a woman of secrecy. Neither her writings nor her tomb have been found.

The author has thoughtfully included a time line, glossary, bibliography, and picture sources at the end of the book when the reader is hooked. It’s OK to impress with all those years of study when the reader has been wowed and is ready to be awed. Shecter does all these things, with a little help from Cleopatra. Somebody had to live this amazing life so we could read about it.

A docent at the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University in Atlanta, the author also applied her love of scholarship mixed with a flair for the comedic to her first book, Alexander the Great Rocks the World.

Vicky Shecter makes ancient history addictive.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Bully and the Bystander

Recently, I heard a child psychologist say there are three parties to the bullying scenario: the bully, the victim, and the bystander. While the bully is beating up the victim, what are the bystanders doing, thinking, feeling? Children’s authors are asking these questions, too, and their books for kids offer great discussion opportunities for families, whether the families be a classroom "family" or a group of friends in middle school, or the traditional family eating dinner together.

SECRET SATURDAYS, by Torrey Maldonado, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2010.

Justin’s best friend Sean has started keeping secrets from him. What worries Justin the most is where Sean goes on certain Saturdays and why he lies about these times spent out of the neighborhood, one of the roughest neighborhoods in New York City. Justin begins to question what it means to be a friend.

Until now, the two sixth graders used words to settle problems, not fists. However, Justin notices that Sean’s words are becoming sharp weapons, much more hurtful than fists could ever be. This, too, worries Justin. Should he speak up? Or let it go? Move on? Or show Sean that friends don’t give up on each other?

The boys are strong characters, the neighborhood is real, and the every day conversation which will seem like another language to some, is authentic. The boys turn to rap to express their feelings and here their emotions spill over and win over the reader.

In this debut novel, the author, who grew up in the setting, credits his mother for encouragement, support, and the sacrifices she made to help her son succeed. This points up the huge importance of mothers in a neighborhood where fathers have gone missing for whatever reason. These single mothers work at low paying jobs and struggle to make rent and buy food. At the same time they have the burden of worry about where their kids are and whether they are preparing for class the next day or preparing to do time before they turn 16. The neighborhood is tough, and so is the life. The author is to be congratulated for being a role model.

Let’s hope SECRET SATURDAYS causes an outbreak of courage and compassion in middle schools everywhere.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Interview in Cyberspace

My cyberspace studio is whatever I imagine it to be, so today I’m interviewing Connie Fleming (AKA C. M. Fleming) beside a creek with a slight gurgle.

C. M. Fleming, author of FINDER’S MAGIC, Onstage, 2008

We’re sitting on a quilt, pieced and hand-sewn by my grandmother. Connie has brought along her knitting. We’re munching on molasses cookies. (No ants in cyberspace!) Connie bakes and shares these tasty crunchies at bookstores when she signs FINDER’S MAGIC, her historical novel reviewed on Booklog Wednesday.

Since our setting today is imagined, the interview was conducted by email.

Joan: Welcome, Connie, and let’s get started by explaining how a gal raised in the Southwest came to write a book set on the other side of the country. What led you to write FINDER’S MAGIC?

Connie: “When we moved to Georgia, I became intrigued with the history of Atlanta, both the good and bad history. There is a lot of both. Then a friend told me about a vivid dream she’d had that she couldn’t get out of her head.”

Connie couldn’t forget that dream, either, and it became the opening chapter of her book.
“I HAD to put it on paper. I didn’t own a computer at the time. I borrowed a typewriter and began to write.”

Connie targeted the reluctant reader 4th and 5th grader boy, and describes her novel as one with language that is uncomplicated, “the danger is extreme, and the good guys win.” Two young boys are accidental witnesses to the murder of a textile mill worker. The murderers are determined the boys won't live to tell. Hank, the main character, and Calvin who becomes his unwitting ally, must use all their wits and muster up a great deal of courage to avoid becoming victims, too. While the reader is racing through page after page to keep up with the action, he’s absorbing the history of a volatile and exciting time in Atlanta.

Joan: And who is the Finder? Why does the Finder get title recognition?
Connie: “She’s an ancient African-American mystic. Her magic, Hank comes to realize, is her wisdom.”

Joan: And what about Calvin? What a spunky character!
Connie: “Calvin Yates, an orphaned African-American boy is street-wise, courageous, and has a chip on his shoulder the size of Stone Mountain. I’d love to write a story with Calvin as the main character.”

That brings us to talk of current projects. I asked Connie if she’d share.
“My current work, the one I just finished, is a contemporary Sci-Fi young adult novel. It takes place in my homeland, the Southwest.”

Connie’s husband, Dwain, known affectionately by the children in their neighborhood and at their church as “The Dude,” is also from the Southwest. Both he and Connie were raised in Arizona. A cowboy and rodeo rider in his western days, Dwain has served as an in-house consultant for Connie’s just completed novel. “He is my #1 proofreader and my biggest fan.”

When that novel comes out, I’ll interview Connie and maybe Dwain, too. My cyberspace studio will be a ranch in New Mexico. Yee-haw!

In the meantime, I’d like another molasses cookie.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Magic of Wisdom

Written in language authentic for the time and a voice made pitch perfect by the author’s attention to how struggling mill town inhabitants would express themselves, this story pushes each chapter to a cliff hanger and dares the reader to put it down.

FINDER’S MAGIC by C. M. Fleming (Onstage Publishing) 2008

An 11 year old boy witnesses the murder of his best friend and he’s soon on the run to save his own life. Set in an Atlanta mill town in 1911, the story of Hank McCord’s life is already harsh. He thinks it’s his fault his Papa is dead and it’s now his job to take care of Mama–tough to do when you can’t go home. He needs an ally and one arrives in the nick of time. Of course! Meet Calvin who is no stranger to hiding out and escaping bullies. Calvin takes Hank to the Finder who can work all kinds of magic. The murderers hunt for Hank and the KKK goes looking for Calvin. It’s only two weeks until Hank turns 12. Will he make it?

The finder’s magic may seem elusive, but it’s a wisdom Hank and Calvin discover on their own. Readers will, too.

Quote from book: page 20: Calvin said, “Don’t look down.”
Too late! My eyes focused on the muddy river a long way below. Little dots of light winked here and there on the surface while the dark water whispered threats as it tumbled downstream.

Would you keep reading?

This is a good choice for a reluctant reader boy–but don’t be surprised if his sister reads it, too.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Terrorists Among Us

It’s been a long sad weekend remembering the tragedy of 9/11. Discussions continue to spring up about terrorists, who they are and where they are. We’re reminded of the danger every time we pass through a security point in a courthouse, airport, and even some schools. Enter the term “home grown terrorist.” It’s not just “those” who are “over there.” Actually, this is not new. Home grown terrorists have lived among us for decades.

THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE K.K.K.: The birth of an American terrorist group, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Houghton Mifflin, 2010

The Ku Klux Klan dates from 1866 when six men decided to form a club. They raided the linen closet of a friend’s mansion and, hooded and draped, paraded through the streets of Pulaski, TN. Many current-day residents wish to disavow themselves from this history.

Why? The six grew from a fraternity-like organization with initiations, handshakes and passwords into the “Invisible Empire” with secret dens spread across the South. The group evolved into sinister night riders who intimidated, terrified, brutalized, and murdered former slaves who dared exercise their freedom as American citizens to vote, own land, go to school, or worship as they pleased.

Author Bartoletti has won numerous awards for her meticulously researched nonfiction. She wrote Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow, winner of Newbery, Robert F. Sibert, and NCTE Orbis Pictus honors, so young people could understand the vulnerability of youth to dangerous manipulation. She traveled to Germany and taught herself to read the language well enough to save precious time. Her current achievement casts light closer to home.

For this book, the author worked her way through 2300 slave narratives and 8000 pages of congressional testimony called the Ku Klux Klan report. Add to this diaries, memoirs, and newspapers of that time.

Bartoletti followed her research into the field and attended a Klan Congress. In her source notes she describes that meeting. The setting was rural and at a gate marked by a large American flag, she entered the Soldiers of the Cross Bible Camp, attended by families with children. To conclude a weekend of fiery rhetoric condemning public schools and taxes and stirring up fear of other races and religions, a 25 foot cross was burned in the midst of men and women in white robes. What struck the author was how ordinary these people were. “If I had met them at another time, in another place, if I didn’t know their beliefs and their politics, I could see myself swapping recipes and stories about our children.”


When Bartoletti began her research, she asked where she could find plaques, statues, or any other markers recognizing or remembering the victims of Klan violence. She didn’t find any. But she has given those victims a voice.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Striving for Normal

Keeping loved ones safe has been a priority since the Cave Man fended off a wild beast at the mouth of his cave. If we think we are the first to worry about terrorist threats, history will show us that we must be a pretty hardy bunch or we wouldn’t still be here.

COUNTDOWN by Deborah Wiles, Scholastic Press, 2010

This is called a documentary novel because the story is interspersed with news clips from 1962. Viet Nam. Civil Rights. Castro and Cuba.

In the meantime, beyond those news clips, college graduates signed up for the military or attended interviews for jobs, young people said “I do” in large numbers, babies arrived on their own schedule, usually, and life was lived despite the ever present fear that “an atomic bomb could ruin your day.” (Bumper sticker this writer followed for several hours on a traffic clogged highway under construction.)

At home, the threat of an atomic bomb sent families scurrying to their basements to build bomb shelters. At school, children practiced duck and cover drills in the hallways.

Set against this background, the lives of 11 year old Franny Chapman and her family and friends unfold. The physical setting is Camp Springs, Maryland near Washington D.C. Personnel from Andrews Air Force Base lived there and did their best to create a semblance of normal life.

The characters are fictional, but the author has personal ties to the time and place. Rich details from her own life informed the story. Aprons. Headbands that stretched out of shape. (Always.) TV trays. 45 rpm records. Cloakroom. Chalkboards. Women smoking, one way to stake a claim for equality of the sexes. Franny struggles to communicate telepathically, a problem now solved by incessant texting.

This is Book 1 of the Sixties Trilogy, and it’s written for the peacemakers. That’s all Franny wants. Peace with her friends, peace with her mother, peace with the boy across the street who left for a year and came back as every girl’s crush but seems to be a genuine friend to Franny.

Peace is relative when you are eleven. And that’s the way it should be.


Monday, September 6, 2010

A Boy’s Worst Nightmare–Maybe

The night before a new school year begins is always fraught with grave “what if’s.”

“What if I don’t know anyone?”

“What if all my friends are in the other kindergarten?” Or first grade. Everyone wants someone they can sit by. At least on the first day.

“What if all the kids are friends with each other but don’t want any new friends?”

Of course, the list is endless.

What could be the worst?
“What if I’m the only boy in a class of zillions of girls?”

19 GIRLS AND ME, by Darcy Pattison, illustrated by Steven Salerno, Philomel books, 2006

This is the first day of John Hercules Po’s first week in kindergarten. He’s brave enough to walk through the door, but what a shocking discovery: he is the only boy in a class with, count them, 19 girls.

His brother, a big second grader, taunts him that those girls will turn him into a sissy. John Hercules has another idea. Why not turn all those girls into tomboys?

Each day, a new adventure. From climbing Mount Everest to digging to China to battling alligators in the Amazon River, John Hercules Po and his merry band conquer the world, limited only by their imaginations, which means, no limits at all.

A strange chemistry takes place. The girls don’t turn John Hercules into a sissy. John Hercules doesn’t turn them into tomboys.

This book is for boys, girls, and friends.

Illustrator Steven Salerno can boast of being a student under the legendary Maurice Sendak, but I suspect he spent his earliest student days drawing pictures of his classmates. How else could he capture the energy of 20 high spirited kids? Author Darcy Pattison is well known for her novel revision classes which she conducts all across the country. Here’s proof she knows a thing or two about picture books, too.

You’ll stake your claim on this book, even if you are the only parent in a room full of kindergartners.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Ahoy, Boys!

No romance in this book–unless you count the romance of the high seas. Pre-teen boys especially will find this seafaring adventure to their liking.

SEA OF THE DEAD by Julia Durango, Simon & Shuster For Young Readers, 2009

Kehl is 13, the 5th son of the Warrior Prince Amatec. His father’s domain is all that he knows.

When Kehl is kidnaped by the Fallen King, he wakes up aboard ship. Soon after he is befriended by Xipi. Somewhere it is surely written in stone that a boy book must always include a dog. The dog in this book is also on board and his name is Sholla.

Forced by the Fallen King to map the entire Carillon Empire, Kehl discovers there is more to the world than his father has told him. A tug of war begins between Kehl’s heart and mind as his knowledge grows and his feelings struggle to keep up. This is about growing up, discovering what lies outside your own small circle, and learning to respect what you find instead of fearing or condemning it.

This book is not long. The action keeps pages turning so fast, some readers will pick it up after breakfast and finish it before lunch. All readers will want to unravel the secret that drives Kehl to make a life changing decision.

You'll smell the sea, feel the roll of the waves under your feet--and you won't have to leave the comforts of home.

Good books really do take you away.

Hillview School Library