Sunday, January 23, 2011

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

Children's literature has given us a few iconoclastic characters: Fern Templeton from Charlotte's Web, Claudia, From the Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Karana from Island of the Blue Dolphins, and Jess Aarons and Leslie Burke from Bridge to Terabithia. Add to that list Delphine Clark from One Crazy Summer.

One Crazy Summer has garnished numerous awards: Coretta Scott King Award for Author, Scott O'Dell prize for historical fiction, Newbery Honor Book, and a National Book Award finalist. All are well-deserved and speak to the quality of this book. I liked it much better than Moon over Manifest, the Newbery Medalist for this year.

Delphine (11), Vonetta (9), and Fern (7) Clark are put on a plane in Brooklyn in the summer of 1968 to visit their mother, Cecile, in Oakland, California. They have not seen her since right after Fern was born, seven years previous. On the bumpy plane ride they anticipate the warm welcome and hugs that they will get when they see their mother. But that is not to be. Cecile is not welcoming or affectionate. They are just a nuisance and this is evidenced from the way they are gathered at the airport, taken to her home, and virtually made to tend for themselves. Cecile asks Delphine to hand over the money that their father has given them and then sends them to Mean Lady Ming's Chinese Restaurant, down the block and around the corner, if they want anything to eat. The kitchen is off limits. She will not call Fern by name and makes fun of her clinging to her doll. Shown their bedroom, the sisters will share 2 beds among them. The visit has not had an auspicious beginning. The next morning the girls are sent to the Black Panther Community Center/School if they intend to eat breakfast.

And so the novel is set. Delphine, full of care and compassion for her sisters and a whole lot of common sense for a girl of eleven, is determined to make the best of the month that they visit in California. Cecile is a poet for the Black Panther movement and has taken the name Nzila. She is consumed with the movement and her poetry. The girls go to the center every day and learn about the movement that will forever change the complexion of the U.S and what their contribution to that movement can be. Williams-Garcia so carefully weaves history (Huey Newton, Bobby Hutton, the assassinations of King and Bobby Kennedy) and the culture of the time (Mike Douglas Show, The Monkees, Hogan's Heroes, and Mission Impossible) into everyday situations. One of the most touching scenes of the book is the day that Delphine plans and takes her sister on a tour of San Francisco. She is determined that they feel like they have been on a real vacation and she plans a tour of Chinatown, ride on a cable car, and purchasing just the right souvenirs. She is an amazing little girl.

The novel culminates in the arrest of Cecile and the girls' participation in a Black Panther Rally/Protest. This in turn leads to a real heart-to-heart talk between Cecile and Delphine. I dare anyone not to have teary eyes as the novel comes to its end. I love Delphine and I can't say that enough. Here is an eleven year old who acts as a mother to her two younger sisters, yet at the same time yearns for the protectiveness of her own mother. I love her because she is smart - after all she frequents the library for books to read and for information. She planned the San Francisco tour by doing research at the library. I love her because she knows what is right and what she must do in awkward situations. No, she didn't trash her mother's printing press, but it was right for her to clean it all up. Her character will be a part of me for a long time. I have wrestled with the idea of wanting a sequel to this book or have it a part of a new series much like the Dicey series. But then, part of me would like to just have Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern stay the way they are.

This is an important book book in the collection of children's literature because of the time period it covers and the point of view it gives. It should take its place next to The Watsons Go to Birmingham as one that can be taught in elementary grades. When history is taught in school, it often loses the personal side. One Crazy Summer captures this side in a beautifully and poetically written book. Don't miss it.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

The Newbery Committee of the American Library Association once again surprised the library community by choosing Clare Vanderpool's debut novel Moon over Manifest as its 2011 winner. Set in Manifest, Kansas, the story takes place in 1936 during the Great Depression with flashbacks to 1918 and World War I.

We meet Abilene Tucker as arrives in Manifest by jumping off the train because it's "best to get a look at a place before it gets a look at you." She's come to stay with Shady Howard, a sometime pastor, salon owner, and bootlegger. Her father, Gideon, has taken a job on the railroad in Iowa and it wasn't appropriate for her to accompany him. Abilene is a spunky girl used to hopping trains and living without too many comforts. She arrives in Manifest the day before school is out for the summer. She meets Lettie and Ruthanne and the 3 become good friends.

Abilene discovers a little tin of momentoes in her room at Shady's. Each has an important significance in the life of the towns' people and indirectly or directly Abilene's life. The stories, told in flashback to 1918, are woven by Miss Sadie, a diviner. She is quite the character who knows the history of the town inside and out. Each time and place has its own story, mystery and excitement. I wondered if the young audience for whom the book was written would be able to follow the switching back and forth. Throughout the novel the parade of memorable characters make appearances from Sister Redempta, nun and teacher to Hattie Mae Harper, journalist and historian. Abilene must sort out the stories as she and Lettie and Ruthanne try to find a spy, understand who Jinx and Ned are, and why Abilene's father has left her. It was helpful to have a listing of the characters at the beginning of the novel.

This novel reminded me so much of others I have read:
A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck, The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, Nowhere to Call Home by Cynthia DeFelice, and Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo. This is a solid piece of historical fiction, though not groundbreaking. I liked the book, but did not love it. It would appeal to both boys and girls, but I think a hard sell on its own. Perhaps it is best shared by teacher reading it to his or her class.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Lincoln by David Herbert Donald

The course of history of our country is more often than not decided by the person in the leadership role of President. Could it have been different if another individual were in that position? For the Civil War era this would definitely been true. Lincoln by renowned historian David Herbert Donald is a hefty read that begins with Lincoln's birth and ends with his assassination. Donald's purpose in writing the biography was to only cover the events that Lincoln saw and in which he was a prominent figure -" what he knew, when he knew it and why he made his decisions." It was an intimidating read, but also an enlightening one.

The reader is immediately immersed into the life of the Lincoln ancestors and family, from Virginia to Ohio to Kentucky to Illinois. Abraham Lincoln left his father's household in 1831 and arrive at New Salem where he lived for six years. He was encouraged to run for the state legislature based on his hard work ethic, his gift for speech, and the need to position the future of the town within the state. And so began his political career. Becoming a lawyer through self-study and taking a place on the circuit court enabled him to become familiar to much of the Illinois population and in turn gave him a forum for his views.

I found the book absorbing for the insights into Lincoln's personality and psyche. I realize that what is presented in Donald's viewpoint and to make judgments based on that alone would not be true scholarship. However, he does cause the reader to rethink many of the "truths" that have been taught in school. Lincoln was not a leader from the get- go. His stance was to react to a situation rather than head it off. I believe that in today's world he would have had a hard time being elected to public office. He changed his stance on issues, was not particularly good looking, and lacked self-confidence.

The military history presented in the book was quite detailed and painstakingly researched. Again, what stood out was his relationship with General George McClellan and eventually with Ulysses Grant. McClellan outright refused to obey Lincoln's orders and commanded the troops on his agenda and according to his plan. Could it be that by allowing him this freedom that Lincoln prolonged the Civil War? He should have been replaced sooner rather than later. Once McClellan was replaced by Grant, Lincoln managed to, in a passive aggressive way, conduct the war in his way (p. 498.). His leadership grew as he grew in the job of President, but he never completely dismissed the fatalism that characterized many of his decisions, including the disregard for security measures when traveling or leaving the White House. Quoting from Shakespeare's Hamlet, ""There's a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough hew them how we will."

Lincoln believed that slavery was morally wrong, but wavered among solutions to eradicate or contain it. He thought colonization was an acceptable plan, but instead wrote and issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The process by which he did this was fascinating as he gathered his thoughts and those of the political leaders of the time. His firm belief was to save the union at all costs as he writes to Horace Greeley,
"If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.."

Finally, no biography of Lincoln would be complete without examination of his relationship with his wife and children and their mental states. Mary Lincoln was a strong-willed and extravagant woman. She loved the ability to spend money and did it with abandonment, mounting thousands of dollars of debt. Both in Illinois and Washington, Mary was responsible for family life as Abraham was absent so much of the time. She and Lincoln were both subject to mood swings and times of deep depression. The depression was deepened by the deaths of two of their sons. They were subject to severe headaches and often spent days secluded in their respective rooms. But there was a love and attachment there that often does not get communicated in writing about the President and his wife.

David Donald's portrayal has been subject to criticism by those who think he may be a bit too harsh in his analysis of the Lincoln years. Nonetheless, it remains an account based on primary sources and scholarship and occupies a significant place in the collection of Lincoln treatises.