Wednesday, March 26, 2008

21. Puss in Cowboy Boots

by Jan and Phil Huling

Another fairy tale variation I passed some wait-time with at the local public library, this is another one I will be buying for our curriculum collection. I'm surprised we didn't already have it since we have most Texas/Western variations of fairy tales.

In this version, the youngest son is that of a rodeo clown, and while his older brothers get the truck and the clown suit, Dan gets the cat. The king becomes a rich oil man in this retelling, impressed with Dan's turkey, possum, oil rigs, and cattle. Jan Huling does a good job with Texas-style similes and vernacular, while her husband Phil uses vivid red, orange, and yellow watercolors to evoke the desert setting and long, tall Texans.

19. Dear Peter Rabbit
20. Yours Truly, Goldilocks

by Alma Flor Ada, illustrated by Leslie Tryon

I had to wait around the public library while some CDs for an audiobook were being cleaned, and these books were part of a display on fairy tale versions and variations. Ada has taken familiar characters such as the Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Peter Rabbit, the Big Bad Wolf, and Red Riding Hood, and concocted a new story through their correspondence. Dear Peter Rabbit is the first book with Yours Truly, Goldilocks as the sequel. The letter takes up one side of the double-page spread, and Tryon's detailed, pen and ink with watercolor illustrations comprise the full page of the other side, as well as some wordless double-page spreads at the middle and end of each book. Tryon also included a map of the "streets" in the addresses of the letter-writers in the sequel (although I don't think it's quite accurate).

These books, along with another in the series (With Love, Little Red Hen), would be perfect for a lesson on fractured fairy tales and/or letter-writing. I will be purchasing all three for my library's collection.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

18. This Quiet Lady

by Charlotte Zolotow, illustrated by Anita Lobel

I was searching for some realistic fiction picture books for the children's literature class when I came upon this gem, published in 1992. Zolotow has written a number of realistic fiction picture books. This book brought tears to my eyes.

In each double-page spread, on one side a young girl looks, in various locations in the house, at photographs of her mother at different ages. She describes each photograph in one sentence beginning with "This" and ending with "is my mother." The "photographs" take up the full-page other half of the spread, in Lobel's lovely watercolor and gouache illustrations. The book ends with an illustration of the narrator as a baby with her mother and the text, "And here is where I begin."

The book is perfect as a read-aloud for very young children, and the short and repetitive text is also good for beginning readers. I also think this would be a lovely gift for Mother's Day, especially for a mom who was a child in the 60s and a teen in the 70s, like the mother in the illustrations (and like me).

Saturday, March 22, 2008

17. Shen of the Sea

by Arthur Bowie Chrisman

This 1926 Newbery winner contains 16 stories told in the style of traditional Chinese tales. “Shen” is the Chinese word for a spirit and “Shen of the Sea” is the title of one of the stories. The book is illustrated with more than 50 detailed silhouettes by Danish artist Else Hasselriis (her work is better shown by the older cover below, which is similar to the illustration on page 202). The subtitle of the book is “Chinese Stories for Children,” but that is at least partly a misnomer.

Chrisman said in an autobiographical sketch in The Junior Book of Authors (1935) that “while working on a story involving an Oriental character, I went to a Chinese shop to inquire about the foods my character should eat. This lead to an acquaintanceship with a Chinese gentleman who gave me much aid. I was soon deep in a study of Chinese history, and at last brought out one of the stories appearing in Shen of the Sea. I was also able to secure the aid of a translator to help me along in my work. Nevertheless, I let seven more years pass between the writing of that first story and the completion of my book.”

According to various contemporaneous articles in The New York Times around the time the book was awarded the Newbery, “Many of the stories and legends in Mr. Chrisman’s book were told him by a Chinese whom he met while living in a boarding house in San Francisco’s Chinatown” (Oct. 22, 1926, p. 20). A November 1929 article in the Peabody Journal of Education notes, “Mixed with the true Chinese folk tales are some creations of Mr. Chrisman…. the author has been clever in writing his own chapters in the same vein as those told him by the orientals…The student of folklore, however, wishes there was a definite defining line. Chrisman says, ‘So that is Shen of the Sea, half thine and half mine, O, Wang and Woo, and Wing Sam Wen.’* But which is which?” (Marjorie Thomas, “Some in Velvet Gowns,” p. 142).

In her April 1994 School Library Journal article “Chinoiserie in American Picture Books: Excursions to Cathay,” Margaret Scrogin Chang, a librarian and adjunct college instructor in children’s literature wrote,
Chrisman had never been to China, did not read Chinese, and claimed to be aided by two Chinese speakers, but gave no sources for the stories in his book. Modern readers can only conclude that the charm and dash of the exotic won Chrisman the Newbery medal, for the stories are travesties: Chinese are shown drinking milk, greedy for jam, and eating with a knife and fork. Slangy, staccato spoken Chinese is rendered in convoluted, distant language. Again, the emphasis is on the exotic and fanciful.

Chang (who, with her Chinese husband, went on later that year to publish the first of three picture book retellings of Chinese folktales) gave Shen of the Sea as an early example of chinoiserie, stories that describe Chinese culture from an outsider’s point of view:
According to the 0xford Dictionary of Art, this French term is used by art historians to define a style of European art "reflecting fanciful and poetic notions of China." …China was so far away that its people might as well have lived on another planet. Europeans freely used Cathay, the China they imagined, as a setting for philosophical fantasies and fables, exploring ideas of concern to Europeans. …Though chinoiserie and its vision of Cathay no longer informs European art, it is alive and well in American picture books for children, influencing both text and art in fractured traditional literature and original stories set in Cathay.

I could not find any definitive evidence on which tales might truly be Chinese folklore. You would think, in the last 80 years, that someone would have stepped forward and identified them, which makes me think that it’s likely all the stories are either Chrisman’s inventions, or the original folktales have been so altered as to be unrecognizable.

So, what’s to like about Shen of the Sea? The 16 stories are easy to read – they are at early fifth grade reading level on most scales. The stories would make good read-alouds for younger children, partly because of Chrisman’s use of rhyme and alliteration, and partly because the opportunity to use different voices for different characters would help reduce the confusion of similar names (Cheng Chang and Ching Chung, for example). Some character names give hints about their traits: Ah Mee and Ah Fun are impish and disobedient, and Hai Low tries unsuccessfully to meet his brother’s expectations. The princess who invents china dishes is named Chin-Uor (get it?).

Some of the stories are similar to “pourqoui” (French for “why”) tales in that they humorously explain the beginnings of chopsticks, printing, tea, kites, gunpowder, and china dishes. Others are “noodleheads” (aka “sillies,” “drolls,” or “numbskulls”) in that they center on a character’s foolish blunders. Many are fable-like in that they include a moral, often in the form of a rhetorical question.

Older children might appreciate the use of Chinese phrases (some translated, some not), examples of irony and the ridiculous, and references to Western folklore (which is further evidence that not all of the tales could be authentic Chinese). The book could be used to teach about types of traditional literature (fables, pourquois, noodleheads) as well as examples of various literary devices.

There are doubtless better examples of Chinese traditional literature out there, but this book could be used as an example of how folklore from other cultures was presented in the early 20th century in children’s books (i.e., as chinoiserie). From a historical standpoint, I also found it interesting that the book was promoted in December 1942 as a way for U.S. schoolchildren to learn more about our wartime ally (Dallas Morning News, “Facts and Features: Study of China”, Dec. 12, 1942; and Minnie Rugg, “In the Four Seas All Mean Are Brothers,” The English Journal, Dec. 1942).

*This is a good example of Chrisman’s style of writing in this book. This particular quotation comes from Chrisman’s “How A Book Was Born,” an article in the November 10, 1926 issue of Commonweal, which had not yet arrived through interlibrary loan at the time this review was written. I am curious to see if it sheds any more light on the origin of the tales in this book. Chrisman was apparently a bit of an odd duck: he died at age 63 in February 1953 “in apparent poverty in a debris-littered shack in the [Arkansas] Ozarks…His body was found there…He used a pile of pine needles and a burlap bag for a bed,” yet he “left an estate of at least $12,000 cash” (Dallas Morning News, Feb. 25, 1953).

[This review is also posted at The Newbery Project and referred to at Karen Edits.]

16. What the Dead Know

by Laura Lippman

I'm not a fan of mysteries, thrillers, or crime/legal fiction, but I wanted to read this book because I received a free hardbound copy on the last day of the Texas Library Association conference last April, and I wanted to read it before giving it away. In addition, one of my online book groups was reading and discussing this book.

My husband and mother both like this genre but I don't think they would like this novel. It’s too confusing the way it jumps around in time and from character to character. This made it hard to get into it at first. By the time I was halfway through, I finished it quickly to find out what happened, only to be somewhat disappointed by the end. A woman claims to be one of two kidnapped sisters who have been assumed dead for 30 years. The story becomes confused with irrelevant information and characters.

The victim is unsympathetic and underdeveloped. Her parents are more interesting, and the best part of the book is seeing the effect the loss of the girls has on the two of them (as in The Lovely Bones and The Memory Keeper’s Daughter). The author did do a good job evoking period details of the setting of the crime (Baltimore in 1975) and subsequent years and locations (especially Austin in 1983).

Friday, March 21, 2008

15. Cloudstreet

by Tim Winton

I read this Australian author’s book for my long-distance book club. Long story short – meh.

This book is apparently studied in junior/senior level advanced English in New South Wales, and I’m a little leery of books full of (vague) symbolism and metaphors in book discussion groups – I thought I left that all behind in high school!

The title comes from the address of the large old house shared by two families in Perth – 1 Cloud Street, which comes just be known as “Cloudstreet.” The two families that live there, the Lambs and the Pickles’, are rather odd, but very interesting characters. I did enjoy reading about their eccentricities and adventures, and learned something about what life was like in Western Australia from 1943 to 1963.

Perhaps if I’d actually been able to participate in my book club’s discussion (it only works well when I call from a land line at work to a land line with speakerphone at the other end, and that was not possible for this meeting), I would have gotten more into the book. Or perhaps it would have helped to be Australian. A good source for some background information on the novel is Penguin Notes for Reading Groups for this book.

Friday, March 07, 2008

14. The Translator

by Daoud Hari

Subtitled “A Tribesman’s Memoir of Darfur,” this was an advanced reader’s edition I received through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer’s program. This was a short book (200 pages), but not an easy read. I did not know much about Darfur before starting to read it, but I knew enough to be apprehensive about the subject matter. The appendix, “A Darfur Primer,” would have been better as a preface, along with some maps to put the story’s locations in context.

I found the part of the book where Hari described the impact of Darfur’s genocide on his own family and village to be stronger than the parts about his captures and eventual releases particularly while serving as an interpreter for reporters and international investigators of the genocide.

I wanted to like this book and rate it highly because of its important subject, but I can’t – it’s just not well written. The storyline is confusing, and too much of the book is about Hari’s captivity and not enough about the situation in Darfur. Despite having two co-writers, the book would have benefited from judicious editing.

13. Innocent Traitor

by Alison Weir

Weir is a well-known historian, with four of her books about Henry VIII, his wives and children. This is her first novel, about Lady Jane Grey, the “nine days queen.” Weir does an excellent job of reflecting life in late-1500s England, especially from a child’s viewpoint (the story of four-year-old Jane’s solution to a need to relieve herself at a formal dinner is priceless!).

I would characterize this book as a biographical novel, similar to those of Irving Stone, rather than as historical fiction. It is written in a diary-like style so popular today, and from multiple viewpoints. This helps to clarify Jane’s rather complex story.

The audiobook did an excellent job showcasing these viewpoints with different, talented British actors and actresses, many that I’ve heard on other recent audiobooks:

Stina Nielsen as Jane (marvelous, only unbelievable as a four-year-old narrating her own story – I know children and especially girls had to mature more quickly in those days, but her vocabulary at that age is rather unrealistic, and this is the fault of the writer and not this narrator);

Davina Porter as Jane’s hard-hearted, ambitious mother, Frances Brandon, niece of Henry VIII;

Jenny Sterlin as Jane’s life-long nurse and surrogate mother, Mrs. Ellen;

Jill Tanner as Jane’s guardian (briefly), protector, and advocate, Queen Katherine Parr, widow of Henry VIII and then wife to Thomas Seymour, who was maneuvering to marry his nephew, Henry’s son King Edward, to Jane;

Bianca Amato as Jane’s distant cousin, Princess/Queen Mary, oldest daughter of Henry VIII; and

Gerald Doyle as John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, who schemes to put Jane on the throne after Edward’s death and marries his son to her so he may be king (his voice sounds particularly evil, fitting his character).

The print version does have a few things the audiobook does not, however; namely a family tree and map, as well as an author’s note (which could have easily been read in the audiobook) that explains that most of the characters and events in the book really existed/happened. Weir used as many of Jane’s own words as possible, and states that “Some parts of the book may seem far-fetched; they are the parts most likely to be based on fact,” and gives examples.

I thought this was a fantastic book and I am looking forward to reading other histories by Weir as well as her upcoming second novel on Elizabeth I. This book also spikes my interest in reading some of Philippa Gregory’s books on Ann Boleyn and others in the same era.

12. Eat, Pray, Love

by Elizabeth Gilbert

The title and the cover of the paperback are great. The rest – skip it. The fact that her “spiritual” journey was financed with a book advance really hurt the integrity of her story for me.

Gilbert’s book is divided into three sections, one for each country she visits (Italy, India, Indonesia -- three "I"s, notice). There are 36 “chapters” in each section, all written during her 36th year, for a total of 108. She uses the japa mala, prayer beads (usually numbering 108 in a circle) used in India by Hindus and Buddhists, as a metaphor for the structure for her book.

Gilbert spends about four months in each country. Gilbert is privileged, and she and the book come across as selfish, egotistical, self-absorbed, and narcissistic. At 30, Gilbert goes through a divorce (because she decides she does not want to have children after all), and this trip is the result.

I was divorced from my first husband around age 40 (I'm 50 now) and had a 12-year-old son at the time. I hadn't worked in 10 years and got next to nothing in child support. Gee, it would have been nice to have the MONEY and the TIME and the FREEDOM to spend a year eating and making love and "finding myself" in Italy, Bali (Indonesia), and India! I felt like telling Elizabeth Gilbert to GROW UP ALREADY! and kwitcher bitchin!

If you can't tell, I really couldn't relate to this book. It was an OK read, but not one I would read again, nor would I recommend it to anyone else. Gilbert certainly isn't any hero or role model. Anybody who admits she fantasizes about Bill Clinton while masturbating (and includes it in a memoir) is really not to be admired. Also, there's been a bit of controversy lately about this book (see USA Today and Slate).

As an aside: Did you know that Elizabeth Gilbert wrote an article for GQ in 1997 about her experiences bartending at Coyote Ugly in New York City that became the basis for the 2000 movie of the same name?