Saturday, July 26, 2008

44. The Hummingbird's Daughter

by Luis Alberto Urrea

This is a fictionalized biography of a real person, the author's great aunt, Teresa Urrea (1873-1906), otherwise known as the Saint of Cabora, Mexico. It follows the period from her illegitimate birth to Cayetana Chavez, a Tehueco Indian otherwise known as "The Hummingbird," who was impregnated by her employer, wealthy rancher Tomas Urrea. Teresa is eventually recognized by Tomas and becomes part of his family. After a near-death experience, she develops healing powers and a following that threatens the dictator of Mexico, Porfirio Diaz. The book ends when she and her father are deported to the United States in 1892.

Naturally I wanted to know what happened after that, and I found additional information, both in books and online, including Luis Urrea's website. Other sources were The Handbook of Texas Online, an article in the 1892 New York Times, and the following sources:, and

The whole story was fascinating, but I actually thought Tomas Urrea was more interesting than his daughter - he was such a dashing reprobate!

Some reviewers have criticized this book for its use of untranslated Spanish. I didn't have a problem with this, perhaps because after eight years of Spanish from grades 5-12, I understood most of it (a lot was cuss words), or I could figure out the meaning from the context. This code-switching is actually quite common among Latino writers.

This book seems to be similar to some of those by Isabel Allende, especially The House of the Spirits, and Rudolfo Anaya, especially Bless Me, Ultima. There is even a tribute to Urrea's friend Anaya (and another famous person*) on page 307 of the edition I read of the book, in a scene where young men and women stroll in the plaza:

A young rustler visiting from Chihuahua (actually, he was hiding from the Rurales) named Doroteo Arango* said, "I would trade nine horses, ten cows, and a bag of gold for one kiss of your lips!"...

Teresita called all these boys "Pancho," for she didn't know who some of them were, and "Pancho" seemed funny...

"Gracias, Pancho!" she called back to Doroteo Arango.

He tipped his hat.

Rudolfo Anaya the First, on a horse-buying trip from the far Llano Estacado, said, "The kachinas have blessed you, Teresa."

She turned and walked backward and watched him circulate into the gloom.

"Gracias, Pancho."

Fina [Felix, Teresita's friend] laughed.

"What a cute boy," Teresita said.

"They're all cute boys!" Fina Felix enthused.

"Well, that is one Pancho I would like to see again!"

Teresita watched for Anaya as she came around the circle, but he seemed to have vanished.

[*Doroteo Arango, aka Pancho Villa, who was later the political/military leader of the Northern Mexican state of Chihuahua.

Anaya was born in Pastura, New Mexico, a small village located on the western edge of the Llano Estacado (the Staked Plains), located in eastern New Mexico and West Texas.]

Sunday, July 20, 2008

43. Sounder

by William Armstrong;
read by Avery Brooks

This 1970 Newbery winner, about a family of black sharecroppers and their dog, Sounder, is very sad. It is bitter cold, hunting is poor, so the father steals a ham and pork sausage to feed his wife and four children. When he is arrested and hauled away in a wagon, Sounder breaks free from the oldest son to chase it and is shot, but survives. The father is sentenced to many years of hard labor on a chain gang. His oldest son takes over his work in the fields, providing for the family and even learning to read. He looks for his father when he is not working, encountering more prejudice and cruel treatment. Both Sounder and the father return but are badly maimed and die before the end of the book.

Sounder has earned some criticism in the ensuing years, primarily because a white author is writing about a black experience. Armstrong says in an author’s note at the beginning of Sounder that it is the story of an African American teacher (Charles Jones) who worked for Armstrong’s father after school and in the summer, and who taught Armstrong to read.

In an interview in the March 1978 Writer's Digest, Armstrong said race was not a factor when writing the book. "I was writing about people's hearts and feelings. There's no color to feeling. There's no color to heart. There are a lot of white people who have suffered indignities, but they strangely hold out against it and save themselves. And there's a lot of black people who have done the same thing."

Many of these same critics take Armstrong to task for not naming any of the characters other than the dog. For example, Albert Schwartz (in MacCann and Woodard’s The Black American in Books for Children: Readings in Racism, 1972) says leaving them unnamed “raises the issue of white supremacy” and “deep-seated prejudice has long denied human individualization to the Black person.”

In the Writer’s Digest interview, Armstrong states, "If the boy's age was not given the reader could become a part of the story: 'The boy must be about my age.' Place and time kept vague, no name or description of the boy. . . . And no names for the family. With names they would have represented one family; without names they became universal-- representing all people who suffer privation and injustice, but through love, self-respect, devotion, and desire for improvement, make it in the world." Indeed, the setting is vague enough that it could be anytime between the end of the Civil War and the Great Depression, and anywhere walnuts grow (which is most of the eastern half of the United States, not just the South).

According to Lois Kuznets (in the Spring 1978 Illinois English Bulletin), the original manuscript of Sounder was much longer. Armstrong's publishers split it into two novels; the second is Sour Land (1971) and tells the story of the boy (now named Moses Waters) as an adult.

Well-known actor Avery Brooks (Star Trek DS9’s Captain Sisko) did a marvelous job narrating the audiobook, even singing some of the hymns in the story. His bass voice was perfect for that and for everyone but the mother. He gives the white characters deep southern accents, not necessarily reflected in their words in the book.

Although Sounder is written at about a grade 4.9-5.3 reading level, its subject matter is more appropriate for middle grades (6-8) and up. It is hard to fathom such a harsh punishment for stealing a ham and sausages, and the cruelties the black family and the dog endure. There is also some scenes (on pages 59-61) where the boy imagines, in grisly detail, what he would do to the deputy who shot Sounder (drag him behind a wagon) and the jailer who destroys a homemade cake the boy brings his father, awaiting trial (choke him with a chain).

[This review also appears on The Newbery Project]

Saturday, July 19, 2008

41. A Year Down Yonder
42. A Long Way From Chicago

by Richard Peck

I listened to the audiobook of A Year Down Yonder for The Newbery Project (it’s the 2001 winner), and was laughing so hard I was inspired to read Richard Peck’s prequel, A Long Way from Chicago as well.

A Year Down Yonder gives a wonderful view of small-town life during the 1937-8 recession following the Great Depression. Mary Alice is 15 and must spend an entire school year with her grandmother in rural Illinois, as her parents are out of work and must move to a tiny apartment in Chicago. It’s an uplifting story, one that doesn’t deny the hardships of the time, but doesn’t dwell on them either.

Peck said (in an interview in The Reading Teacher for December 2001/January 2002) he got the stories in the book from “extended family, country cousins, those living on their ancestral acres” during a Thanksgiving visit to his hometown of Decatur, Illinois, not far from the town of Cerro Gordo where his real-life grandmother lived, and where both stories are set, “a town...cut in two by the tracks of the Wabash Railroad where people stood in their yards to watch the Wabash Cannonball go through” (Newbery acceptance speech).

American actress Lois Smith narrated the audiobook. She did a marvelous job creating unique voices for Grandma Dowdel and other interesting characters such as Wilhelmina Weidenbach, Mildred Burdick, Miss Butler, Effie Wilcox, and Aunt Mae Griswold. I only had a couple of complaints. One was her voicing of Mary Alice – it sounded too whiny and too immature for a 15-year-old.

The other complaint was the way she pronounced pecan. Having grown up in Texas, (it’s our state tree), with native pecans all along the Brazos river valley where I now live and orchards all along the nearby Colorado River, most everyone here pronounces it “puh-kahn,” with a little more accent on the second syllable than the first. Smith pronounced it as “pee-can,” with almost equal accent on both syllables. I’ve also heard “pee-CAN” and “pi-KAHN” (heavy accent on second syllable in both cases) and even “pee-kahn,” and dictionaries give a variety of pronunciations, so all are right. Since she was voicing rural residents of southern Illinois, perhaps her pronunciation is correct for that part of the country. Nevertheless, it was grating to my ears.

A Long Way from Chicago, a 1999 Newbery Honor Book, was just as much fun. This book also stars Grandma Dowdel as well as a younger Mary Alice, but is narrated by her older brother Joey. It is “a novel in stories” of humorous happenings during the week-long visits the two children made to their grandmother from their home in Chicago, during the Depression years of 1929 through 1935. However, it’s not necessary to read it before A Year Down Yonder.

I was born in the Chicago suburb where my dad grew up and my grandparents lived for many years, and many aunts, uncles, and cousins still live in that area. Some of my ancestors were from Springfield – they owned a haberdashery and sold a hat to Abraham Lincoln, so the story where Grandma Dowdel tries to pass off a stovepipe hat from her attic as his rang true to me.

In both books, I found Grandma Dowdel to be the most interesting character. In his Newbery acceptance speech, Peck described Grandma Dowdel as “the American tall tale in a Lane Bryant dress. There’s more than a bit of Paul Bunyan about her, and a touch of the Native American trickster tradition; she may just be Kokopelli without the flute.”

In The Reading Teacher, he said she “is the great American tradition I came from. She is all of my great aunts, and while she is not much like my grandmother—except physically—all were imposing women...It was a matriarchy, and Grandma Dowdel represents that. Notice she is often cooking? To her, that is not a subservient role, that is feeding the world....Their kitchens were their temples.” “Joey expresses his awe at the power of a mighty grandmother and, perhaps, of all women,” Peck says in the Newbery acceptance speech. “Mary Alice tells of finding in an unexpected place the role model for the rest of her life.”

I feel either book could have been set in just about any rural small town in the country during 1929-1937. Peck is meticulous on his research for his historical fiction; he noted in The Reading Teacher interview that, for A Year Down Yonder: “I read every issue of Time magazine in 1937…I made a timeline for the entire year...For example, the most famous woman in America vanished without a trace that without distracting, I had to say something about it. It’s in half a line, but it’s there because that happened in 1937.” I think the humor in the books would be enjoyed by both boys and girls about age 9 and up (reading level is about grade 4.5-5.0).

Sunday, July 13, 2008

40. Waterless Mountain

by Laura Adams Armer

This 1932 Newbery winner is set in Navajo country in northern Arizona in the late 1920s or 1930-31. The main character is referred to as Younger Brother (his unused Navajo name means “Dawn Boy”, but his family often calls him Little Singer). At the beginning of the book, he is eight, and he is at least 12 by the end. The Waterless Mountain of the title may be the Kaibab Limestone formation north of the Grand Canyon, which was porous and had few sources of water.

As described in the New York Times shortly after the book’s publication (“Book Notes," 9/2/31, page 17), “the narrative deals with the experiences of a Navajo boy who is learning the lore of the medicine man. Various Navajo ceremonies, chants and beliefs are worked into the background of the account of Younger Brother as he develops from boyhood to youth. These tribal customs and legends are all authentic, according to the author,...,who lived long among the Indians...[Armer] went to Arizona to devote herself to an artistic and literary career. She painted pictures and acquired a wide knowledge of the Navajo chants and legends.”

In contrast to Shen of the Sea, the Navajo stories told in Waterless Mountain do appear to be authentic. I was unable to find any evidence contradicting information in this book, and lots of references on the web to yays (gods), chindi (ghosts), Spider Woman, Turquoise (aka Changing) Woman (or Estsanatlehi), and Whirling Logs sand paintings.

Contemporaneous reviews generally praise the book, but note some weaknesses. Anne T. Eaton, in the October 18, 1931 New York Times (“New Children’s Books, page 70), wrote, “Nothing in the book is finer than the author’s presentation of the poet of a primitive people and his response to the beauty and mystery with which he feels himself surrounded. The beauty and mysticism may appeal primarily to adults, but there is sufficient incident and action to hold the attention of younger readers, and they, too, will feel the book’s atmosphere.” “In Brief Review,” The English Journal (published by the National Council of Teachers of English, Vol. 20, No. 9, Nov. 1931, page 785), stated, “Good authorities pronounce it authentic Navajo, but the charm of the primitive is marred by the author’s unsuccessful attempt to write in the mental language of the unschooled boy.”

By the time of the book’s reissue in 1993, opinions varied. The Horn Book Guide (Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring 1993) rated it “marginal, seriously flawed, but with some redeeming quality,” explaining: “In these days of multicultural awareness, this novel, with its mysticism and its painfully condescending treatment of the DinĂ© [Navajo], should have been allowed to fade into obscurity; reissuing it only calls attention to its flaws.” A Critical Bibliography on North American Indians, for K-12 (compiled by the Smithsonian Institute’s Anthropology Research Office somewhere around September 1996 and last updated 8/30/01) rated it acceptable (not exceptional nor questionable), saying, “There is a somewhat patronizing attitude of the 'do-gooder' non-Indians in the story. The author attempts to put us in the mind of the youth to understand his reactions to the world.”

But Mary Lystad wrote in Twentieth-Century Children's Literature (4th edition, 1995) that Armer was praised for her "authentic and humanistic portrayal of Navajo life, within its own context and within a larger American context," concluding: "Armer's books are beautifully and sensitively written. They are not easy reading [but children] should be encouraged to read them. For Armer's meticulous studies of Indian personality and culture are important for an understanding of the human spirit."

I think, for the time it was written, that this book is a better example of one about another culture than most. Although the author is not Native American, she spent many years observing them and grew to be accepted by them. It is appropriate for older children, ages 9 and up. It rates anywhere from grades 5 to 9 on various readability scales, so it may be difficult for some children, particularly since it is episodic rather than plot-driven. There would be numerous ways to tie the book in with a study of Navajo culture, legends, ceremonies, and arts (Younger Brother’s mother weaves and his father makes silver and turquoise jewelry, while sand painting and pottery are also discussed).

There is a fascinating biography of Laura Adams Armer, author/photographer/artist, with further links at the Women Artists of the American West Women in Photography Archive. I didn’t realize that Armer’s The Forest Pool was named a Caldecott Honor book in 1939. The book is out of print and unfortunately my library does not have it; but you can see illustrations from the book at the Humboldt Arts Council website. The Forest Pool followed Armer's visit to Mexico. The color tempera paintings reflect the influence of painter Diego Rivera.

In the case of Waterless Mountain, there are four illustrations by Armer, eleven by her husband Sidney, and one by them both (the plate opposite page 26 in my 1936 edition, similar to that pictured below right), of which Armer wrote: "The deer are mine and the background is Sidney's." The dust jacket (pictured at the top of this post) and the frontispiece are the same, a painting by Armer, based on a composite of two of her photographs. Her other works are (in my 1936 edition): the plates opposite pages 20 (of the Bumble Bee), 128 (“The Sun Bearer and the Turquoise Woman,” my favorite), and 174 (of the Pack Rat) all signed by her and more similar in style to those in “The Forest Pool,” although all are in black and white. The endpapers of my 1936 edition have a Whirling Logs design similar to this.

[This review also appears on The Newbery Project.]

Monday, July 07, 2008

39. The Other Boleyn Girl

by Philippa Gregory, read by Ruthie Henshall

I listened to the abridged audiobook "movie tie-in" edition and was VERY disappointed. While the reader, Ruthie Henshall, was quite good (even doing a plausible job on men's voices), the abridgment butchered the book! I also had a print copy on hand, and there is no way a 600+ page book could be condensed to six CDs without leaving out a lot of important details. I suspect the abridgment corresponds better with the recent movie it ties into (which I have not seen) as it doesn't do the book itself justice. I ended up reading the latter as well.

It is interesting to read the varied opinions about the historical accuracy of the book in reviews at LibraryThing and at This is a work of historical FICTION and I feel it was successful because it made me want to read more about the Boleyns from more reputable sources. I found the book to be a quick, enjoyable read, one that was hard to put down.

I would give NO stars to the abridgement but 4+ stars to the full book.

ETA: Here's SomeReads' review.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

38. Joyful Noise/I Am Phoenix

by Paul Fleischman, read by Melissa Hughes, Scott Snively and others

This audiobook has the 1989 Newbery winner, Joyful Noise, poems about insects, as well as an earlier, similar book, I Am Phoenix, poems about birds, by the same author. They are read aloud by anywhere from two to five voices.

The most effective poems, though, were those read only by two (as the author intended as both are subtitled "Poems for Two Voices"), that also had few or no contrasting words spoken simultaneously. I found the overlapping in the latter poems often difficult to understand, especially when read aloud by more than two voices. In Joyful Noise, five voices were used on “Cicada” (its concluding line is the source of the book’s title) and “Whirligig Beetles.” All this did was make the poems too loud (they seemed to be shouting) and too difficult to understand.

On the other hand, "Honeybees" was quite successful, even with a little overlapping, particularly as voiced on the audiobook by a boy (the worker) and a girl (the queen). The boy was especially effective in expressing the malcontent of the worker bee’s life, portraying frustration in lines like “then I put in an hour making wax, without two minutes time to sit still and relax,” “..I’m on larva detail feeding the grubs in their cells, wishing that I were still helpless and pale,” and “Then I build some new cells, slaving away at enlarging this Hell, dreading the sight of another sunrise, wondering why we don’t all unionize.”

My other favorite poem was “Fireflies.” I enjoyed the metaphors (”Light is the ink we use, Night is our parchment,” “Insect calligraphers practicing penmanship,” “Six-legged scribblers of vanishing messages, fleeting graffiti, Fine artists in flight adding dabs of light, bright brush strokes Signing the June nights as if they were paintings”) and the alliteration.

I also enjoyed “Book Lice” for the humor and author references (although most children won’t get them). “Water Boatman” was funny for the repetition of the word “Stroke!” evoking images of a racing boat.

I thought the poems in I Am Phoenix were less effective; most seemed to simply be naming species of birds. Nevertheless, both books benefit from being read aloud; neither book would be as effective if read silently by a single person. Running time for both books is only 35 minutes.

The only advantage of the paper books are the lovely penciled illustrations by Eric Beddows (working as Ken Nutt on I Am Phoenix). I would recommend this audiobook for a poetry unit in a classroom, combined with the print version so the students could both hear and see what the author intended.

[This review also appears on The Newbery Project.]

Saturday, July 05, 2008

37. The House on Mango Street

written and read by Sandra Cisneros

I hadn't originally intended to listen to this audiobook. One of the discs had been missing, and we had billed the last person to check it out, and she had paid in order to graduate in May. Then a couple weeks ago, my assistant pulls the missing disc out of her computer (while inserting a disc with baby pix from one of our former student workers), and when I asked her why it had been in there, she said she had been "checking it."

Alllll-right. In order to truly check the missing disc before refunding the student's money, and since I'd just finished an audiobook, I started listening to this one. The book was originally published in 1984, well after I'd graduated from high school/college/MBA, and I'd never "had" to read it as so many students do today.

This was a 10-year anniversary edition with an introduction by Cisneros. In it, she said she had originally intended to write a memoir, but by the end, it was "no longer autobiographical. It had evolved into a collective story peopled with several lives from my past and present, placed in one fictional time and neighborhood - Mango Street." She said she was "trying to write something that was a cross between fiction and poetry...a book whose stories read like fables, but with the lyricism and succinctness of poetry."

I think she succeeded. The book consists of 45 essays or short stories, none more than six pages long. Cisneros said she "wanted to tell a story made up of a series of stories that would make sense if read alone, or that could be read all together to tell one big story, each story contributing to the whole, like beads on a necklace," and that is the case.

The narrator and main character is Esperanza Cordero, who may or may not be Cisneros by her own admission. She says her intention was "to take from different parts of other people's lives and create a story like a collage. I merged characters from my twenties with characters from my teens and childhood." Cisneros reads this book with a voice that sounds like that of a little girl, and it fits the material. Some of the stories are light and funny, some sad and serious. Cisneros also said:
But best of all, writing in a younger voice allowed me to name that thing without a name, that shame of being poor, of being female, of being not quite good enough, and examine where it had come from and why, so I could exchange shame for celebration.

This definitely comes across in this book. I'm glad I listened to it.