Monthly Archives: September 2016

News of the World, by Paulette Jiles

news-of-the-worldCaptain Kidd was tired of all the wars he’d fought in his long life, so now he was traveling around Texas with a horse and wagon, reading the news in all the little towns. In 1870, people were happy to pay a dime to hear someone tell them what was happening in the wider world. Either they didn’t have access to newspapers, or they couldn’t read at all. While he was traveling, the captain kept up with old acquaintances, one of whom asked him to make a delivery. It seems that he had been tasked to return a 10-year-old girl to her family in San Antonio.

Johanna had been kidnapped by the Kiowa tribe when she was six years old, and now she remembered nothing but her Native American family. She could not speak English, which was not surprising, since her slaughtered parents spoke their native German, but Johanna could not remember that language, either. This feisty little girl had the thoughts, habits, and speech of a Kiowa tribe member.

The story of the journey this grizzled old man took to bring the wild child back to relatives who barely knew her might be expected to be dry and dusty. Their evolving understanding and relationship, though, is poignant and absorbing. They ride through confusion and danger, meeting wonderful and revolting frontier folk along the way. The end of the road holds encounters with the captain’s family and with Johanna’s resettled German relations, but neither the captain nor Johanna are the same individuals who set out from their homes.

If you had asked me to read a Western, I would have refused, but our adult fiction selector, Janet Lockhart, wrote a review of this slender volume that was featured on a huge marketing poster at BEA last May. She absolutely loved it, which is enough to make me read any book, and she was so right. This is a story that you can hand to your brother, mother, or anyone. Heartwarming, thrilling, and joyful, this is a book for us all.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, although it is now available to the public. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles

uncorker-of-ocean-bottlesThe Uncorker of Ocean Bottles lived alone, except for his cat and his cow, in a tall house on the very edge of the sea. He spent his days peering out over the water, looking for the glint of glass— a possible bottle with a message inside. He would take his little boat and fish out the bottle, and then deliver the message to the proper recipient. After he had done this for a long, long time, he became sad that the messages were never for him. Perhaps “he felt loneliness as sharp as fish scales.”

One day, a bottle held a party invitation, but for whom? He went around to the people in his tiny village, asking if they had sent the invitation, but no one had. But oh, they sighed, didn’t they wish they had received such an invitation? The Uncorker decided that he would have to go to the assigned place at the assigned time to explain to the sender that he had been unable to deliver the message, …and you can guess the rest.

Michelle Cuevas’ invention of this dedicated man answers a mystery we’ve never acknowledged: who finds all those messages in bottles? Her crisp, evocative word choices pack music into the few pages of her hopeful story.

Erin Stead’s illustrations create a salty seaside village peopled with quirky individuals. Vast swathes of sea green, salmon, pumpkin, and gold carry the mood, for this is no Caribbean scene, but rather a cold, raw locale that keeps the Uncorker’s nose always pink. Against these washes of soothing oil-pastel colors pop the red of his gloves and knit cap, his front door and his umbrella. Although her backgrounds are undefined, her buildings, animals, and especially her people are penciled in with minute detail. So much emotion in those little pencil strokes: humor, kindness, bleakness, and dawning friendship.

The very best picture book authors can make the words sing in such a way that the grown-up reading it will be willing to read it again—and again. The very best picture books will have illustrations that not only explain the words, but even deepen the story, with new revelations each time the child pores over a beloved book. This is just such a work; a treasure from the sea.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Passion of Dolssa, by Julie Berry

passion-of-dolssaThree sisters grow up without a mother however they can. Eventually, they settle into a town in southern France and open a tavern together. The oldest brews the ale, the youngest tells fortunes, and the middle sister, Botille, is a matchmaker. When their elderly neighbor sends Botille on a journey to bring back her nephews, they meet a dying girl in the woods on their return trip. Dolssa is being pursued by a devout friar who is bent on purging the church of all heretics like her, those who think that they can speak to God themselves, without the intervention of a priest. By taking her in, the sisters are putting themselves and their entire village in mortal danger.

Books with a medieval setting are usually fantasies, it seems. However, this is a novel based squarely on history, and disputed history at that, which makes it even more intriguing. Julie Berry, author of the riveting All the Truth That’s in Me, begins by stating that history is written by the winners, but every so often, the underdog leaves enough evidence that we can begin to piece together the truth. In 13th century southern France, the Catholic Church allied with the king of France in the first Crusade in which Christians sought to kill other Christians. It was called the Albigensian Crusade, and the heretics were later called Cathars. However, Berry recently studied manuscripts that show that the Cathars are a construct created by historians, a mythical synthesis of several groups of believers who threatened the power of the institutional church. Men and women like Dolssa, however, were just devout believers who lived simple lives and ministered to the people in their communities. Following Berry’s hypothesis, however, means that ordinary men and women were also working miracles in Jesus’ name in 1209 in southern France. Let the reader decide.

When I began this beautiful tale, I had the luxury of calling my brother, a medieval scholar, and getting a quick, off-the-cuff summary of the history of southern France from 1209 to 1410. However, the book was written for teens and can be read as a compelling, transcendent story of the effect that one pure, extraordinary life can have on everyone she touches. Berry includes copious back matter: notes, glossaries, and bibliographies. The characters are perfectly relatable for twenty-first century readers, and the terrifying realization that a human being can be convinced—out of fear or love of money—to abandon a friend or neighbor to an unjust death is a truth that we see repeated over and over throughout history.

I loved this book. That’s the best recommendation I can give. There are so many things to think about and discuss in its pages, but most of all, it was just a great story. Very highly recommended for teens and adults.

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Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, but I handed out several of the library copies to other people, whether they asked for it or not. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Birth Announcement: TheReaderWrites!

This labor of love called EatReadSleep.com has been so fulfilling for me for the past four years, but it has become more and more obvious that this blog needs to be all about pure book reviews. To that end, I have copied all of the posts on this blog that are my more personal writing, as well as posts about books that go beyond the scope of a simple review, and put them on my new, daughter blog, TheReaderWrites.com. Head on over there and hit “like” to receive automatic updates.

I will continue to post book reviews on EatReadSleep, but now further discussion of the books, as well as articles and random musings, will be posted on TheReaderWrites. The first topic on TRW will be my home renovation! That’s right, we’ve got some HGTV-worthy things going on here these days! Stay tuned to TheReaderWrites.com for all the fun.

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What Was 9-11?

It recently occurred to me—and apparently to all children’s writers and publishers—that we have kids in high school today who were not alive on September 11, 2001. We have college students today who have no memory of this incredible disaster that happened when they were toddlers. As we approach this fifteenth anniversary of mourning, many authors have taken up the pen to help children understand what happened and the effect that it has had on our nation and on the American culture ever since. In addition to the picture book Seven and a Half Tons of Steel, which I reviewed here earlier, I have also read two brand-new, middle grade novels.

Nine TenNora Raleigh Baskin begins her Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story in O’Hare Airport in Chicago. Several families are gathered there, some waiting for loved ones to arrive, others wishing family members good-bye. I had forgotten the days when everyone could crowd right up to the gate and watch the planes take off, and kids who know the security of today’s airports will wonder at these family scenes. From Chicago, one mother goes to New York on business while her family moves to California. Other passengers are going home to New York, and one main character goes to Pennsylvania. From there, the story is told from four different perspectives. Baskin focuses on the children’s lives on September 10th, helping today’s kids to see both an America that is gone forever and that diverse American people share more things in common than their differences would make one expect. They did then, and they still do. The story shows the various ways that citizens around the country experienced the attack itself. In an epilogue, the characters— who do not know one another— are assembled together at the one-year memorial ceremony. An author’s note tells Baskin’s own experience of 9-11 as a Connecticut resident about an hour’s drive from Manhattan.

Towers FallingOn a somewhat older level, Jewell Parker Rhodes tells the story through the eyes of a poverty-stricken, African-American, fifth-grade girl in her novel, Towers Falling. Dejà, her parents, and her two younger siblings have recently moved into a homeless shelter for families. Dejà’s father is so sick that he can no longer hold down a job, and although her mother sometimes works extra shifts, her family barely has enough to eat. In her new school in Brooklyn, the teachers have begun teaching the children about something that happened in Manhattan on a site that they can see from the school windows. All of the children know more about it than Dejà, who doesn’t see how history lessons are going to help her pull herself out of poverty and attain her life’s goal: to buy the biggest house in the world. Sabeen, a wealthy Muslim girl, and Ben, a boy who recently moved from Arizona when his parents divorced, become her close friends as they work on school projects together. Ben and Dejà go beyond their teachers’ guidelines to travel to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum at the World Trade Center, where they are faced with more information than may be appropriate for ten-year-olds. Confronting these memories, however, may help bring healing to Dejà’s family.

Either of these novels could be an excellent companion to a discussion of September 11th for your family. Ms. Rhodes’ novel digs more deeply into the actual events and the reasoning behind it, but it also describes the attack in fairly horrific detail, including people jumping from the burning buildings and the towers collapsing on people inside. I did find Dejà’s complete ignorance of the event difficult to believe, but I have never been in her environment, so I will withhold judgment. Both books included Muslim characters, notably female in both instances, since the hijab caused them to stand out in public. In Baskin’s novel, Muslim harassment was expressed, whereas in Towers Falling, discrimination was felt by Sabeen, which was even more interesting, considering that Nine, Ten takes place fifteen years ago and Towers Falling takes place in the present time. While Towers Falling focuses completely on New York, Nine, Ten has one character in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and mentions the attack on the Pentagon, as well.

14 Cows for AmericaI cannot leave a discussion of books about September 11th without mentioning one of my favorites, 14 Cows for America, by Carmen Agra Deedy, published in 2009. Rather than focusing on the event itself, this picture book tells a true, related story about a diplomat from Kenya who was in New York at the time, and then returns to the Maasai people to try to explain it to them. Their beautiful gesture of sympathy will restore your faith in humanity by showing one culture reaching out to grieving people halfway around the world, and the receiving nation treating their gift with great honor and appreciation. There is love in the world, after all.

As we come up on this somber anniversary, it is reassuring to know that gifted writers are creating stories that can help families to explain to their children, in age-appropriate ways, an unfathomable tragedy that happened to us, to them, to our nation just fifteen short years ago.

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Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of Nine, Ten, and library copies of Towers Falling and 14 Cows for America. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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