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Goodbye Stranger, by Rebecca Stead

Goodbye StrangerBridget roller-skated right into an oncoming car when she was eight years old. It’s a wonder she survived, and her doctor told her that she must have been put on this earth for a reason. She’s still searching for that reason.

Now Bridge (not Bridget!) is in seventh grade, wears a headband with cat ears all the time, and sometimes freezes before she crosses the street in her New York City home. One of her best friends, Emily, has been launched into puberty well before her classmates, and is suddenly the focus of many boys in their school, including an older boy who encourages her to send pictures of herself via text. Bridge’s other best friend, Tabitha, has become the devoted follower of a stridently feminist teacher. Tab now views all of her friends’ actions through a critical lens and is passionate about social activism. Bridge is struggling to adjust to all of the changes in her relationships, but one thing she knows for sure: her friendship with Sherm is just friendship. They are not boyfriend and girlfriend. No, certainly not.

Rebecca Stead, the Newbery-winning author of the brilliant When You Reach Me, tells this story in three voices. The chapters are mostly the third-person narrative about Bridge and her friends, interspersed with unsent letters from Sherm to his grandfather— who recently left his grandmother after fifty years of marriage—  and chapters from an unknown narrator, written in the second person. It was somewhat startling to turn the page and read that second-person voice for the first time: “You should have known about Vinny. You did know.” (p. 20) The identity of the speaker remains a mystery until almost the end of the book.

On one level, this is the tried-and-true middle school novel: growing up, navigating family problems, old friends becoming strangers, the first consideration of romance, and wondering whether you are still the same person you were in third grade. Stead, however, raises that level because of her well-developed characters, the unexpected rotation of the point of view, and the introduction of issues that are unique to this generation right this minute. Sherm was probably my favorite character. He is smart and loving, but so wounded. He is just at an age where he can begin to understand his grandmother’s pain and recognize her dignity, and he is determined to be righteous and true to her.

This is one of my favorite Newbery contenders this year, and it would be a great read for anyone ten and up. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book (which means I bought seventeen of them). Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Echo, by Pam Muñoz Ryan

(Caution: Spoilers)

EchoOtto is playing a game with his friends when he wanders too far into the forest. He meets three sisters who were imprisoned by an enchantment that could only be broken by a woodwind instrument. Otto had a harmonica, but the sisters said that for him to help them, he had to promise to pass the instrument on to another.

In 1933, Friedrich lived happily with his musician father despite the disfiguring birthmark on his face. His sister and uncle loved him, too, and made Friedrich feel that his compulsion to conduct imaginary orchestras was a mark of genius, not mental illness, as the boys at school called out to him. Friedrich left school early to work in the harmonica factory, and one day during lunch break, he felt himself drawn into the abandoned mansion that many feared was haunted. Ethereal music led him up the stairs where he found an old desk with a special harmonica in the top drawer. This harmonica made music like no other.

Events in Friedrich’s Germany were rapidly changing, and many citizens felt that Friedrich’s birthmark was a reason to send him for sterilization surgery so that he would not sully the Aryan race with children. His father fought for him, but that brought him under scrutiny for being friendly to Jews. Before anything could happen to him, Friedrich packed his special harmonica in one of the boxes from his factory, where it was then randomly packed into a box full of ordinary instruments.

In 1935, Mike and Frankie’s grandmother has just died, which lands them in a cruel orphanage under the care of Miss Pennyweather. Granny had chosen this orphanage because it had a piano, and Mike was a musical prodigy. However, after her death, Mike found out that Pennyweather wanted to sell the piano, put the little boys, like Frankie, in a state home, and make money by hiring the older boys out for labor.

Mike decided that the most important thing in his life was to protect his little brother. Even after they are adopted in a very complicated arrangement, Mike doesn’t trust anyone. He plans to enter a contest for the Philadelphia Harmonica Band, since he knows that if he plays his special harmonica, he is sure to win a place in the band. Then someone will adopt his cute little brother without him, and they will both be safe. However, right after the band rehearsal, Mike tries a desperate plan to run away, and as he falls from a tree during his escape, the harmonica drops from his pocket and is lost.

In 1942, Ivy Maria Lopez and her family move from Fresno County, California, to Orange County in order become caretakers for the farm of a Japanese family who are in a detention facility during World War II. Ivy worries that her beloved brother, Fernando, will not find them when he returns from serving in the military. She also mourns for the school concert that she will miss. She had planned to play the harmonica that she received from her teacher, Miss Delgado, who said that Ivy had real talent. Ivy’s parents thought that her music was worthless play.

Ivy’s mother does laundry for a wealthy family nearby, and Ivy and their daughter, Susan, soon become friends. How surprised she is, on the first day of school, to find out that Latino children have a separate school! Although Ivy’s first language is English, she has to take English language classes each day. Furthermore, Susan’s father is convinced that the Lopezes’ employers are actually Japanese spies. Ivy becomes confused, but she hopes that she will at least be able to play her harmonica in the orchestra in Susan’s school.

Pam Muñoz Ryan ends each of these children’s stories on a cliffhanger, and then draws the connecting thread in a few chapters at the end. All of the stories are absorbing and spotlight the suffering of children, which often goes unnoticed in hard times. Books are written about political or military leaders and the adult heroes of the resistance, but the children who are living through these same experiences rarely get to tell their tales. The device of the enchanted harmonica weaves them all together with the international language of music.

Ryan is a celebrated writer of children’s literature, and this almost 600-page volume is a real contender for the 2016 Newbery Medal. When I visited the Mock Newbery Club in our county last week, most of the students had this title near the top of their lists, but one young man, like me, was not comfortable with the chopped-off endings for each story, and wanted a smoother novel. I think it comes down to whether or not one is a short story reader, and I am not. I like to follow one beloved character all the way to the end, and although I recognize the brilliance of the writing and the interconnected plots, this would not be my choice.

However, if you have room for one more World War II story in a year filled with very good ones, Echo will keep your avid readers (10 and up) enthralled for quite a while. Be forewarned: You may have to buy a harmonica.

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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My Mom, 1927-2015

We may be on hiatus for a while. Since I’ve been dealing with my mom’s recent illness and her passing, I will have to work my way back to having an interest in bloggable topics. Your prayers are greatly appreciated.

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Have You Seen These?

PopcornI love movies! Since it’s part of my job to keep up with the latest books being made into movies, I usually have my finger on the pulse of what’s in production or about to appear at the box office—not to mention that I am a devout Netflixian. Every once in a while, though, someone will tell me about something that managed to sneak by me while I was watching reruns of The New Adventures of Old Christine. Here are two really good movies that you may have missed.

Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris movieMy brother, who recommended this film to me, is a Woody Allen fan. I used to be, but as the years went by, Allen seemed more and more to be part of a very small club made up of neurotic people who live in Manhattan. This film, though, is nothing like that. It’s about neurotic people who visit Paris, so that’s much better. An engaged couple and her parents visit Paris, and as the groom-to-be (Owen Wilson) wanders the streets late at night, he somehow travels back in time to the 1920s heyday of writers and artists from all over the world who called Paris home. What a thrill to meet Hemingway, Salvador Dali, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, and many others.

Running around with the cool people at night causes this young man to look at his own life differently, and to make some radical changes. In case you’ve never noticed it before, Woody Allen writes dreadful female characters. Not that the writing is anything less than sterling, but the women themselves are manipulative shrews. Good thing all such women live in Allen’s world, since all of us down here are sweet magnolia blossoms.

If you love Paris, writers, artists, or just a great story, you will savor this movie.

Smoke Signals

Smoke Signals movieI mentioned to my colleague, Janet, that I really enjoyed Sherman Alexie’s An Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and she suggested this small-budget film. It’s based on Alexie’s adult novel, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Two teenage boys living on a Coeur d’Alene reservation have known each other all of their lives, through tragedy, family difficulties, and just plain boredom. Thomas is a nerd, and Victor is a troublemaking jock. Victor’s father, who saved Thomas from a fire when he was an infant, left his wife and child long ago. When they find out that Victor’s father died, Thomas offers Victor the money to go collect his father’s ashes if he will take him along. Since the young men are rarely together for five minutes without irritating each other, this promises to be a wild road trip.

Sherman Alexie writes unflinching novels and poems about Native American life. Although he deals with grinding poverty and widespread alcoholism, he does so with sympathetic characters and a dark sort of humor. Smoke Signals explores the relationship between fathers and sons, a universal theme, in the context of an entire culture that is collapsing from oppression without and corruption within. The film ends with a quote from a Dick Lourie poem:  “If we forgive our fathers, what is left?” While this sounds thoroughly depressing, it is not. It is thought-provoking, to be sure, but the movie is endearing and funny and sad, and although the ending is not cheerfully happy, it is just right.

If you love road trips, quirky characters, Native Americans, and stories of personal growth, this is a great movie for you.

Both of these movies have some strong language. Smoke Signals is available on Netflix streaming. Enjoy!


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Two Hundredth Blog Post!

200 redWordPress has informed me that this will be my 200th blog post, and since I have also just had a birthday, it seems to be a good time to take stock, ponder, and set goals.

Fifty-seven of my last one hundred posts were book reviews, and another eleven were book-related. On the one hand, that is great, because it means that I am keeping up to date with my reading professionally and personally. It also helps me to think that I’m giving my readers good information so that they can find some great books that will suit their tastes and needs. On the other hand, I established this blog so that I could write more, and while book reviews force me to keep putting black squiggly marks on the screen, they are a very narrow form of writing.

2014-08-08 15.10.10Furthermore—and this is earth-shattering—I would like to read less. I do not review everything I read, particularly picture books and books that are just dreadful, so there is a lot more reading going on than is expressed online. This year, I do not plan to keep up with Newbery and Printz reading, and I hope to read more practical nonfiction and fewer novels, whether adult or children’s. 2014-08-08 15.11.04Of course, I will still read the children’s and teen books that rise to the top or are just favorites for me, but I don’t plan to read as many books, youth or adult, because I “should.” Here on the right is the stack of books that I decided to return to the library today.

On the other hand, here on the left are the three stacks that I decided to keep. I think the trick is to read the thick books first, so that the stacks look smaller. Stay tuned to see what actually happens with this resolution.

Charlotte with her plant

Eight of my posts this past year concerned the fight for the legalization of cannabidiol for the children who have intractable epilepsy. The blog posts were just the visible part of dozens of emails and phone calls to state legislators and their staff members, and I hope they motivated you to do the same. By the grace of God, we were able to see that legislation successfully passed, but now we are finding out that legalization does not necessarily translate into availability. I will probably have more to say on this topic in October. Please keep praying for these children.

My other posts this year have been wide-ranging conversations about my favorite music, movies, recipes, my trip to New York, and the view from the South. I’m still working on defeating diabetes through diet and exercise, and I hope to write a lot about that this year. If I don’t, it will be a dead giveaway that I’m not doing as well as I should. We’re all getting older, as my birthday reminded me, but the fun never stops. I am committed to learning and growing every day, and I hope to let my readers in on my latest interests. Part of the fun of working in a large library system is watching all the new books arrive on every conceivable subject. Someone out there is always thinking up something entirely new and fascinating, and other people are writing about something you’ve always cared about, but they say it in such a way that you want to yell, “Yes! That’s what I meant!” I cannot understand boredom. There is so much to explore!Blog reach 8-14

As you can see, I am still waiting for a reader from Greenland. Africa and South America filled in a good bit this year, and I’ve given up on China, of course; however, there must be some people who speak English in Greenland, right? One reader! That’s all it takes!

gamcock-logoAnd just in case you’re keeping track, I am still committed to joining my husband in his love of football. Maybe I’ll add another team this year, and maybe I’ll keep the tailgating part to a healthy level. In the meantime, I am looking forward to the very first South Carolina Gamecocks game on August 28th! Mark your calendars!





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P.S. Be Eleven, by Rita Williams-Garcia

ImageI will admit that I put off reading this novel until I just could not avoid it any longer, since it is at the top of many of the Newbery contender lists out there. The problem is that it is the sequel to One Crazy Summer, a book that made me very, very angry. I just wasn’t sure that I could handle that much negative emotion again, but I decided that I had to give it a try.

Oh, it made me furious. But then it was so good.

Here’s the setup. In One Crazy Summer, eleven-year-old Delphine and her two younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern, are sent to spend the summer with their mother, née Cecile but now styling herself Nzila, in San Francisco. Not that she wanted them—now or when she gave birth to them, but the girls’ father thought that it would be a good idea for them to get to know their mother. Cecile had abandoned them in order to become a Poet to the People and work as a part of the Revolution. When the girls arrive, she gives them food money—grudgingly—and leaves them to themselves. They hang out at the People’s Center each day with the Black Panthers. No thanks to Cecile, who is incredibly full of herself, they are not kidnapped or killed, and they escape starvation. Delphine has been forced to be a mother to her sisters since they were born, even though their grandmother, Big Ma, lives with them in Brooklyn, and she manages to get them safely through the summer in California.

In P.S. Be Eleven, the girls have just arrived back in New York and their house in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn. Their father has taken the opportunity, while his daughters were away, to woo and win the hand of Miss Marva Hendrix.  When Delphine writes to her mother to tell her how she feels about that, Cecile writes back that these matters are for grown-ups, and she puts the post-script, “P.S. Be eleven.” I almost threw the book across the room. What she was saying, to me, was, “Now that I don’t need you to act like the thirty-something, responsible adult that I’m supposed to be, and you are safely a full continent away and therefore not in my life anymore, act like a child.” Delphine was regularly beaten for her sisters’ bad behavior, since she was supposed to be in charge. Vonetta and Fern were intolerable, with a sing-songy parroting that was tiresome by page two, and completely out of control in public. Big Ma was the ruler of the house, and their father was a total wimp. The only character I liked was Delphine, but she was a gem.

About a third of the way through, the book takes a turn, beginning about the time that they get a letter from the army saying that their Uncle Darrell was coming home from the war in Vietnam. Just like that, my heart was engaged. I remember those days. No one who is too young to remember the Vietnam War can understand what it is like to have all of the boys you know being drafted into a war with thousands of casualties broadcast on the news every night. My brother was drafted just before we moved from Georgia to New Jersey, and we were not there when he left. I thought my mother would die of sorrow. He made it through, but so many did not. When Big Ma welcomed her younger son home, I wept.

There were other subplots that resonated with me, as well. The girls see the Jackson Five for the first time on TV, and they go wild. Michael Jackson and I were born the same year, and I remember the girls I babysat for being crazy about him and his brothers. In politics, Shirley Chisolm runs for Congress—and wins. She is the first African-American woman to be elected to Congress, and later becomes the first major-party African-American candidate for president. Even Delphine’s very kind father does not think that it is right for a woman to be involved in politics. I remember my own father saying much the same thing. Sometimes we forget how recently these battles were fought. There are drug problems, speeches from Bobby Kennedy, phonograph needles, and arguments over whether girls should ever wear pants. Such a blast from the past. I was six years old before I saw a girl wearing pants, and she was the daughter of my parents’ friends from New England. Southern girls wore starched cotton dresses, even for play.

In the end, I realized that a writer who could elicit that much emotion, even if it’s not the reaction she intended— or maybe it was—is a superb craftswoman. I think part of my hesitation is due to the fact that I can’t tell how Rita Williams-Garcia feels about Cecile. Perhaps if I could discern some disapproval, I could jump on the bandwagon for this book. On the other hand, a writer who does not reveal her hand in her creation is skillful, indeed. Delphine develops so much maturity in these few months, as does Vonetta, and even their father grows a bit of a spine. Changes take place, and the ending is not neat and tidy, as so many children’s books would have it. I still cannot get past Cecile’s abandonment of her children, and I still do not care for many of the other characters, but Delphine is worth it. She is beautifully written.

Not my favorite, but I’m glad I read it. If it wins, I can at least agree that it really is distinguished.

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

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You Might Be a Redneck

David launched into a major rant a couple of days ago, and if you knew my patient husband, you would know how unexpected that was. A friend had innocently asked him if he watched Duck Dynasty, and he barked, “No! And I am getting sick and tired of having the South represented to the rest of the nation as a bunch of rednecks and idiots so that they can laugh at us!” She pointed out that Lizard Lick Towing was a show about people right here, near Wendell (pronounced WenDELL, or even WenDAYull) and that they were probably millionaires by now. He was not swayed. Think about it: David is a guy from a small town in South Carolina, and he sounds like it. Although he graduated from college with honors, was in the National Honor Society, the Who’s Who in American High School students, and on and on, every time he opens his mouth, he is judged. Why do Southerners do this to themselves?

I guess it started with Hee-Haw and The Dukes of Hazard. Southerners never saw the inside of a school, hung out in cornfields, and the girls’ wardrobes consisted of nothing but super-short denim bottoms and gingham halter tops. Around Dukes of Hazard time, David worked for a company with a home office in Chicago, and he said once, “I know they think that we’re all barefoot on dirt floors and don’t even know how to use our computers.” Years later, we all laughed at The Blue Collar Comedy Hour, but I worried that the rest of the country really believed that everyone below the Mason-Dixon was a redneck. Yes, there are uneducated people here, but do we think everyone in New Jersey is a Jersey Shore cast member? Do we think that all African-Americans are gangsta rap artists? If you said yes to either of those questions, you need more help than I can give you.

The latest reality show line-up is beyond appalling, though. Michael roars, “Swamp People is on the History Channel! How is Swamp People history?” He mourns that his favorite channel has sold out to the alligator wrestling demographic. Even worse, Duck Dynasty is on A&E, which is “Arts and Entertainment.” This used to be a high-end channel, but I think the princess has some hayseeds in her hair. Granted, it is about a family that is now rich due to the sale of their duck calls, but take a look. We’re not talking Downton Abbey here.

Taking a quick poll of our rural North Carolina neighborhood’s vocations, I can name: nurse, food service worker, retired police officer, engineer, nurse again, plumber, retired military, librarian (me!), realtor (David), and wedding planner. I haven’t seen any wedding planners in these reality shows. I suppose Daisy Duke would be happy to end up with the Duck Call King. I know he’d be happy.

A colleague and I were laughing the other day about the Designing Women episode in which Julia Sugarbaker is berating an editor in New York about his view of the South. She drawls, “We’re from Atlanta: the one that burned? We’ve rebuilt.” Apparently, we’re burning again. It’s homeowner arson this time, and we can’t even collect the insurance.

I was heartened to read yesterday that Senator Manchin of West Virginia has formally asked MTV to cancel Buckwild, which he considers raunchy and a poor representation of West Virginians. It just goes to show how bigoted I am when I read the article and thought, “Huh! Well, that’s a revelation.” We need more voices joining his, though, and there are more states to defend! I’ve lived in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Kentucky, and I’ll step up to the plate for any and all of them. C’mon, y’all! Let’s be proud and get loud.

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