The White Stag by Kate Seredy (J)

The White Stag

The White Stag

Kate Seredy (Juvenile Fiction)

“Hadur, Powerful God, Thou hast indeed turned the sword against me, Thy sword, Hadur, not mine!  But Thou hast given me a scourge in its place and I swear to Thee, I, Bendeguz the White Eagle, that I shall use that scourge, that I shall make it into the most dreadful weapon ever known to men.  Thou hast given me a son, Hadur, he will be that scourge!  My son, Attila the Red Eagle, the Scourge of God!”

And so it was that in the year 408, Attila the Hun was born to Bendeguz the White Eagle and Alleeta, a girl captured during one of the many Hun raids.  Alleeta who would die in childbirth but would give her tribe one of the greatest and most brutal leaders it would ever know.  A leader who would take his people on a journey foretold by his great grandfather Nimrod, Mighty Hunter before the Lord, and started by his grandfather, Hunor of the Hun tribe, and his great uncle, Magyar of the Magyar tribe, and then continued by his father Bendeguz the White Eagle.  Great warriors who would bear the flag of the Red Eagle and follow the mythical White Stag from the headlands of wild Altain-Ula in the west toward the east.  A pilgrimage sweeping from Asia to Europe and leaving countless men, women, and children dead, dying, or enslaved.  A journey that wouldn’t stop until the promised homeland was reached.

Through her poetic prose and beautiful illustrations, Kate Seredy delivers an epic story mixing fantasy, legend, myth, biblical references, and history.  Although Seredy doesn’t fully plunge into the breadth of Attila’s savagery and conquests, she gives her young audience enough information to fully understand that the Huns were a rather nasty and savage lot.  Readers know from the onset that what they are about to delve into is going to be more epic fantasy than straight-from-the-books history: “Those who want to hear the voice of pagan gods in wind and thunder, who want to see fairies dance in the moonlight, who can believe that faith can move mountains, can follow the thread on the pages of this book.  It is a fragile thread; it cannot bear the weight of facts and dates.”

Through her rich illustrations that bring this magnificent tale to life, Seredy immerses her readers with a story of moonmaidens and miracles, life and death, and bravery and barbarism.  But above all of these, she gives us a tale of courage and faith and how the two are tightly woven together.  Because my own words often come up short, I sometimes choose to end my reviews with a quote (some known and others not so much) that manages to encapsulate the feelings and lessons I’m left with after the last page is turned and the book has been reshelved for another.  I found the perfect one from self-help writer Edmond Mbiaka who said, “At every given moment in your life, you have the option to move backwards with fears and doubts or to keep pushing forward with faith and courage.”  Although our own personal moments may never compare to those of the Huns or Magyars, we can find comfort in knowing that we too can reach our own “promised land” if we hold fast, stay true, and never waiver in our convictions and belief.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.barnesandnoble.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

 

River Season by Jim Black

River Season

River Season

Jim Black (Adult Fiction)

I think my mom’s patience with Charles, Gary, and myself stemmed from years of working on the pediatric floor at Methodist Hospital in Lubbock.  Maybe seeing so many sick and dying kids makes you look at your own in a different light.  I don’t know.  I do know she was not overly protective or strict back then.  I really think she just wanted us to enjoy the privilege of being kids, and I’ve always loved her for that.  It was easier back then, too, because times were different.  In our small town, we really did sleep with doors unlocked and windows open.  I know now those were the best of times.

Jim Black was thirteen in the summer of 1966.  Growing up in Archer City, Texas with his two best friends, Gary Beesinger and Charles Luig, life was great.  This summer, Jim had big plans: playing baseball, mowing lawns, and hanging out with his friends.  What he didn’t plan on was meeting Samuel “Sam” Joseph Washington, an older black man from the other side of town.  This man, who decided to take up residency at his favorite fishing spot, would not only grow to be a father figure to Jim, but would also become his friend and would show Jim the value of acceptance, generosity, and love.

In an interview with Brothers Judd (brothersjudd.com), Jim Black explained that There’s a River Down in Texas (which, after the addition of fifty pages, would later become River Season) is largely autobiographical with the remainder being pure fiction.  River Season gives us a warm, sometimes bittersweet, and nostalgic look at growing up in small-town America during a time when the only things on a boy’s mind were baseball, pretty girls, hanging out with friends, and getting into just enough mischief to make life interesting but not enough to get you arrested.  It was a simpler time when you knew who your friends were and, more importantly, who your enemies were.  Bullies were never anonymous and disagreements were settled swiftly resulting in either an inflated ego or a black eye.

I picked up River Season at a secondhand book store and after visiting Black’s website (jimblackbooks.com), this may be the only way for interested readers to obtain copies of his books.  Black explains that all contracts with his publisher have been cancelled and his books are no longer being produced.  I hope lightning strikes twice and I am able to find his sequel Tracks so that I can follow a fifteen-year-old Jim as he tackles high school, bullies, and a broken heart.

Although River Season does touch upon the racial tensions that occurred in the 1960s South, Black is not overly preachy on the subject.  He could have easily made this the focal point of his story, but he instead concentrates on the friendship between himself, Charles, and Gary, as well the touching bond he shared with Sam.  American author and businessman, Arthur H. Glasow, once said, “A true friend never gets in your way unless you happen to be going down.”  Most of us would be fortunate to have just one friend like this.  Jim Black was blessed to have found three.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.publishersweekly.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

 

 

Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls (J)

Summer of the Monkeys

Summer of the Monkeys

Wilson Rawls (Young Adult Fiction)

Up until I was fourteen years old, no boy on earth could have been happier.  I didn’t have a worry in the world.  In fact, I was beginning to think that it wasn’t going to be hard at all for me to grow up.  But, just when things were really looking good for me, something happened.  I got mixed up with a bunch of monkeys and all of my happiness flew right out the window.  Those monkeys all but drove me out of my mind.

It’s the late 1800s and brand-new country just opened up for settlement.  The Lee family were sharecroppers in Missouri, but providence led them to a farm right in the middle of Cherokee Nation in northeastern Oklahoma.  Life is good for fourteen-year-old Jay Berry and his parents, although a bit tougher for his sister, Daisy, who was born with a twisted leg and got by with the help of a crutch.  It’s summer and Jay Berry has the entire farm to explore…not to mention he has his eyes set on owning his very own .22 and a pony.  But then his grandfather brings word that some monkeys have escaped the circus and the reward to anyone who finds them is more than Jay Berry can count!  With his grandfather’s help, Jay Berry sets off to find and capture those monkeys, even if it takes him the whole summer to do it.

I unashamedly admit that I am a complete pushover for any book where the parents are respected, the grandparents are revered, or a boy’s best friend is his trusted dog.  Written in 1976 by Wilson Rawls—author of the classic Where the Red Fern Grows—Summer of the Monkeys has all three.  Rawls gives us a lovely story about family, sacrifice, and faith and the importance of putting aside what your heart desires and instead focusing on what your heart requires.  The writing is down-to-earth and folksy and the lessons are timeless.  Today’s young adult readers may find the dialogue and situations a bit trite and hokey, but a story of a brother’s love for his little sister or a father’s pride in his son never truly goes out of style.

Throughout the book, Rawls shows us the strong bond of the Lee family and the particularly tender relationship between Jay Berry and his grandfather.  On one occasion, Jay Berry mentioned to his grandfather how much fun the two have together to which the grandfather replied, “We surely do.  You know, an old man like me can teach a young boy like you all the good things in life.  But it takes a young boy like you to teach an old man like me to appreciate all the good things in life.  I guess that’s what life’s all about.”  Call me old-fashioned or sentimental, but books like this always remind me that whenever you have a loving family, a wizened grandpa or a furry companion by your side, life is never really all that bad.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth (J)

The Cat Who Went to Heaven

The Cat Who Went to Heaven

Elizabeth Coatsworth (Juvenile Fiction)

Once upon a time, far away in Japan, a poor young artist sat alone in his little house, waiting for his dinner.  But on this particular day, dinner was not coming.  Instead, inside the housekeeper’s little bamboo basket was a small white cat with yellow and black spots on her sides.  But the artist could barely provide for the two of them let alone a third!  Fortunately, a tri-colored cat is a very lucky thing to have and so she was kept and named Good Fortune.  True to her name, good fortune followed her and soon the head priest from the temple arrived and commissioned the artist to paint the death of the lord Buddha.  It seemed that the luck of everyone…and everything…in the household was about to change.

Written in 1930 and awarded the Newberry Medal in 1931, The Cat Who Went to Heaven is a short book (just 63 pages) brimming with lessons of mercy, grace, and forgiveness.  Elizabeth Coatsworth’s book has been reprinted twenty-four times, but I suggest selecting the version containing Lynd Ward’s exquisite illustrations.  His drawings bring an added depth and richness to Coatsworth’s beautiful words and will allow readers to fully immerse themselves within this exotic and mystical world.

The Cat Who Went to Heaven is recommended for ages 10 and up, but younger audiences may enjoy it as a bedtime story.  The short chapters followed by a summarizing poem make it an ideal nighttime read.  Most of the book centers around the artist painting various animals which Buddha embodied throughout his life.  Each animal has its own story, and each story has its own moral including honesty, kindness, fidelity, and bravery.  The story is charming and flows like silk, but the ending is abrupt (it even took me a bit by surprise) and may not sit well with more sensitive readers.  Not to spoil the story, but the title IS an indicator as to how this story ends so forewarned is forearmed.

“Forgiveness” is the centerpiece of this book and it was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and human rights activist, who once said, “Forgiveness says you are given another chance to make a new beginning.”  Coatsworth wrote her book a year before Archbishop Tutu was born, but she too must have realized the sentiment behind these words because through forgiveness, she has given Good Fortune a very happy beginning, which in turn gives her readers a truly happy ending.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.tvtropes.org

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

 

Mr. Timothy by Louis Bayard

Mr Timothy

Mr. Timothy

Louis Bayard (Adult Fiction)

Tiny Tim is tiny no longer.  The iron brace and crutch have long been replaced by an achy knee and slight limp…a mere lilt, really.  It is December 1860 and although Mr. Timothy Cratchit, now a man of twenty-three, lives off the monetary magnanimity of his “Uncle” Ebenezer Scrooge, he dredges the River Thames for treasure-yielding corpses and lives in a brothel where he tutors the Madam in reading.  It’s a satisfactory life, one in which Tim has grown used to until he comes upon one and then two dead girls, each with the letter “G” branded on her upper arm.  When Tim meets Philomela, a ten-year-old street orphan, he realizes that he must do everything he can in order to protect her for she, like the other two girls, bears the same “G” on her arm.

I must admit that it took me a while to connect with (and eventually enjoy) this book.  Charles Dickens’s classic A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite stories and so it was distressing to see the iconic and beloved character of Tiny Tim reduced to desecrating corpses and spending his days living off charity.  I don’t fault Louis Bayard for building a story off an already-established fictional character.  Many authors have done the same in the past and will continue to do so in the future as long as there is a willing and interested audience; however, Bayard’s choice of using a character as cherished, wholesome, and pure as Tiny Tim and then casting him into London’s dark and dreary underbelly seems almost sacrosanct and readers of this story, who adore Tim, may feel a little duped in the process.  Luckily, patience proves to be a virtue and readers can rest assured that Bayard eventually gives us the loyal, spirited, and resilient lad that we’ve come to know and love.

Billed as a “literary thriller”, Mr. Timothy does not disappoint in delivering danger, intrigue, and fast-paced drama.  The story is a bit slow out of the starting gate and seems to drift as multiple characters are introduced and a number of storylines play out.  At about the midway point, things seem to get their bearing and the action moves at a steady and satisfying pace until the end.  Although Dickens wouldn’t have imagined his young hero delving into police corruption, child trafficking, and prostitution, he would be gratified to know that his Tim is armed with a strong moral center, a kindly heart, and nerves of steel…not to mention a leg that makes for a quite dependable barometer.

In A Christmas Carol, Tiny Tim was known for saying, “God bless us, every one!”  This phrase was repeated at the end of the book to signify Scrooge’s change of heart.  Like Scrooge, I experienced my own change of heart and am grateful I decided to give this book a second chance.  At times, this wasn’t an easy thing to do for Bayard really puts poor Tim through the wringer, but I’m glad I stayed with Mr. Timothy and accompanied him to the very end of his adventure.  So in honor of second chances—which are indeed a rare and precious thing—I’ll end by simply saying, “God bless us, everyone one!”

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

 

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny–Detectives Extraordinaire by Polly Horvath (J Mystery)

Mr and Mrs Bunny Detectives Extraordinaire

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny–Detectives Extraordinaire 

Polly Horvath (Juvenile Mystery)

The summer solstice has arrived and the residents of Hornby Island are preparing for the festival of Luminara.  While Madeline’s parents are busy making luminaries, she is getting ready for her school’s awards ceremony where Prince Charles himself will be handing out the awards (Madeline is getting three!).  All is pretty much as it should be until Madeline returns home that night to find a mysterious note on her door stating that her parents have been taken in for questioning.  It was signed by “The Enemy” and even included a “mwa-haha”, which is NEVER a good sign.  With her decoder uncle in a sudden and rather inconvenient coma, Madeline is alone and truly in over her head.  She seeks help from Mr. and Mrs. Bunny—Detectives Extraordinaire and although these two don’t seem to know what they’re doing, they DO have rather smart-looking fedoras and that has to count for something.  So, with Mr. and Mrs. Bunny on the case, this mystery is officially afoot!

Although Polly Horvath merely translated this story from Mrs. Bunny’s personal account, she still delivers a funny, quirky, and lighthearted romp that will delight and entertain young readers who enjoy a good mystery.  Filled with fiendish foxes, garlic-bread-eating marmots, exploding chapeaus, and high-speed chases, Mr. and Mrs. Bunny—Detectives Extraordinaire is an action-packed thrill ride where faith is blind, reason is deaf, and hope springs eternal.

Despite its whimsy and charm, Horvath does give readers a few poignant lessons that hopefully won’t get lost amongst all the fur, fluff, and fun.  Through Madeline, we see a girl caught between two worlds: the happy hippies of Hornby and the more mainstream children at her school on Vancouver Island.  Her classmates have already formed an opinion of her based solely on where she lives and nothing Madeline does can alter that prejudice: “[Madeline] didn’t know how to make the other children like her, and she felt she constantly had to defend herself from unspoken accusations about a way of life she hadn’t chosen to begin with.”  Pretty weighty stuff, but this is why Polly Horvath is one of my favorite children’s authors.  She never writes down to her audience and presents real-life problems in a way that young readers can easily relate to and connect with.  She also shows us that family is what you make it for the Bunnys, not all that familiar with humans or children, manage to see and appreciate something in Madeline that her own parents have chosen to either overlook or ignore and end up loving her as their own.  Lastly, she shows us the absolute wonder of simply being noticed and appreciated (see previous comment about Madeline’s parents).  Madeline has the unique gift to understand and communicate with animals.  When she mentions this to Prince Charles, he replies, “I’ve often heard animals speak.  Plants too.  It’s all a matter of noticing, isn’t it?  The richness of our lives depends on what we are willing to notice and what we are willing to believe.”  In this world of clatter and clutter and non-stop input, it’s hard to just stop and notice the beauty that surrounds us every day.  It’s quiet and subtle and often goes unnoticed.  But lucky for us, we have a ten-year-old girl, two clever bunnies (with rather smart-looking fedoras), and the heir apparent to the British throne to remind us that it’s there and it’s well worth the effort.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba (J Biography)

The Boy Who Harnassed the Wind

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind 

William Kamkwamba (Juvenile Biography)

The machine was ready.  After so many months of preparation, the work was finally complete: The motor and blades were bolted and secured, the chain was taut and heavy with grease, and the tower stood steady on its legs.  The muscles in my back and arms had grown as hard as green fruit from all the pulling and lifting.  And although I’d barely slept the night before, I’d never felt so awake.  My invention was complete.  It appeared exactly as I’d seen it in my dreams.

William Kamkwamba lives in Malawi, a tiny nation in southeastern Africa that is often called “The Warm Heart of Africa.”  He is the only son of Trywell and Agnes Kamkwamba and brother to six sisters.  His family are farmers—like most of the families in the village of Masitala—and grow maize.  It is a hard life, but one filled with love, family, and friends.  But William is naturally curious and innovative and he begins to build things in his spare time.  When famine strikes his village and he is forced to drop out of school for lack of money, he begins to visit the local library where he discovers an amazing thing that would forever change his world and the people around him.  William discovers science.

The story of William Kamkwamba’s determination to bring electricity to his village is a lesson in perseverance, resourcefulness, and faith.  Whether you call it moxie, pluck, spirit, or spunk, William has it and he truly epitomizes the saying, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”  Poverty, hunger, and futility are no match for a young boy with a dream of making electricity.  For William knew what building a windmill would mean for himself and his family: “With a windmill, we’d finally release ourselves from the troubles of darkness and hunger.  A windmill meant more than just power.  It was freedom.”

After reading William Kamkwamba’s amazing and inspiring story, two things in particular stuck out.  The first was that after attending and graduating college in the United States and completing an internship with a San Francisco design firm, William chose to return home.  He could have easily found a job and made a respectable amount of money in Silicon Valley or New York, but William followed his heart back to Africa and began using his knowledge and experience to make his community a better place.  Second, even from a young age, William Kamkwamba realized that he was just a small piece in a rather large puzzle.  He knew that we, as humans, were connected and he found comfort and security in that connectedness: “Even though we lived in a small village in Africa, we did many of the same things kids do all over the world; we just used different materials.  After talking with friends I met in America, I know this is true.  Children everywhere have similar ways of playing with one another.  And if you look at it this way, the world isn’t such a big place.”  No, it’s really not such a big place at all, William and thanks to you, it got just a little bit closer.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket