An Elephant in the Garden – Michael Morpurgo (YA Historical Fiction)

An Elephant in the Garden

An Elephant in the Garden    

Michael Morpurgo (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

Lizzie is eighty-two years old and is idly spending her days in a nursing home.  But today is February 13th and on this particular day, she has a story to tell.  It’s a rather sad story because on this day, in 1945, the bombers flew over Dresden, Germany and set the city on fire.  Lizzie, her brother, and her mother are forced to flee their home.  The Red Army is coming from the east and the allied forces—the Americans and British—are coming from the west.  They would go west, but they would not be going alone.  They would be bringing Marlene, a four-year-old elephant that Lizzie’s mother rescued from the zoo.  It would be this wonderful, gentle companion that would keep their spirits up, open unexpected doors, and ultimately save their lives.

Michael Morpurgo proves once again what a gifted and compassionate storyteller he is.  An Elephant in the Garden is a beautifully told and compelling story that transports the reader into war-torn Germany as thousands of refugees struggle for survival during World War II. His characters leap off the page and we are there to share in their daily quest for food, shelter, and obscurity from the encroaching Russian soldiers.  In his Author’s Note, Morpurgo writes that his story was inspired by an actual female zookeeper who saved one young elephant from certain death.  The zoo’s director had given orders that all animals were to be killed rather than risk their release into the town should the city fall under attack.  If you Google “Belgium, Zoo, Elephant, WWII”, you can see actual photographs and the story which inspired this heartwarming book.

At my library, this book is shelved in the young adult section; however, I think children as young as nine would appreciate and benefit from this story.  Stories about war are often dark and bleak, but the overall message of courage, resilience, friendship, and hope spans across all age groups and garners mutual appeal.

When Lizzie was conveying a moment in her youth, she recalled an instance when she was talking to Marlene, desperate to find some comfort and understanding from her silent friend.  She said, “For an answer she wafted her ears gently at me, and groaned deep inside herself.  It was enough to tell me that she had listened, and understood, and that she did not judge me.  I learned something that day from Marlene, about friendship, and I have never forgotten it.  To be a true friend, you have to be a good listener, and I discovered that day that Marlene was the truest of friends.”  Morpurgo reminds us that true friends not only listen with their ears, but also with their hearts and sometimes the best friends need not offer words in return, but simply just offer themselves.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com 

 

 

 

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich (J)

The Birchbark House

The Birchbark House    

Louise Erdrich (Juvenile Fiction)

“She was named Omakayas, or Little Frog, because her first step was a hop.”

Omakayas is seven years old and lives on an island in Lake Superior with her family.  They are Native American and belong to the Ojibwa tribe.  It is the summer of 1847 and everyone is busy preparing for fall.  Once their birchbark house is built, there are skins to soften and tan, berries to gather, and the corn patch to tend.  The family works together to ensure their survival from season to season, but all Omakayas is focused on is avoiding her pesky little brother, thinking of ways to be more like her big sister, and watching her father worry about the ever-increasing encroachment of the “chimookoman”, the white people.  Still, life is good for Omakayas and her family until that one winter night when a stranger enters their community and makes Omakayas reevaluate everything that she once thought important.

The Birchbark House is reminiscent of The Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, only Erdrich tells her story from the Native American point of view.  We follow Omakayas and her family through one full year and learn how they gather and preserve their food, construct their lodgings, deal with the harshness and dangers of their environment, treat their sick and wounded, and struggle for survival.  Any fan of our spirited prairie heroine, Laura Ingalls, will appreciate this new perspective on the same issues that we all encounter: love, loss, family, friendship, and finding your place in a very big world.

There is an Ojibwa proverb that says, “Sometimes I go about pitying myself and all the while I am being carried across the sky by beautiful clouds.”  There is point in the story where Omakayas is thrown into a very deep and dark place that tests both her strength and faith.  But in time, she realizes all the gifts that life has yet to offer and that is just enough to allow her to rise above her sorrow and look up to the sky—into the clouds—for hope.

*Reviewer’s note: The Birchbark House is the first in a series of five books by Louise Erdrich that follows the life of Omakayas and her Ojibwa community.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com 

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend

Matthew Dicks (Adult Fiction)

Max Delaney is eight years old, in the third grade, and likes rules.  In fact, he likes lots and lots of rules.  Rules like bedtime is at 8:30 p.m. (no sooner and no later) and no breakfast after 9:00 a.m. or only wearing seven pieces of clothing at one time (not counting shoes).  This is who Max is and this is his world and nobody knows this world better than Budo—Max’s imaginary friend.  Budo knows Max inside and out.  He talks to him, plays with him, and watches him every night before he goes to sleep.  Budo is Max’s best friend and as long as Max thinks Budo is real, Budo won’t disappear and NOT disappearing is very important to Budo.  But when Max doesn’t come home from school one day, Budo is forced to decide between Max’s freedom and his own possible extinction.

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend is narrated by Budo who invites us to share his life with an extraordinary little boy with autism.  According to the Center for Disease Control, approximately 1 in 59 children was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in 2018, so it is very likely that you (like me) know someone with autism.  Dicks’s description of Max and his habits, daily activities, and mannerisms are meticulously detailed and painfully accurate.  Those familiar with autism know all too well the helplessness that Max’s parents experience on a daily basis.  Their never-ending quest for “normalcy” only adds to their compounded stress while their desire to connect with their child is heartbreaking in its futility.

Dicks just doesn’t deliver an accurate portrayal of a child who, as Budo says, “…doesn’t live on the outside.  Max is all inside.”, but he also gives us a book of devotion and friendship.  It’s a story about putting someone else’s wants and needs above your own; about doing what is right versus what is expedient; and about finding that inner strength that you never knew you possessed.  Budo often said that Max was the bravest little boy in the world: “Max is not like any other person in the whole world.  Kids make fun of him because he is different.  His mom tries to change him into a different boy and his dad tries to treat him like he is someone else.  Even his teachers treat him differently, and not always nicely.  With all that, Max still gets out of bed every morning and goes to school and the park and the bus stop and even the kitchen table.  But you have to be the bravest person in the world to go out every day, being yourself when no one likes who you are.”

This novel successfully checks all the boxes: suspenseful, emotional, insightful, compelling, humorous, heartwarming, chilling, and simply unforgettable.  Max and Budo will stay in your heart and mind long after you’ve read the last page.  People often said that Max couldn’t see the forest for the trees, as people with autism generally hone in on the small details without seeing the overall bigger picture.  Perhaps Max can’t see the forest for the trees, but he does see the blade of grass and the rock and the ladybug and the clover and perhaps that alone is something to be celebrated and appreciated.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

 

The Night Garden by Polly Horvath (J)

the night garden

The Night Garden

Polly Horvath (Juvenile Fiction)

Despite the war overseas, life was fairly predictable and peaceful in the spring of 1945 for the family at East Sooke Farm.  Twelve-year-old Franny Whitekraft had her writing; her mother, Thomasina (Sina for short), had her sculpting; and her father, Old Tom, had his gardens—his many, many gardens.  There was the English garden, herb garden, Japanese garden, Italian garden, kitchen garden, statuary garden…but perhaps the most mysterious and closely-guarded garden of all was the night garden.  That garden Old Tom kept locked up nice and tight.  So, days floated by with little fanfare until one day, Crying Alice (that’s Mrs. Alice Madden to you and me) showed up on the Whitekraft doorstep and dropped off her three children: Wilfred, Winifred, and Zebediah.  You see, her husband, Fixing Bob (who does maintenance on the Canadian Air Force’s special plane), is going to do something stupid and she simply has to go and talk some sense into him.  Now, if three new houseguests weren’t enough, just throw in a UFO, ghost, psychic, several mysterious letters, mermaids, and a missing plane and you’ve got a recipe for anything BUT a predictable and peaceful spring.

This is the second book by Polly Horvath that I’ve had the pleasure of reading (the first being The Canning Season) and she continues to amaze and please with her witty dialogue and amusing situations.  Horvath not only entertains her young readers, but she manages to educate them as well.  She’s an English teacher’s dream as she dishes out a veritable smorgasbord of delicious words to savor:  presaged, traversed, bereft, contiguous, compeers, and ilk.  Aren’t they scrumptious?  She also delights us with an assortment of quirky characters that we feel inexplicably drawn to—not in spite of their flaws and rough edges, but because of them.

The Night Garden is a non-stop, heart-thumping thrill ride that will excite and enthrall readers of all ages.  It is a story of family and a love that is blind, slightly deaf, and a little bit thick, but love amongst family is often like that.  The Night Garden also provides us with many valuable lessons—from Miss Macy’s advice on being prepared (“Always wear clean underwear.”) to Franny’s philosophy on self-sacrifice (“Well, we were all put on this earth to suffer.”).  But perhaps it is Old Tom himself who best sums up the greatest lesson of all, “Never, ever, ever have houseguests!”  Old Tom is seldom wrong.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.goodreads.com

 

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote (J)

A Christmas Memory

A Christmas Memory     

Truman Capote (Juvenile Fiction)

There was something special about that late November morning: the air lacked the songs of birds; the courthouse bell sounded cold and clear; and the once-empty hearth boasted a blazing fire.  All of these meant only one thing—it was fruitcake weather!

A Christmas Memory is Truman Capote’s earliest memories of his life in a small rural Alabama town.  Up until the age of ten, he lived there with a family of distant and elderly cousins.  One cousin, in particular, he was especially fond of and considered her to be his best friend.  She called him “Buddy”, after her former best friend who died in the 1880’s, and he referred to her as simply “my friend”.  Capote’s book is filled with his personal heartwarming memories of Christmas—beginning with the inaugural baking of the fruitcakes (which includes a charming visit to one Mr. Haha Jones) and followed by searching for the perfect tree, hanging wreaths on all the front windows, and making gifts for the family.  Capote’s vivid descriptions and eloquent prose allow us to smell the fruitcakes baking in the oven and luxuriate in the warmth emanating from the home’s stone fireplace.

On Christmas Eve night, “my friend” confesses to Buddy her desperate desire to give him a bicycle for Christmas, but her inability to do so for lack of money.  “It’s bad enough in life to do without something you want,” she laments, “but confound it, what gets my goat is not being able to give somebody something you want them to have.”  During this time of year, we seem to be inundated with an endless barrage of commercials, movies, and television shows that all seek to remind us about the true meaning of Christmas through animated animals, complicated romantic triangles, or splashy musicals.  I’m grateful for Mr. Capote for sharing his personal Christmas memory and for showing us in a loving, compassionate, and quiet way that we should be thankful not for the gifts that lie under our tree, but rather for those who gather around it.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com 

 

The True Gift: A Christmas Story by Patricia MacLachlan (J)

The True Gift

The True Gift: A Christmas Story    

Patricia MacLachlan (Juvenile Fiction)

Lily and Liam are off to Grandpa and Gran’s farm for Christmas.  They always go in December and then wait for Mama and Papa to join them on Christmas Day.  Lily likes the sameness that this time of year brings:  the walks into town, the trip to the lilac library, and helping Gran make cookies.  But when her brother spots a white cow standing alone in a snowy meadow, Lily’s predictable holiday is suddenly threatened.  “Do we know if she’s lonely?” Liam asks his sister.  “She’s a cow,” replies Lily.  “Cows don’t care.”  But Liam cares and because of this, Lily knows that White Cow is bound to ruin everything…especially Christmas.

From the author who delighted us with Sarah, Plain and Tall, Patricia MacLachlan gives readers another book filled with compassion, love, and family.  She introduces us to Lily, a young girl who finds herself angered by her brother’s selfless desire to help a creature that finds itself quite alone on Christmas.  Fortunately, Liam’s determined desire to bring comfort to this lonely creature is enough to eventually whittle down Lily’s stubborn defenses until at last, she surprises herself by whispering to White Cow one night, “Don’t worry.  We’ll take care of you.”  Those few words set in motion a turning of Lily’s heart, as well as the fate of another soul in need of rescuing.

The True Gift shows us that any small act of kindness isn’t truly small at all.  By giving us a simple story of a young girl, a small boy, and a lonely white cow, MacLachlan reminds us that Christmas is about giving from the heart and that the act of bestowing even the slightest bit of charity to another being is perhaps one of the truest gifts of all.

Rating: 4/5

Posted: 12/4/2018

* Book cover image attributed to www.barnesandnoble.com

 

 

The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg

The Story of Arthur Truluv

The Story of Arthur Truluv

Elizabeth Berg (Adult Fiction)

Arthur Moses has had lunch with his wife Nola every day for the past six months (missing only just one day, which is not bad for an octogenarian with no car and bad knees).  He departs the bus with his folding chair and bagged lunch, sits beside her headstone (she’s passed away you see, but “a promise is a promise”), and tells Nola about the day’s events or complains about their neighbor, Lucille (who considers the world to be her classroom, BUT happens to make THE most wonderful desserts).  While Arthur gains comfort through his daily cemetery visits, 18-year old Maddy Harris seeks escape.  Maddy is a budding photographer and artist (who is rather pretty despite that awful nose ring), but she is viewed as an outsider by her high school classmates and therefore endures relentless ridicule and abuse.  At the graveyard, she finds peace, and it is here where she and Arthur meet and begin a very unlikely friendship.

Berg delivers an endearing, amusing, and pleasant story about three flawed individuals who, like most of us, merely want to be accepted, useful, and loved.  Each one of them holds a piece to the others’ happiness and when they are placed together, they fit to form a quirky yet beautiful puzzle.  This is a delightful read that is surprisingly uplifting and inspirational, despite the underlying themes of death and loss.

Early in the book, Maddy mentions that her English teacher taught her one of her favorite words: hiraeth, a Welsh word meaning yearning and grief for lost places.  The Story of Arthur Truluv provides the reader with some glimmer of promise and hope that grief is never permanent and what is lost will once again be found.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.penguinrandomhouse.com