Silent to the Bone by E. L. Konigsburg (YA)

It’s Tween & Teen Tuesday when we review either a Juvenile (J) or Young Adult (YA) book.

silent to the bone

Silent to the Bone    

E. L. Konigsburg (Young Adult Fiction)

“It is easy to pinpoint the minute when my friend Branwell began his silence.  It was Wednesday, November 25, 2:43 P.M., Eastern Standard Time.  It was there—or, I guess you could say not there—on the tape of the 911 call.”

They say, “For every Yin, there is a Yang”.  If that’s true, then Branwell Zamborska is the Yin to Connor Kane’s Yang.  Two friends the same age (born just weeks apart), going to the same school, and living just houses away from each other.  Connor will tell you that the biggest difference between them is that Branwell “is just plain different”.  He stands out in a crowd (quite literally—he is tall with bright red hair), is clumsy (he’s always dropping things), and likes offbeat music.  Still, they complement each other and even share secret “codes”.  Like BLUE PETER means “ready to go” and DAY CARE refers to their school.  Or SIAS, which requires you to “Summarize In A Sentence” a selected topic with points awarded afterward.  Given their closeness, it isn’t difficult to understand why Connor rushes to the aid of his friend, who has been rendered mute after his baby sister suffers a horrible accident and is struggling for life.  The message on the 911 tape is enough to send Barnwell to the Clarion County Juvenile Behavioral Center, but Connor knows his friend and is certain that Branwell is innocent.  But with Branwell rendered voiceless, how can the truth—whatever it is—be heard?

It is astonishing how many sensitive and provocative topics E. L. Konigsburg has dogpiled into one book:  psychological trauma, sexual awareness, emotional manipulation, divorce, jealousy, revenge.  But this isn’t the tawdry and explicit book that one might expect.  Instead, Konigsburg handles each subject with sensitivity and care and scratches just enough of the surface to allow readers to reach their own obvious conclusions.  This book is targeted from readers ages 10 and up, so some concepts may get a perplexed look from those on the younger end of the scale (“Hey, what’s Viagra?”) so be prepared for some possible teachable moments.

In addition to tackling so many complex issues with such finesse, Silent to the Bone received my highest review because of the deep bond that these two boys shared.  This book was published in 2000, and you don’t often see the kind of unshakable, unquestioning, and unwavering devotion that Connor has for Branwell in many of today’s young adult books.  In this age of jealousy, popularity, spite, ego, and peer pressure, friends are easily interchangeable.  Connor is placed in the most impossible and unthinkable of circumstances by a friend who has totally withdrawn from the world.  At any moment (and there are many), he could have simply given up and walked away.  But somehow Connor finds a faint voice in the silence and that alone drives him to not give up on his friend nor abandon his cause.

E.L. Konigsburg gives readers a suspenseful book that explores the bond of friendship and demonstrates just how far that connection can be stretched without ever really breaking.  I think if I had to SISA this book, I’d use the words of Yolanda, the day worker who lives across the street from the Zamborskas.  When Connor explained to her how he had found a way to “talk” with Branwell, she said, “Friends always find a way to keep in touch.”  Nine words.  I wonder how many points Connor and Branwell would give me for that one?

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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

 

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 Million Shades of Gray by Cynthia Kadohata (J)

a million shades of gray

A Million Shades of Gray    

Cynthia Kadohata (Juvenile Fiction)

Even at eleven years old, Y’Tin Eban knew what his future would look like:  he would work with his elephant, Lady, until she died; he would travel to Ban Me Thuot then to Thailand and finally to America; and he would open an elephant-training school in Vietnam.  But it’s 1975 and the American soldiers have been gone from Vietnam for two years now.  Y’Tin and his tribe live in Central Highlands in South Vietnam and every day, soldiers from the north are advancing closer and closer to his village.  The Americans called it the Vietnam War.  His father called it the American War.  And now, this war was coming to Y’Tin’s remote part of the country and everything that his future once promised is about to change forever.

It’s never easy to discuss the horror and ugliness of war, especially when that discussion involves a younger audience (this book is targeted for readers ages ten and older).  Cynthia Kadohata is able to portray a country savagely torn apart by Civil War with remarkable honesty and sensitivity.  Because she is dealing with younger readers, she avoids graphic details and opts for subtle clues and visuals that guide readers to the desired conclusion.  For example, she describes a scene where captive male villagers are forced to dig a very long and deep pit on the outskirts of the village.  Older readers know immediately that this is a mass grave and the outlook is bleak for the villagers.  However, the younger reader shares the same learning curve as Y’Tin and both share in the eventual realization of what is actually taking place at the same time.

Several reviewers found this book to be too “anti-American” given the repeated mentions by the villagers of the Americans’ broken promise to return should assistance be needed.  But Kadohata foregoes popularity points by choosing to give us a story based on the villagers’ perspective.  They are a community that is scared, helpless, and feels very much abandoned and alone.  It’s an honest representation of the many thousands who were facing certain annihilation by their own government.  While this book deals mainly with war and its effects, at the heart is a young boy—rapidly thrown into manhood—and his relationship with his elephant, Lady.  The mutual trust they have for one another and the formidable bond they share serve as the singular bright spot in what is often a rather dark and grim story.

The book’s title, A Million Shades of Grey, refers to the colors of the jungle right before sunrise, as well as the color of an elephant’s hide.  In life, we often view things—view choices—as being a matter of “black or white”.  Kadohata reminds us that things aren’t always that simple and that every day we face or own “million shades of gray”.  At one time, Y’Tin said that you don’t love and you don’t make promises during times of war.  But it took his village’s smallest but strongest elephant to show him otherwise…that even during war, it is possible to have both.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.publishersweekly.com 

 

 

Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman (YA Historical Fiction)

Alchemy and Meggy Swann

Alchemy and Meggy Swann   

Karen Cushman (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” – Carl Jung

After the death of her gran, Margaret “Meggy” Swann is carted from Millford Village to London and unceremoniously deposited at the doorstep of her father, Master Ambrose, the local alchemist.  Meggy is none too pleased with her new home: heads mounted on sticks and placed on a bridge, the smell of fish and sewage everywhere, and streets slick and slippery from horse droppings.  Ye toads and vipers!  What kind of place IS this London?  Between a mother who was pleased to see the back of her and a father who assumes she is a beggar upon their first introduction, Meggy has found herself in a rather unenviable position.  She is crippled, penniless, and friendless…unless you count her goose, Louise.  But Meggy is stronger than she thinks and with the help of a cooper, a printer, and a rather smitten player, she’ll not only save a life, but she’ll manage to save a soul as well.

From her first utterance of, “Ye toads and vipers”, I fell in love with Meggy Swann.  She is scrappy, sassy, resourceful, impish, loyal, and brave.  She is disabled (suffering from what we would today recognize as bilateral hip dysplasia), but doesn’t seek sympathy, pity, or charity.  In a time when deformity and illness were viewed as a direct judgment from God, it would have been easy for Meggy to become bitter from the taunts and jeers unmercifully thrown at her by villagers both young and old alike.  While in Millford Village, she was able to stay somewhat isolated and protected within her mother’s alehouse; however, in London her lameness is on full display and it is at this moment when we see Meggy’s pluck and spirit begin to emerge.  No longer will she be the meek victim of unfair slurs and prejudices.  While her father is busy transforming metals in his laboratorium, Meggy is experiencing her own transformation into a strong, proud, and confident young woman who refuses to let her circumstances define or limit her.

This story is set in 1573 London and Cushman successfully transports readers to the Elizabethan Era through her usage of period-appropriate language.  This requires having to adjust to the frequent occurrences of words such as naught (nothing), certes (certainly), mayhap (perhaps), belike (very likely), and sooth (truth), but given the age this book targets (12 years and above), the acclimation should be quick and painless.

There are so many lessons that one could glean from this book, but perhaps the most poignant was one that Meggy learned from a flightless goose: “Even Louise had given the girl something, the knowledge that one did not have to be perfect to be beauteous.”  And that is something worth remembering, be ye toad or viper.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord (J)

In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson

In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson   

Bette Bao Lord (Juvenile Fiction)

Bandit is confused.  What would make Mother smirk, Grandmother cry, and Grandfather angry?  The House of Wong is certainly unsettled, but why?  Bandit quickly learns that her father will not be returning to Chungking.  Instead, she and her mother will be going to him…to America.  But Bandit isn’t worried because no bad luck will come her way.  This is the year of the Boar and travel, adventure, and double happiness await her.  Soon, Bandit will begin her journey from China to San Francisco to her eventual home in Brooklyn, New York.  She will travel thousands of miles with a new name and new dreams.  But will America be all that Bandit hopes it will be?

In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson is a charming and humorous story largely based on Bette Bao Lord’s own experiences as a newcomer to America.  Bandit (who adopts an American name of Shirley Temple Wong) endures teasing, bullying, and rejection that often comes with simply being different.  Despite her difficulties with fitting in, she is constantly reminded by her mother of the importance of maintaining your self-respect despite struggling through ridicule: “Always be worthy, my daughter, of your good fortune.  Born to an illustrious clan from an ancient civilization of China, you now live in the land of plenty and opportunity.  By your conduct show that you deserve to enjoy the best of both worlds.”  Her mother’s words serve as a valuable reassurance to Bandit that her past life in China need not be forgotten or sacrificed for her present life in America.  She is much richer for having both.

Despite her trials and torments, Bandit makes friends through America’s favorite pastime—baseball—and its formidable hero, Jackie Robinson and realizes that things are not always what they appear to be.  On the day Bandit gains the unlikeliest of allies, she recalls something that her grandfather had told her many times: “Things are not what they seem.  Good can be bad.  Bad can be good.  Sadness can be happiness.  Joy, sorrow.”  In the year of the Boar, Bandit discovers the pride in being yourself and the value of friends who accept you just the way you are.  Double happiness.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.harpercollins.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 

 

Incident at Hawk’s Hill by Allan W. Eckert (J)

Incident at Hawk's Hill

Incident at Hawk’s Hill     

Allan W. Eckert (Juvenile Fiction)

Twenty miles north of Winnipeg, in the year 1870, there stood the farm of William MacDonald, his wife, Esther, and their four children.  They named their farm Hawk’s Hill and for many years, the family thrived on the land.  Everyone thrived except the youngest child, Ben.  At six years old, he was much smaller than other children his own age.  He was also quiet, withdrawn, and seemed to get along better with the surrounding animals than with his own family.  Ben would often imitate the animals he came in contact with—mimicking their sounds and movements.  The folks in town called him strange, odd, and different.  But Ben derived a certain amount of comfort when he was with the animals, and in turn, the animals drew comfort from him.  One day, Ben wandered a bit too far from home and found himself hopelessly lost.  Little did he realize that his rescuer would be a female badger who needed him almost as much as he needed her.

The author’s note states that this book “is a slightly fictionalized version of an incident which actually occurred at the time and place noted.”  Intrigued, I did a little research and found that this claim could neither be substantiated nor does the author provide any further documentation.  Some believe Eckert’s story is based on legend while others think that it came from an article about a boy who, in 1873, lived in a badger hole for 10 days.  Regardless, Eckert gives us an interesting main character who is part Dr. Dolittle and part John Audubon and, through his exploits in and around his farm, offers readers a fascinating insight into the natural world.  Eckert also provides a greater understanding of the hunting, nesting, and breeding habits of the badger sow.  Although the book is filled with many interesting facts and details, the pace doesn’t lag and the story never feels weighted down.

Through the unimaginable and unlikely bond formed between a boy and a badger, we are treated to a story of survival, friendship, and devotion.  I truly enjoyed this book, but deducted a rating point since this is one of those rare children’s books that lacks a sufficient ending.  Because of the emotional commitment required on the reader’s part, the author should have provided a definitive ending merely out of a sense of obligation…especially given the age of the intended audience.  But rather than acquiring a sense of closure, we are left feeling deserted, confused, and rather perturbed.  There are stories that purposely leave the ending open-ended in order to encourage further thought and reflection.  This is not one of those stories and will undoubtedly leave the reader growling, chittering, wailing, hissing, and sounding very much like an angry badger.

Rating: 4/5

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