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 

 

 

A Medal for Leroy by Michael Morpurgo (J Historical Fiction)

A Medal for Leroy

A Medal for Leroy   

Michael Morpurgo (Juvenile Historical Fiction)

Michael has no father, brothers, or sisters.  Just his mother, Maman, and two aunts:  Auntie Pish and Auntie Snowdrop.  It is 1940s London and right after the war.  Michael’s friends call him “Poodle” because of his frizzy hair and French ancestry.  But Michael doesn’t mind much.  In fact, he likes being different, being special.  Regarding his father, Michael knows only what his mother has told him:  his father’s name was Roy, he was a Spitfire pilot, and he was killed in the war.  But when Michael’s aunt passes away, she leaves behind a clue that will not only shed light on his past, but also finally reveal who he is.

A Medal for Leroy was inspired by the true story of Walter Tull, the first black person to serve as an officer in the British Army.  Like his fictional counterpart in this story (Michael’s grandfather, Leroy), Tull grew up in an orphanage, played soccer, served heroically in battle, and has no known grave.  Both Tull and Leroy deserved a medal for bravery, but were denied because of the color of their skin.  Morpurgo is a master storyteller (author of the spectacular novel War Horse) and provides his characters with a surprising amount of depth given that his book is only 130 pages.  He delicately tackles the ugliness of racial intolerance and inequality while showing young readers the value of having dignity in the face of disgrace and showing love without reservations or conditions.

In a world that still seems divided by so many factors, it is worth looking at the words that Michael’s aunt, who served as a nurse during the First World War, wrote to Michael: “It was while I was with those poor wounded soldiers that I first understood, Michael, that when all’s said and done, it’s what we all want and need most: to love and to be loved.”  Words lovingly passed along to a beloved nephew that would serve us all to remember today and always.

Rating: 4/5

* 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

 

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum (J)

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus     

L. Frank Baum (Juvenile Fiction)

Did you ever wonder why Santa delivers presents on Christmas Eve or why he climbs down a chimney?  Why reindeer were chosen to pull his sleigh or how the first Christmas tree came about?  All of these questions and more are answered about the jolly old man who delivers joy and happiness to every child around the globe on one very special night each year.  From his introduction as a helpless infant who was discovered by the Wood-Nymph Necile in the Forest of Burzee to the night he escaped the Spirit of Death by being given the Mantle of Immortality, the life of Santa Claus is finally shared and what you thought you knew about the man in red may never be the same again.

Two years after The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published in 1900, L. Frank Baum delighted audiences again with another tale of mythical creatures and magical worlds.  The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus is not just a history of one of the world’s most notable and recognized figures, but it is a heartwarming story of selflessness, devotion, family, and love.  More importantly, Baum gives us a book extolling and celebrating the virtues of inclusion.  As an abandoned baby, Claus was lovingly adopted and wholly accepted within the secret and protected world of immortals.  As an adult, he once questioned whether or not wealthy children were also deserving of gifts since they already possessed so much.  The Queen of the Fairies replied, “Whether it be rich or poor, a child’s longings for pretty playthings are natural.  I think, friend Claus, it is your duty to make all little ones glad, whether they chance to live in palaces or in cottages.”

Children and adults alike can benefit from the messages Baum delivers in this classic children’s story.  The idea of extending grace, mercy, and joy to everyone we encounter is something we should aspire to every day of the year and not just one.

“’In all this world, there is nothing so beautiful as a happy child,’ says good old Santa Claus; and if he had his way the children would all be beautiful, for all would be happy.”

Merry Christmas from The Dusty Jacket.

Rating: 5/5

 

 

 

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 Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming by Lemony Snicket (J)

The Latke Who Couldnt Stop Screaming

The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story     

Lemony Snicket (Juvenile Fiction)

“This story ends in someone’s mouth, but it begins in a tiny village more or less covered in snow.”

This is no ordinary Christmas story.  This is a story of a latke—that delicious, traditional part of the Hanukah celebration.  This particular latke talks—food and animals often talk in stories such as this—and this talking latke is trying very hard to explain exactly what it is and what it represents.  It’s not having much luck.  Well, YOU try explaining Hanukah to a string of lights, a candy cane, and a pine tree…ALL of which keep comparing your traditions to Christmas.  Hanukah is NOT Christmas.  It’s a totally different thing.  Will they EVER get it right?

In true Lemony Snicket spirit, this story is a wickedly funny and dastardly delightful tale about likenesses, differences, traditions, and the need to find a common thread that connects us all.  This book is a wonderful way to introduce young readers to the history of Hanukah and the symbolism behind the eight-day celebration.  Pre-readers can become a fun and interactive part of the story by providing the AAAHHHHHHHH!!! parts that the latke screams out of frustration.  Snicket describes this as “A Christmas Story”, but Hanukah is a totally different thing.  Just ask the latke.

Lemony Snicket has entertained readers with a number of unpleasant books, but this one offers a sweet and valuable lesson.  When the latke explains how Christmas and Hanukah are completely different things, this time to a pine tree, the tree replies, “But different things can often blend together.”  It would serve us all well to carry this message with us, not just at Christmas or Hanukah, but during all the days of the year.  Different things can indeed blend together—like applesauce or sour cream blends with, for instance, latkes!  AAAHHHHHHHH!!!

Rating: 4/5

Posted: 12/11/2018

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com