Shadow of a Bull by Maia Wojciechowska (J)

Shadow of a Bull

Shadow of a Bull    

Maia Wojciechowska (Juvenile Fiction)

When Manolo was nine he became aware of three important facts in his life.  First: the older he became, the more he looked like his father. Second: he, Manolo Olivar, was a coward.  Third: everyone in the town of Arcangel expected him to grow up to be a famous bullfighter, like his father.

To be a bullfighter was to be revered for a bullfighter was a hero, a magician, and a killer of death.  In Arcangel, death came in the form of a bull and to conquer death brought glory to yourself, your family, and your country.  Manolo was the son of Juan Olivar, the greatest bullfighter in Spain.  Ever since his father’s death, everyone anxiously awaited the day when Manolo would take his father’s place and Spain would once again have a hero.  But unlike his father, Manolo’s future was not prophesied for greatness and he worried that his heart would never allow him to live up to the expectations of his town or the legacy left by his father.

Maia Wojciechowska’s Shadow of a Bull (winner of the 1965 Newberry Award) is a book brimming with valuable lessons and important messages of self-worth, self-confidence, and self-importance.  She encourages the reader to question the idea of heroes and those we choose to idolize—the celebrated sports figure or the wizened town physician—and she shows us the emotional and physical price of sacrificing your own future in order to carry on someone else’s.  She writes of life versus death, bravery versus fear, and a dream versus destiny.  It’s a lot to take in, but Wojciechowska lays out all of these issues as smoothly as a matador works his cape.

Shadow of a Bull is rich in its history and detail regarding the art of bullfighting.  Readers will learn the training involved and will be introduced to several Spanish terms (pronunciation guide and definitions are included at the back of the book).   It’s an effective primer for the sport that may test the patience of a few readers, but proves interesting nonetheless.  Above all else, Wojciechowska doesn’t let us forget that the heart of this book is young Manolo, a boy wishing to bring honor to his family by fulfilling a future that is beyond his desire or control.  He carries the hopes and dreams of an entire country on his very small shoulders and we feel the weight of this burden grow heavier as the day of his testing nears.  It’s a beautifully told coming-of-age story of a boy trying to discover his place in the world.

Walter M. Schirra, Sr.—a fighter pilot during World War I and father of Wally Schirra, the only astronaut to fly in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs—once said, “You don’t raise heroes, you raise sons.  And if you treat them like sons, they’ll turn out to be heroes, even if it’s just in your own eyes.”  By being true to himself, Manolo found honor beyond the shadow of a bull and was able to become a hero in his own right.

Rating: 5/5

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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

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