A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck (J Historical Fiction)

A Year Down Yonder

A Year Down Yonder

Richard Peck (Juvenile Historical Fiction)

 It was 1937 and the country was in the midst of what people were calling the Roosevelt recession.  The Dowdel family, like so many others, had hit upon hard times and Mary Alice was to be sent to live with her grandmother until the family got back on their feet.  She and her brother, Joey, had spent many summers with Grandma Dowdel in her sleepy Illinois town, but Mary Alice was fifteen now and this visit was going to be a full twelve months!  With no telephone, an outdoor privy, a spooky attic, and everything being as old as Grandma…if not older…how was a city girl from Chicago going to survive in this hick town for one whole year?

A Year Down Yonder received the Newbery Medal in 2001 and was the sequel to Peck’s A Long Way from Chicago, recipient of a Newbery Honor in 1999.  In this wildly amusing and heartfelt book, Peck delivers one of the most outrageous, audacious, outlandish, and unforgettable characters when he gave us Grandma Dowdel.  She’s trigger-happy (and the whole town knows it) and not afraid to speak her mind.  But behind that gruff and crusty exterior lies a woman who’s generous to a fault and genuinely cares about her neighbors…although she would be the first to deny it.  Peck gives us small-town life and everything that comes with it.  From turkey shoots and Halloween hijinks to Burdicks (you’ll know one when you see ‘em) and burgoo, Grandma Dowdel handles everything with humor and candor and might even treat you to a glass of buttermilk and a square of corn bread in the process.

A Year Down Yonder takes readers to rural America and back to a time where folks learned how to make the most with what little they had and considered themselves blessed if they had their health, their family, and one or two people that could be counted on when it mattered most.  It’s a delightful and amusing book that extolls the virtues of kindness and the importance of family.  It also reminds us not to judge a book by its cover for it is often the tartest apples that make the best pies.  Just ask Grandma Dowdel.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry (J)

Call it Courage

Call It Courage

Armstrong Sperry (Juvenile Fiction)

 It happened many years ago, before the traders and missionaries first came into the South Seas, while the Polynesians were still great in numbers and fierce of heart.  But even today the people of Hikueru sing the story in their chants and tell it over the evening fires.  It is the story of Mafatu, the Boy Who Was Afraid.

Fifteen-year-old Mafatu was afraid of the sea.  He’s had this fear for as long as he could remember.  His father, Tavana Nui, the Great Chief of Hikeuru, was ashamed of him for his people were great seafarers who worshipped courage.  There was no room—no tolerance—for cowardice.  It’s no wonder that Mafatu felt alone and out of place.  Angry and ashamed, Mafatu sets off one night in a canoe with his dog, Uri, and his albatross, Kivi, as his only companions.  His father had christened him “Stout Heart” upon his birth and Mafatu was determined to earn that name…or perish trying.

Armstrong Sperry’s Call It Courage was the recipient of the Newbery Medal in 1941.  Although there are mentions of Maui (God of the Fishermen) and Moana (the Sea God) and even Maui’s famed fishhook, Disney fans shouldn’t confuse this book with the movie about a spunky Polynesian princess.  Rather, it is more along the lines of Island of the Blue Dolphins (1961 Newbery Medal recipient) by Scott O’Dell, but told from a boy’s perspective.  If you enjoyed O’Dell’s book, you’ll most likely enjoy Sperry’s as well.

Sperry gives readers the story of a boy who not only has to deal with his own fears and shortcomings, but has to do so under the weight of being the island chief’s son.  To be a coward amongst people who worship heroism is one thing, but add the burden of being the island’s heir apparent and you’ve got quite a heavy load.  As the ridicule—especially from one who was seemingly a friend—intensifies, we see Mafatu being crushed under its unforgiving and unrelenting weight day after day until he sees no other alternative but to flee his homeland in search of courage and worth.

Call It Courage is fast-paced, tense, and suspenseful due to its numerous forms of conflict: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Society, Man vs. Fate/Supernatural, and Man vs. Self.  Like in Island of the Blue Dolphins, we have a smart protagonist who relies heavily on wit and skill to survive.  The mundane tasks that Mafatu was assigned while on Hikueru are quickly utilized and performed with speed and skill.  Rushes or lapses in judgement could mean death so we see Mafatu being patient, deliberate, calculating, and thoughtful in all of his decision making.  Books (especially for younger readers) could use more characters like this.

Sperry delivers a powerful message in a very short book (mine was only 92 pages).  He shows us a boy who despite his insecurity, frailty, and vulnerability, is capable of doing rather extraordinary things.  Whether you call it courage, impulse, or instinct, Mafatu discovers his inner strength which allows him to begin believing in himself.  Famed American pianist Liberace once said, “Nobody will believe in you unless you believe in yourself.”  Mafatu, along with a yellow dog and a gimpy albatross, found the courage to believe in himself and I would call that pretty remarkable.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Onion John by Joseph Krumgold (J)

Onion John

Onion John

Joseph Krumgold (Juvenile Fiction)

Twelve-year-old Andy Rusch is a junior to his father’s senior and that carries a lot of weight and responsibility.  Seems that Andy’s father has big plans for him: working for General Magneto this summer, studying at MIT, being an engineer, and maybe one day going to the moon!  But all Andy wants to do is work in the family’s hardware store, play baseball, and hang out with his best friend, Onion John.  Not many people can understand Onion John, but Andy does.  Onion John is a beloved fixture in the small town of Serenity, New Jersey.  He lives a simple life in his stacked-stone house filled with bathtubs and has his own ideas about how to make apples grow bigger or how to make it rain.  Onion John’s fanciful ways clash with Andy’s father who wants his son to be practical and realistic.  But how can a boy possibly choose between his best friend and his father?  And what happens when your best friend starts to become friends with your father?  Up until that point, the worst thing that had ever happened was when Eechee Ries was pulled from the pond and worked over by the Pulmotor.

Joseph Krumgold was the first writer to have been awarded the Newbery Medal twice.  The first was for his 1954 novel …and now Miguel (which I read and really enjoyed) and he did it again in 1960 with this book.  If written today, Onion John would still hold the same strong themes of standing up for what you believe in, being true to yourself, and accepting people for who they are and not for who you would like them to be.  However, if you were pitching a story about a twelve-year-old boy befriending an unintelligible adult male who lives on the outskirts of town in a stone house today, it would clearly be a hard sell and, in all honesty, tend to come off as a bit creepy.  But in 1959, it was simply a story about an unlikely friendship and the virtues of believing in yourself.

In addition to the strong bond Andy builds with Onion John—which eventually spills over and affects his relationship with his father—there is the project that the entire town adopts for the benefit of their most cherished citizen…Onion John.  This is Krumgold providing a social commentary on how society tries to fit everyone into a convenient box and does so under the pretext of personal betterment.  He makes you challenge the nature of charity and poses the question: “When is doing good not really good?”  The people of Serenity wanted to do something very magnanimous for Onion John with the assumption that their efforts would make his life happier, easier, and better.  But one man’s heaven is another man’s hell and those subtleties tend to get in the way all for the sake of benevolence.

Joseph Krumgold packs so many wonderful lessons and moments in this book that it’s hard to choose just one to highlight for this review: Andy’s coming of age, Andy challenging his father, the town’s collective awakening, Andy’s father’s personal redemption, Andy’s deepening bond with his father.  These are all worth further discussion, but I chose one that particularly resonated with me and that was Onion John’s ability to listen.  How often are we talking to someone who is busy texting or reading or cleaning or something-ing and you’ll pause only to have them say, “Go ahead.  I’m listening.”  With Onion John, he would stop everything in order to let you know that at that moment, you were the singular, most important thing in the world.  There was absolutely nothing more important in life at that moment than you.  As Andy described, “One thing about Onion John, whatever he was doing, if someone came along he was always ready to stop and talk things over.”  What a rare quality it is to find someone who is able to put life on pause in order to afford another human being the courtesy of their undivided attention.  American journalist and author Krista Tippett wrote, “Listening is about being present, not just about being quiet.”  Perhaps that is why only Andy could understand Onion John and no one else could.  He was present.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all learn how to listen like that?

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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Miss Hickory by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey (J)

Miss Hickory

Miss Hickory

Carolyn Sherwin Bailey (Juvenile Fiction)

Miss Hickory had an apple-wood twig body, hickory nut head, and wore a rather smart checked gingham dress.  She lived a fine and comfortable life under the lilac bush in a corncob house.  Before winter set in, Great-Granny Brown would bring Miss Hickory’s house (and her along with it) into the Old Place and set both on the windowsill to pass the time amiably until springtime.  But this year, Crow had brought some terrible news.  It seems that Great-Granny Brown has closed up the Old Place for the winter and has decided to spend the winter in Boston in some place called the Women’s City Club.  Abandoned, dismayed, and soon-to-be evicted, what is Miss Hickory to do?  Leave it to her old friend Crow to not only offer up a solution, but an adventure to boot!

1947 Newbery Medal Winner, Miss Hickory is NOT to be confused with some run-of-the-mill children’s story.  Oh no!  For author Carolyn Sherwin Bailey advises her readers at the beginning of her story that all of her characters—from Miss Hickory to Crow to Squirrel and even Hen-Pheasant—are very much real and alive (save for one, but I don’t wish to spoil the story).  Bailey gives us a wonderful adventure tale that centers around one very prissy, self-centered, judgmental, and rather pretentious Miss Hickory.  We follow her seasonal exploits in the orchard that sits beside the Old Place.  Readers get to meet many colorful characters such as fearful Ground Hog, spoiled Chipmunk, and worldly Wild-Heifer.  As Miss Hickory encounters each of these wonderful creatures, she grows a bit in experience, character, and self-actualization.

Miss Hickory is a beautifully told story complemented by Ruth Gannett’s exquisite lithographs.  Her drawings give an earthy and rustic feel to a tale celebrating nature and wildlife.  Bailey spent her summers at a home in New Hampshire that adjoined an apple orchard.  Her keen observational skills allow readers to be transported to a world where you can delight in the purple asters, smell the fragrant pine needles, taste the berries and nuts, and feel the crunch of autumn leaves beneath your feet.

SPOILER: Although younger readers may find the ending a bit sad, Miss Hickory is truly a celebration of discovering your personal worth and finding your place in the world (adults may have to help them look for this silver lining).  In the end—although Miss Hickory was a bit “hardheaded”—she discovered that home is more than a structure, it’s a sense of belonging.  And although she was a bit of a nut (sorry!), Miss Hickory shows us that is does pay to listen to your heart rather than your head, that you can’t always judge a book by its cover, and—most importantly—that you should always, ALWAYS be nice to squirrels because making them angry would be just plain…nutty.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.discoverbooks.com

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