Abel’s Island by William Steig (J)

Abels Island

Abel’s Island    

William Steig (Juvenile Fiction)

Abelard Hassam di Chirico Flint, of the Mossville Flints, is a very pampered mouse who likes things “just so”.  Living off the wealth of his mother, he shares a comfortable house with his wife, Amanda, and lives a life that is predictable, satiable, and pleasant.  But on one particular day, during a perfectly nice picnic, Abel’s life is turned upside down when a sudden hurricane separates him from everyone he loves and all that he knows.  Lost and alone, can one small mouse—who has been surrounded by ease and extravagance all his life—conjure up enough wit and grit to survive?

I grew up adoring William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and so I was delighted to see that Abel’s Island shared the same valuable moral:  possessions can never equal the riches and wealth provided by family.  Abel’s cup overflows with friends, family, and fortune, but when circumstances place him in a life-or-death situation, he begins to question his life and his worth and wonders if there might be a bigger being in charge: “Was it just an accident that he was here on this uninhabited island?  Abel began to wonder.  Was he being singled out for some reason: was he being tested?  If so, why?”  All of us, at one time or another, have felt like Abel.  That just when life seems to be going along swimmingly, the rug suddenly is pulled right out from under us.  Is it because we’ve become too complacent?  Too comfortable?  Or is it simply a reminder of how fragile and temporary life is and that every minute should be cherished and savored and never taken for granted.

I love books for young readers that reinforce the idea that there is strength, resilience, and courage in each of us and these things are waiting for just the right opportunity to emerge.  A. A. Milne passed away twenty years before Abel was born on paper, but the words of encouragement that he offered to a bear full of stuff and fluff could very well have been meant for Abel as well: “You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”  In the end, Abel proved that he WAS quite able after all.  Silly old mouse.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com 

 

Chosen by a Horse – Susan Richards (Memoir)

Chosen by a Horse

Chosen by a Horse

Susan Richards (Memoir)

She was only five years old when she was given her first horse.  Her grandmother had given it to her and its name was Bunty.  From that moment on, Susan Richards’s love for horses would be equaled only by her love for books and writing.  Horses, like books, were Susan’s escape from a world filled with abuse, betrayal, and loss.  For the first time in her memory, her life now was happy on her farm with her three horses.  But on a cold March day, Susan received an urgent call from the SPCA asking for emergency foster homes for a number of abused race horses.  Susan didn’t hesitate to heed the call.  When she arrived, how could she ever have known that a gentle and lame horse named Lay Me Down would not only choose Susan to be her rescuer, but would ultimately be the one that would rescue Susan.

Chosen by a Horse is an emotional and loving memoir about two broken and neglected souls who miraculously found each other.  Susan describes Lay Me Down’s ability to trust and love again to be far easier than her own by writing, “Unlike me, Lay Me Down seemed to feel no rancor.  In spite of everything, she was open and trusting of people, qualities I decidedly lacked…What exactly was it that enabled an abused animal, for lack of a better word, to love again?”  Susan’s struggle to commit and trust was clearly detailed throughout the book.  Through all of her emotional battles, she couldn’t have asked for nor gotten a better mentor than Lay Me Down.  Her quiet faith and hope would inspire Susan to take another chance and to trust in another…even if it meant getting hurt all over again.

You don’t have to be a horse-lover to appreciate this book and its message of second chances, survival, and healing.  Anyone who has ever opened their home and heart to an animal will be touched, moved, and inspired by this heartbreakingly beautiful and compassionate story.  “In the steady gaze of the horse shines a silent eloquence that speaks of love and loyalty, strength and courage.  It is the window that reveals to us how willing is his spirit, how generous is his heart.”—Author Unknown.  Susan Richards heard the silent words spoken by a broken horse and it was those words that helped heal her broken heart.  How blessed was she to be chosen by a horse.

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 

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 

 

 

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

 

 

 

The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford (J)

The Incredible Journey

The Incredible Journey    

Sheila Burnford (Juvenile Fiction)

How far would you travel and what would you be willing to endure just to be home again?  Three animals—a Siamese cat, a bull terrier, and a Labrador retriever—travel nearly 300 miles across the Canadian wilderness and battle fatigue, hunger, wild animals, cold, and sickness in order to be reunited with their beloved family again.

Burnford gives us a story of loyalty, inclusivity, diversity, and empathy.  This is not a warm and fuzzy tale of three pets and their charming and delightful antics throughout the frontiers of Canada.  This is a harsh and brutally honest story of survival, death, pain, and endurance.  There is plenty of bone crunching and flesh tearing to remind young readers that this isn’t just another cutesy animal story, but this should not deter them in the slightest from reading this book.  The Incredible Journey is an exquisite story of love and friendship.  Each animal must depend on one another for survival while proving their own unique worth at pivotal parts of the story.

This is one of those rare books that is so captivating, you almost forget (and really don’t miss) the fact that a majority of the story lacks dialogue.  Through Burnford’s adept and masterful storytelling, we understand the language “spoken” between the three companions through their actions, reactions, hisses, and howls.  A flick of the tail or drawing down of the ears convey more emotion and drama under Burnford’s nuanced pen than pages and pages of dialogue ever could.  Serving as a brilliant complement to Burnford’s words are the beautiful and rich illustrations by Carl Burger.  The two combined give readers an emotional, exhilarating, unforgettable, and one incredible journey.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com 

 

 

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt (J)

The Underneath

The Underneath  

Kathi Appelt (Juvenile Fiction)

This is a tale of two love stories separated by one thousand years.  The first is of a possessive, jealous, and cruel love.  It is about an enchantress, a king, and a family of three.  The second tale tells of a selfless, devoted, and pure love.  It is about a brave mother, a set of twins, and a gifted but abused blues singer.  But like so many tales, these two worlds eventually collide and when they do, which love will prove to be the strongest?

Appelt offers up a modern-day fairytale that gives readers heroes, villains, magic, mystery, and danger.  Like most fairytales, we can count on the villain getting his comeuppance, the misguided antagonist having a change of heart, and the power of true love winning in the end.  The book has very short chapters and makes for an easy read for younger readers (or an ideal bedtime book to be shared and read aloud).  The story has some instances of animal cruelty, so parents of sensitive readers should be warned.  Also, although Appelt gives us a truly suspenseful tale, it does stall near the middle and needlessly prolongs the action.  At just over 300 pages, this may frustrate some readers, but perseverance has its rewards and a satisfying ending awaits the patient reader.

Time and time again our little protagonists are told to “Stay in the Underneath.  You’ll be safe in the Underneath.”  And true enough, safely tucked underneath this dust jacket is a wonderful tale of devotion, friendship, family, and the importance of a promise kept.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com