22 October 2010

Cybils Nominee: Busing Brewster

There are many things I like about this picture book by Richard Michelson and illustrated by R.G. Roth, which I will detail shortly. But first, a personal commentary. As many of my readers know, I am a proud Bostonian (despite the fact that I've spent far too much time in the suburbs.) The issue of busing children to desegregate white and black schools was a hugely contentious issue in Boston--one of the cities less impressive legacies--when it was implemented in the 1970's. I was growing up in Hyde Park at the time, a neighborhood Wikipedia called "an urban location with suburban details." That's not a bad way of describing the place, although driving through the area now it seems much more ethnically diverse than any suburban town I can think of. After I read Busing Brewster,  I had a thought. I rang up my mom and asked her, "You know when you and Dad sent me to parochial school? Were you trying to keep me from being bused?" And indeed they were.

So there you have it--my life story intersecting with history, although I was never aware of it. Perhaps if I'd been forced to take an hour's ride back and forth on a bus each day, it might have made more of an impact on me. As it was, I just went along to school unaware of the bigger picture.

Brewster is initially like that. He doesn't understand the political implication of what is happening to him, but does see the biggest picture of all. The one with him in the center of it. Point number one that I love about this book: the front cover. Brewster strides across the front with bold steps, USA lunchbox swinging by his side. That bus is a big ole opportunity for Brewster, and he can't wait. Even though his older brother, Bryan, scares him a little with his anger at the situation; even though he has to get up at 5:30 a.m. for the long bus ride; even when the bus is greeted by angry white picketers at his new school--Brewster is aware that something special could happen for him. Brewster and his brother aren't at the school a full day before they manage to attract trouble, but even that turns outs to be a lucky break for Brewster, because detention is in the library.

Which brings us to point number two that I love about this book: the power of a school librarian! Miss O'Grady's the best sort of librarian, too, because she doesn't judge. Brewster can't read, but he knows he needs to because he might be president of the United States. Miss O'Grady doesn't laugh when Brewster tells her this, despite the odds stacked so high against him that even he recognizes them. She simply sets to work teaching him how to read. She solicits a promise from Brewster to come and see her everyday, which guarantees the young boy--and all the children--a safe and equal place to go, even when the difficulties of his school situation seem dark. And judging from the rocks that rain on the bus as it approaches the school, and the parents of white students who speak hatefully in front of him, and the sense at the end of the book that he doesn't want to worry his mother--Brewster is becoming aware that his great new opportunity will come with a struggle.

Point number three: the artwork of R.G. Roth. I am not familiar with any of his other works (though of course I should be!) so I can't say if this is indicative of his style. But the illustrations immediately draw to mind the work of Ezra Jack Keats, who left a remarkable legacy of picture books depicting urban children in day to day situations which resonated with joy and promise. Roth's use of collage in particular emphasizes the way this social experiment was pieced together. It is certainly hoped that the pieces come together with joy and promise for Brewster.

As a final point, Michelson's Author's Note tells a story of its own. After briefly outlining the controversy surrounding forced busing, he discuses how Busing Brewster was written in 2003, when the idea of an African American president still seemed like a pipe dream. He writes, "My words have taken on a greater resonance than I intended, which is what authors hope for." While this particular dream has become a reality in the time between writing the book and publishing it, what will constantly be a goal for which to strive, and is the overriding message of this book, is that when a child is given the opportunity to reach his or her potential, the influence of good people--rather than good intentions--can never be underestimated.

18 October 2010

My new pet peeve: books with instructions

So. I sit down at lunch with a couple of picture books I have been sent to review.  I open book number one, and the first thing I see is a Parent's Introduction. 'Introduction' is a euphamistic way of saying 'instructions.' Yes, this book came with instructions on several different ways to utilize it. Because simply opening it up and reading it is clearly too difficult a concept to grasp. With scattered bold type to indicate that a child might like to try reading that word themselves, to a list of "fun" review questions in the back, we now have the picture book as text book.


I will go so far as to accept that reading out loud does not come naturally to everyone. Many was the time that my husband tried to get out of bedtime story duty by pleading, "But Mummy reads better." He was right, of course. But when push came to shove, he was fully capable of opening the book and reading it, much to the delight of our daughter. It wasn't because he inflected his voice a certain way when he read specially highlighted words, or prompted her to read with him, or broke up the story with relevant facts about the book's topic. She was delighted because he was reading to her.

This lunchtime brow-raiser, which comes fresh off the heels of the by now infamous New York Times article about the death of the picture book, confirms something I have long suspected: that all the fun is being sapped out of childhood. Kids are no longer allowed to simply experience something for experience's sake. There has to be a larger agenda on the horizon--probably Harvard or some other grandiose destiny. Learning to read can't be an organic process that develops from sharing books with a loved one; it has to follow a road map, and comes complete with instructions so that the grown-up doesn't do it "wrong." The real tragedy, is that there are adults who do feel like they need those instructions--that reading aloud is such a mystery that it's possible to screw it up. Let it go, folks. So long as you--to steal a much overused phrase--just do it, reading works.

11 October 2010

Fact or fiction--Old Abe, Eagle Hero

I originally intended to write a straight-out review of Old Abe, Eagle Hero but was stymied by the nagging conviction that I could not give it a rave review. And since I have a policy of only reviewing books if I can do so positively, I nearly bailed on this assignment. And yet, I quite liked this book and wanted to write about it. So what's the problem?

The problem is that the book represents itself as a factual account of an actual bird's life, yet it is poorly researched and full of inaccuracies. Or maybe it was meticulously researched and the reader just doesn't know this because there are no references. And maybe the inaccuracies aren't inaccurate at all, but again--no documented sources to back anything up. Do you see my problem?

I was originally intrigued by this book because of its historical context. I also like eagles and am always interested in the stories behind symbols. This book tells the story of Old Abe (who according to Wikipedia was actually a female, although I have not found confirmation of this anywhere else) an eaglet who was found (captured? let's not be euphemistic) by a Native American chief in the Northwoods of Wisconsin in 1861. The eaglet is traded to a man named Dan McCann who eventually sends the eagle off to war in his place. An explanation is offered as to why he does this (he cannot fight himself, and the bird has shown remarkable intelligence,) but that is really immaterial to the heart of the book--Old Abe's heroic exploits with the 8th Regiment of Wisconsin. Old Abe is involved in several major Civil War battles and serves not only as a mascot, but as a spy and is even credited with dragging a wounded soldier to safety. After the war Old Abe goes to live in the Wisconsin State Building as a war hero. A two room apartment is built specially for the bird, where he resides, when he isn't making guest appearances at special events such as the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia in 1876 and a fund raiser to preserve the Old South Church in Boston.
Old Abe him/herself

At which point the book abruptly ends. Which is extremely unfortunate! Because this abrupt ending makes the reader aware of several flaws with the book. The most glaring is the aforementioned lack of source material used to research and write the book. Secondly, an author's note at the end, while providing much commentary about the plight of bald eagles in the United States, fails to provide any further information about Old Abe or help to clarify what part of the story is bona fide fact and what is poetic license.

101st Airborne Division
And yet, as I said, I liked this book. I thought it was written with a sense of drama (at least up to its abrupt ending.) I loved the water color illustrations that managed to portray Old Abe with playfulness when fraternizing with the men of the company, and ferocity when leading them into battle. I liked knowing that Old Abe was well taken care of after the war. I even liked the scavenger hunt the book sent me on. But how much of it was actually real? The Internet is chock full of pictures of Old Abe, who seems to have been a well-documented bird (which makes the lack of references in this book so baffling.) The bird left an incredible visual legacy, immortalized in stone on monuments, illustrated on postcards, and sewn on patches. This book has near-well inspired Old Abe mania in me, and might very well do so for another reader. But is it fair to expect someone to scour for other sources to ensure that what they read in the book is accurate? Well, no.....of course not. So while this book sets out to tell an exciting and inspirational story, it's likely to raise more questions than it will answer. And yet, and yet, and yet.......I thought it was worth reading.

Thank you to Kane/Miller for providing me a copy of the book to review.

07 October 2010

Rave Review: The Last Train

In the interest of full disclosure, I need to make a confession: I am a former railway conductor. I worked for Midland Mainline, a railway operating company in England, for four years, working my way up from trolley dolly to guard. There was a time when I knew every bump in the line from Sheffield to London. Whenever I stand on a station platform, and watch a train leave, I am sorry for the adventure I am not having. In brief, as far as trains are concerned, I am soooooo biased.

The Last Train is based on a song by musician Gordon Titcomb, a song which he admits was heavily influenced by the railroad songs that came before. It is an extremely personal book. It isn't about the diesel-spouting High Speed Trains (HST's) that I used to work on. Rather, it is a nostalgic look at an age of shoveling coal and lonely whistles in the night; of an industry which shrank in this country so as to be almost unrecognizable. The title page shows a young boy, through whose eyes we follow the story, standing in front of a steam engine. On either side of him is a conductor and an engineer. We eventually discover that this is in fact his father and grandfather. Illustrations of the boy standing in front of a derelict station or walking beside a line overrun with weeds and wildflowers serve to show us how the last train to roll through his town spelled not just the end of an industry, but the loss of his legacy as well.

Lest the book sink into melancholy, the story is buoyed by the memories of the glory days of steam. The text is quite poetic. I particularly liked, "A ticket punch that clicked a million snowflakes every year." What a lyrical way to describe a rather routine job for a conductor. The text is complemented by the grand paintings of Wendell Minor. He makes full use of double page spreads to present a panorama worthy of the far-reaching power of a steam train, whether showing an approaching engine or zooming in on a detail of pennies flattened on the line ("little metal tears/That a railroad cries before it disappears.") Significantly, when Minor is representing individuals--a brakeman, a porter, a fireman--he forgoes the double-spread paintings for smaller, compact portraits. By focusing on the individuals with more intimacy, he reiterates the personal nature of the book. His paintings are literal to the text, which is an especially effective technique in a story where holding on to memories is vital.

When a conductor sees a train away from the platform (at least in England,) they are required, for various safety reasons, to look out a window (preferably from the last coach) and watch until the train has left the platform completely. There were many times, late night shifts in particular, when I would look out, and as the train curved along the bend of the track, the only light I could see was from the train itself. That lonely light in a dark night is, for me, evocative of the romance of trains and the railway life in general. Trains are powerful, magnificent, revolutionary machines. Yet even they gave way in the face of advancing technology. There is a painting towards the end of the book which visualizes this truth perfectly: a train (not even a steamie, but a diesel) rides along the rail while an airplane flies above it in the opposite direction. The plane's contrails leave a cloudy, imitation rail of its own in the sky.

Fortunately, trains--like dinosaurs--have immense kid appeal. The sort of appeal that is not generally outgrown (case in point--me!) The last train might have rolled through a lost America, but with books like this one, it can always roll through one more time.


Folk fans take note: Arlo Guthrie, who recorded one of the most famous railroad songs ever, wrote the forward. Also, a list of Railroad Museum websites is provided to promote trainspotting delight. Thank you to Florence and Wendell Minor for providing me with a copy of the book to review.

05 October 2010

It's been the kind of day.....

.....where I really needed a laugh. I can't comment on the books, but the covers are hilarious.

01 October 2010

Cybils nominations are open!

It's October 1st, and that means one thing--nominations for the 2010 Cybils awards are now open! A hefty list of nominees is evolving as we speak (and you can see what they are, by category, here) but there is always room for more. Do you have a favorite childrens or young adult book from 2010 that you think should be recognized? The beauty of the Cybils is that anyone who reads a book has a voice. The rules and regulations for nominating can be read here. Once you are all caught up and ready to make your  selections, the nomination form is here. Have fun!

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