The Graveyard Book: A Review

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, with illustrations by Dave McKeanIf you somehow missed the big news, this book was the 2009 winner of the Newbery Award for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” This was a big deal in the world of children’s literature for two reasons. (1) A lot of readers really liked this book (and Gaiman in general) before the awards were announced and (2) unlike past winners this book appeals just as strongly to adult readers as to children (I acknowledge this point is debatable).

To save readers some of the embarrassment I had upon finally realizing as much, I will say right now that Neil Gaiman‘s novel (with illustrations by Dave McKean) The Graveyard Book (2008) is a riff on Rudyard Kipling’s classic The Jungle Book.

If things had gone differently, Nobody Owens might have had a normal life. Things, however, did not go that way and now Bod is a normal boy leading a life very far from what most people would call normal.

When the man Jack killed his family, Bod managed to escape and found sanctuary in a graveyard where he was adopted by two ghosts–the only parents he’s ever known. The Owenses raise Bod as their son in the graveyard with the help of Silas, the boy’s corporeal guardian who is neither living or dead. As he grows older, Bod views the graveyard as his home; its residents become his mentors and friends.

The graveyard is a wonderful place for someone who has free reign and knows no fear of ghosts, but the world is bigger than one graveyard. And somewhere out in that big world is the man Jack. Still waiting for his chance to reunite Bod with his first, long dead, family.

The illustrations in The Graveyard Book when the first page revealed not the expected page of text but dramatic white-on-black text and the stunning first line of the novel:

There was a hand in the darkness and it held a knife.

This blend of the unexpected and the sensational in the first page largely sets the tone for the rest of the book with its unique content both in written and illustrated form. Although the illustrations take a backseat for the middle part of the novel, they are also likely to entice readers more commonly comfortable with graphic novels.

I read this book after the Newbery was announced and after hearing a significant amount of praise for the it. I also read it after already knowing that The Jungle Book (in the form of the Disney movie to be fair) was not one of my all-time favorite stories. All of which might explain why, although I can see why so many people love this book so much, I merely liked it.

In the acknowledgments section at the end of the book, Gaiman reveals that he started writing The Graveyard Book with chapter four (The Witch’s Headstone) which goes a long way to explain why the story felt more like a collection of related short stories than a novel. For the same reason, the ending seemed to come together quickly and, in some ways, without a connection to the rest of the story (I want to explain further but I can’t because it is a giant spoiler). Another difficulty I had with this book, and it’s been happening to me a lot, is that the story did not end the way I wanted. I am trying to make my peace with that.

That said, this is a rare book that–provided you can put aside your qualms–will appeal to almost everyone. Bod is a great character boys can identify with in this coming-of-age story that never once gets too sappy for boys (or too gory for girls). There is action, adventure, humor, and really good writing. The illustrations are sure to entice reluctant readers. On top of that, there is Silas. One day I will compile a list of the greatest non-protagonist characters in literature and Silas will be near the top of that list.

Jacket praise for The Graveyard Book suggested that readers would want to see more of Bod and his graveyard retinue. While I greatly enjoyed parts of this story (especially chapter four), I disagree. The ending was not the one I wanted, but it was a perfect place to leave Bod and the rest of the characters–a perfect blend of closure and open-endedness.

(I just realized the cover has a boy’s profile carved out of the tombstone. The cover design makes so much more sense now. The discovery also makes me like the book a tiny bit more. ALSO, should you procure the English edition of this book it will have a different cover and different illustrations by Chris Riddell so I have no idea if what I say here will apply to that edition as well.)

The View from Saturday: A Chick Lit Wednesday review

The View from Saturday by E. L. KonigsburgI have a great story about this book: When I was in grade school my class would venture to the public library to get books. On one of those trips, I found The View from Saturday (1996) by E. L. Konigsburg. I loved the cover, read the book, loved it as well. And promptly forgot about it for ten some odd years. Although I distinctly remembered the cover with a house and four cups of tea in the window, I could not for the life of me remember any other information about the book. I gave up all hope of ever finding it again.

Then, when I was shelving books in the children’s room, what should I stumble upon but a copy of the very book I had been sure I would never see again?

Upon our reunion, I realized even with the book in hand I did not know a lot about it. The fact that The View from Saturday won the Newbery Award in 1997 completely escaped me (I might have read it before it won, definitely before I knew anything about the Newbery’s). I also did not remember Mrs. Olinski being a paraplegic. And, perhaps most embarrassing, I did not realize that E. L. Konigsburg was a woman until I was reading about her online and discovered that in addition to winning the 1997 Newbery, Konigsburg also won the award in 1968 for From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler–the same year that Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth was selected as an honor book. That never happens with the Newbery. Anyway, I still look back on this book with fond memories even though recent examinations suggest that I might have missed some nuances on my first reading.

Mrs. Olinski has several good answers about how she chose the four sixth graders for her Academic Bowl team, partly because she always has good answers. But, truth be told, Mrs. Olinski is not entirely sure how she chose her team.

The fact was that Mrs. Olinski did not know how she had chosen her team, and the further fact was that she didn’t know that she didn’t know until she did know.

Another mystery is how these unlikely sixth graders became first friends calling themselves “The Souls” and, later, an Academic Bowl team by the same name that beat the seventh grade team, the eighth grade team, and so on right to the Bowl Day championship where The Souls from Epiphany would face off against the older Maxwell bowl team.

This story takes place on the day of that championship. As the teams compete, short stories are interspersed–one for each of The Souls–to explain how they answer each question and, also, how they became friends.

I feel safe in saying, without equivocation, that The View from Saturday is a classic in the realm of children’s literature. The writing is delicate and complex much like a piece of lace held up to a light. At the same time, this story is a timeless one about friendship and journeys big and small. I read somewhere that the stories within this book were “jewel like” which I think is a good adjective to end this review with because, really, what more could I add?

Possible Pairings: Lucky Strikes by Louis Bayard, Sender Unknown by Sallie Lowenstein, The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, Signed, Skye Harper by Carol Lynch Williams

The Thief: A Chick Lit Wednesday review

The Thief coverThe Thief (1996) by Megan Whalen Turner (Find it on Bookshop.)

Megan Whalen Turner is one of my favorite authors. She has been since my mom procured an Advance Reader Copy of The Queen of Attolia in 2000. I devoured that book, loving every minute of it. Years later, when I began my library career, I discovered that the book was second in a series, something I had not known before. Of course, as soon as I knew about The Thief I had to read it.

Published in 1996, The Thief was selected as a Newberry Honor Book in 1997 (had the winning book been different for that year, I’d say Megan Whalen Turner had been robbed, but I hold a special place in my heart for E. L. Konigsburg’s The View From Saturday so I can’t say that). One website gives this explanation of the award: “A medal presented annually to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published in the United States in the preceding year. The recipients must be citizens or residents of the United States.” That hopefully illustrates how big a deal it is to any readers unfamiliar with such awards.

Whalen’s second novel, The Thief is set in a world that Turner likens to ancient Byzantium in later volumes (Byzantines > Greeks). In this one, however, she acknowledeges similarities to ancient Greece. The story follows a man named Eugenides who, at the beginning of the novel, finds himself locked in the king’s prison of a foreign land.

Quietly biding his time, Gen occupies himself by marking days and practicing cat-like movements around his cell. The achingly monotonous routine is broken when the king’s scholar, the magus, recruits Gen for a hunt of sorts. The magus knows the site of an ancient and valuable treasure that would be of great value to his king. But despite his vast learning, the magus cannot get the treasure alone. He needs a skillful thief. And before his arrest, Gen “had bragged without shame about [his] skills in every wine store in the city” before his arrest outside of still another wine shop.

Given his choices, Gen unsurprisingly agrees to accompany the magus on the quest. As their party traverses the countryside on their way to this elusive treasure, it becomes clear that more is at stake than riches. This novel (and its two subsequent sequels) center around three kingdoms–Eddis, Sounis, and Attolia–whose fates, readers soon realize, are bound together more intricately than anyone might have initially thought.

Some novels are adventures, some are character-driven. The Thief is, for the most part, a quest novel although it does feature several twists and more than a little intrigue. However, without Turner’s wonderfully evocative characters none of that would matter. Eugenides is, in many ways, a star. And he knows it. Nonetheless, affection for this character is contagious–he is unbelievably sympathetic and extremely original. And clever. By the end of the novel it becomes obvious that Gen is always at least five steps ahead of everyone else and always holding all of the cards.

Told in the first person, this novel is the first I ever saw where a character said something acidly. (“That,” I said acidly, “is the way my mother told it to me.”) It seems silly to talk about one sentence from a piece of dialogue, but that kind of writing is why I love Megan Whalen Turner’s books.

In fact, if I was being completely honest, I cherish these books. Working in a library, I sifted through discards for years to acquire the complete trilogy. The books are old and dingy with processing marks aplenty, but none of that really matters because they’re also all mine.

Although it was a Newberry Honor Book for children’s literature, I’ve seen this novel categorized as YA. It’s also the kind of book that could easily appeal to boys and girls–fans of historical fiction and fantasy. In other words, this is a book for everyone.

If you enjoy The Thief, you can read more about Eugenides (and Eddis, Sounis, and Attolia) in The Queen of Attolia (2001) and The King of Attolia (2006).

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn, Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers,Soundless by Richelle Mead, Sabriel by Garth Nix, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Hitty: Her First Hundred Years (a review!)

I have been meaning to read Hitty: Her First Hundred Years (1929) by Rachel Field (illustrated wonderfully in what I assume is pen and ink by Dorothy P. Lathrop) for a rather long time.

Find it on Bookshop.

Several years ago my mother bought me a reproduction Hitty doll by Robert Raikes (big deal carver of dolls and bears though he no longer seems to be making Hitty dolls). His Hitty is shown in the picture at left.

After buying the doll, and doing a bit of research, we found an edition of Field’s novel with the original 1929 text and illustrations. There is another, newer, edition with updated text by Rosemary Wells and illustrations by Susan Jeffers. The newer book came out, I believe, to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of Field’s original novel. I never read this version, actually sending it back upon realizing it was an adaptation, but other reviewers’ outrage at the changes suggest I was right to do so. If you haven’t guessed already, Hitty fans are numerous and loyal.

Hitty, amazingly, was real. Hitty.org is but one site dedicated to chronicling the life and history of this amazing doll. The site includes this picture of a Daguerreotype actually mentioned in the novel as well as a variety of other interesting photos and well-researched facts:

As the subtitle suggests, Hitty is already a centenarian at the start of Field’s fictionalized account of her adventures. Safely ensconced in a New York antique store equipped with quill and paper, Hitty decides it is high time to begin setting her story down for posterity. What follows is a children’s novel that truly deserves the Newberry Medal it received in 1930 for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”

Hitty begins her life as a lucky piece of mountain-ash wood carried by an old peddler. In exchange for lodging during a particularly bad Maine winter, the Old Peddler decides to carve his piece of wood into a doll for the family’s seven-year-old child, Phoebe Preble. Hitty and Phoebe have their share of adventures during their time together. More, it might be argued, than one doll could manage (including a section that reads very much like part of Moby Dick geared to a much younger audience). But, as readers realize soon enough, Hitty is no ordinary doll. As the story progresses, Hitty passes through many hands and a variety of owners. Like most things, some owners prove better than others in the same way that certain events of Hitty’s life are more worthy of space in her memoirs than others.

When you realize that this book is from 1929, well before any other doll novels were published, it becomes clear that Hitty is something special because Field did it first. At first, I thought the novel might come off as dated since it was written so long ago. But I was happily proven wrong and found that the text stood up to my modern standards as well as Hitty’s chemise survives her first century. Many of the insights that Hitty expresses throughout the book remain very accurate to this day. Hitty’s calm demeanor and buoyant spirit also help to make this doll downright lovable.

Field’s prose is wonderful. Even though I knew Hitty was safe in the antique shop, each new peril left me fearing for Hitty and in a state of suspense until I found out if she had survived. The people that Hitty passes during the course of her first century are equally well-realized in the text. In terms of classic children’s literature (especially for a younger child), I can’t think of many better examples.

If, you want still more Hitty, you can check out Gail Wilson’s website. This very talented (and expensive) doll makers features her own version of Hitty available both ready-made and as a kit. Here are two examples:

Ella Enchanted: A (mildly feminist) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson LevineWhen it comes to empowered heroines, Ella is the last word–except, really, she’s the first word. When I first started the CLW reviews, it was to exhibit books with protagonists like her. That said, bear with me for this review because I love the book and spent a good part of last semester writing a paper about why it is an effective feminist text while the movie adaptation loosely based on the novel totally sucks.

Feminists often denounce traditional fairy tales because they perpetuate the ideals of a patriarchal society by encouraging girls to behave like proper princesses and wait for charming princes to take charge and save the day. In response to these traditional fairy tales, many authors have tried to reclaim the realm of fairy tales for girls. These retellings feature active protagonists who are not scared of taking charge and do not need princes to save them. One example of this new fairy tale genre is the 1998 children’s novel Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, which takes an nontraditional approach to retelling the story of Cinderella.

Find it on Bookshop.

The novel addresses several specific feminist issues, specifically negotiating and fighting the burden of obedience, the importance of female friendships and, of course, learning to save yourself.

The story is set in an imaginary, medieval-esque kingdom called Frell. A roaming fairy named Lucinda gives Ella the gift/curse of obedience at Ella’s birth. As a result, Ella has to do everything she is told, no matter what harm it might cause to herself or others. (In the novel, the severity of Ella’s curse in constantly underscored with passages explaining how little control Ella has over her own life: “If someone told me to hop on one foot for a day and a half, I’d have to do it. And hopping on one foot wasn’t the worst order I could be given. If you commanded me to cut off my own head, I’d have to do it.”) As the plot moves forward Ella is compelled to leave home to try and find Lucinda and ask her to lift the curse. Along the way she also falls in love with Prince Char. For varying reasons, depending on the version, Lucinda refuses to lift the curse. Further difficulties arise as Ella continues her quest.

That’s the main body of the story. The Cinderella element is relevant mainly to the last quarter of the novel where actual elements from that story (the slipper, the ball) appear in the story, although the evil step-sisters and fairy godmother are present throughout the narrative.

There are several reasons that I love this novel and recommend it to everyone. The first is that it’s an imaginative retelling of Cinderella which makes the story exciting for readers familiar with the original version without making it too abtruse for readers who have never heard of Cinderella. Also, the book is full of great role models for girls. All of the female characters are strong, self-aware women–things seen far too rarely in the fairy tale genre. The novel is narrated in Ella’s voice. This makes it easy to see how strong Ella is as a character (especially at the end of the novel).

The other great thing about this book is that it all seems authentic, never over the top or under-written. In addition to creating immensely likable main characters, Levine creates a compelling world within the pages of Ella Enchanted vivid with details ranging from Elvish and Gnomish languages to customs at a Giant’s wedding. The story is an immensely entertaining page-turner that will (even better) leave readers feeling satisfied when they reach the final scene where Levine ties everything together, artfully blending empowerment with a happy-ever-after ending fit for a traditional fairy tale.

This review is excerpted from a scholarly paper I wrote comparing the book version of Ella Enchanted to its movie adaptation. You can read the full article here: http://digitalcommons.pace.edu/research_awards/1/

Possible Pairings: The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix, Princess Academy by Shannon Hale, The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy, Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Enchanted by Alethea Kontis, The Forbidden Wish by Jessica Khoury, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, Beauty by Robin McKinley, Frogkisser! by Garth Nix, Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, The Accidental Highwayman by Ben Tripp, Princeless Book 1: Save Yourself (2012) by Jeremy Whitley and illustrated by M. Goodwin, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde, Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede