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Monday, May 4, 2015

Echoes in Life


A morning symphony greets me as I walk and run these spring days. Red-winged blackbirds trill from dried cattail heads. Cardinals call from tree branches. Woodpeckers tap into bark. Chickadees sing in rhythm. Even loons laugh in pairs as they fly to another lake. Their echoes abound and resonate throughout the day. 

Pam Muñoz Ryan’s latest book Echo has been resounding in my thoughts as well, filling my mind with four interconnected stories, harmonica songs, personal struggles, and the joy of finding one’s passions. The story begins with a boy’s encounter with three mysterious sisters, destined to live with an evil witch yet hopeful in their quest to be released. From the forest, readers travel to October of 1933 in Trossingen, Baden-Württemberg, to June of 1935 in Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, to December of 1942 in Southern Californina, and finally to April of 1951 in New York City. 

In each time and place, I became so engrossed with the characters and their situations that I felt certain I could not enjoy the next section. Yet those same connections occurred again, echoing with deeds and lessons and songs. And then, almost every magically, the book ended in the most amazing possible way. I loved it. I know readers who have echoed my sentiments about it, and I know young readers will engage with this book just as strongly.

By the way, each section begins with the harmonica music for a song, and those songs play an essential role in the section. 
Brahms’ Lullaby
America the Beautiful
Auld Lang Syne
Some Enchanted Evening
The music and the harmonica made one friend seek out her childhood harmonica to look carefully at its markings and try to play it! Savor this phenomenal book!





Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Batty Growing Up


How comforting it is to read about a familiar character and her family! The past few days Batty Penderwick, her sisters and brother, her parents, the neighbors, and her sort-of-adopted brother Jeffrey have inhabited my mind, much as the real people in my life do. When I tell people I am reading Jeanne Birdsall's The Penderwicks in Spring and that beloved Batty is in fifth grade, those in the know gasp and say, "Batty? In fifth grade? How can she be so old already?" It is as if they, too, love and know this quirky girl as I feel I do.

Batty is still musically inclined, still opposed to participating in sports, still needing reassurance from Jeffrey, and still inclined to snuggling Funty (though now she listens to music on the old record player bought for her by Iantha while doing so). Yet she is changing, growing to be a wise big sister to Ben and Lydia and starting her own business: Penderwick Willing to Work. With growing up comes knowledge of things heartbreaking and difficult to comprehend. So sad are some of these things that I had to be by myself to read at times! But those Penderwicks are nothing but supportive. They carefully seek to tell the truth and bring Batty to light and love again. 

I loved this fourth book in the series. I especially liked Batty's aversion to book reports. 

"She was reading Masterpiece, about a boys named James and his friend Marvin, who happens to be a beetle. It was high on her list of books she refused to ruin by writing about in a book report." p. 132

"The Phantom Tollbooth was yet another book much too wonderful to wreck with a book report." p. 146

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Black Dove, White Raven


Traveling through the last few days, Elizabeth Wein's latest novel Black Dove, White Raven lingered in the background of my thoughts. Emilia Menotti and her brother Teodros Dupre are "in the soup together" as Italian forces invade Ethiopia in 1935. Strapped into the same cockpit seat at age five, the children of flying partners Cordelia Dupre (Black Dove) and Rhoda Menotti (White Raven) have grown up together, despite the "Delia-sized hole" created when Teo's mother was killed in a bird strike. They instinctively reach for each other's hands when frightened, squeezing three times to communicate "Are you scared?" and feel the returned four squeezes, meaning "I am not scared."

The novel begins, however, with Em's declaration of acknowledgement that she is the only person who can help her and her brother. And so she writes to the emperor of Ethiopia, begging for forgiveness for Teo and a passport to help him leave the country. As evidence of his goodness and innocence, she sends the essays, stories, and flight plans the two have composed for their teacher and their mother. The book, then, is a chronological record of their experiences, joint and single, that go from their arrival from Bucks Country,Pennsylvania to the Beehive Hill Cooperative Coffee Farm in Tazma Meda. The people who love them in Ethiopia range from the clinic doctor and his wife to Teo's biological uncle to Habte Sadek, the priest at the nearby church who teaches them to throw spears and is guarding ancient treasures. Yet Teo and Em are eventually thrust into war, defense, and secrecy. They must work to make right a terrible debt owed while learning that "spiderwebs joined together can catch a lion". 

Gripping in the descriptions of events and in emotion, the story is told so well in the young people's voices that their fictional nature is in question in my mind. The author's notes separate the real events and people with those of her imagination. But once again, my interaction with a book enlightened my mind about a period in history I had not previously know. Read this book. 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Huzza, huzza


Yesterday afternoon my mind and heart were gloriously filled with beautiful words as I listened to Sharon Creech's acceptance speech for the 2015 Kerlan Award at the University of Minnesota and later contemplated her words in some of my favorite books. Listening to the story of her own journey into writerhood, I savored the snippets of background information that shaped the books she has written and explain her writing process. Like all journeys in life, there was not straight course, she said, to becoming a writer. Most of my life's journeys have taken curved paths, too. Salamanca Tree Hiddle noted early in Walk Two Moons, "...if people expect you to be brave, sometimes you pretend that you are, even when you are frightened down to your very bones." Insert numerous other adjectives for brave, and finish the sentence to correspond to them. That sums up many lessons I have learned in life. My three favorite books by Sharon Creech sit apart from the other on my shelf now, waiting for my to reread and appreciate more of her wisdom and compassion.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Forest Feast


This morning my youngest son and I walked around the lake east of our home. Trees are budding, pussy willows look like large dew drops on their branches, loons and a trumpeter swan floated with the mallards on the small patches of open water, and seed pods fluttered in the breeze. The surrounding forest echoed with birds calling to each other and woodpeckers tapping on tree trunks. It was a feast for the senses.

Back at home Erin Gleeson's The Forest Feast rests on our table. It, too, is a feast for the senses. Organized into appetizers, cocktails, salads, vegetable dishes, and sweets, it contains basic - yet somehow inventive - vegetarian recipes. Each is featured on a double-page spread with step-by-step instructions and photographs (taken by the author) of the ingredients and finished product. Her choice of Traveling Typewriter and Vintage Typewriter as the fonts is perfect, as is the occasional use of her own handwriting in the directions. Each section is prefaced by a list of the recipes in it, annotated with some notes about flavors, serving, and recipe history. It is a beautiful book, and the recipes are intriguing enough that I just might have to buy this book.

Will I ever remember some of her flavor combinations or ideas if I just try to keep them in my mind? How about Curried Crispy Carrots or Guacamole Deviled Eggs? The Green Salad, the Yellow Salad, and the Red Salad all look delicious, as do the savory Polenta Portabellos. Mmm. Treat your body and mind by pursuing and using this excellent cookbook!

Friday, March 13, 2015

Passing Quickly


One morning this week, I returned to the library with a third grader who was returning a book. "Sometimes books pass too quickly," he told me thoughtfully. I agree completely (though I might not have felt the same about the book in his hand: a Captain Underpants volume). It is happening to me today. In fact, I left The War That Saved My Life (written by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley) to write this, knowing I will finish it when I return to my sunny chair.

I have spent part of the last day in the English countryside during the early years of World War II with Ada Smith, her younger brother Jamie, and their unlikely caretaker, Miss Susan Smith. Though not related to the children, she accepts the evacuees and provides for their well-being. The two live in fear, having been mistreated, neglected, and malnourished by their biological mother. Ada, in fact, had never been allowed out of their third floor apartment, constantly told by her mother it was her fault she had a deformed foot. But Ada is a determined girl. Alone in their apartment, she teaches herself to walk - however painfully - in order to escape the prison imposed on her by her bullying mother. 

And then she meets Susan Smith, the pony named Butter in Susan's field, a stable caretaker named Fred Grimes, and numerous other kind and compassionate folks whose generosity and concern slowly turn her mistrust into hope. With Susan, I discovered how terribly sheltered the children had been. Words they should know need explanations and modeling. Their assumptions about people and meanness must be wore down with reassurance, bedtime reading (The Swiss Family Robinson), baths, three meals a day, and attention. 

I have been laughing, pondering, celebrating, and shaking my head as the pages of this book pass too quickly. May you feel the same way about it.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Naming Nail Polish


Though I have never been good at keeping my nails evenly shaped, the polished nails of others look so pretty. So colorful. The names of those colors are like a game for me. What would I call each one? When I turn over a bottle, I often sigh, feeling a connection with the person who named a color the same thing I would have chosen.

Melody Bishop, the main character in Honey by Sarah Weeks, has a knack for naming colors, and the owner of a new salon lets her name all one hundred original colors at the Bee Hive. What joy! Not one to get a manicure herself, Melody originally comes to the Bee Hive on a mission with her best friend Nick Woo. It seems someone overhead at the salon that Henry has been bitten by the love bug. With her dad behaving strangely (putting a copy of The Red Badge of Courage in the freezer, for example), Melody assumes her dad is that Henry! Coincidences do not always align with facts, of course, and through the course of this compactly told story, Melody discovers things about her dad, the mother she never knew, and a dog named Wolgang Amadeus Mozart. 

Readers will delight in the wonderful friendship between Melody and Nick, wishing they could have friends like those two. They will relate to the antics of Teeny Nelson (polish #54 is named Teeny's Tutu) and laugh at her description of the flavor of Dum Dum mystery suckers. And perhaps they will carry colors in their hearts and heads, accurately putting words to the colors that bring them happiness, thoughtfulness, and pondering. Some of Melody's nail polish names bring an instant image to my brain: Sea Glass, Pillow Fight, Creamsicle, Midas Touch. Her #101 is named Honey, and I'll let you discover why.