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Book Review: A Year Down Yonder

Peck, Richard. A Year Down Yonder. New York, NY: Dial Books for Young Readers, 2000.

Mary Alice’s childhood summers in Grandma Dowdel’s sleepy Illinois town were packed with enough drama to fill the double bill of any picture show. But now she is fifteen, and faces a whole long year with Grandma, a woman well known for shaking up her neighbors-and everyone else! All Mary Alice can know for certain is this: when trying to predict how life with Grandma might turn out… better not.

This book is a sequel to A Long Way From Chicago, but I honestly didn’t even know that there was a previous book. It works just fine as a stand-alone, which is important to consider when suggesting books to children. For some series, you really need to read the books in order or you won’t understand things. There’s nothing more frustrating than reading and knowing you’re missing something important that was in a previous book.

A Year Down Yonder, the Newbery Award winner for 2001, starts off slow… and doesn’t pick up much speed as it goes on. The pace of the novel was much like the town in which it’s set: “sleepy” is the perfect description! But that worked because the novel is historical (set in late 1937 and early 1938), and life had a slower pace back then. It was an interesting contrast with Bud, Not Buddy, which was set in the same decade in Michigan but was paced faster like the jazz music that was its theme.

Overall I liked this book, but I didn’t love it. There were a lot of little stories that were only thinly connected, and I prefer books with a bigger overarching storyline. They were interesting, but nothing grabbed my attention and refused to let go. With most books there is a point where you hit escape velocity – it’s that moment in the story where you can’t bear to be interrupted, you just have to read straight through to the end. Neptune’s Children is a great example of escape velocity. I didn’t get that feeling with A Year Down Yonder, but it was still enjoyable.

Book Review: Bud, Not Buddy

Curtis, Christopher Paul. Bud, Not Buddy. New York, NY: Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 1999.

It’s 1936 in Flint, Michigan. Times may be hard, and 10-year-old Bud may be a motherless boy on the run, but Bud’s got a few things going for him:

1. He has his own suitcase full of special things.
2. He’s the author of Bud Caldwell’s Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself.
3. His momma never told him who his father was, but she left a clue: flyers advertising Herman E. Calloway and his famous band, the Dusky Devastators of the Depression!!!!!!

Bud’s got an idea that those posters will lead him to his father. Once he decides to hit the road and find this mystery man, nothing can stop him — not hunger, not fear, not vampires, not even Herman E. Calloway himself.

Can I tell you how much I love this book? I LOVE THIS BOOK! It’s one of my favorite Newbery winners (winner in 2000), and I highly recommend listening to the audiobook – it’s read by actor James Avery, known to many as Uncle Phil on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and he is absolutely amazing. I first listened to this one when I was in library school, in a Children’s Literature class, but I’m not sure if I finished or just listened to most of it. So I decided it was worth a reread.

The title of the book comes from Bud’s momma, who died when Bud was six years old. She says that his name is Bud, not Buddy, and that she knew what she was doing, and if she wanted to name him Buddy, she would have. So when anyone asks his name, he tells them, “My name is Bud, not Buddy.” And then they tease him and call him Bud, Not Buddy. It’s really cute that he says it every time, because he’s a kid and kids do things like that.

Bud’s Rules and Things For Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself are a theme throughout the novel. Basically, it’s things that Bud has figured out being on his own, in and out of foster homes since his mother died. Some of them are poignant, like that when an adult says someone is “gone” it usually means “dead.” Others are funny, like when you wake up and don’t know where you are, it’s best to keep your eyes closed and pretend to sleep until you can figure out what’s going on.

The story takes place in the United States during the Depression, and Bud (and vicariously, the reader) experiences and learns about a lot of things of the time, like Hoovervilles and soup kitchens and Jazz music. That’s another reason the audiobook is awesome – there is often saxophone music underscoring the narration, and more instruments join in sometimes too. It makes me want a CD of the Dusky Devastators of the Depression, but I’ll settle for my Jazz station in Pandora. 🙂

This is a great book for boys, which are sometimes hard to find books for because they don’t want to read about girls. And the character names are great! Deza Malone, Lefty Lewis, Steady Eddie… the names go along with the Jazzy tone of the novel, especially those in the band. Reading it is awesome, but listening to it is even better.

Book Review: Number the Stars

Lowry, Lois. Number the Stars. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.

Ten-year-old Annemarie Johansen and her best friend Ellen Rosen often think about life before the war. But it’s now 1943 and their life in Copenhagen is filled with school, food shortages, and the Nazi soldiers marching in their town.
The Nazis won’t stop. The Jews of Denmark are being “relocated,” so Ellen moves in with the Johansens and pretends to be part of the family.
Then Annemarie is asked to go on a dangerous mission. Somehow she must find the strength and courage to to save her best friend’s life. There’s no turning back now.

The Newbery Award winner for 1990, this is another one I read as a child. I didn’t remember anything about this book except that it has to do with things that happen during World War II. And I really liked it. A lot of kids read this book as part of the curriculum in elementary school.

It’s a slim book and mainly covers one sequence of a couple days. That’s a good thing, I think. For kids too young to read Anne Frank’s diary, Number the Stars is a simple introduction to the war without touching on major horrors like concentration camps. Lowry based the novel on stories she heard and read about Denmark, and there is an Afterward to explain which elements of the novel are based on facts.

I enjoyed this novel as a child, and I think that’s largely because I was reading about girls roughly my own age. I could relate to their love of playing with dolls, and Annemarie’s annoyance at her little sister from time to time. As I said, it’s a good basic introduction to World War II for children. As an adult, especially knowing how much more there is to the war and how much worse it was in other countries, I was a bit disappointed. I love Lowry’s The Giver (which is another Newbery winner) because the story is deep and layered, and the issues brought up are very interesting to ponder. Number the Stars is for a younger audience, and while there are a few good talking points, I was expecting more.

Book Review: The Bronze Bow

Speare, Elizabeth George. The Bronze Bow. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1961.

In this Newbery Medal-winning novel, Daniel bar Jamin is fired by only one passion: to avenge his father’s death by crucifixion by driving the Roman legions from his land of Israel. He joins an outlaw band and leads a dangerous life of spying, plotting, and impatiently waiting to seek revenge. Headstrong Daniel is devoid of tenderness and forgiveness, heading down a destructive path toward disaster until he hears the lessons taught by Jesus of Nazareth. With a brand new cover, young readers won’t be able to pass up this timeless tale.

The Newbery Winner for 1962 is… old. Despite the blurb above claiming the cover will entice readers, I really don’t think it will. I didn’t know anything about the novel before reading it (I listened to it as an audiobook), and at first I thought it was just historical fiction. I quickly realized it takes place in biblical times, and with the main character being named Daniel I thought maybe it would be about the boy by that name who was sent into the lion’s den. No, the man sent into the lion’s den was the namesake for the man in this book. THIS Daniel story takes place as Jesus Christ is alive and gaining momentum. And Jesus himself is a supporting character.

Not that there is anything inherently wrong with Biblical stories, and in fact I support any author’s right to use any subject matter they choose, even those topics some might consider sacrilegious. I am simply not interested in reading religious novels like this. So with that said, continue reading this and all of my reviews knowing that your personal tastes may vary from mine, and my word is not the Gospel. (Pun intended. Feel free to jeer.)

This book is probably one better suited to a male audience. Daniel wants to venge his father’s death at the hands of the Romans, and he has a built a life around his anger and hate. He ran away from an apprenticeship as a blacksmith, abandoning his grandmother and sister Leah. He lives in a mountain cave with a group of outlaws led by Rosh, and believes that Rosh is the man the Jews have been waiting for that will bring about the Romans’ downfall. Blah blah blah, hate, blah blah blah, ambush, blah blah blah, plotting against the Romans, blah blah blah, who is this new preacher guy Jesus who is a carpenter but knows the Jewish law and teaches that God loves children and wants everybody to be kind to everybody else?

I was a lot more interested in the reclusive Leah. When a certain blonde-haired Roman soldier keeps finding dumb reasons to come to Daniel’s blacksmith shop (long story, but he’s really just using his friend Simon the Zealot’s home and shop since Simon has gone to follow Jesus), Daniel thinks the Romans are on to his and his friends’ new gang, which has been meeting in secret at the shop at night. So they change their meeting spot, and the soldier comes around a lot less. But I’m a girl, and I knew he was just coming around to see Leah. I was not at all surprised, as Daniel is, when he finds out at the end of the novel (though I still don’t like the book, you might want to read it so I won’t spoil how he finds out).

And I was a lot more interested in Thacia, the twin sister of Daniel’s friend Joel. She becomes Leah’s first friend, and she clearly likes Daniel. She acts in a way becoming of a woman of the day, but if the story was rewritten for modern times she would probably be writing in her diary every night about how she shouldn’t like him, because he’s a “bad” boy, but how she just can’t help it.

The story would be much different if told from Thacia’s point of view. Which apparently, in fact, was the author’s original plan. I think I would have liked to have read that book. Or at least I wouldn’t have so strongly disliked it.

Book Review: Island of the Blue Dolphins

O’Dell, Scott. Island of the Blue Dolphins. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1960.

In the Pacific there is an island that looks like a big fish sunning itself in the sea. Around it, blue dolphins swim, otters play, and sea elephants and sea birds abound. Once, Indians also lived on the island. And when they left and sailed to the east, one young girl was left behind.

This is the story of Karana, the Indian girl who lived alone for years on the Island of the Blue Dolphins. Year after year, she watched one season pass into another and waited for a ship to take her away. But while she waited, she kept herself alive by building a shelter, making weapons, finding food, and fighting her enemies, the wild dogs. It is not only an unusual adventure of survival, but also a tale of natural beauty and personal discovery.

In addition to being the Newbery Medal winner for 1961, and a book I enjoyed as a child, I wanted to read this next because it was mentioned a few times in Doggirl by Robin Brande. Karana’s story is based on a true story of a Native American woman who lived alone for 18 years on an island not far off the coast of California. Not much is known about the woman, christened Juana Maria after being rescued, because nobody from her tribe was still alive by that time, and nobody spoke her exact language. Perhaps she herself didn’t speak the exact language of her people, living alone for so long with nobody to talk to that could answer her back. So Scott O’Dell took the facts that are known and invented his own details to fill in what her life may have been like, and the difficulties she may have encountered.

This book is kind of like the movie Castaway. Except our main character is a young girl (probably about twelve or thirteen when the book starts), and instead of a volleyball she tames one of the wild dogs to keep as a pet and watchdog. And she is alone on the island a lot longer than Tom Hanks’ Chuck. And… okay, so there are not many real similarities, but fans of the movie will probably like the book.

I am amazed at the strength of Karana. The key to her survival is a past spent living off the land, watching the elders of her tribe and learning how to catch fish, which plants are edible and which aid in healing, and how to prepare stocks of food to last the winter. What’s amazing to the reader is nothing more than common sense to her. It is how she has lived her entire life, the only difference is that now she must do it alone.

I remember that I loved this book as a child mostly because it was a strong female character who can take care of herself. There was a little bit of a pint-sized feminist in me, and I always wanted to read books about girls who were better than boys, and about girls who didn’t always go along with the crowd.

Karana is a great role model for young girls because she does what’s right. She kills many wild dogs and other animals for her survival, but not for sport. Rontu (a name she gives the wild dog that means “fox eyes”) is first the leader of the wild dogs. A little while after she shoots him and he staggers off, she looks to see if he is dead. She finds him barely alive, and feels pity for him. She brings him home and nurses him back to health, gradually gaining his trust, and he never returns to the wild again. It is a great illustration of the way Native Americans care about the planet. Yes, she hunts for survival. But she sees animals as being much like people, her only companions, so she stops killing them unless she has to. At the beginning she wants to kill all of the wild dogs, and after saving Rontu’s life she decides she will kill no more. After befriending a sea otter, she decides not to kill any more of them either.

I don’t think I have to say, but I love this book. I read it in two days. It’s a classic, it stands the test of time, and I hope that I one day have a daughter I can share it with. Scott O’Dell followed Island of the Blue Dolphins with a sequel published 16 years later. Zia is about Karana’s neice, who believes her aunt is still alive and eventually brings about Karana’s rescue. That’s next on my reading list, so I should be posting a review of that one next week.