Monday, November 1, 2010

1924: The Dark Frigate

In 1921, 33-year-old author Charles Boardman Hawes released THE GREAT QUEST, a story of a young man on a high seas adventure in search of gold. The novel was Hawes' first published work and it earned him a Newbery Honor in the Newbery's first ever year of existence. Two years later, Charles Boardman Hawes' third novel THE DARK FRIGATE won the Newbery Medal. Sadly, Hawes was not alive to celebrate it. Many have compared Hawes to Robert Louis Stevenson and fully expected that within his lifetime, creating a true masterpiece like Stevenson's TREASURE ISLAND could have been well within his reach. Instead, we're left with THE DARK FRIGATE, the best of the three Newbery Medal winners thus far, as his crowning achievement.

To summarize the book . . . Phil Marsham is just shy of twenty-years-old and has recently become orphaned. His father, a sailor, was lost at sea. The money left to him by his father is abandoned in London when Phil accidentally fires Jamie Barwick's rifle in Moll Stevens' alehouse, causing quite the commotion. He's run out of town. On his journey he encounters many interesting characters (too many) before meeting Martin Barwick (Jamie's brother) and Tom Jordan (Old One). Phil makes for the port town of Bideford with Martin as a traveling companion and the two board the Rose of Devon, an impressive "frigate". Once on board, Phil's skills (he takes after his father) impress the ship's leader, Captain Candle, and he's made "boatswain" while Martin is assigned to kitchen help. Phil befriends a boy his age on the ship, Will Canty.

Before long, the Rose of Devon encounters a damaged ship on the waters and rescues its passengers. Much to Phil and Martin's surprise, the ship is led by Tom Jordan, the Old One. The survivors are friendly at first, but something is amiss. Soon, their true intentions are revealed. They are pirates. They kill the Devon's Captain Candle and convince its crew to join them in search of riches. The crew does. All but Phil and Will. The Old One takes a liking to Phil and allows the two to stay on board. After many failed attempts of ship raids, the crew attacks a small village. Will tries to escape, is captured by the pirates, and murdered. Phil successfully escapes to a British warship which he convinces to easily takes over the Old One's crew. They are taken to trial in England, and Phil is lumped in as one of them.

Phil refuses to testify against the crew, despite his unwillingness to join them, and the Old One is so impressed that he testifies instead. Phil is set free and the Old One and his crew are executed. Phil joins the crew of Sir John Bristol, an impressive Lord, Phil met along his earlier travels. Sir John reminds Phil of his father and the two quickly form a tight bond. While fighting in the English Civil War, Sir John is killed in battle and Phil decides to set off on foot again, tired of England. He finds himself back in Bideford by story's end and much to his surprise, ironically, the Rose of Devon is docked there. He sets sail onboard at the story's close.

THE STORY OF MANKIND was just too massive to keep anything straight. DOCTOR DOOLITTLE was just too odd and random to enjoy. THE DARK FRIGATE, despite it's slow beginning, is actually one heck of a well-rounded story. The archaic style of language, makes this story very difficult to understand and I found myself writing brief summaries after every chapter, just so I could keep my thoughts straight. So much energy is put into deciphering the language though, that when I came to page 75 and the Devon had finally set sail, it felt like I was on page 200! But credit Hawes for truly giving this book a 17th Century feel.

Once the Old One and his crew are on board the ship, this book becomes quite the page-turner. Right up to the end. However I did feel the book suffered from having too many "endings". The story could've ended with Phil being set free, escaping execution, but it doesn't. He joins Sir John Bristol and has many more adventures. Even when Sir John is killed in battle, the story could end, but it doesn't, as Phil sets foot again and finds himself in Bideford. I will say, I like the idea of ending with him on board the Rose of Devon again, sort of as if the story has come full circle. So in the long haul, the multiple endings are worth it, because if he hadn't had those adventures with Sir John, he never would've boarded the Devon again so soon.

I'm not sure how many children would be able to handle a book of this style on their own. The plot of this story, is very exciting and would surely appeal to many. Who doesn't love a good pirate adventure? But the work involved in getting to the plot is rather extensive for children under the age of 14. Parents and Newbery committee members must have had tougher skin in the 1920s, to allow a book with an abudance of violent, high-seas murder and drunk men lusting over women in taverns to be awarded a medal so esteemed. But compared to the two Newbery Medal winners that preceded THE DARK FRIGATE, this one was at least enjoyable.

Monday, October 11, 2010


I'm lazy. Quite often I make goals for myself and lose focus too quickly. I think they have a name for it . . .

. . . but, I'm ready to give it another go! I've been reading books eligible for this year's Newbery Medal and I'm more prepared to debate than ever before. Last year for example, I had read WHEN YOU REACH ME and THE DUNDERHEADS but that was about it. This year, I'm ahead of the curve and have read a handful of titles that may garner some discussion time around the committee's table this year.

I've read six books that I'd like to weigh in on. I'll start with my least favorite and build the suspense to my personal 2011 Newbery choice (based on the whopping six eligible titles I've read):

6. THE NIGHT FAIRY by Laura Amy Shlitz

I loved A DROWNED MAIDEN'S HAIR! The fact that it wasn't even awarded an Honor in '07, and lost out to THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY (which may be the most ridiculous Medal choice EVER!) was a disgrace. In fact, I feel like people may be biased toward the author's work now because of such a glaring mistake! GOOD MASTERS! SWEET LADIES! was just flat out odd in my opinion. It had it's moments, but overall was boring and strange. THE NIGHT FAIRY, I just don't get either. It's very juvenile and it's nice to see an author of this stature drop down and write something for this age group but in the end, nothing about this book wowed me.

5. ONE CRAZY SUMMER by Rita Williams-Garcia

I read this one because many kidlit bloggers have it as the current front runner. I don't get it. To me, the Civil Rights movement has gotten plenty of attention in children's literature in recent years and this book, while good, just doesn't cover any new territory. I thought the portrayal of the Black Panthers was unique but one-sided. I hated the mother character and the overall message I took away from the book. I don't get the hype for this one and wouldn't think otherwise if it were totally left out come late-January.

4. THE BIRTHDAY BALL by Lois Lowry

When your name is attached to Newbery greats such as THE GIVER and NUMBER THE STARS, any book you release is going to get some attention. I don't foresee THE BIRTHDAY BALL getting too much serious attention, but I actually thought it was a blast. The Lemony Snickett-esque, tongue in cheek, sarcastic humor that Lowry tried with THE WILLOUGHBYS was done extremely well here. It was crude and poignant all at the same time. I enjoyed it.

3. MOCKINGBIRD by Kathryn Erskine

This story, written in first person from the point of view of a girl with Aspergers, was extremely difficult to read at times, but worth it in the end. Her random thoughts and narrative really force the reader into Caitlin's shoes. The subplot involving her dead brother is pretty moving. Very cleverly written but I'm not sure how many kids would be able to truly appreciate it.

2. KEEPER by Kathi Appelt

THE UNDERNEATH was incredible so I was excited to get into KEEPER, Kathi Appelt's follow-up novel. I didn't find this one as strong as THE UNDERNEATH but it's pretty engaging and inventive all the same. Appelt has quite the author voice and I love how it blurs the line between fantasy and fiction. The timeline of events, and stories within stories, could be somewhat confusing for kid readers, but I admire her fresh approach to storytelling. She gives the reader only enough information to wet the appetite, then moves onto other areas of the plot. All loose ends were tied up by the conclusion and I was left thoroughly satisfied.

The only quibble with this tale is the age appropriateness. KEEPER is definitely written as if it's more kid-friendly than THE UNDERNEATH, but in terms of subject matter, I'm not quite so sure. The grandfatherly Mr. Beauchamp's inferred homosexual relationship with a "mermaid", the complex, and somewhat rocky relationship between Keeper's mother and Signe and Dogie, and the explanation of Keeper's birth, are all things that received snickers from the 5th graders I shared this story with. It's definitely written at their level, but there are too many things within these pages that I don't think they are mature enough to fully grasp.

1. THE DREAMER by Pam Munoz Ryan

This is not the type of book I would typically enjoy. But I was enthralled by it. I have never heard of Pablo Neruda but if ever a book were to be written about me, I could only hope someone would put as much thought and care into crafting my story as Pam Munoz Ryan did with Neruda's. I've never read a biography written with such inventive creativity. The way young Pablo effortlessly slips in and out of reality and takes the reader along with him is awesome. Plus, unlike the other books I've read, the message for kids easily acessible. Loud and clear. Work hard. Anyone, from any walk of life, can achieve their dreams. If I were sitting around the Newbery table, there wouldn't be a book I would champion more for!

We'll see come January now, what's rewarded and what's not. I also have my hands on THE BONESHAKER, TURTLE IN PARADISE, and COUNTDOWN and I would love to find a chance to read A TALE DARK AND GRIMM and BECAUSE OF MR. TERUPT. We'll see. For now, back to some oldies . . .

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Wendy Mass Thinks I Rock!

It's not everyday that this school teacher from Iowa gets the opportunity to meet well known children's book authors. Lucky for me, once a year, my fifth grade students get to meet an author through a program in our school called Cedar Valley Youths Read. In years past, I've met the likes of Christopher Paul Curtis and Gennifer Choldenko. Will Hobbs and Cynthia DeFelice were authors I met but was not familiar with. Our students get to meet them in an hour long Q&A-type session and then the general public is invited back to a book signing and meet and greet. This past year, we had the pleasure of meeting and hosting Wendy Mass!

Wendy Mass wrote one of my favorite children's books ever, JEREMY FINK AND THE MEANING OF LIFE. Recently, she's written popular books like EVERY SOUL A STAR and 11 BIRTHDAYS. She was very down-to-earth and the kids loved her!

One whole week was a long time for the Jersey mom to be away from her twins, but our committee of teachers and librarians are so thankful for authors like her, who will devote their time to come meet our little readers.

Summer Reading

I'm taking a break from reading Newbery winners (I know, I lasted long didn't I?). It's not permanent, it's just that I have my hands on so many good books published this year already that will more than likely be on the radar when Newbery discussions heat up this winter. I am currently reading The Dreamer by Pam Munoz Ryan. I will then re-read The Night Fairy by Laura Amy Schlitz (because the first time through I didn't understand what all the fuss was about). Then I will dive into The Birthday Ball by Lois Lowry, Keeper by Kathi Appelt, and last but not least, everyone's early front-runner, One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia.

Once those five are read, I will continue on my mission. I'm hoping to knock out the 1920's and 1930's this summer. School caught up to me, my attention span thinned, and I really have no idea what to say about THE DARK FRIGATE. It was under 200 pages but it read as if it were 500. It was old. It wasn't as exciting as it could have been. And I love pirates!

I'll comment on it sometime. As for now, I'm off to read something a little more current!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Top 100 Children's Books EVER!

Over the last few months, Fuse 8 has been collecting data in search of the greatest children's books ever written. Her faithful readers have sent in their favorites and little by little, slowly but surely, she's made us all privy of her findings. I'm equally proud . . . and embarrassed.

My top 10 that I sent to her are as follows:

10: The BFG by Roald Dahl
9: Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
8: Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
7: Bunnicula by James Howe
6: The Giver by Lois Lowry
5: Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
4: Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins
3: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
2: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
1: Holes by Louis Sachar

Two of my picks stand out like sore thumbs as the only two of mine NOT to make Fuse's final 100. BUNNICULA and GREGOR THE OVERLANDER. While I stand by GREGOR THE OVERLANDER and cry foul at it's exclusion from the list (if Percy Jackson can make it at #21, Gregor belonged on that list), I don't quite know what I was thinking with a BUNNICULA. I remember my 3rd (or maybe 4th) grade teacher reading it out loud and LOVING it as a kid. Maybe I was being sentimental. Looking back at the list, I surely could've included another Harry Potter book instead, or a Percy Jackson title, or WHEN YOU REACH ME, or HUNGER GAMES (would that have even counted?).

I guess I can say I'm proud to see 8 of my top 10 find their way onto the list, ranked 68, 54, 26, 17, 14, 11, 7, and 6. All in all, I'm pretty in touch with the spectrum of children's literature out there.

However there were MANY embarrassments while reading the results of the poll. I've only read 33 of the top 100. Gasp! Of the top 10, I've only read 5! While books like ANN OF GREEN GABLES and THE SECRET GARDEN just simply won't find their way on any reading list of mine, I'm utterly embarrassed to say that I've never read FROM THE MIXED UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER (5th) and A WRINKLE IN TIME (2nd).

And how can I call myself a lover of children's literature?

At least I can say I've read the overwhelming top selection, CHARLOTTE'S WEB. But who hasn't read that one?

Friday, March 26, 2010

I am alive . . .

Just in case I do have any readers, I am alive and doing well. I have not died of boredom from reading the first few Newbery winners.

I recently became a father for the first time so naturally, all sorts of priorities are being juggled and rearranged. I'm nearly done with book three THE DARK FRIGATE and will comment on it sometime in the near future!

Although I will say, my stack of newer books to read are piling up, and I'm getting restless devoting my small window of reading time to older, boring Newbery winners. But, I want to do this so do this I shall!

Soon, I'll get back into the swing of things. For now, fatherly duties are calling!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

1923: The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle

My first thought upon completing book #2 of my journey, THE VOYAGES OF DOCTOR DOOLITTLE by Hugh Lofting (Newbery Medal winner from 1923), was 'Whoa . . . there must not have been much competition in the 20s'. Doctor Doolittle has a knack for picking up languages, and he's mastered the skill of speaking to animals. Don't get me wrong, Hugh Lofting has created a memorable, original, polite character in Doctor Doolittle, one that is able to stand the test of time (Eddie Murphy, Ace Ventura anyone). It's really quite the creative concept, especially in 1923! But this particular story has sooooo much going on. The many detours make it hard to follow and much of this story could have been trimmed down quite a bit (Where were all the editors in 1923?). It could've made for a much more enjoyable, and bearable read!

For example: Part II of the book kicks off introducing readers to Luke the Hermit. Tommy (our narrator) and the Doctor are recruiting some helping hands for the voyage they are about to embark on. Luke is their top choice. We're given a back story, we're given a mystery, and we're given some suspense. The Doctor helps clear Luke's name in a trial of sorts by talking to animal witnesses (Luke had previously been accused of murder). At the end of Part II, once Luke's name has been cleared and the good Doctor has saved the day, Luke declines the invitation to join them on their voyage. What?! Seriously?! What is the point in introducing us to a character like Luke, only to dump them by the wayside? The story of Luke the Hermit felt like a complete waste of time. Sure, he pops up a short while later as a stowaway, changing his mind about the voyage, but even the Doctor is annoyed and quickly disposes of him. We never hear from him again.

It takes nearly half of the story to pass by before the Doctor and his sidekicks finally set sail and the first place they stop is Spain. Spain was not in on itinerary, but they needed to get rid of some stowaways. While in Spain, the Doctor is lured off task by the possibility of ending the cruel sport of bullfighting once and for all. He hustles the Spaniards and steps into the ring as a matador turning the bulls on the fighters and angering the crowd in the process. The Doctor and his crew are run out of town and again, I was left scratching my head. Did Hugh Lofting think all these sidebars were fun? The book and all it's adventures reminded me of a bedtime story that your Grandpa tells you after you're tucked in and ready for sleep. Except the story is making less and less sense because Grandpa is making it up as he goes but you continue to listen and fight off sleep because Grandpa's a funny guy and even a little crazy in his own way!

Another annoyance with this book is the excessive politeness displayed amongst its characters. Now I'm a teacher. I'm all for "please" and "thank you". I'm all for politeness. But the politeness found in this book is on a whole other level! It's distracting! "May I please share an idea with you Doctor?" asks Tommy. "Why certainly my dear boy," responds the Doc. "I think you are the best Doctor in the world," states Tommy. "Well thank you for sharing that pleasant thought," thanks the Doctor. "Thank you so much for letting me share it," coos Tommy. "You are so very welcome," says the Doc. Imagine 300+ pages of conversation exactly like that . . . Argh! And what kind of parents agree to let their ten-year old move out of the house and live with the crazy, polite, old doctor down the block who happens to talk to animals? And then agree to letting that child set sail across the globe with that Doctor? Come on! I know this is a fantasy story but seriously . . .

After THE STORY OF MANKIND, I was really looking forward to this book, but I almost found it more unbearable than that first one. There is some good stuff . . . the mystery of Long Arrow's disappearance and the mystery of the shellfish language keep you engaged, despite the fact that they are never really solved (or even "mysteries" to begin with). There's a good message buried in these pages about doing work you love, not just work that pays good. And the writing at times is top notch. I love Tommy's description of the ship: "This ship, which was to be our house and our street, our home and our garden, for so many days to come, seemed so tiny in all this wide water - so tiny and yet so snug, sufficient, and safe." But in the end, this book is a snoozer.

I even tried to get my cat Elliot to read it, thinking the good Doctor could "speak" to her. But all she did was sniff it.