Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Traitor's Gate by Avi

Fourteen-year-old John Huffam, the "last male in the Huffam line" is pulled out of school one day by his servant, only to be informed that his father is in debt of 300 pounds for gambling and is going to debtor's prison. His distraught mother and sister have no other means of supporting themselves and must live in prison with him until the money can be raised.

But is the debt real? And who is the mysterious inspector that keeps watching his father? And why does his great-aunt refuse to help his family but offers him a job?

With twists and turns, and a cast of characters that could have been transplanted straight from a Dickens' novel, Avi's Victorian-era mystery is a delight. Black and white illustrations decorate the story and characters. Descriptions of seedy undergound London are to be savored, the smells and sounds are sure to tickle any imagination.

John must seperate lies from the truth, and untangle the web of treason his father and others has created if he is ever to release his family from prison. But first he must learn that no one is to be trusted.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Great Newbery Debate

Every January I am glued to my computer. I wait for the announcement. What titles will win this year? What did they decide? Will I agree? Will my picks be honored or ignored?

I must admit, many a time in the recent years the winners have left me scratching my head, and now I know I am not the only one.

In the October 2008 SLJ opinion article by Anita Silvey , many feathers were ruffled with her suggestion that the latest winners were not up to children’s' likability snuff. I quite agree. Maybe I am old fashioned, but I believe the Newbery Award and Honor books should stand for excellence in a book that will grab a child's imagination and get them to read. According to the Terms and Criteria of the Newbery Award, the award is given to a "distinguished" piece of work. One that is supposed to "consider excellence of presentation for a child audience". Plot, characters, and setting are all to be considered. Nowhere in the in the official terms and criteria did it say that they have to pick "a good book". And what a shame. This is what children ask for. The good books, the good stories.
The books that engage children to read, that have them coming back and asking for more. These are the books to celebrate. There are thousands of books published for children a year, why is the committee trying so hard to go out of their way to find books that children rebel against reading? The one that not only would they never pick up off of a shelf, but librarians and booksellers cannot honestly recommend because they are not likeable or sometimes readable books.

The honor books from the past several years have been better contenders for the winners. These are the books I can recommend, enjoy, and I think are deserving of a seal on the cover. They are distinguished, they are excellence, and they are good stories.

Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson

2008 Newbery Honor

"Hope is the thing with feathers/that perches in the soul" so says Emily Dickinson in a poem that is in the mind of sixth-grade Frannie, trying to figure things out in 1971 when a white boy enters her all-black school.

Feathers is a rare gem. When a new student, dubbed "Jesus Boy" brings with him a sense of calm and peace into a rowdy classroom, Frannie and her classmates begin to question if he really is Jesus and their own faith. Because, as her friend Samantha says, "If there was a world for Jesus to need to walk back into, wouldn't this one be it?"

Frannie questions all that surrounds her at school and at home as she watches her beloved older brother, who is hearing impaired, struggle to be accepted by the hearing world. And she watches her mother be full of hope and worry with her new pregnancy. Frannie feels the worry in her family surround her, but carries the poem in her heart while she searches for the thing with feathers.

When Trevor, the classroom bully, rages against Jesus Boy, truth is shone on both children. And Frannie asks herself, was he God's child? Aren't we all?

Woodson was smart to set this quick novel in 1971, during the rising tide of the Vietnam War, and the racial tension of desegregation. For the questions asked then still mirror the questions children growing up today ask themselves.