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We thought it might be fun to do a slight retrospective here: outstanding books published during 1996.
Starting with books for the youngest, George Shannon and Donald Crews' delightful and challenging contribution to the sometimes mechanical genre of alphabet books is Tomorrow's Alphabet (Greenwillow, 1996 ISBN 0 688 13504 8). The premise is evident from the first couple of spreads: "A is for seed--tomorrow's apple. B is for eggs -- tomorrow's birds." Kids seem to latch on to the idea immediately and start predicting the second half of each phrase: "N is for twigs -- tomorrow's ___" The graphics are great as are any illustrations created by Donald Crews -- vivid with varied perspectives. Readers familiar with Elting's Q Is for Duck (Clarion, 1980 ISBN 0 395 30062 2) will find similarities with this book and find uses for them both.
Seymour Simon is the best science writer for kids that I know of. His use of outstanding photography and clear, non-sensational but interesting text makes for success after success. His latest book The Heart (Morrow, 1996 ISBN 0 688 11407 5) is one of the best. This is Simon's first book on the human body and one hopes it's just the beginning entry. His analogies are apt: Your heart weighs about as much as a sneaker; monocytes act like Pac-man gobbling up bacteria. His statistics amaze - your red blood cells stacked in a single column would make a tower thirty thousand miles high. At times he is poetic: "Within each of us flows a river unlike any river on planet earth. This river of blood flows past every part of the body on an incredible sixty-thousand mile voyage, enough to travel two and a half times around the world. It is a journey as strange and wonderful as any journey to the stars." This book, like his others, belongs in every teacher's classroom library from kindergarten at least through eighth grade.
We reviewed Train to Somewhere by Eve Bunting and Ronald Himler, a picture book about the orphan train movement, in the July newsletter. In Train to Somewhere we zero in on one child in one such train. It's historical fiction and can lead to scores of good books set in the same era. There's a larger theme here than that of one child wanting a home: it's also about not getting what we want but maybe getting something better.
1996 was a good year for novels. Katherine Paterson gave us Jip: His Story (Lodestar, 1996. ISBN 0-525-67543-4. 181 pages.) Approachable for kids from fourth grade and up, this short novel is set on the small town's poor farm. Jip has lived there since he was three and supposedly fell off a wagon which careened through the town and he was never reclaimed. Because of his dark skin and hair, he was assumed to be a gypsy and so was named Jip.
Now, the young boy practically runs the farm for the lazy caretakers. Jip has a natural affinity for animals, indeed, for anything or anyone helpless or injured. When the "lunatic" is brought to the poor farm, bound and chained to live in a cage there, it is Jip who befriends and cares for him. Put, short for Putnam, turns out to be a fine, gentle and learned gentleman when the violent spells are not on him and he and Jip become the best of friends. Soon the mystery of Jip's birth and desertion becomes clear. His father does appear as Jip has often imagined he would, but not as the benevolent parent he had dreamed of. Jip must run and he refuses to do so without Put who pays the ultimate price. Like Train to Somewhere this book deals with getting what we want only to find that we don't want it. It's also about family as more than an accident of birth.
Will Hobb's Far North (Morrow, 1996. ISBN 0-688-14192-7. 226 pages.) is a dandy survival story for kids in fifth grade and up. It will remind some of Paulsen's Hatchet but it tells of more than the mere physical survival of the protagonists. There's a pleading for respect for the Old Ways of the Dene people, for the wisdom of the elders and for all life. The myth of the raven plays a big role here as well. Gabe and his Dene roommate, Raymond, together with Raymond's great-uncle Johnny Raven, crash in the remote area of the Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories in November. The bush pilot is killed shortly after the crash. Johnny Raven transmits as much as he can of the myth and the skills of his people to the boys before he too dies and the boys must make their own way out. This is good, action-filled reading. The first chapter ends with a clear bit of foreshadowing and the description of Gabe's encounter with the grizzly is a good, short piece to read aloud.
Belle Prater's Boy by Ruth White (Farrar, 1996. ISBN 0-374-30668-0. 196 pages.) is a beautiful book, approachable for kids from fifth grade up. White has succeeded in creating a memorable main character, Woodrow Prater, as well as a fabulous supporting cast. Way back in a hollow, Belle Prater got out of bed at dawn, leaving behind her shack, her husband and her eleven-year-old son Woodrow and she disappeared. After a few months of coping up there without her, Woodrow came to live with his mother's parents in Coal Station, a little mining town.
Living next door was his cousin Gypsy and her mother and step-father. Cross-eyed, unschooled and decidedly unfashionable Woodrow should have been shunned by his more sophisticated new neighbors, but his storytelling skills and irrepressible spirit overcame their initial disdain.
The mystery of his mother's disappearance is the subject of much speculation and Woodrow is convinced that she is somewhere between this world and another. There are other mysteries here as well - why Belle left her parents to marry Woodrow's father, what happened to Gypsy's father and what's the meaning of the haunting poem that Belle Prater cherished? The book is sometimes very funny, frequently touching, has a strong message, and is very, very skillfully done.
We reviewed Paul Fleischman's Dateline: Troy in an earlier newsletter. It's noteworthy because of the way it places events of the ancient story against today's headlines, thus making it relevant to today's readers. It may also give some teachers and readers an idea for doing something similar with other books.
John Gilstrap's Nathan's Run (HarperCollins, 1996 ISBN 0 06 017385 8 292 pages) is a page turner which involves talk show radio in the plot. Young adult readers should enjoy this one. We know from the beginning that twelve year old Nathan Bailey killed a guard at the juvenile detention center and escaped. The police know it too but we are privy to one more fact: the guard had been trying to kill Nathan and it was self-defense. For a long time, we don't know why Nathan was the intended victim, but we are on his side as Nathan takes flight. Soon many others are swayed there too as he calls a radio talk show and tells his side. Excitement grows as a hit man takes on the task of finding and killing Nathan and there are more killings, but Nathan eludes both the police and the hit man in a story slightly reminiscent of "The Fugitive". Like many of his radio listeners, we cheer for Nathan. Some of the language may upset some people as the profanity is sometimes profuse. It may not make a good read aloud for this reason.
Finally, there's an enchanting fictionalized biography by Ann Rinaldi: Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons (Harcourt, 1996. ISBN 0-15-200876-4. 336 pages.) It's long and challenging and probably best suited for a middle school audience but it tells the fascinating story of America's first African American poet, Phillis Wheatley. It deals with slavery in the north, something not often mentioned in literature. Phillis was captured in Africa, suffered the "middle passage" on a slave ship and was then sold to the Wheatley family of Boston. Their purpose in her purchase is one of the interesting ponderables of the book: Was she just a talented plaything for them or a beloved member of their family? They taught her to read and nurtured her poetic efforts. They introduced her to many of the important personages of her time: John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, among others, in an effort to get her poems published. Certainly, they cared for and about her, but they wouldn't free her. More on Slavery.
Rinaldi does an excellent job of showing the effects of pre-revolutionary activities in Boston. Her portrayal of Franklin and Washington are particularly well done. Because Wheatley's poetry would be of little interest to today's readers, Rinaldi wisely avoids extensive quoting of it. She shows us the dilemma of the artistic slave and the hypocrisy of the society in which she lived.
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