Sunday, March 27, 2011

Graven Images

By Paul Fleischman
Illustrated by Andrew Glass    
Three graven images—a wooden binnacle boy, a copper saint, and a marble statue—the main commonality between the three short stories written by Paul Fleischman and Illustrated by Andrew Glass in the book, Graven Images
The mysterious tale of The Binnacle Boy is about a wooden binnacle boy who is the only witness to the mysterious death of the Orion’s (a ship’s) crew.  The amusing tale of Saint Crispin’s Follower is about a young boy who follows his heart and the direction of a copper saint to lead him to his love, Juliana.  The eerie tale of The Man of Influence is about a desperate and poor sculptor who honors a dead murderer by sculpting him in marble.
These three tales continue to show the versatility of author Paul Fleischman.  In a biography about Fleischman, it is mentioned that he, “blends musical language with quirky looks at the world as viewed through the lens of human and natural history.”  It continues to mention how in books like Graven Images, Fleischman incorporates his love of music by including rhythm, meter, and rhyme in his writing, which is written in 4/4 time.    He does this, because it is as close as he feels he can get to composing music.
I found this to be very interesting.  I have played the violin for thirteen years and was not sure I understood how to use 4/4 time in writing.  I tried reading some of the text aloud to see if I could figure it out, but quite frankly—I am not sure what he means by that.  Perhaps if I heard Fleischman read the stories aloud, it would make more sense to me.  Do you know what he means by this?
Although I do not fully understand the meter of the text, I do believe Fleischman was successful in altering the style of his language and dialogue to meet the setting and time frame of the text.  All three of these stories seemed to take place long ago.  The first, I felt to have very formal language.  For example, “Dear child—how good to see you,” Miss Bunch addressed Tekoa at the door.  “And good day to you as well, Miss Frye.  As you’re no doubt lonely without your dear son, we felt it to be our solemn duty to lend you our company once again.””
Although the second story is supposed to take place in Charleston, South Carolina at an undisclosed time, from the text I would have thought it was taking place in England.  For example, “You’ve got promise, lad—that’s plain as a peacock.  But you’ll have to give up your moonin’ about…Look alive at your work! Keep your eyelids hoisted! Stay alert as a hare, lad—a hare chased by hounds!”   The first time I read the story I missed the location and assumed throughout that they were indeed in England.
The third story, taking place in Genoa, has a more humorous style of text that help us to realize how helpless and desperate Zorelli the stone carver really is.  “With growing revulsion he took note of the spirit’s missing ear, his crooked teeth, and the long jagged’ rip down the front of his doublet.  Had warm flesh belonged to him he might have been taken for a beggar, or a rag merchant dressed in his wares, and suddenly Zorelli wondered if the man was worthy of salvation in stone—or deserved forgetting, like most of humanity.”  Although the story is odd, I couldn’t help but find the humor in Zorelli’s personality and his nagging wife.  “By tomorrow night we’ll have nothing to gnaw on—unless, of course, you pick up your hammer and carve us a roast goose out of granite.”
Although very few illustrations, illustrator Andrew Glass sets the mood for each story with a single-framed pencil drawing at the start.  He highlights the key character in the story as well as the supernatural elements.  For example, the first illustration is of Sarah Peel whispering into the ear of the Binnacle Boy.  It almost looks as though the wooden boy is scared stiff at what he has just witnessed and what he is being told.  The second illustration is that of the St. Crispin weathervane, Juliana, and the mind-lost apprentice—Nicholas.  We can see through the illustration that Nicholas is a daydreamer.  The final illustration is of Zorelli and the ghostly spirit—Zorelli realizing whom he has just honored in stone. 
Together these three stories combine to provide both spook and humor.  Will these stories replace the ones that children tell at sleepovers when trying to scare each other stiff?  Probably not, but—the tales are certainly peculiar enough to catch the interest of any reader.

The Tale of Despereaux

Written by Kate DiCamillo
Illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering

Despereaux Tilling was an odd mouse.  He was born small and sickly with huge ears and worse—he was born with his eyes open.  This is unheard of in the mouse world.  He didn’t think constantly of food, he wasn’t afraid of humans, he did not scurry when needed, he read books instead of eating them, and he enjoyed listening to music.  Despereaux Tilling was a failure according to the Council of Mice—and was sent to the Dungeon to be eaten by rats. 

Chioroscuro (Roscuro) was an odd rat.  His name means a combination of lightness and darkness together and his name was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy because Roscuro loved light.  Once he caught a glimpse of light, he thought he had found the meaning of life.  He wanted nothing more than to see more light.  The other rats, especially Botticelli Remorso, felt this was shameful because, “We are rats.  Rats.  We do not like light.  We are about darkness.  We are about suffering...Rats do not go upstairs.  Upstairs is the domain of mice.”

Miggery Sow was an odd young girl that nobody ever really cared about.  Her mother died when she was six years old, and her father sold her for a red tablecloth, cigarettes, and a hen.  She became a slave and was given cauliflower ear from all of the times she had been hit in the ear.  She wanted nothing more than to be a princess after seeing the princess briefly when she was seven. 

Despereaux, Roscuro, and Miggery seem to have little in common aside from the fact that they are all oddballs in their communities and yet, they all end up connected through themes of good and evil, hope, and love in the Tale of Despereaux, an animal fantasy that is written by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering.  The princess is ultimately what brings the three characters together.  Despereaux wants to save the princess, Roscuro wants to kidnap the princess, and Migg is so desperate to be the princess that she will help Roscuro with his evil plan. 

Throughout the story, DiCamillo does something very interesting with the text that invites the reader into the pages of the story.  The narration specifically “talks” to the reader by asking questions and including them in the story.  For example, “Instead, reader, she laughed at him.” Or, “You must, frightened though you may be, read on and see for yourself.  Reader, it is your duty.” And, ““Reader, do you know the definition of the word “chiaroscuro”?” I felt this was unique, but engaging for the reader.  I found myself stopping to ponder her questions and I felt like she was in my head asking and answering questions that I was already wondering.  This is a great way to be able to slow readers down and have them enjoy the story.

DiCamillo shows versatility as a writer through this fantasy novel.  The only other story I have read by DiCamillo is Because of Winn Dixie, a realistic fiction novel about a lonely young girl trying to find her place in the world.  The two stories have very different writing styles as well as different themes.  As I was reading Despereaux, I kept thinking about Fleischman’s Weslandia.  The character of Wesley in Weslandia and the characters of Despereaux and Roscuro were all social outcasts within their communities.  They did not let this bother them and they went about their lives as they saw fit.  In the end, all of them were happy—proving that it is best to be yourself. 

Ering’s framed pencil illustrations on matted paper allow us to feel fully involved with the story.  Through the varying usage of light and dark, we are able to focus on certain aspects.  For example, on page 206 when Despereaux has come back from the Dungeon, we focus on Despereaux and his father—Despereaux being the lightest character and his father being shaded darker—both standing out from the other mice in the picture.  This makes sense, because the moment is between Despereaux and his father as his father feels guilt and begs for forgiveness.

The coda of the story provides a final message to the reader: “I would like it very much if you thought of me as a mouse telling you a story, this story, with the whole of my heart, whispering it in your ear in order to save myself from the darkness and to save you from the darkness too.”  This provides a new perspective on the story—it is told from an “insider” perspective in the world of mice—almost as if it reflects the realities of being a mouse.  After reading the coda, I finally realized the purpose of the pages—they are nibbled as though mice had gotten to the book before I did.

And so, reader, it is your duty to read this light-hearted and humorous story.  But hurry—before the mice get to it first.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Giver

By Lois Lowry

News of devastation and anguish is almost inevitable when reading the morning paper or watching the evening news.  We hear stories of crimes so unimaginable we cannot even fathom how one could be capable of committing such an act.  We watch as our symbols of freedom fall and wonder how we have gotten to this point.  We see images of starving children and families and are saddened by the suffering and unfortunate circumstances that remind us we are not always equal in spite of what we may think or hope.  We often wish for the war to be over, poverty to cease, and acts of hatred to subside.  We hope for and dream of a place where hardships and pain do not exist.  Some call this place of perfection Utopia.

In Lois Lowry’s, The Giver, we are brought to a place of such perfection—a Utopic community where even the slightest sufferings and annoyances such as sunburns and household chores are non-existent.  We may think, “How wonderful!  Is this not what we have always yearned for?”  But, as we will learn, a world without cruel hardships is also a world without true happiness.  It is a society without love, without choice, without diversity, and without color.  Simply put—it is a society of Sameness.

Just as parents try to protect their children from ugliness in the world, the leaders in this community of sameness also try to protect their members from—quite frankly, everything.  They hand-select birth mothers and designate rules and age groups for milestones.  For example, bike riding is a privilege given when you are a nine and taking away stuffed animals occurs when you are an eight and are given more responsibilities within the community.  In addition, they choose compatible people to be parents and to raise the children who were also specifically chosen for them.  Elders live in, The House of the Old, and wait until it is there time to be released—which no one knows for sure what that means or where the people go—just that they are never to be seen again.

The protagonist in the story, Jonas, possesses intelligence, integrity, courage and the ability to acquire wisdom.  It is for these reasons that Jonas was selected as the new Receiver of Memory—the highest honored job within the community of which he lives.  At the Ceremony of Twelve, Chief Elder explains to the community that Jonas, “…will be faced, now, with pain of a magnitude that none of us here can comprehend because it is beyond our experience.”  At the time, Jonas does not fully understand what this means.  As readers, we do not fully understand either.

He begins to understand as the Giver transmits memories he has been holding on to for the community.  Jonas learns about colors, sledding, the feeling of snow, and sunshine.  He witnesses love, warmth, and family.  He also learns about pain—a broken leg, warfare, and death.  He starts to realize through the transmission of memories that the community that he lives in is not as perfect as it seems.  He realizes all that he is missing and he wants to bring about change.

Jonas and the Giver both decide that something must be done and a plan must be made when Jonas witnesses his own father euthanizing a young infant because he is, “a shrimp.”  It is at this moment that the Giver and Jonas devise a plan for Jonas to escape to Elsewhere.  He will leave the memories he has been given behind and the Giver will help everyone cope with the memories that they now have.

The ending of the story can be interpreted in a number of ways.  According to Lois Lowry in her Newbery Acceptance Speech, there is not a “right” ending to the story. 

Those of you who hoped that I would stand here tonight and reveal the “true” ending, the “right” interpretation of the ending, will be disappointed. There isn’t one. There’s a right one for each of us, and it depends on our own beliefs, our own hopes.”

I felt hope at the end of the story that Jonas and Gabe had made it to Elsewhere.  I felt happiness that Jonas was able to experience the power of love for another human being, as he risked his life and saved another.  I think the music that he heard off in the distance represented both his future and his past.  Perhaps the Giver was giving the memory of music to the people in his community in order to help them through their pain—signaling to Jonas that things would be okay.  Some interpret the ending to be that Jonas and Gabe died.  I hadn’t thought of this at first, but can certainly understand and see both interpretations.  How do you think it ended?

I also wonder about the eyes—Gabriel, Jonas, Rosemary, Catherine, and the Giver all had the same pale eyes when everyone else had dark eyes.  What is it about the pale eyes that mark the ability and strength to be the Receiver of Memory? 

It’s no wonder that Lois Lowry won the Newbery Medal for writing a piece of literature that causes all of us to think about humanity and the values and beliefs that we possess.  Although parents deem some of the content inappropriate for children and often challenge the book, I believe the powerful message the book delivers overpowers the mention of the ugliness that is already within our world.  Lowry writes in her dedication, “For all the children—To whom we entrust the future.”  Lowry believes we need to trust the reader to interpret the meaning of the story as it was intended—to have the strength to rise above and make changes to do what is right—to determine which sacrifices are worth making in order to experience true happiness. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Missing May

Written by Cynthia Rylant

The loss of a loved one is a tragedy that all of us will go through at some point in our lives.  Loved ones are taken from us at many different points —sometimes unexpectedly and other times we are given the opportunity to prepare ourselves the best that we can.  I often wonder why it seems that some suffer much more loss than others—and much earlier in life than they should.  How do young children learn to cope with the loss of a loved one—especially when feeling like the adults in their life need their support?

By the age of twelve, Summer has already suffered from a lot of loss.  Since her mother’s death when she was a baby, Summer was passed from one relative to another where she was, “treated like a homework assignment somebody was always having to do.”  Finally, when Summer was six years old, she found a family who loved her—a family that needed her.  She was taken to live in West Virginia with her Aunt May and Uncle Ob. 

Summer finally felt she had come home when she was surrounded by, “Whirligigs of Fire and Dreams, glistening Coke bottles and chocolate milk cartons...”  She lived a happy, yet simple life, up until the point when her Aunt May died unexpectedly.  Summer and Ob’s lives would never be the same as they learned how to grieve and continue to live through their great loss.

Summer suffers in silence as Ob suffers outwardly.  She tries to be his strength when he cannot get out of bed in the morning.  At the breakfast table, Summer drinks coffee and Ob drinks cocoa—making it clear who takes care of whom.   She worries and is saddened by the fact that she is not enough to keep Ob going.   She thinks, “I wasn’t enough to bring Ob to life each day.  That it wasn’t enough he had me left to still love.”  Although she is hurting, she remains strong for Ob, hoping that he will things will go back to the way they were—or as close to the way they were without May being around.

Cletus, a boy from school, helps Ob in particular with his grief.  He talks to him with the maturity of an adult and is described by Summer as “...Always living full of hope and confidence.”  Though resistant to it at first, Summer and Cletus end up becoming friends as he helps both Ob and Summer through their loss.

In Cynthia Rylant’s, Missing May, we become emotionally attached to Ob and Summer as they learn to cope with their loss.  In a short amount of pages, Rylant is able to successfully develop these characters through her use of description.  She makes us aware of Summer’s thinking, but leaves us wondering about Ob’s inner-thoughts.  By the end of the story, we realize that Summer needed a sign from May that things would be alright.  The owl flying over-head was like the spirit of May—telling Summer that it was okay to cry.  Suddenly, Ob seems like a pillar of strength, comforting Summer and telling her, “She’s still here, honey.   People don’t ever leave us for good.”  It becomes apparent that Ob has realized he needs to be strong for Summer and continue to live for her.  After a breakfast of bacon and eggs, one that is cooked by Ob for the first time in his life, Cletus, Summer, and Ob set out all of the whirligigs in May’s garden—finally setting them free. 


Written By Paul Fleischman

Young children have the ability to see the world from a perspective that many grow to ignore. Children hope, dream, and see beauty when adults have forgotten how to recognize it. Kim hoped that the father she never had the chance to meet would see her from heaven and recognize her as his daughter. She did not realize that the six lima beans she planted for her father would have such a significant impact on those around her. Cleveland Heights was a place made up of people of many different origins. It was a place where people avoided eye contact and did not bother to get to know each other on a personal level. It was a place where hope seemed to be lost. It was a place that has been transformed by the power of six little seeds—transformed into a community full of hope.

In Fleischman’s Seedfolks, I am left wondering and wanting to know more. Fleischman opens the window a crack and allows us to hear the voices of thirteen individuals—representing a diverse and ethnic viewpoint of the world. As I finish the book, I realize I would like to open the window all of the way and learn about the complete lives of these very interesting and very real people.

Ana is the first to notice Kim’s presence in an old lot filled with garbage and rats. She no longer sees the innocence in children and immediately assumes the worst. “I’ve never had children of my own, but I’ve seen enough in that lot to know she was mixed up in something she shouldn’t be…I just about knew what she’d buried. Drugs most likely, or money, or a gun.” Through Ana, we see how people can be hardened after many years of being witness to violence, crime, and despair.

Fleischman continues to use powerful language throughout the text, awakening the reader to the realities of many different life-styles that people live. For example, Gonzalo believes, “The older you are, the younger you get when you move to the United States.” This opens the eyes to the challenges many immigrants face when moving to a new country. Adults can no longer speak for themselves because people do not understand their language and sometimes do not bother to try to understand the broken English. My grandmother emigrated from Italy when she was eighteen years old. When I was younger, I went with my grandmother to the supermarket where she went to the meat counter and ordered chicken cutlets. In broken English, she gave specific instructions regarding the chicken to the man behind the counter. At the age of thirteen, I could sense the man’s impatience and frustrations with my grandmother. I spoke up to clarify for her—just as Gonzalo clarifies for his father when he tries to speak. Fleischman writes, “He didn’t want strangers to hear his mistakes.” This phrase speaks to how people often do not accept the differences of each other and cause people to be uncomfortable in a place they are supposed to be able to call home.

When we are introduced to Sam, we wonder how this garden will bring people together. In describing the garden, Sam notices, “…With a few exceptions, the blacks on one side, the whites on another, the Central Americans and Asians towards the back. The garden was a copy of the neighborhood. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. A duck gives birth to a duckling, not a moose. Each group kept to itself, spoke its own language, and grew its own special crops.” After some disturbances in the garden, people started to worry. Sam explains the precautions taken, “That week, a man put chicken wire around the garden, five feet high, complete with a little gate and padlock…Then came the first KEEP OUT sign. Then, the crowning achievement—barbed wire.” It is at this point that Fleischman makes us feel that there is no chance for a community. These people are working side by side, but remaining just as far apart as ever.

Just when you think all hope is lost, Fleischman interjects signs that the community is beginning to come together. It began when Tio Juan attempted to give Virgil advice on his lettuce crop. Next, Sae Young stands and admires the conversation between man and woman over corn. Later, Sam helps the community by having a contest for the children—awarding twenty dollars to the best solution for water transport to the garden. Sae Young feels like a part of the garden and member of a family when she notices many people using the funnels she purchased to help with filling narrow bottles with water. Leona, the strong-willed woman who convinced the city to clear the trash out of the garden, helps Maricela, a pregnant teen, regain hope and love for the life growing inside of her.

Fleischman is successful in intertwining the lives of the characters together as he shows the community forming. Even though Royce does not have his own chapter, we hear his voice and learn who he is through other gardeners. He starts off trying to go unnoticed, a young boy of fifteen who was kicked out of his home. Curtis first notices him and has him help guard his tomatoes. By the end, Amir says, “How strange it was to watch people who would have crossed the street if they’d seen him a few weeks before, now giving him vegetables, more than he could eat…He was trusted and liked—and famous, after his exploit with the pitchfork…He was not a teenage black boy. He was Royce.”

By the end of the story, we can sense the togetherness of the community as the people celebrate their fall harvest with a Harvest Festival. They shared food, conversation, knowledge, and wisdom. Perhaps in the coming years, they will stop referring to each other by their race and will begin to refer to each other as friends.