October 14, 2009 > Footnotes
Reviewing books can sometimes be... well, tedious. Even for an admitted bibliophile like myself. Some plots seem too familiar (the vampire theme that was so popular last year, for example); you get a little jaded. To discover books that are surprising and thrilling and keep you entertained is a delight, and this month I bring you several of these. The first looks like a picture book but is actually a story of compassion and empathy that I believe will appeal to children in the intermediate grades as well:
14 Cows for America by Carmen Deedy, illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez, Peachtree hardback, $17.95.
This is an incredible story about a Maasai tribe from a small remote village in Kenya. A member of the tribe named Kimeli has returned from an educational trip to America where he has been learning to be a doctor. When the children surround him asking for a story, he tells them about the disaster that befell America a mere nine months before on September 11, 2001. As it happens, he was in New York City at the time the Twin Towers fell.
It's hard for the villagers to grasp the scope of the attacks. Kimeli describes buildings that touched the sky, something most of them have never imagined much less seen. They are stunned when they hear of the deaths of so many people all at once.
The most valuable possessions that nomadic Maasai villagers have is their cows; for them cows are life. In their desire to show compassion and empathy for America, the tribal elders bless and dedicate 14 cows in a beautiful ceremony which the ambassador to Kenya was delighted to attend. Shown in gorgeous paintings the kindness and joy of these people cannot help but reach the reader's heart. And best of all, the story is true!
Another book that snuck up on me with its message of friendship and loyalty was Nubs: the True Story of a Mutt, a Marine and a Miracle by Major Brian Dennis, Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery, Little Brown hardback, $17.99.
Nubs was a dog in Iraq who encountered some Marines as they patrolled in their Humvees. He had cropped ears which someone had cut to make him a "fighting dog" and he led a pack. Now, it is against the rules for Marines to have pets, but Major Brian Dennis liked Nubs and gave him some belly rubs. When the Marines left to return to their base in Jordan, Nubs tried to follow, but gave up when they got too far away.
They met, again and again, but this time Nubs was in fairly bad shape, hurt in a fight. Despite the bitter cold of wintertime, when the Major left, Nubs decided he was going to follow until he found his human... a 70 mile trip! When he arrived the Marines fed him and helped him the best they could. The decision was made to try and send Nubs back to the States. This book has all sorts of adventures for the dog and his Marine plus lots of pictures to bring you along with them. I especially loved the look on the dog's face in the end pages, but you'll have to discover those for yourself! This is a true story written by Nubs' favorite marine.
For 1st and 2nd graders.
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, Wendy Lamb Books hardback, $15.99 is one of the most difficult stories to describe. It starts simply enough, with an 11 year-old girl named Miranda who walks home with her friend Sal every day. On one particular day, though, an older boy that they are passing suddenly steps over and punches Sal in the stomach as hard as he can! Sal doubles over and looks like he's about to throw up. But when Miranda tries to help him, Sal runs off toward home. Later when she tries to talk to him, he refuses. She figures he's upset, but there's something else going on which she will have to discover.
That's not the strange part. The strange part comes when she gets home a couple of days later and discovers two things, a missing house key and a note in her library book that wasn't there before. It says:
This is hard. Harder than I expected, even with your help. But I have been practicing, and my preparations go well. I am coming to save your friend's life and my own..."
What in the world? Who sent this? What trip? Save whose life? Miranda shows the letter to her mother, and the two decide that 'M' could be anyone. Still her understandably cautious mother has the locks changed and tells Miranda to be extra careful. Days later, another note:
Your letter must tell a story - a true story. You cannot begin now, as most of it has not yet taken place... I require as much detail as you can provide. The trip is a difficult one, and I must ask my favors while my mind is sound..."
Miranda IS the person the letters are meant for and it IS her friend whose life will be saved. She must do what the sender has asked, but what on earth is this person talking about? The story will unfold, fold, and fold again, leaving you amazed 'When You Reach' the end.
For 6th grade and up.
My friend Colleen Perez, the Mission San Jose Elementary librarian, recommended my next surprise to me - It's How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, Wendy Lamb Books paperback, $7.99, for young adults. The description on the inside cover said it was a book about love and a book about hate... hmmm. Then I saw that it had a 15 year-old girl sent from New York City to live with relatives in England she has never met. While there, a war breaks out and she is unable to return home. I thought to myself, "Self, this will be another 'War Is Hell' book." I could not have been more wrong.
Daisy loves her cousins after she gets to know them. There's Edmond, who seems to read her mind, and his brothers Isaac and Osbert, and young Piper, who can train dogs to do almost anything. Daisy's aunt is gone most of the time, so Daisy learns how to be part of a family where everyone helps each other. When the effects of war impact the family they manage fairly well at first, despite their mother being missing.
But then the family is separated. Piper and Daisy are sent off to live someplace 'safe', which turns out not to be so safe after all. Their efforts to get home and back to the life they knew is one of the most compelling books I've ever read. This is a survival story filled with immediacy and realism. You may find, as I did, that it ends with a 'whoosh' causing you to look around, surprised to discover that the story is not real, that these things are not happening around you. Daisy ends by saying, "After all this time, I know exactly where I belong... and that's how I live now." Her journey to this place is incredible - join her!
And finally, here is another winner for young adults, Unwind, by Neil Shusterman, Simon & Schuster paperback, $8.99.
A war has been fought, between Pro-Choice and the Pro-Life advocates. After a series of intense battles, a compromise has been reached. Once a child has been conceived - from the absolute moment of conception - it may not be killed... ever. However, once the child has reached the age of 13, before the age of adulthood at 18, a parent can opt to have their child 'rewound.' In effect, the child will be sent to a harvest farm and their organs taken as replacements for those who need them.
Connor is a senior, and is stunned when his parents sign the papers to have him unwound. Sure, he wasn't a perfect kid, but still he can't believe he won't be around to grow up. Risa, raised at a home for children without parents, is a skilled musician, but during a recital makes a crucial mistake. Unfortunately the result is for her to be 'unwound.' And Lev, a 15 year old young man raised to believe in tithing is the 10th child in a family that regularly gives 10% of everything they have. He is taught that his sacrifice is important but his life will intersect with Connor and Risa on his way to the harvest farm. His view of life and self will undergo a radical change. A book sure to leave you wondering what you would do if your parents chose for you to be 'unwound'!