Horton Halfpott

30 10 2012

Dickensian [dɪˈkɛnzɪən] adj

1. either from or related to Charles Dickens (1812-70), the English novelist, or his works

2. resembling or suggesting conditions described in Dickens’ novels, especially squalid and poverty-stricken working conditions were truly Dickensian

3.  grotesquely comic, as some of the characters of Dickens

In every sense of that definition Horton Halfpott: or The Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor or  The Loosening of M’Lady Luggertuck’s Corset by Tom Angleberger is Dickensian.

Alright, a few years from now, as Tom Angleberger’s books gain more and more popularity – hilarious comedies with memorable characters in ridiculous situations may come to be known as Anglebergian, but for now, Angleberger is going to have to settle for his book being Dickensian.

It certainly resembles the works of Charles Dickens.  Set in Smugwick Manor, the labyrinth like mansion of the Luggertuck family, Horton Halfpott is filled with characters that had to be inspired by Boz himself.  The story takes place in Victorian England, just like Dickens stories, and, just as Dickens did, Angleberger creates a cast of characters made up of weak servants that are mistreated, rich snobs that you love to hate (and Dickens loved to mock), a bumbling detective, and a helpless waif of a hero that just needs someone to give him a leg up.  The book is worth reading for the names themselves – The evil Luther Luggertuck, Horton Halfpott (a pint sized hero who washes pots and pans), Celia Sylvan-Smythe (who Luther and Horton want to sit in a tree with… yeah, we all know what they want to do in that tree), Loafburton (the baker), the Shipless Pirates, the bumbling detective Portney St. Pomfrey, and the other servants – Bump, Blight, and Blemish.

The servants at Smugwick Manor work in hilarious, but hideous, conditions that give you the “grotesquely comic” that worked so well for Dickens, but makes you root for them that much more, all while laughing at the ridiculous roles each of them is given in the household.  Of course, the best of all is Horton Halfpott himself, the small boy who doesn’t seem to have anything going right in his life reminds readers of Oliver Twist or David Copperfield in so many ways.   Horton’s life is so awful that you just have to laugh at each crazy thing that happens to him.

The main conflict in the story is the zany disappearance of the Luggertuck’s priceless gem – The Lump.  Of course, our hapless hero, Horton Halfpott is the lead suspect in the crime, because this story is Dickensian, so Horton’s life has to get continuously more and more awful.  However, it’s these problems, as well as all the twists and turns that make Oliver Twist such a fun read, that make this book so great.  Horton finds himself in so scary, exciting, and interesting predicaments as the mystery unfolds that you just can’t put the book down.  I highly recommend this on, as well as any other Anglebergian adventures you might find in the library.

Heart of a Samurai

23 09 2012

In 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy helped open the borders of Japan to the rest of the world.  Before then Japan was a “closed country,” refusing to trade or communicate with any foreign lands.  They were especially concerned with the Western nations of Europe and North America, fearing that the people of those countries were devils out to corrupt them and destroy their society and traditions.

The Newbery Honor book, Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus takes place about fifteen years before Perry’s treaties with Japan that opened the country to the rest of the world.

In the book, Manjiro is a fourteen-year-old boy on a Japanese fishing boat.  Manjiro has always dreamed of growing up to be a samurai, but since he’s from a poor, lower class family, he never will be.   When the boat is destroyed in a storm, Manjiro and the other four fishermen are forced to swim to an unknown island where they attempt to live on sea birds and their eggs.  Eventually they are rescued by an American whaling ship.  Not only will Manjiro never be a samurai, but it doesn’t look like he’ll ever see his homeland again.

The Japanese fishermen are reluctant to speak with the American sailors, because if they ever return home, their countrymen will imprison them, maybe even kill them – fearing that they were corrupted by too much contact with foreigners.  Manjiro realizes this and decides that he will probably never be allowed to return home, so, going against the warnings of the other fishermen, Manjiro begins learning English and how to work on the whaling ship.

The story tells the true story of Manjiro’s life over the next decade or so – his adventures on the whaler, his experiences living in New England, his attempts to find riches in San Francisco during the gold rush, and eventually his return to Japan – where he’s imprisoned as an outsider.  Manjiro may not be a true warrior, but throughout all of his adventures, he proves that he does have the heart of a samurai.

Manjiro’s story isn’t a well-known one, but without his efforts and experiences, Commodore Perry never would have been successful in his efforts to open trade lines with Japan.

Margi Preus tells this exciting adventure with quick chapters filled with illustrations (many drawn by Manjiro himself).  Even though this book was published in 2011, it feels like you’re reading a classic adventure story from 100 years ago – and that’s a good thing.  This one is destined to be a classic.

This school year I’ve challenged my students to read 40 books.  I took that challenge myself.   Heart of a Samurai is book #6 for me.  

The Lions of Little Rock

10 07 2012

Last week I drove down to Arkansas for our (sort of) annual trip to visit my wife’s family.  Hanging out in Arkansas is usually pretty relaxing, and I get plenty of time to lounge around and read, so before we left, I stopped by the public library and grabbed a few books to read.  The first one, I thought was pretty fitting – The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine, which is set right there in Arkansas in 1958, during the Civil Rights movement.

The Lions of Little Rock has been getting a lot of buzz this summer.  I won’t be surprised to see it on the Newberry Honor book list soon, and it will likely be on the Rebecca Caudill list in the next few years.  Personally, I think it deserves every good review, bit of praise, and award nomination it gets.  I’ll go ahead and put it in my own top three young people historical fiction books about Civil Rights (a list that would also include Mary Ann Rodman’s Yankee Girl and Christopher Paul Curtis’ The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963).

The plot is familiar.  Integration is coming to Little Rock, Arkansas schools.  Some people are for it, and some are against it.  The people that are for it believe that everyone, regardless of race, deserves a good education.  The people that are against it can be rude, threatening, and even violent.

In 1957, the Little Rock Nine were a group of high school students that became the first African-American students to attend the white school.  In 1958, the governor of Arkansas passed a law so that all Arkansas high schools would become fully integrated.  The Little Rock school board did not agree with this decision and closed the schools.   Yup, you read that right – instead of having their kids go to school with black students, the adults in Little Rock thought it’d be better for the kids to just cancel the whole school year.

The story is told through the eyes of a 12 year old white girl named Marlee.  Marlee’s only in junior high, so her school is still in session, and not integrated.  She’s painfully shy and so quiet that she only talks in a few words at a time, and even then, she only talks to a select few people.  That is, until a new girl moves in to her class and helps Marlee understand what friendship is really about – understanding one another’s strengths, helping with each other’s weaknesses, and really being there.

The story is full of twists and turns as these two friends are caught up in Little Rock’s volatile political mess, so to say too much would give away some of the book’s surprises, so I’ll simply say this:  There are two major reasons why I think this book deserves all the kudos it’s getting –

1. It’s a fantastic history lesson.  I’ve read about the Civil Rights movement, and I knew about the Little Rock Nine, but I’d never heard about a town closing their schools for an entire year to protest integration.  It’s an mind boggling thing to think about now, when we have a mixed race president and don’t deal with the outward racism that was present in our country just 54 years ago, but they actually closed the schools, because no school was a better option to them than schools that mixed races.

2. Marlee is one of the best characters I’ve ever read.  The language in the book is beautiful, because it expresses Marlee’s real feelings, her fears, her confusion, and her desires.  A great author creates characters that you miss when the book ends.  I miss Marlee.

36 down, 54 to go.  I’ve been challenged to try and read 90 books in 90 days this summer.  The Lions of Little Rock, which is one of my favorites so far, was my 36th book.  

Barefoot Gen

27 06 2012

Every once in a while you read a book that hits you hard, beats you down emotionally, or gives you a metaphorical punch in the gut.  Barefoot Gen is one of those books.

The main character of this moving graphic novel is Gen Nakoaka, but really it’s Keiji Nakazawa, the author of the book.  You see, just like Gen (the character), Nakazawa was in Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945 – the day the U.S. dropped an atom bomb.   This first volume (out of 10) focuses on the weeks before the bomb, and how Gen’s family is affected by Japan’s war against England and America.  His oldest brother enlists in the army, another brother is sent out of the city to work for the government farms, his father and mother are trying their hardest to keep the family together and properly fed, and his sister and younger brother are slowly starving.

In front of the Peace Bell in the Hiroshima Peace Park, a group of Japanese 6th graders interviewed me to practice their English and ask me about my thoughts on world peace. I said it was a good idea.

The book is a history lesson rolled up into a personal narrative, with funny moments, touching bits, and a whole load of horror.   It was especially moving to me, considering the fact that I bought it in the Hiroshima Peace Museum, just a few hundred yards from the spot where the bomb exploded 67 years ago.

With the brand new book in my backpack, I strolled through Hiroshima, past the A-Bomb dome (one of the few buildings that survived the blast), the Peace Memorial, and groups of young Japanese school kids practicing their English by interviewing American tourists about their wishes for peace in the world.  It was a moving, emotional day.

Minooka TAP students in front of Hiroshima’s A-Bomb Dome.

We can argue all day about whether or not America should have dropped the bomb, but that’s not the point.  It happened and we can’t change it, but we should understand how it impacted regular people.  This book humanizes the tragedy in a similar way that the Maus books, Anne Frank, The Book Thief, and Number the Stars gave faces to the Holocaust victims – Gen becomes a face for the tragedy on the other side of the war – an innocent boy, who endures countless horrors through no fault of his own.

This is the 29th book I’ve read this summer.  I’m shooting for 90 books in 90 days over break, and I’m sure that the next 9 Barefoot Gen books will be among the ones I read this year.  

Resistance: Book 1

4 06 2012

As this book explains, World War II began in 1939 when Russian and Germany invaded Poland.  A year later, the Germans invaded France.   It was no time at all before the Nazis had control over the country, and France was divided in two – occupied France, controlled by Germany, and Vichy France, controlled by a puppet government out of the city of Vichy.

Neither was a dream situation, but being in occupied territory was much worse.  Soon after the country was under German control, a resistance started up, regular folks organizing together to help restore things to the way they were.  Of course, some French people agreed with the German ideas, and betrayed their friends and neighbors.

The afterward of the book explains that there’s virtually no written history of the French resistance movement, writing things down would have put the rebels at greater risk.  Some of their plans worked, while some failed.  Some of the resistance fighters lived, others were captured.  All we really know is that thousands of brave people, young and old, men and women, Jews and Christians, fought the Nazis in their own way.

This graphic novel (the first in a three part series) tells the story of one small band of resistance fighters.  The story focuses on Paul and Marie Tessier (brother and sister about 12 and 9 years old), their Jewish neighbor Henri, their older sister Sylvie, and Sylvie’s love interest Jacques.

When their small French village was over run by Germans, Henri’s parents were captured.  Henri was relaxing by the pond and missed by the Germans, so Paul and Marie take it upon themselves to hide him from the Nazis.  Accidentally, the siblings stumble upon some members of the resistance, who see the benefit to having innocent, unsuspected children working for them.   Before they know it, the Tessiers are in the middle of it all.

Honestly, this book is really good, because it exposes a part of history that most people aren’t aware of.  Most young adult WWII books focus on the Holocaust, DDay, or Pearl Harbor.  I’ve don’t remember seeing any other that focus on these types of events.

However, on it’s own, the book is pretty unsatisfying.  It’s unclear how “real” the story is, if the French resistance actually included young children like Paul and Marie, so it’s hard to 100% buy into it.  Also, because there’s two more books in the series, this one leaves you hanging at the end.  Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the story – it was exciting and interesting – but I wish I had book 2 sitting here to see what happens.

This summer I’m on a quest to read 90 books in 90 days.  This was #17.

The Mighty Miss Malone

3 06 2012

Christopher Paul Curtis not only has the coolest last name in children’s literature (I met him once and he signed a copy of Bud, Not Buddy to “one of my favorite coz’s”), he also has three nope, make that four of the best middle grades novels I’ve ever read.

Watson’s Go To Birmingham – 1963 was the first of his books that I read.  It’s a fantastic story about an African-American family in Flint, Michigan at the height of the Civil Rights movement.  The first half of the book is a series of hilarious stories about the family members, especially the trouble the oldest brother Byron gets into.  These little unconnected stories tell all about why the family is known as the Weird Watsons.  There are toy paratroopers set on fire in a toilet, a teenage boy who get’s his tongue frozen to the side of a car, and all sorts of hilarious events.  Then it gets serious.  Byron gets in enough trouble that the Watson’s decide to head down south the Birmingham, Alabama to visit grandma.  Life in the South for an African-American family is much different that it is in Michigan.

The last few chapter have you holding your breath to see what happens.

Next, I read Bud, Not Buddy, about a African-American boy in the 1930s who runs away from a foster home to find his way in the world.  Anyone who ever wondered what life is like during the Great Depression should check this book out.  With the way today’s economy is, there are a lot of parallels to be made.  I won’t summarize the book, but Bud is one of my all time favorite characters, and this one is the only book to ever win both the the Newbery Award and the Coretta Scott King Award.  That’s pretty incredible.

Curtis’ next book (at least the next one I read) was Elijah of Buxton.  Buxton is a community in southern Canada founded by escaped slaves, and this book takes place just after the end of the Civil War.  Elijah is the first free child born in Buxton.  This book is set up a lot like Watsons, with each chapter at the beginning telling funny little stories about Elijah and the people of his community.  Then it gets real.  Like the other two books, it has an amazing character and really brings you into history.  Elijah of Buxton almost topped the honors Bud, Not Buddy received.   It won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, The Coretta Scott King Award, and was a Newbery Honor book.
The characters in all of Curtis’ books are great.  Kenny Watson, Bud, and Elijah will all stick with me for a long, long time, but Deza Malone is something special.  She’s so real that sometimes you want to reach into the page and give her a hug, sometimes you want to cheer for her, sometimes you want to yell at her to not do what she’s about to do, but in the end you just smile, glad that you’ve met her.  It sounds silly, but she’s such an amazing, perfectly created character that you really do feel as if you’ve met her.  Finally, I just finished Curtis’ lastest book.  This time, in The Mighty Miss Malone, Curtis returns to the Great Depression and tells the story of Deza Malone and her family.  Deza is actually a minor character, seen for just a few pages in Bud, Not Buddy, and Bud shows up for a few pages in this story.  Deza’s family, like almost everyone in the mid 1930s is down on their luck.

I can not recommend this book enough.  I think it’s the perfect book for kids to read the summer between 6th and 7th grade, since the Great Depression is covered in 7th grade social studies.  In fact, make it a combo deal – a little Deza with a side of Bud, why not read both books?

This was #13 on my quest to read 90 books in 90 days this summer.  So far, it’s my favorite.

Inside Out & Back Again

2 06 2012

What a beautifully written book.  Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai is one of those novels written as a series of poems that seem to be getting very popular nowadays.   This wonderful story was a National Book Award Winner, a Newbery Honor book, and is now on the 2013 Rebecca Caudill nominee.  

It’s almost autobiographical, telling the story of a 10 year old girl named Ha, who is escaping South Vietnam with her family (mom and three brothers) as the Vietnam war is ending.  It’s 1974, and the American troops have pulled out of the country.  The Communist North is slowly taking over, and Ha’s mother decides it’s time for her family to leave. 

The story is told in three parts: Part one is life in Vietnam, showing Ha’s life at home, the things she loves, and all she’s ever known.  Part two is about the family’s escape on a navy vessel.   The third part tells about how Ha and her family adjust to life in Alabama, which is quite a far cry from Vietnam.

The book is made all the more poignant in the end when the author’s note reveals that the story is based on her own experiences, leaving Vietnam and arriving in 1970s Alabama.  

Overall, I highly recommend this lovely little story.  It’s the perfect addition to any study of the Vietnam war or poetry.  

This is #10 in my quest to read 90 books in 90 days this summer.