Review: Pearl Verses the World

Murphy, Sally. Pearl Verses the World. Illustrated by Heather Potter. Somerville, MA: Candlewick, 2011. First published in Australia, 2009. Grades 3-6.

For all of Pearl’s life family has meant Pearl, her mom, and her granny. But now Granny is slipping away from them, slowly losing her memories and her life, and turning Pearl’s world upside down. Pearl’s heart and mind are always at home with Granny and her mom, who is on compassionate leave from her work in order to care for her dying mother. Pearl’s teacher is unaware of her grieving and fails to notice how she has separated herself from her friends and classmates. Miss Bruff’s insistence that Pearl write poetry with rhyme and rhythm is turning her into the enemy in Pearl’s mind:

Miss Bruff wants us to write poems.
I am.
Miss Bruff wants poems that rhyme.
Mine don’t.
Rhyme is okay sometimes,
but my poems don’t rhyme
and neither do I.

Readers ache with Pearl as she faces the coming loss of her beloved granny with no caring adult, other than her overburdened mother, to listen to her fears and share her heartache. Adult readers will want to whisper in Miss Bruff’s ear, “Your job is to be a caring, compassionate guide. She’s hurting! Listen to her. Care about her. She needs you,” as Pearl writes:

At school Miss Bruff
is still wanting poems.
Good ones, she says.
With lots of rhyme
and rhythm.
Miss Bruff, I’d like to say,
There is no rhythm in me.
There is no rhythm in my life.
How can I write it down
on a page
when it isn’t there?
But Miss Bruff is not
that kind of teacher.

It is not until Granny dies that her teacher becomes aware of Pearl’s pain and slowly realizes her gift for poetry, a gift that had been instilled and nurtured by her granny, a gift that helps Pearl cope with her loss and move toward acceptance.

The title of this slender volume is doubly apt. Pearl writes about her life and world in free verse, but the title also reflects how alone Pearl feels, how she seems to be fighting a solitary battle, Pearl versus the world. It’s a heartbreaking battle, but one that Pearl is winning, and one that will reassure young readers that they, too, can be victorious over grief and loss. Australians Sally Murphy and illustrator Heather Potter are a strong team, beautifully capturing emotion without being maudlin and sharing hope without being cliched or didactic.

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Review: A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis

Pena, Matt de la. A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis. Illustrated by Kadir Nelson. New York: Dial, 2011.

Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, fought Max Schmeling for the first time in 1936 and was knocked out in the 12th round. It was a humiliating defeat for Louis and strengthened his determination to work harder and fight smarter. Louis was already a favorite of African Americans when he knocked out Jim Braddock to win the heavyweight championship of the world the following year, but it was not until his second match with Schmeling that he became a favorite with all America. For many Americans the bout was much more than a boxing match. It was a symbolic fight between the two nations, a patriotic contest between democracy and fascism. Louis’ first-round knockout lifted the hearts and pride of all Americans and made Louis a national hero.

Nelson’s vibrant oil on wood paintings build the tension as the free verse poetry relates Louis’ rise to the top of his sport. The only flaw is de la Pena’s omission of almost all punctuation, leaving readers with no guide to phrasing or pace. This makes the text difficult to read smoothly, sometimes results in awkward phrasing or inappropriate pauses, and makes prereading before sharing aloud an absolute necessity. Nevertheless, from the alliterative imagery in the opening lines, “Yankee Stadium, 1938 / Packed crowd buzzing and bets / bantered back and forth / The Bronx night air thick with summer,” to the victorious closing, “The streets of Harlem once again dancing for their hero / But all of America dancing this time,” the text and illustrations pack a powerful one-two punch that is not easily forgotten.

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Review: The Unforgettable Season: The Story of Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and the Record-Setting Summer of ’41

Bildner, Phil. The Unforgettable Season: The Story of Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and the Record-Setting Summer of ’41. Illustrated by S. D. Schindler. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2011.

Numbers and stats are important to sports fans, and perhaps no numbers are more remarkable than those records set by Joe DiMaggio, aka the “Yankee Clipper,” and Boston’s “Splendid Splinter,” Ted Williams. That summer saw the two gifted athletes eclipse their peers by setting records that still stand over 70 years later. Yankee fans watched eagerly as DiMaggio hit safely in game after game, and tension built as he neared George Sisler’s record of 41 games. It was a record that had stood since 1922, a record many doubted would ever be broken. “Joltin’ Joe” didn’t just break the record… he shattered it, hitting safely in an unbelievable 56 straight games. Simultaneously, Red Sox fans were cheering as Williams put on an amazing hitting display, batting above .400 for almost all summer and entering the final day of the season with a batting average of .39955. The record books round to three digits, and Red Sox manager Joe Cronin offered to let Williams sit out the game so he would be guaranteed to end the year with an official .400 average. Ted’s refusal to take the easy way out is part of baseball mythology. His six hits on the last day brought his average to .406 and cemented his place in baseball lore as “The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived.”

Bindler’s love for the game and reverence for these two classic players is evident in this homage to greatness. But it doesn’t take a baseball fan to recognize the character and determination exemplified by DiMaggio and Williams and to enjoy the tale of their incredible season. This one is “out of the park!”

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Review: Dead End in Norvelt

Gantos, Jack. Dead End in Norvelt. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2011.

What was the Newbery Committee thinking? I wanted to like this book, no… I wanted to love this book. I wanted it to be so fantastic that I instantly understood how it won the Newbery Award over Gary Schmidt’s incredible novel, Okay for Now. I will even admit that I found the book amusing at times. I know readers will find Jack and the wacky characters who fill his life in 1960s Norvelt, a government-sponsored social experiment in western Pennsylvania, funny and will enjoy the read. However, an award-winning novel for children or adults should be more than amusing. It should have a universal, worthwhile theme and dynamic characters who grow and change from their experiences, and these two elements should be fairly apparent for its intended audience to perceive. And this is precisely where this historical fiction falters.

Gantos’ child-self is surrounded by a kind, idealistic mother; a restless, sometimes immature father; an elderly neighbor who conveniently invents and embellishes history; and more. While the characters are well-rounded, only Jack, the young protagonist, can be called dynamic. He at least learns to appreciate history and develops empathy for others. No one else seems to learn anything at all from their experiences. I found the old Three Dog Night hit “Easy to Be Hard” running through my mind often as I read this slyly ironic tale:

“Easy to be hard. Easy to be cold.
Especially people who care about strangers,
Who care about evil and social injustice.
Do they only care about the bleeding crowd?
How about a needing friend?”

More mature readers may recognize the irony in Norvelt… Jack’s mother fiercely espouses the commune-like social justice tenets upon which the town was built, yet unfairly punishes her son for obeying his father; several elderly women are murdered, yet there is no anger, no outrage, and no resolution to the crime, just a statement that authorities would probably catch up with the culprit before long; and Miss Volker talks about the importance of history but doesn’t hesitate to fabricate it. Gantos’ social injustice theme is revealed through these and other small ironies, but it was all so casual and offhand that most of his audience will totally miss it.

Additionally, every young reader I talked with thought the events in the book were true. Why? Because the author, in using himself as the protagonist and his childhood home as the setting, deliberately gives readers the impression that the novel is a memoir. Further, he provides no author note or informative sources to help sort the real from the imagined. This does a disservice to readers. His tone is light and humorous, the plot is fast-paced and amusing with a hint of mystery, and readers will enjoy it. But Newbery worthy? Like I said, what was the committee thinking?(less)

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Review: Jefferson’s Sons

Bradley, Kimberly Brubaker. Jefferson’s Sons. New York: Dial, 2011. Grades 6-9.

I have always been puzzled by the paradox of Thomas Jefferson. How the man who penned “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” could also be a slaveholder simply boggles my mind. Bradley tackles that conundrum in this outstanding work of historical fiction for middle school readers.

Most historians now agree that Jefferson probably began a sexual relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, who was thirty years his junior, several years after his wife’s death, when he was the ambassador to France. Sally was the teenage slave/servant of his oldest daughter, Marth, and the relationship continued for decades until his death. Jefferson was almost certainly the father of all Hemings’ children. Bradley focuses on Hemings’ sons Beverly and Madison to weave a well-research imagining of the lives and thoughts of the Monticello slaves. The tale also offers possible explanations for Jefferson’s blind eye to the irony of his written words in opposition to his lifestyle, his financial irresponsibility, and his failure to free Sally and her children during his lifetime. Hemings accepts her life as it is, but longs for more for her children. Her children struggle with the injustice and inequality between their lives and Jefferson’s other children and grandchildren. Beverly and Maddy despise the slaveholder yet love their father and long for his approval. Theirs is a story both heartbreaking and heartwarming; a tale of love, family, and longing; a story of opposites, hidden truths masked by propriety and property; and a story of secrets, injustice, and pain. It is a story our children need to know.


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Review: Small as an Elephant

Jacobson, Jennifer Richard. Small as an Elephant. New York: Candlewick, 2011.

Jack Martel is an unreliable narrator, not because he lies to readers, but because he lies to himself. When Jack crawls out of his tent on the first morning of their vacation, he finds the serene landscape of their secluded campsite unspoiled by anything, including his mother’s tent, all their camping gear, and their rental car. His mother has left, gone without a trace. Jack hides her disappearance, and readers begin to realize there is more to the story than Jack is telling. Jack cannot bear to admit that his mother has left him behind and gone off on one of her “spinning” episodes. But gradually he is forced to admit that she is not coming back in a few hours or even a few days. He is totally alone in Acadia National Park, two states away from his Boston home, and has no money and no one to help. If he goes to authorities, he fears his mother will go to jail and he will never see her again. His only option seems to be to head for home and wait until his mother recovers and finds him there. He sets out on his journey, bolstered by memories of his mother and their love of elephants. He does his best to reason out every choice, but his decisions all seem to have both good and bad consequences. Can Jack make it home, protecting both himself and his absent mother, or is the task too overwhelming for any preteen to achieve? His goal shifts along the way when he learns that Lydia, a circus elephant, spends summers at a wildlife park in southern Maine. If he can just see a real, live elephant, Jack knows that somehow everything will be all right.

During the late 1800’s “seeing the elephant” became a metaphor for seeing the truth. It was a common Civil War euphemism for being in battle, seeing it for the horrific thing it really was instead of a patriotic event of glory and heroism. It serves the same purpose in Jacobson’s story. Jack’s determination to see the elephant is a metaphor for seeing and admitting the truth about his manic depressive mother. Jack is a well-defined, round, dynamic character who rings true. He does not have special skills that let him succeed easily, though his life has made him more self-sufficient than most young people his age. He endures hardships, learns from his mistakes, and is guilt-ridden over some of the choices he makes. He is a boy I would like to know better. I believe thoughtful readers will agree.

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Review: How They Croaked

Bragg, Georgia. How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous. Illustrated by Kevin O’Malley. New York: Walker, 2011.

I have no doubt that students will like this book, but I found it annoying for several reasons. First, I have a problem with information books that fail to clearly cite sources for stated facts, and especially with those that share misinformation! This book does both, and I am seriously pondering whether to insert an errata statement or simply withdraw it from our collection. Additionally, I don’t care for the sly, “wink, wink” tone of the author aside-riddled text that tries too hard for irreverent humor.

The book would have benefited from inline attribution of sources for the more unfamiliar content, and there is quite a bit of that. For example, the section on Cleopatra points out that history has always ascribed her death to suicide by asp then goes on to contend that the actual cause of death was poisoning by jabbing herself with a poisoned two-pronged hairpin. I for one would like a footnote, in-line note, or simply an in-text credit, e.g., “So and so states that her death was actually caused by….” Without easy to locate source credits, readers cannot be sure the author didn’t just imagine tidbits like Poe’s death being attributed to rabies. I also found it very inappropriate that an unexplained question mark was inserted after Lee Harvey Oswald’s name in the list of Presidential assassins on p. 133. I understand the allusion to the controversy surrounding the Warren Commission Report and the lone killer versus the grassy knoll theory, but Bragg’s audience will not.

Lastly, the book contains at least one glaring, factual error. I didn’t catch it in my first, casual reading, but when a friend (thank you, Chris Stofel!) pointed out there was an error on p. 39, I reread and, sure enough, there it was. Bragg states that Henry VIII was buried in an unmarked vault within St. George’s Chapel on the Windsor Castle grounds, which is true. She then says, “Then Queen Victoria refurbished the chapel in 1813, and Henry VIII’s unmarked vault was found completely by accident.” The date is correct. The chapel was refurbished in 1813, but Victoria was not yet queen. In fact, she was not yet born! Victoria was born in 1819, making it quite difficult for her to take credit for the 1811 restoration. 1811-1820 was the Regency period of the British monarchy. George III was king, but was incapable of ruling due to insanity and so was king in name only. The kingdom was ruled by George’s son, the Prince Regent, who would become George IV after his father’s death in 1820. This is a blatant error, and one that should have been caught by the author or editor long before How They Croaked hit library shelves!

StreetReads Rating = Wrong Turn!

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