Monday, May 07, 2007

Recent Reads

Well, howdy! It's been a long time!

Have you ever entered a "reading slump?" You try to find something to read, but nothing looks appealing? That's what happened to me. After I did a marathon of juvenile Holocaust books, I entered a reading slump. It's not that I was lacking in things to read. It's just that nothing appealed to me, hence a lack of things to post about.

Thankfully, that has changed. I recently finished two books (and I'm working on a third that I will post about soon) that I think some of you may want to read.

I love Patricia Reilly Giff's books. I love historical fiction set in New York. So it figures that I would gravitate toward this book. Bingo! Water Street is set in 1875 Brooklyn, just before the Brooklyn Bridge is completed. Bird Mallon (her formal name is Bridget) is an eighth grader and the daughter of a midwife/healer. In those days, many children completed their formal education in the eighth grade. Bird and her family expect her to continue under the tutelage of her mother, learning which herbs heal diseases, attending her first birth, and sewing up wounds.

Thomas, a boy Bird's age, and his father move into the apartment above the Mallon family. In alternating chapters, Giff explores the friendship between these two different children and Bird's emerging independence. She evokes late 19th century Brooklyn brilliantly without lapsing into sentimentality and nostalgia. I like to recommend Giff's historical fiction novels for children who have a historical fiction assignment but don't normally like historical fiction. Her characters and situations are understandable and accessible to modern young readers.

Dead mothers are nothing new in children's literature. However, books about motherless children run the risk of being trite. This isn't the case with Remembering Mrs. Rossi. Mrs. Rossi was the mother of eight year old Annie, wife of Professor Rossi, and sixth grade teacher at the Louis Armstrong school. In the preliminary chapter, we learn that Mrs. Rossi developed a fever, went into the hospital for a while, and died (although we never learn of the exact cause of Mrs. Rossi's death, I assumed it was cancer).

As you can imagine, this loss is devastating to Annie, Professor Rossi, and Mrs. Rossi's sixth grade class. The Rossi struggle to continue on and create a new normalcy. The Rossis are invited to a special assembly in honor of Mrs. Rossi at the Louis Armstrong school, where they are presented with a memory book written by her sixth grade class (which the reader reads when the story is finished).

Although Remembering Mrs. Rossi is not told from Annie's point of view, Hest has expertly written in a voice with which young chapter book readers will identify and understand. There is a definite lack of drama in the book (aside from Annie's occasional tantrums of frustration). Annie and her father have breakfast together, Annie sits in during one of his lectures, celebrate his birthday, vacation at the beach during the summer, and reread the sixth graders' memory book, while struggling to come to terms with their overwhelming loss. The simplicity of the story, with its undercurrents of grief, pain, and bewilderment, is beautiful and heartbreaking.

Is it too early to start thinking about possible Newbery contenders? I think I have my first hoped-for contender. Patricia McKissack (another favorite) has turned her childhood memories (so closely that she had to change names) into a compelling and rich book detailing an unlikely friendship.

Rosemary Patterson is one of the most appealing characters I have read this year. She's twelve years old, smart as a whip, and has independence and courage like nobody's business. She's also African-American and lives in 1950's Missouri.

The Supreme Court has just ruled against the legality of segregation, and Rosemary's school is scheduled to close at the end of the school year. Rosemary and her classmates will attend the formerly all-white schools in the town. Rosemary will be one of two African-American students at her new school.

As if that isn't enough to make a young person nervous beyond belief, Rosemary discovers that Grace Hamilton is in her class. The Hamiltons are one of a few Caucasian families that live around Rosemary's African-American neighborhood, and are not looked upon favorably by the other townspeople. The Hamiltons are hateful and regularly call Rosemary and her friends names. Rosemary and her friends think the Hamiltons are trash. However, through a series of scenes and sitations, Rosemary and Grace learn to look beyond their prejudices.

I hope I haven't made this seem like an unrealistic and preachy story, because this book is anything but that. Rosemary and Grace never fully let down their guard, and the Hamiltons never truly let go of their prejudices. I think this would be an excellent book for a civil rights unit or a unit on segregation/integration. The reader gets an absolute sense of the indignities the African American families faced when enrolling their children in the formerly white schools (Rosemary is almost sent to remedial class). However, the story is not just about segregation. It's also about friendship, community, and the pain of divorce.

Despite the heavy subjects, this is not a downtrodden novel. Rosemary is quite the character, full of spirit and intelligence. The ending is not happy go lucky, but rather realistic. It's one of my top five favorites of this year, and I'll be looking for A Friendship for Today on the awards announcements come later this year and early next year.

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