My Face to the Wind: The Diary of Sarah Jane Price, a Prairie Teacher, by Jim Murphy, was published in 2001 by Scholastic.
Dear America picks some odd topics to focus on. My Face to the Wind is about teaching school in the West. And it’s about as interesting as it sounds.
I’m sure that topic could be made interesting—Laura Ingalls Wilder’s story in These Happy Golden Years comes to mind—but the book takes way too long to get to the actual teaching part, and there isn’t enough conflict or tension to keep things interesting. Oh, sure, Sarah Jane has some problems with her pupils, but not that much, and there’s very little of the novel actually focused on teaching. Most of the time Sarah Jane is only briefly describing what she does, while expounding on the tension at her boarding house or on brief clashes with the students.
There’s also such a strange inclusion here of a Reverend character. In the Historical Note, Murphy talks about religion, so it’s not strange to have a Reverend. What’s strange is that the Reverend’s actions are contrasted with that of the boarding house owner, Miss Kizer, and there’s an odd scene where Sarah Jane observes Miss Kizer reading her Bible and thinking and smiling, and Sarah Jane thinks, “Hmm, I wonder what she’s thinking about.” Then it never comes up again. So whatever comparison Murphy was trying to make falls a bit flat amidst all the other preachiness.
A lack of conflict in My Face to the Wind, coupled with a lack of focus on the actual teaching and weak student confrontations, makes it very boring. What saves it from a 1/5 rating is some interesting revelations about state law, hiring teachers, and other historical details. Yet, it’s still another random topic, uncompelling Dear America book to throw on the pile.
The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo, was published in 2003 by Candlewick.
I must not like Kate DiCamillo as an author (though I remember liking Because of Winn-Dixie). I didn’t like Flora and Ulysses, and I didn’t like The Tale of Despereaux, despite the latter’s place as a beloved children’s novel and one of the few that have had a film adaptation.
I really don’t know what it is about DiCamillo that I struggle with. Flora and Ulysses and The Tale of Despereaux are very dissimilar to each other. So, perhaps it is just the books and not the author herself.
What didn’t I like about Despereaux? Pretty much everything. The grating narrator “address the reader” asides, the simplistic themes, the annoying protagonist (yes, I found Despereaux annoying), the villain, the unwitting sidekick…all of it combined created an unpalatable mess that I could only barely tolerate. It was the type of book where, if I had my way, I would take forever to finish reading it because I dreaded it so much, but I forced myself to finish it so I could move on to a more exciting book.
However, Despereaux is still not bad enough for a 1/5 rating, and that’s because I acknowledge that this read had a lot more to do with me than it had to do with the book. I don’t like magical realism, I don’t like breaking-the-4th-wall narrators, and I don’t like simplistically obvious messages about light and dark and courage. Plus, the ending was extremely anticlimactic. However, I did like the introduction of complicated words and ideas that the narrator explained, and parts of the novel were, if not enjoyable, at least tolerable—so long as the narrator stayed out of things.
I’ve described lots of Newbery Medals as mediocre, and The Tale of Despereaux is one of the few that I’ve actively disliked, though I wouldn’t call it mediocre. I suppose it’s just an acknowledgement that tastes can vary among readers—even with award-winning books. The Tale of Despereaux is well-written and far from average, but, simply put, I just didn’t care for it.
Growing up, I really enjoyed books seven and eight of the Guardians of Ga’Hoole series. I liked the idea of a young owl overcoming his upbringing and seeking truth and new beginnings. The prophecy part was just an interesting addition for me. Now, of course, however many years later, I have different feelings about it (though the nostalgia factor is always there).
The Hatchling continues where The Burning left off—with Nyra and her egg. Nyroc is the son of Nyra and Kludd, and is destined, or so he is told, to be the next great leader of the Pure Ones. However, thanks to his friend Philip, a rogue smith, and his own firesight, Nyroc discovers the truth about his mother and the Pure Ones and runs away, eventually seeking to go Beyond the Beyond, a mysterious place full of wolves and volcanoes, to find the legendary Ember of Hoole.
As an adult, I can see many of the flaws and shortcomings of this book that I didn’t notice as a child. Nyroc’s change towards the Pure Ones is too abrupt and is handwaved away by his “strong gizzard” and by several actions taken by Nyra. A convenient enough reason for a children’s book, but too unsatisfying for me. The introduction of a random prophecy embedded into the Hoole stories is too sudden and not foreshadowed enough, although I liked that it is Otulissa, and not Soren, who discovers it and sets out on a quest.
But, I do like that Lasky is continuing to expand and build on her owl world, that she is introducing new concepts—however abruptly—and new places and new incentives for the characters. It’s exactly what an extended series should do, and she’s doing it (and she does it again in book 13). And, as I said, I didn’t notice any of these things when I was a child—I just enjoyed the story. So that’s a credit to Lasky.
Shadow of a Bull is the story of Manolo, who struggles to find his own purpose in life as the people around him try to make him into the next great bullfighter, just like his father. It dives deeply into the rich history of Spain and of bullfighting, and Wojciechowska helpfully gives a glossary of all the Spanish bullfighting terms she uses. The whole book is basically a love letter to bullfighting and its roots in Spanish culture.
It’s also really boring.
This is the type of book where my mind goes wandering off while in the middle of reading, unable to find enough interest to keep its attention going. One time I read three pages without really processing what was happening, then had to give myself a little mental shake to get back on track. There was nothing to the book that really grabbed my attention and held it; I rushed to finish it because I was so bored of reading it.
Maybe it’s because outside of the main plot of Manolo deciding he doesn’t want to be a bullfighter, nothing else happens. It’s just bullfighting terms and people talking about bullfighting. That’s it.
I suppose after such a long string of good Newbery Medals, there had to be one that I didn’t like. Shadow of a Bull was not my cup of tea at all.
My Heart is on the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl, by Ann Rinaldi, was published in 1999 by Scholastic.
My Heart is on the Ground is probably the most controversial Dear America book, and perhaps reportedly the most historically inaccurate. It’s the story of a young Lakota girl at the Carlisle Indian School and her experience there, and unfortunately it’s really not the best representation. That’s really a bit of an understatement, but since I don’t know much about the Carlisle Indian School (or any of those schools), I can only surmise from what I’ve heard people say about the book, as well as from the book itself.
I’m of the opinion that any book is useful for learning and teaching, which is why I didn’t give this book a lower rating. If anything, this book is a good stepping stone for a discussion on Indian schools and the treatment of the children there. It’s also a good lesson for how simplifying material to fit the audience can distort at best, and mislead at worst, other cultures and beliefs.
The story is…not great. Even I can tell the tone is tone-deaf, at best, and I only know little bits of Indian history from books such as I Buried My Heart at Wounded Knee. Just like in The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow, the tone is completely wrong. Nannie Little Rose is way too happy about the school, even in the midst of describing how the Carlisle Indian School is visibly eliminating most everything to do with her culture.
Plus, the author’s note is so lethargic, and so vague, that it makes Rinaldi seem as if she’s deliberately downplaying the history that she must have researched, or not willing to go into more depth and nuance in a children’s book. It is possible that the audience and nature of these books pressured her, or perhaps Scholastic did. I won’t really speculate as I can’t know for sure. But it seems odd that some of these books seem so well researched, and others not at all (or the research ignored).
I think many works of historical fiction have benefit, but it’s hard to talk about any benefit to My Heart is on the Ground beyond “how to enrage people with inaccurate history.” I’m really not sure what Scholastic, or Rinaldi, was thinking. Letting children know about that time period: good. Doing it in the way they did, when any amount of historical research will reveal the opposite of what this book is saying: bad.
On Tide Mill Lane is a dreadfully boring installment of the Charlotte Years. Though it details the end of the War of 1812, there is little to keep it interesting, family and friend drama aside. The Charlotte Years have always seemed the weakest to me, but this book highlights that weakness. There’s virtually no plot—each chapter is only tangentially related to others, if at all—and Charlotte has no growth at all. She’s also not a very convincing five-year-old. In fact, it’s Charlotte’s mother, Martha, who has most of the focus, as if Wiley is still trying to hold on to those Martha Years.
The dialogue and descriptions are also really cheesy. A child likely won’t find them that way, but as an adult, I could barely keep from rolling my eyes. In addition, everything is spelled out very nice and neatly, so that nothing can possibly escape the reader’s attention and understanding. I love children’s books, but this one is too non-subtle for me.
I can barely remember what happens in the next Charlotte book, but I remember the last one being quite interesting, and it at least has Charlotte stop being perpetually five. I will, however, be glad to be done with these last two books so that I can move on to the Caroline Years, one of my favorites.
Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, by Kate DiCamillo, was published in 2013 by Candlewick.
Magical realism is a genre that I struggle with. To be honest, I can’t even think of one book title, beyond this one, that I’ve read in magical realism that I’ve liked (there probably are some, but at the moment, nothing comes to mind). I prefer my fantasy world separate from my reality, and I always have, really. I’m more drawn to other-world fantasies than fantasies set in this world and mingling with it.
I didn’t know going in that Flora & Ulysses was magical realism. From the cover, it simply looks like a girl with a pet squirrel. Slightly strange, but it won a Newbery Medal, so there must be something special about it, right?
Then the squirrel picked up a vacuum cleaner, and that’s where the book lost me. I stuck it out, of course, through the whole book. It’s a fairly short and quick read, and to be honest, not all that much happens. Flora finds Ulysses, shenanigans happen, Flora leaves with her father, more shenanigans happen, Flora goes back to her mother’s with her father, more shenanigans happen, Flora and her mother connect, and the ending is happy. While there’s a little bit in there with Flora and her mother in terms of message and power, most of the book is light and fluffy stuff about a superhero squirrel, a cynical girl, and a temporarily blind (or is he?), philosophical boy.
It’s strange, and I’m not a huge fan of strange, especially in realism. I’ve never liked “odd” books, and this one is so quirky, and is so obviously the type of book that will really appeal to certain people, but leave the rest scratching their heads. I was scratching my head as I finished this one. I like that a work of magical realism won the Newbery Medal, but Flora & Ulysses and its superhero squirrel story just made no sense to me.
I enjoyed the first two Track books, Ghost and Patina, but Sunny is the weakest one so far. It’s messy and all-over-the-place, and I get that it’s supposed to be inside of Sunny’s head, but half the time he’s just making random noises and talking about random things. Maybe that’s appealing to some, but not to me.
There’s a lack of depth to the book, too, that seems out of place, especially when comparing it to the previous two books. There’s some sad stuff going on, but there’s really not that much to the book at all. Half of it is just Sunny making sound effects and thinking about dancing. Yes—those parts of the book really bothered me! The scenes with Sunny and his dad were good, and the handling of all the unspoken (and spoken) expectations that Sunny is trying to fill, when he also wants to strike out on his own, were good. But I like tightly-focused, tightly-plotted books, and Sunny was just too stream-of-consciousness for me.
I also am growing very irritated of Reynolds’s penchant to ending the books right in the middle of a track meet (and then starting the next book with the resolution of that track meet). It’s hokey, and doesn’t really accomplish much. There’s no sense of closure or growth by cutting off the book right in the character’s shining moment. Instead, we’re left to wonder “Did he do it?” and there’s no rush of victory that is so great to feel when reading a book that’s so character-focused as this one.
I think I might still get the last track book, just to finish the series, but Sunny was ultimately a disappointment. Too random, too noisy, and just not my cup of tea.
Land of the Buffalo Bones: The Diary of Mary Ann Elizabeth Rodgers, an English Girl in Minnesota, by Marion Dane Bauer, was published in 2003 by Scholastic.
Land of the Buffalo Bones is a “special edition” of Dear America, though at first I didn’t know why. However, it became clear at the end—this Dear America book was based off of real people. And I don’t mean that real people showed up as side characters within the book, as happened in previous Dear America books. I mean that the protagonist herself was a real person—though not much is known about her.
Bauer relates the story of Reverend George Rodgers, who took his family and a large group of people from England to Minnesota, filling their heads with talk of fertile soil and beautiful land. The reality, of course, is harsh winters, hot summers, grasshoppers, and bleached buffalo bones everywhere, not to mention Indians. Rodgers soon leaves his “colony” in disgrace, moving his family around after that. Polly is the protagonist and the voice of the story, though, as the author’s note reveals, not much is known about her at all, so most of the information given in this book is made-up by the author.
The struggle of immigrants in a harsh land may be a tale that’s interesting to some, but Polly is such a disagreeable, passive protagonist that it’s hard to find anything compelling about this book. As is the problem with many Dear America books, there is too much observation and not enough plot to sustain the novel. Polly is merely a passive observer to all around her—even her friendship with Jane is seen at a distance, and Jane’s ultimate decision to leave the colony is marred by Polly’s blunt language and bewilderment at the entire affair. If more had been given for Polly to do—if Polly had interacted with people beyond her family and Jane, done more than gripe at her younger sisters and exclaim at the extreme weather conditions—this might have been a more interesting book.
Land of the Buffalo Bones was obviously a labor of love for the author, who is chronicling a fictionalized version of her family’s history, but it’s not particularly exciting and it adds nothing to the Dear America canon. Polly is too bland of a character, and the book too observational. It has a little historical value in its exploration of religious freedom, but very, very little—and almost nothing to contribute in other areas. Dear America books are so much better when they are focused on significant events, rather than on vague periods of time.
Death Sworn eventually won me over, but Death Marked failed from the start. Death Marked takes what happened in Death Sworn and makes it entirely irrelevant. It is not a pleasant sensation to finish a book and feel as if the author has simply wasted your time.
The problem with Death Marked is manifold. First, there’s the worldbuilding—again. I talked about the thin worldbuilding in the first book, but this book does almost nothing to build on that. Ileni is once again stuck in a series of cavelike rooms, only venturing out once or twice. There is never any sense of an established world or order. Though “Renegai” is mentioned several times over, there is never a clear idea of what they are beyond “magicians in exile.” The city that Ileni walks in is featureless and boring, its only purpose to show off the Imperial’s way of harvesting magic.
Second, there’s the plot, or the lack of it. I can only assume Cypess intends this as a character-driven novel, but fails for a multitude of reasons (one of which being Ileni herself, which I’ll get to). Motives are too thin or unclear, the characters too one-note, the poorly built world too vague for any solid development to occur. The book ends with no momentum gained, nor any clear resolution reached—only a vague sense that the characters are happy where they are, even though nothing was accomplished.
The biggest problem, I found, was Ileni herself. She spends far too long floundering in confusion, then switching from loyalty to treachery and back again according to what suits her in the moment. She spends the majority of the book reacting (poorly) to what goes on around her, rather than being proactive. The most annoying aspect of her character is her behavior towards magic, the irritating push-and-pull, addictive thinking. She spends one chapter reveling in her power, the next swearing she’ll never use it again, the next using magic and then guiltily remembering her promise. It’s a never-ending cycle, and though I think Cypess wants it to add to her character, I found it annoying.
She also spends far too much time screaming.
The only thing I did like was the departure from that romance-heavy take of the first book. In fact, Cypess actually ends the book with something I didn’t actually think she would do, but didn’t actually mind, as it fit well. Other than that, though Death Marked was a disappointment through and through, almost a complete waste of time.