I don’t know why, but I’ve really been enjoying the dog books I’ve been reading lately. There’s been a few misses (Sounderand Old Yeller are at the bottom of the pack), but Where the Red Fern Grows, Ginger Pye, and now Shiloh are great.
I think what I like the most about a dog book like Shiloh is that it doesn’t hinge on the
dog dying. That’s probably also why I really enjoyed Ginger Pye. To be honest, the two books are a little bit similar in
that they deal with “unsavory” characters and animal abuse.
I think what I liked most about Shiloh, though, is Naylor’s portrayal of Judd Travers. Children’s books can stray into strictly black-and-white territory, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but Travers is portrayed in a surprisingly nuanced way. Nothing that is revealed about him excuses his poor behavior towards animals, but it does help to explain how he became that way—and that sort of nuance is important in a children’s book. Nowadays I feel like we’ve gone even more strictly black-and-white in our portrayals of characters, as authors seem to be scared that any positive or empathetic view on a bad character, or any negative or critical view on a good character (or a character that society has deemed should only be portrayed positively), will result in backlash. As a frequenter of Goodreads, I’ve seen how much readers expect characters to think and act in certain ways. So Naylor’s characters, written thirty (!) years ago, and the human ways they are portrayed are a breath of fresh air.
The book is also great in its discussion of ethics, as
well as in how Marty’s determination shines through despite the unfair way
Travers treats him (and how that wins over Travers, in the end). Overall, for
such a short book, there’s quite a lot to unpack and think about in Shiloh.
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brien, was published in 1971 by Aladdin.
Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is one of those books
where I felt like I remembered a lot about it before reading it, and then
realized that I really didn’t remember much at all. The only thing I truly
remembered was that Mrs. Frisby’s son Timothy gets sick, and also that the rats
were genetically modified. Other than that, my vague impressions of the book
were dead wrong.
The book has a more middle-to-high level reading level (on a scale that I invented just this minute to express what I’m trying to say about the writing), and so it feels, at least, a bit more mature and complex than an average Newbery Medal. I actually quite like this type of writing style. There’s a lot of words, but they’re not complicated ones, so children should still be able to follow along fairly well. It was a nice change after some of the more simplistic things I read, and it helped give the book a more serious and studied air, as befitting the NIMH rats.
The story itself is engaging. Mrs. Frisby enlists the
help of the genetically modified rats of NIMH to help her move her house, and
along the way learns their story and their ultimate goal of achieving their own
sustainable den so they no longer have to steal to survive. There’s some
tension involving the cat, Dragon, as well as the looming threat of NIMH, and
the ending is dramatic and even a little ambiguous as to the final fate of the
rats (one in particular).
The biggest weakness of the book is that the whole premise of the book is based on evolutionary theory, and I honestly don’t think O’Brien did a very good job at all at communicating it in an even remotely sensible way. Perhaps the age of this book shows a little during all the talk of monkeys and prairie dogs. In any case, it’s presented in a way that’s almost laughably bad. In addition, the end goal of the rats is shaky at best. It’s a bit like Rabbit Hillwas. At least in this book it explains how the rats were modified, but the whole idea that rats could have their own community, their own farm and crops, and flourish (in essence, live like humans) is unbelievable.
Despite my problems with the entire premise, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is
still an interesting story—and it’s not all about the rats, either. Mrs. Frisby
gets some great moments to shine, too, which are arguably some of the best
moments of the book besides the rat escape at the end.
Town at the Crossroads is a book that is very similar to Little House in Brookfield, in terms of
both content and style. The content is very much like previous Little House
books: each chapter is episodic, without a distinct arc beyond the passing of
time. Wilkes seems to be trying to convey numerous aspects of the time period
without necessarily tying everything together, which isn’t a bad thing. The
book does, however, distinctly lack charm and excitement as did the first one.
I loved these books as a kid, but as an adult, they’re definitely missing the mark. Some of my favorite books (that I remember) are later in the series, after there is an author change, so perhaps it’s just Wilkes’s style that I’m struggling with. Everything is too cut-and-dry; characters sound like they’re rehearsing lines. There’s no real voice to them beyond “Caroline is the neat one, Martha is the spunky one.”
As historical fiction, Little Town at the Crossroads does a good job of capturing life in
the 1840s. However, as a story, it’s lacking a theme to tie it together and
some excitement and charm. Everything is just a bit too wooden and similar, and
the characters don’t grow or change. I’m hoping that changes as the series goes
Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell, was published in 1960 by Houghton.
Island of the Blue Dolphins is not nearly as interesting as O’Dell’s Newbery Honor-winning book The King’s Fifth. There’s not nearly as much dialogue or character interaction, for one, since the premise of this book is a girl stuck on an island by herself for years. There’s also not enough action or tension to help with the overall tedium of the plot.
The most interesting thing about this book is that it
is inspired by a true story: the story of “The Lone Woman of San Nicolas
Island” (Juana Maria), who lived for eighteen years by herself on San Nicolas
Island (off the coast of California) after her tribe left. This is a survival
story, so O’Dell imagines what Juana Maria (Karana in the novel) must have done
to live off the land and survive as the only human.
There’s a brother, too, which O’Dell gives as the
reason for why Karana is left behind, but then the brother makes a quick exit
about thirty minutes (or so it feels) after the tribe leaves, when he runs into
a pack of wild dogs. Thus, Karana quickly realizes the impetus for her staying
behind is now gone, and now she must wait for the ship to return.
I do honestly enjoy survival stories, but the ones
I’ve read lately have been underwhelming. Karana is well-prepared to stay for
years on the island, and I suppose that’s a bit of what takes the wind out of
the sails: there’s never any sense of real danger or real struggle. The most
exciting part of the book is a tidal wave, followed by an earthquake; it’s the
only part of the book where Karana loses her unflappability and becomes more
like a real person. I think the story, on paper, is great—again, I love
survival stories—but actually written out, Island
of the Blue Dolphins is underwhelming and mostly boring.
Little House in Brookfield, by Maria D. Wilkes, was published in 1996 by HarperCollins.
The Caroline Years, or, as my copy states, “The Brookfield Years,” were written before the Martha Years and the Charlotte Years. Having read the latter two first, which were written by a different author, the style of this one threw me off a bit, especially since the Charlotte is this book is so much different. I’d say that Wilkes is likely more historically accurate than Wiley in her portrayal, however, especially since she had more research from which to draw.
I’ve always enjoyed the Caroline Years the most,
probably because it spans the most amount of years, similarly to the original
Little House books. However, the beginning of the series is mediocre at best.
While it does a good job of depicting the struggles the family went through
after the death of their father, it’s simply not a very exciting book. It does
give glimmers into the personality of Caroline that we will see come out in the
Little House books, and I also enjoyed the farm life aspect it showed, as it
does a good job of explaining so that readers know how people did things back
I remember enjoying the Caroline Years more as the
books went on, especially once they move to Concord, but Little House in Brookfield gives the series a slow start. Both the
style and the voice threw me off, as I was used to that of the previous two
series, though that’s not necessarily the book’s fault (although I’m not fond
of that sort of style in general). There’s also a lack of excitement that makes
the book a little dry to read.
There are a lot of dog books out there, but Ginger Pye is probably one of my favorites. It has the sadness you might expect from a dog book, but without the heartbreak. It has humor, charm, memorability, and a nice sense of oomph and depth. It deals with difficult topics without getting into crying-lots-of-tears-at-the-end territory, like Old Yeller or Where the Red Fern Grows, and so is a much better vehicle for communicating those topics to younger children.
is about, of course, Ginger Pye, the dog that Jerry buys for a dollar. The
story, though, is more than just about Ginger—it’s about Jerry, and his sister
Rachel, and their Uncle Bennie (who is only three years old—this book also is a
great vehicle for communicating different family dynamics, such as a girl who
marries young, who has young parents who have another child ten years (thus
becoming “old’ parents) after their daughter gave birth to two of her own.).
It’s a much more daring book than The
Moffats in several regards: the aforementioned family dynamic, the whole
idea of “unsavory characters,” and, of course, kidnapping and animal
abuse—because it can’t be a dog book without something happening to the dog.
In this case, Ginger is kidnapped. This happens about
halfway through the book, and so the rest of the book is Jerry and Rachel
searching for him and wondering where he is. Estes also portrays this quite
realistically: time passes, and even as Jerry and Rachel continue to hope
Ginger will return, life goes on for them. They go to school, they hike, they
camp, they play with friends. Yet they never stop thinking about Ginger, or
thinking up ways to find him, so of course at the end of the novel, they are
reunited, though not without some trauma on Ginger’s side.
I think that’s probably what I liked most about this
book: the way Estes handles these difficult topics, the way she includes
stories and asides everywhere, the way she communicates danger and abuse
without being graphic or overly angsty or even losing a bit of the charm and
simplicity that’s in the book. In fact, really the only complaint I have is
that this book is massively long because Estes takes her time building
everything up, as well as telling lots of stories to establish the characters.
It maybe takes too long to get to the climax—two chapters too long—but it’s an
adventure worth taking.
Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls, was published in 1961 by Delacorte.
Starting out right from the gate with spoilers, so be warned! I always knew Where the Red Fern Grows as “the one where the kid falls on an axe and dies.” I didn’t know it was a dog book, since I never actually read the book. But I’ve heard it compared to Old Yeller, so perhaps that should have been my first clue.
My fourth-graders read Old Yeller, and I have to say, I think Where the Red Fern Grows is far superior—so it baffles me that it doesn’t have any kind of award. The book is poignant and sweet, with a determined, likable protagonist and a gritty realism that is only lightly coated in nice things.
It also presents an attitude that is far underrepresented in children’s literature today, which is, of course, the prominence of religion and its role in someone’s life. Billy prays a lot, and his family talks about God a lot, and while there are a couple of inaccuracies (“God helps those who help themselves” is not in the Bible), it helps give a realistic tone to an area and a time that would have said and done those things. And it combines the religious aspect with a more superstitious, “legends of the hills” aspect, which also makes sense for the area and the time.
Since this is a dog book, yes, it is sad, and yes, the dogs do die, but this is a story about love, first and foremost, and even the death of the dogs shows that. This book has a lot to say about purpose and meaning and why things happen and love and sacrifice, which is why I think it’s superior to Old Yeller, which doesn’t have much of that. Where the Red Fern Grows is poignant and powerful and I’m sad that I never read it sooner.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Warnings: Little Ann, one of the dogs, is called a “bitch” at one point, which is, of course, the word for a female dog.
A Year Down Yonder, by Richard Peck, was published in 2000 by Dial.
A Year Down Yonder is technically a sequel, but luckily it’s not at all necessary to have read the book that comes before it—which is good because I didn’t. The book is about Mary Alice, who goes to live with her grandmother for a year during the Great Depression, due to the financial situation of her family. It’s pretty much a “city girl goes to the country” type of a book, except with less school drama. Instead, Mary Alice learns the ins and outs of the town, including all the small-town shenanigans you might expect. There’s secret family histories, women’s committee drama, and, all right, a small amount of school drama.
But the star of the show is, of course, Grandma Dowdel, who is a fierce and formidable woman. She manipulates the people around her so that she gets the results she wants, but she also shows a soft side when it comes to her family and friends. The story revolves more around her than Mary Alice, for better or for worse.
Peck manages to expertly capture the oddities and charms of small-town, country life. Though the scenarios are often outrageous, there’s an undercurrent of believability underneath them that makes them that much more appealing. Grandma Dowdel steals the show with her boots and her shotgun, though Mary Alice has her moments, too. A Year Down Yonder is a charming read, and what it lacks in memorability and depth, it more than makes up for in good, plain fun.
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.
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle, was published in 1962 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Rating: 3/5 (2/5??)
A Wrinkle in Time has always been That Book for me. Not That Book that you really enjoy, or That Book that knocked you off your feet, but That Book that everyone talked about and referenced as a fantastic book, that you grew up hearing about, that you read a long time ago, that your friends all mention, that is always upheld as a great example of x genre. And with such a towering reputation, it’s always difficult to admit that you don’t actually like That Book.
I left my rating the way I typed it when first thinking about how to review this book because it really illustrates my conflict here. On the one hand, I didn’t like it: hence, the 2/5. On the other hand, I acknowledge its significance and reputation: hence, the 3/5. But 3/5 has turned into my lazy rating, my “it was average, but not terrible, but not great” rating, so I want to be bold and say 2/5. Yet, I think my dislike of it has to do with my personal taste in books, so I want to be fair and say 3/5.
So, I kept both ratings there because I couldn’t decide.
I always feared going into reading this book that I wouldn’t like it. See, the thing is, I simply don’t like science fiction. I struggle to enjoy even children’s books of that genre. So I knew that my thoughts about A Wrinkle in Time might be negative simply from that standpoint.
But I also didn’t think the book was that great…
I mean, the theme is great. Love wins over evil—fantastic. But the way everything is delivered, the way everything happens, is clunky, and not developed enough, and way too quickly paced. The explanation in this book is scant; we’re swept along just like Meg and Charles Wallace and Calvin are, except there’s the feeling that the characters know more than the reader. There’s two kids who are special—somehow, with no explanation as to how or why they’re like that—and their father is missing, then BOOM! they get taken away by these three strange angel ladies to rescues their father, then BOOM! they go to the planet where their father is and one special kid gets overtaken by the evil, then BOOM! stuff happens, they rescue their father, one kid goes back to rescue the other, she stares at him and thinks about love, then BOOM! he’s back, they’re back, everyone’s back, and everyone’s happy.
But how is Charles Wallace different, and why is he different? Why do Meg and Charles Wallace and Calvin seem to instinctively know how to combat IT, despite never knowing about him before? How does staring at Charles Wallace and thinking about love break ITs hold on him? Why do these kids just go with the flow and not freak out? Why is everything so pat and quick and why do the kids seem to know what to do despite also not knowing what to do?
Maybe I’m missing the point? Like this is supposed to be one giant allegory, even more than the one that’s abundantly obvious already, and that’s why everything is the way it is. I like the good/evil allegory/symbolism, but I didn’t think it was written all that well, to be honest!
So, those are my thoughts on A Wrinkle in Time. I’m now a pariah among my friends, I know, but I just found the whole book strange and poorly explained.