Archive for the ‘Read-Alouds’ Category

the magician's assistant ann patchett 001The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett ~ 1997. This edition: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1997. Softcover. ISBN: 0-15-600621-9. 357 pages.

My rating: Tough call. Loved the lead-in; increasingly despised the last half. It declined from an 7-ish sort of thing in the first 100 pages to maybe a 2 or thereabouts, with the nadir being the screamingly predictable lesbian kiss scene. So averaging the two together, I offer you a rather generous 4.5/10.

Another Century of Books novel, chosen because I’d not yet read an Ann Patchett title and I keep seeing them everywhere and I needed to find some 1990s candidates.

Caution: I may not be able to avoid including a spoiler or two down below.

Well now. I’m all conflicted about this one. It started off quite brilliantly – so much so that I stayed up into the wee hours last night because I couldn’t put it down. I forced myself to leave our heroine just as she was heading from sunny L.A. to wintry Nebraska, and when I picked it up again a few hours later, everything had changed. On multiple fronts.

Using the handy “Life’s too short” cop-out, I’m going to dodge discussing this one in too much depth. Because after a quick internet review search, I realize I’m apparently the only person who found this one less than fabulous. I’m going to refer you instead to one of many glowing reviews, this one from Publishers Weekly of October, 1997.

An excerpt here:

… Sabine had been assistant to L.A. magician Parsifal for 22 years when they finally married. She knew he was homosexual; both had mourned the death of his gentle Vietnamese lover, Phan. What she didn’t know until Parsifal’s sudden death only a short time later was that Parsifal’s real name was Guy Fetters, that had he lied when he claimed to have no living relatives and that he has a mother and two sisters in Alliance, Nebraska. When these four women meet each other, their combined love for Parsifal helps Sabine to accept the shocking events in  Parsifal’s life that motivated him to wipe out his past. In finding herself part of his family, she discovers her own desires, responsibilities and potential, and maybe her true sexual nature…

Good enough?

The initial depiction of Sabine’s grief at the loss of her partner Parsifal was poignant and believable; the details Ann Patchett emphasized were heart-rendingly real. The sudden insertion of unsuspected relations moved things up a notch, and I was truly curious as to where the author was planning to take us all. The possibilities seemed intriguing. I even bought into the magical-realism dream sequences where Sabine makes contact with Phan in the ever-shifting afterworld; it seemed like these were going to go somewhere as well.

But all of the interesting leads fizzled out, leaving us with a common old relationship drama once Sabine left exotic L.A. and forayed forth into the depths of Middle America in the 1990s, where Wal-Mart is the only place to shop in town, and they don’t seem to carry Perrier, and where all the folks are pasty white in ethnic monotone.

A major sticking point that really soured the second part of the book for me was the over-simplified and patronizing depiction of the Nebraskans. Sabine’s new in-laws are completely awed by her sophistication and readily bow down to her California cool; she in turn is completely thrown out of kilter at their drab lives of blue-collar jobs, modest bungalows, and pitiful acceptance of their wife-beating redneck spouses.

But it all comes out sweet and life-affirming in the end, because luckily Sabine has plenty of dollars from her inheritance of software genius Phan’s legacy through her late husband Parsifal/Guy Fetters, so she can scoop everyone away from their drab Nebraska lives to sunny L.A. At least that is what I gathered at the end, though the details were pretty fuzzy at that point, what with the burgeoning (?) relationship between Sabine and Parsifal/Guy’s sister Kitty.

Moving on, I am. I suspect this writer can do better, for she has all the technical tools in her toolbox and her writing ability is undoubtedly well developed.

Thoughts?

Am I being too mean? Should I give Ann Patchett another go? Or are the rest of her tales of a muchness to this one?

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the wonderful adventures of nils selma lagerlof 001The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf ~ 1906. This edition: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1950. Illustrated by H. Baumhauer. Hardcover. 294 pages.

My rating: 10/10

My biggest regret upon turning the last page of this book is that I did not discover it when my children were in the midst of the read-aloud years. They would have loved it, voraciously appreciative little listeners that they were.

It has everything – a magical transformation (as punishment for a misdeed), a quest for redemption, animals wild and tame, a deeply dastardly villain, continual and varied adventures, restrained amounts of sentimentality, and absolutely painless lectures on natural history, geography and Swedish folk legends.

Hey, homeschooling parents – take a look! The cross-curricular connections are many and quite brilliant. And I think it would be hugely enjoyable for the reader-alouder as well.

Fourteen-year-old farm boy Nils is beloved by his hard-working parents but also a huge disappointment to them. He neglects his chores, he lies, he torments the animals, and he dodges going to church. What will become of him, they sigh to each other in sorrow? Will he ever see the error of his ways?

Apparently not, but fate takes a hand when Nils offends the farmstead elf, who then transforms Nils into tiny elf-size himself. As Nils runs hither and yon about the farmyard in absolute distress, he realizes that he can now understand the language of the animals. They in turn are pleased to see that their tormentor has had his comeuppance, and let him know a few home truths about their views on his past behaviour.

Nils is at first shocked and resentful, but then as the true consequences of his fourteen years of misbehaviour become clear, he experiences something of an epiphany. “I am sorry!” he cries. “Please forgive me!” But the animals ignore his pleas.

As Nils mourns his sad fate, a flock of wild geese fly over, and the farm’s big white gander, stirred to wanderlust by their call, rouses himself up and prepares to take flight. Nils, with his newly aroused conscience, immediately grasps what a tragedy the loss of the gander would be for his parents, and leaps onto the gander’s back in an attempt to hold him back. The gander – very predictably, as we already know what is going to happen – manages to take flight with Nils on his back, and we are off on the wonderful adventures promised in the title.

This book is a marvelous series of dramatic vignettes, tied together by Nils’ desire to redeem himself so he may break the elf’s curse and be returned to human size, and by his acquisition of a mortal enemy who follows him over sea and land, Smirre Fox.

Even without an audience of enthralled young listeners, I found this book immensely appealing as a private read-to-my-adult-self story. Selma Lagerlöf avoid excessive sentimentality, and while she makes it obvious that Nils is being taught a lesson and that he is working towards repentance to his parents, to the animal world, and ultimately to God (for Nils’ previous neglect of religious observances), she never preaches. The morals are discussed, and then let go – the reader is given the respect by the author that he or she will “get it” without being pounded over the head by repetition. And Nils is believably far from perfect, even after his epiphany, and lapses from grace frequently, usually with bitter consequences to himself and to others, though occasionally an outside party will intervene just as things seem to be going most desperately awry.

Smirre Fox is a gloriously frightening villain, almost supernatural in his powers as he follows the flight of the wild geese, and the sense of danger that we feel for Nils and his companions is intensely real throughout.

This books transcends its origins – it is a very Swedish book, and I feared would be a bit unrelatable to the non-Scandinavian reader – and its age – it is well over one hundred years old – to be fresh and engaging. While there are the expected styles and attitudes of its era of writing, it is a very worthwhile read for anyone at all interested in the “fairy tale transformation” type of genre. This is decidedly a classic.

Oh, and the ending is not what one would expect, leaving us still in mid-air, as it were, though with some good clues as to the final resolution to Nils’ greater quest for redemption.

I loved this one, and will be saving it for my (at this point extremely hypothetical) grandchildren.

One last note. I would hesitate to give this to a youngish child to read to himself/herself. Though the interest level I anticipate would be from 5 or 6 years of age through the primary years, the text would be hard going for such a young reader, what with the general old-fashioned phrasings and grammar and the many Swedish place and character names and terms. There is a handy glossary of pronunciation in the back of the Dent edition, and it would be well to refer to that before starting on your read-aloud.

wonderful adventures of Nils selma lagerlof illustr h baumhauer 001

The illustrations in my 1950 Dent edition are by H. Baumhauer, and add a pleasant touch to the story. I would think that the variety of illustrators is vast, as this book has had countless editions over the past century, so it would be well worth the effort to investigate if possible before purchasing a copy to share with your child(ren)-in-question to make sure you find a nicely-illustrated one.

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just so stories rudyard kipling folio ed 001Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling ~ 1902. This edition: The Folio Society, 1991. Illustrated by Rudyard Kipling. Hardcover. 189 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Having been familiar with the most popular of these stories since childhood – The Elephant’s Child standing out in my memory, for it was read aloud to me a great number of times; I can clearly hear in my head the words “great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo River” deliciously rolled out in all their alliterative glory in my mother’s quietly precise voice – I of course acquired a volume to read to my own wee children.

And not just any old edition, but this deluxe Folio Society version, complete with the author’s original illustrations, chatty descriptions of the drawings, and abysmally cringe-inducing poems. And obviously unexpurgated, too, which I discovered as I read them aloud, requiring some think-fast editing to deal with little things such as this passage, from How the Leopard Got his Spots. Rolling along nicely, we all are, until we reach the last line in this passage, and oh, golly! – now how to slide through that one?! The clever reader-alouder  becomes adept at looking a little way ahead and editing on the fly after one or two experiences like this.

…Zebra moved away to some little thorn-bushes where the sunlight fell all stripy, and Giraffe moved off to some tallish trees where the shadows fell all blotchy.

‘Now watch,’ said the Zebra and the Giraffe. ‘This is the way it’s done. One—two—three! And where’s your breakfast?’

Leopard stared, and Ethiopian stared, but all they could see were stripy shadows and blotched shadows in the forest, but never a sign of Zebra and Giraffe. They had just walked off and hidden themselves in the shadowy forest.

‘Hi! Hi!’ said the Ethiopian. ‘That’s a trick worth learning. Take a lesson by it, Leopard. You show up in this dark place like a bar of soap in a coal-scuttle.’

‘Ho! Ho!’ said the Leopard. ‘Would it surprise you very much to know that you show up in this dark place like a mustard-plaster on a sack of coals?’

‘Well, calling names won’t catch dinner,’ said the Ethiopian. ‘The long and the little of it is that we don’t match our backgrounds. I’m going to take Baviaan’s advice. He told me I ought to change; and as I’ve nothing to change except my skin I’m going to change that.’

‘What to?’ said the Leopard, tremendously excited.

‘To a nice working blackish-brownish colour, with a little purple in it, and touches of slaty-blue. It will be the very thing for hiding in hollows and behind trees.’

So he changed his skin then and there, and the Leopard was more excited than ever; he had never seen a man change his skin before.

‘But what about me?’ he said, when the Ethiopian had worked his last little finger into his fine new black skin.

‘You take Baviaan’s advice too. He told you to go into spots.’

‘So I did,’ said the Leopard. ‘I went into other spots as fast as I could. I went into this spot with you, and a lot of good it has done me.’

‘Oh,’ said the Ethiopian, ‘Baviaan didn’t mean spots in South Africa. He meant spots on your skin.’

‘What’s the use of that?’ said the Leopard.

‘Think of Giraffe,’ said the Ethiopian. ‘Or if you prefer stripes, think of Zebra. The find their spots and stripes give them perfect satisfaction.’

‘Umm,’ said the Leopard. ‘I wouldn’t look like Zebra—not for ever so.’

‘Well, make up your mind,’ said the Ethiopian, ‘because I’d hate to go hunting without you, but I must if you insist on looking like a sun-flower against a tarred fence.’

‘I’ll take spots, then,’ said the Leopard; ‘but don’t make ’em too vulgar-big. I wouldn’t look like Giraffe—not for ever so.’

‘I’ll make ’em with the tips of my fingers,’ said the Ethiopian. ‘There’s plenty of black left on my skin still. Stand over!’

Then the Ethiopian put his five fingers close together (there was plenty of black left on his new skin still) and pressed them all over the Leopard, and wherever the five fingers touched they left five little black marks, all close together. You can see them on any Leopard’s skin you like, Best Beloved. Sometimes the fingers slipped and the marks got a little blurred; but if you look closely at any Leopard now you will see that there are always five spots—off five fat black finger-tips.

‘Now you are a beauty!’ said the Ethiopian. ‘You can lie out on the bare ground and look like a heap of pebbles. You can lie out on the naked rocks and look like a piece of pudding-stone. You can lie out on a leafy branch and look like sunshine sifting through the leaves; and you can lie right across the centre of a path and look like nothing in particular. Think of that and purr!’

‘But if I’m all this,’ said the Leopard, ‘why didn’t you go spotty too?’

‘Oh, plain black’s best for a nigger,’ said the Ethiopian…

So racist bits aside – and there are a few here and there in many of the stories, in a very era-expected sort of way – these have become so much a part of our popular culture with their instantly recognizable tag lines that they are well worth passing along to children and grandchildren.

Rudyard Kipling and his eldest daughter (his "Best Beloved" first child) Josephine, at the time of the writing of the first of the Just So stories.

Rudyard Kipling and his eldest daughter (his “Best Beloved” first child) Josephine, at the time of the writing of the first of the Just So stories.

The Just So stories were originally written for Kipling’s young daughter Josephine, who died of pneumonia at the tragically tender age of seven in 1899; several years later the stories, which had been published singly from 1897 onward, were assembled into this collection. They are written as scripted read-aloud narratives; one can hear an avuncular fatherly voice rolling them out; the repetition and slangy contractions are distinctive and memorable, though sometimes a bit hard to read out loud with a straight face and sober tone.

A few of the stories are over-long and rather hard going; this is a collection which requires some serious editing if being shared with a young audience, but it rewards the older reader’s full attention once the little ones have left the room, for its period atmosphere and the vision it gives of the time when the stories were written. Lift a sardonic eyebrow over the worst of the politically incorrect bits, but spare a thought too for the all-too-common sorrow of the bereaved parent; Kipling’s “O Best Beloved” small daughter is a ghostly presence throughout.

  • How the Whale got his Throat ~ Never swallow whole a ship-wrecked Mariner, for he may be a man of infinite-resource-and-sagacity.
  • How the Camel Got his Hump ~ An awful warning to the perpetually scornful, especially those who reside where magic-making Djinn reside. Your “Humph!” may turn into a Horrible Hump, claims our narrator.
  • How the Rhinoceros got his Skin ~ The tale of the cake-loving Parsee, who favours hat which reflects the rays of the sun in more-than-oriental-splendour, and his perfect revenge on the thieving rhinoceros. (One of our favourites.)
  • How the Leopard got his Spots ~ See the excerpt above. A rather glorious tale, but requiring of the parental edit here and there. And I must warn you that if you have the Kipling illustrated version, he comments regarding the illustration that “The Ethiopian was really a negro, and so his name was Sambo.” (!)
  • The Elephant’s Child ~ My childhood favourite, what with the elephant’s child getting his revenge on all of his spanking multi-species relatives. A slightly annoying repetition of ” ‘satiable curtiosity” (yes, the misspelling is deliberate) challenges the reader throughout, but as a treat one gets to roll out “great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo” just as many times.
  • The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo ~ Yellow-Dog Dingo is fated to chase Kangaroo, and Kangaroo had to run and run and run. Neither could stop, they simply “had to!” The moral: Those who wish to be really and truly popular and wonderfully run after may rue their desire.
  • The Beginning of the Armadilloes ~ This was one that was something of a miss. An Amazonian turtle and hedgehog confound a predacious Jaguar by morphing into armadilloes.
  • How the First Letter was Written ~ A Primitive father and daughter – very early Britons indeed – originate hieroglyphic writing, with hilariously confusing consequences.
  • How the Alphabet was Made ~ An extension of the previous story, with detailed descriptions of how the letters of the alphabet were made. Sad to say, perhaps, too long and descriptive. We all lost interest in this one, and as a read-aloud it was a dismal failure, clever illustrations to no avail.
  • The Crab that Played with the Sea ~ A crabby King Crab plays hob with sea levels to the great detriment of all seashore and ocean creatures. The Great Magician disciplines the Crab, and turns responsibility for the rise and fall over to the Moon. A rather good “origin tale”.
  • The Cat that Walked by Himself ~ Our absolute favourite. This was one I read out loud over and over and over. “I am the Cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me…” Only to give in to the warmth of the fire and the bowl of milk from the Wife of his Enemy at the end, while still reserving his aloofness, at the cost of  eternal feuding with Man and Dog.
  • The Butterfly that Stamped ~ Written with an eye to the adult audience, Kipling spins a rather preachy homily about how to keep your wife under proper control, with the help of a handy Djinn.
  • The Tabu Tale ~ The father-daughter of First Letter and Alphabet returns with a moralistic lecture on the benefits of growing up, and related responsibilities.
One of the author's much-annotated illustrations for How the Whale got his Throat.

One of the author’s much-annotated illustrations for How the Whale got his Throat.

The illustrations in the Folio Edition of Just So Stories are a delightful addition, but the author’s poetry, of which the following is one of the less objectionable examples, not so much. Just couldn’t get through these with a straight face, and they engendered a certain amount of critical sneering, kiddies and grown-ups of this family alike.

The Camel’s hump is an ugly lump
Which well you may see at the Zoo;
But uglier yet is the hump we get
From having too little to do.

Kiddies and grown-ups too-oo-oo,
If we haven’t enough to do-oo-oo,
We get the hump—
Cameelious hump—
The hump that is black and blue!

We climb out of bed with a frouzly head
And a snarly-yarly voice.
We shiver and scowl and we grunt and we growl
At our bath and our boots and our toys;

And there ought to be a corner for me
(And I know there is one for you)
When we get the hump—
Cameelious hump—
The hump that is black and blue!

The cure for this ill is not to sit still,
Or frowst with a book by the fire;
But to take a large hoe and a shovel also,
And dig till you gently perspire;

And then you will find that the sun and the wind,
And the Djinn of the Garden too,
Have lifted the hump—
The horrible hump—
The hump that is black and blue!

I get it as well as you-oo-oo—
If I haven’t enough to do-oo-oo—
We all get hump—
Cameelious hump—
Kiddies and grown-ups too!

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understood betsy dorothy canfield 001

Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield ~ 1916. This edition: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964. Illustrated by Catherine Barnes. Hardcover. 213 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This is a charming juvenile novel written by Dorothy Canfield Fisher after she had become deeply interested in Maria Montessori’s innovative theories of child rearing and education while on a visit to Italy. The Montessori Method stressed self determination and self regulation in all aspects of a child’s life, and operated under the assumption that if given access to a suitable space with appropriate materials, tools, toys and books, a child would develop a high degree of self motivation and a natural sense of order.

Since Dorothy Canfield was already very involved in women’s rights and educational reform, the Montessori philosophy meshed well with her other interests, and Understood Betsy, which can be read simply as an amusing story, can also be interpreted as an enthusiastic promotion of allowing a child to self-educate and self-regulate, while under a benevolent hands-off adult mentorship.

Little Elizabeth Ann is orphaned at the tender age of six months, and is eagerly adopted by an aunt and great-aunt, Frances and Harriet. Younger Aunt Frances in particular becomes completely wrapped up in mothering the child, lavishing all of her vast reserves of unused adoration on Elizabeth Ann’s tiny person.

 As soon as the baby came there to live, Aunt Frances stopped reading novels and magazines, and re-read one book after another which told her how to bring up children. And she joined a Mothers’ Club which met once a week. And she took a correspondence course in mothercraft from a school in Chicago which teaches that business by mail. So you can see that by the time Elizabeth Ann was nine years old Aunt Frances must have known all that anybody can know about how to bring up children. And Elizabeth Ann got the benefit of it all.

She and her Aunt Frances were simply inseparable. Aunt Frances shared in all Elizabeth Ann’s doings and even in all her thoughts. She was especially anxious to share all the little girl’s thoughts, because she felt that the trouble with most children is that they are not understood, and she was determined that she would thoroughly understand Elizabeth Ann down to the bottom of her little mind. Aunt Frances (down in the bottom of her own mind) thought that her mother had never really understood her, and she meant to do better by Elizabeth Ann. She also loved the little girl with all her heart, and longed, above everything in the world, to protect her from all harm and to keep her happy and strong. and well.

Aunt Frances is well meaning, but her technique is more than questionable.

Aunt Frances was afraid of a great many things herself, and she knew how to sympathize with timidity. She was always quick to reassure the little girl with all her might and main whenever there was anything to fear. When they were out walking (Aunt Frances took her out for a walk up one block and down another every single day, no matter how tired the music lessons had made her), the aunt’s eyes were always on the alert to avoid anything which might frighten Elizabeth Ann. If a big dog trotted by, Aunt Frances always said, hastily: “There, there, dear! That’s a nice doggie, I’m sure. I don’t believe he ever bites little girls. … mercy! Elizabeth Ann, don’t go near him! … Here, darling, just get on the other side of Aunt Frances if he scares you so” (by that time Elizabeth Ann was always pretty well scared), “and perhaps we’d better just turn this corner and walk in the other direction.” If by any chance the dog went in that direction too, Aunt Frances became a prodigy of valiant protection, putting the shivering little girl behind her, threatening the animal with her umbrella, and saying in a trembling voice, “Go away, sir! Go away!”

Or if it thundered and lightened, Aunt Frances always dropped everything she might be doing and held Elizabeth Ann tightly in her arms until it was all over. And at night—Elizabeth Ann did not sleep very well—when the little girl woke up screaming with a bad dream, it was always dear Aunt Frances who came to her bedside, a warm wrapper over her nightgown so that she need not hurry back to her own room, a candle lighting up her tired, kind face. She always took the little girl into her thin arms and held her close against her thin breast. “Tell Aunt Frances all about your naughty dream, darling,” she would murmur, “so’s to get it off your mind!”

She had read in her books that you can tell a great deal about children’s inner lives by analyzing their dreams…

Well, as you  can see from this lengthy excerpt, Aunt Frances is well on her way to creating something of a monster, if timid, terrified, hapless Elizabeth Ann could be labelled with such a horrific term. But things are about to change.

Aunt Harriet takes ill; Aunt Frances must accompany her to a warm climate; there will be no time to spare for or a place to keep Elizabeth Ann. So off in haste she is sent to another branch of the family, efficiently turned away – so much fuss, having to suddenly take on an extra child! – and helter-skelter put on a train to remote Vermont, to be cared for by the country family connections at Putney Farm.

Now Elizabeth Ann is well aware that Aunts Harriet and Frances have always held the Putney relations in deep scorn – such common folk, with no understanding for children – and to think that they had originally wanted to adopt her!

But they (Aunt Harriet and Aunt Frances) thought that they chiefly desired to save dear Edward’s child from the other kin, especially from the Putney cousins, who had written down from their Vermont farm that they would be glad to take the little girl into their family. But “anything but the Putneys!” said Aunt Harriet, a great many times. They were related only by marriage to her, and she had her own opinion of them as a stiffnecked, cold-hearted, undemonstrative, and hard set of New Englanders. “I boarded near them one summer when you were a baby, Frances, and I shall never forget the way they were treating some children visiting there! … Oh, no, I don’t mean they abused them or beat them … but such lack of sympathy, such perfect indifference to the sacred sensitiveness of child-life, such a starving of the child-heart … No, I shall never forget it! They had chores to do … as though they had been hired men!”

Aunt Harriet never meant to say any of this when Elizabeth Ann could hear, but the little girl’s ears were as sharp as little girls’ ears always are, and long before she was nine she knew all about the opinion Aunt Harriet had of the Putneys. She did not know, to be sure, what “chores” were, but she took it confidently from Aunt Harriet’s voice that they were something very, very dreadful.

Elizabeth Ann is about to find out what chores are all about.

Needless to say her transformation from wimpy Elizabeth Ann to sturdy, competent Betsy begins at once. She’s not even at the farmhouse yet before Uncle Henry takes her in hand, by giving her the reins of the team and letting her worry out the techniques of guiding the steady farm horses along the quiet road. I need not go into details, only to say that immediately upon arrival at the farm the child learns to dress herself, comb her own hair, cook, milk a cow, and become wonderfully useful to have about, rather than a “charge”. And there are kittens and maple sugaring time and tug-of-wars at her tiny one-room school, best friends and a trip to the fair all of the usual rural delights to go along with the endless round of chores which make up farm life. And then Aunt Frances shows up to collect her former charge…

A sweetly old-fashioned sort of tale, with the lessons very evident but very easy to swallow. Dorothy Canfield treats her readers as if they too are sensible souls, and complicit in the process of salvaging Betsy from her disastrous first nine years of life, while never outright condemning the well-meaning Frances.

There is a lot of quiet humour in this short tale, and it is not at all a chore for an adult to read. In fact, it is a very nice read-aloud, suitable for the younger set, I would think ages up to 9 or 10 or so. (Older children might find it a mite too mild, and the tone just a bit too old-fashioned.) Betsy is a likeable heroine and as we follow her story we rejoice in her happy transformation.

Readers of Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s much more complex and serious adult novels may enjoy this quick side trip into childhood; a visit as crisply refreshing as its nostalgic Vermont country setting.

And here it is at Gutenberg, though it is very easy to find in book form, too, being almost continuously in print for the hundred or so years since its first publication.

Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield

The Putney clan - Uncle Henry, Aunt Abigail and Cousin Ann - with Betsy, illustration by Ada C. Williamson, from the Gutenberg transcription.

The Putney clan – Uncle Henry, Aunt Abigail and Cousin Ann – with Betsy, illustration by Ada C. Williamson, from the Gutenberg transcription.

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akaval james houston cover 1 001Akavak: An Eskimo Journey by James Houston ~ 1968. This edition: Longmans Canada Limited, 1968. Hardcover. 80 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Akavak is a slight but punchy short novel from Canadian artist and writer James Houston. Akavak was Houston’s fourth published fictional work, preceded by the award-winning Tikta’liktak in 1965, as well as The Eagle Mask (1966) and The White Archer (1967). Aimed at a youth readership, Houston’s short juvenile novels garnered high praise for their depictions of pre-European contact  Eskimo (as the Inuit were called at that time) and Indian (First Nations) life. Houston went on to write and illustrate a number of other juvenile adventure novels, most set in contemporary times, as well as several ambitious and well-received adult novels, all set in the North, and frequently featuring strong Inuit and First Nations characters.

In Akavak, a fourteen-year-old Inuit boy (Akavak) is asked to accompany his grandfather on a perilous journey along the coastline in order to fulfill the elderly man’s final wish, to see his beloved brother one more time before it is too late. Warned by his father that though Grandfather is still a master traveller and skilled hunter he occasionally shows flawed judgement due to his great age, Akavak must assess his grandfather’s moods and instructions as the journey proceeds, and find tactful ways to prevent the old man from putting himself and Akavak in danger.

At first the journey goes well, but soon a series of increasingly serious disasters threatens the expedition, and Akavak’s and Grandfather’s very survival; Akavak must finally take the lead and make some difficult decisions. The two ultimately attain their destination, but the ending of the story is bittersweet.

akavak james houston illust 2 001Well depicted details of traditional Inuit skills, as well as a compelling storyline make this novel a good read-alone or read-aloud for primary and intermediate grades, and it will work well as part of a Canadian/Arctic/Inuit Life social studies/humanities unit. The novel is set pre-European-contact (or perhaps in an isolated location); while there is a slightly educational tone to a few of the author’s explanations of customs or habits, the story is very respectful of Inuit culture without over-emphasizing its “exotic” nature to readers not of the North.

James Houston was a talented artist; while not meaning to downplay the vigorous story, I have to say that for me the illustrations are perhaps the best part of this short novel. Simplistic charcoal drawings, they brilliantly capture mood and movement, and are detailed enough to provide a clear picture of the places and people of Houston’s dramatic tale.

akavak james houston illust 1 001The story itself provides not much in the way of surprises; the adventuring pair overcome their frequent setbacks with predictable success. There is a very real sense of the peril that they find themselves in; Houston, though allowing the titular hero to attain his goal in the end, never guarantees a happy ending to any of the incidents he depicts, adding a dash of plausibility to a highly dramatized adventure story.

I would think that ages 8 to 12 or so would enjoy this story as a read-alone; add a few years onto each end of that range if using as a read-aloud. There are no chapter breaks, but I would suggest that it be broken into perhaps three or four sections if reading aloud, though an ambitious and well-seasoned narrator with an attentive audience could probably pull it off in less.

Akavak has been continually reprinted in numerous editions throughout the years, and so should be fairly easy to find in most Canadian library systems, or through the second-hand book trade.

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owls in the family farley mowat 001Owls in the Family by Farley Mowat ~ 1961. This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 14th printing. Illustrated by Robert Frankenberg. Hardcover. 107 pages.

My rating: 5/10 as an adult re-read; easily an 8/10 for a juvenile Can-Lit read-alone or read-aloud.

My kids swear I read this to them out loud way back in the murky depths of time; I can’t say that I remember doing so, but we read a lot of books together, so there’s a strong possibility that they are correct. They also say that they loved it, so…? (That has to stand for some sort of a recommendation!)

School teachers love this one, too. Just go ahead and Google “Owls in the Family novel studies”, and then stand back. Generations of Canadian school children have “done” and are still “doing” this slightly fanciful tale, ostensibly about young Farley’s true experiences as a Saskatchewan schoolboy.

Are you catching a slightly cynical tone to my words? I am sad to say that I have something of a love-hate relationship with Farley Mowat. I truly enjoy some of his fictions, and happily read and re-read his famous Lost in the Barrens and The Curse of the Viking Grave all through grade school, though luckily I dodged ever having to do a novel study on either of these; I read them purely for pleasure. But as the years went on, and I became more and more aware of the Canadian literary scene in a much broader sense, I often came across Mowat (in print) laying down the law and making grand pronouncements upon this, that and the other, which in itself is not all that offensive, but for his strident dismissals of other opinions than his own. Grand Old Man of Canadian letters as he may have become, but he is not universally loved in his home country. See this article in Up Here magazine, Farley Mowat: Liar or Saint?, for an interesting discussion of the Mowat paradox.

All of this aside, in looking at his juvenile fiction, Owls in the Family may well be his most beloved and widely read work, perhaps because of its suitability as a read-alone for novice readers, and its affectionate portrayal of an idealized mid-20th Century boyhood on the Canadian prairies.

The gist of the book is that at some point in his youth, the narrator, one Billy (widely accepted to be a stand-in for Farley himself, though why the renaming, none can tell), along with his friends Bruce and Murray, decide that they would like to capture and raise a young Great Horned Owl as a pet. They wander out into the cottonwood groves, find an owls’ nest, and, after a farcical encounter with the mother owl while accompanying one of their teachers on an attempt to photograph the nest and the owlets, conveniently acquire one of the fledglings when a storm knocks the nest down a day or two later.

The boys take their find to Billy’s house, where the young owl, named Wol after Christopher Robin’s companion in the Pooh books, joins an existing menagerie of various creatures such as gophers and white rats. Wol settles in to become one of the family, and is soon joined by a companion, the smaller and much more meek Weeps, rescued by Billy from certain death by torture by two other boys.

Several chapters of various adventures are described – canoeing on the slough, a pet parade gone hilariously awry, various encounters with unsuspecting individuals whom the owls universally upset and oust – until the story’s sudden ending with Billy and his family moving away, leaving the owls under Bruce’s care.

Perhaps I’ve become too cynical in my middle-aged years, but I’m afraid a lot of the humour didn’t raise much more than a reluctant smile this time around. Robbing birds’ nests, shooting crows, finding the neighbour’s cat dead in Wol’s claws – these are examples of the anecdotes we are asked to smile at. A less critical readership will no doubt take it all in stride.

From Farley Mowat's 'Owls in the Family' frontispiece; illustration by Robert Frankenberg.

From Farley Mowat’s ‘Owls in the Family’ frontispiece; illustration by Robert Frankenberg.

The illustrations by Robert Frankenberg are gloriously typical of the best juvenile books of the era, and it is well worth seeking out a copy with the original artwork if sharing this with a young reader, or, for that matter, reading it for yourself. Eleven short chapters and just over one hundred pages make this a fast and easy read-aloud; one could easily knock back three or four chapters at a sitting. Suitable for all ages, as long as one is prepared to discuss some of the more questionable events (no longer perhaps seen as harmless amusement) referred to in the previous paragraph.

I would hesitate to inflict this upon children in the nature of a “novel study”, but it does make an interesting casual read, capturing as it does a very Canadian place in a now long-ago time. Recommended, with the stated personal reservations.

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underground to canada barbara smuckerUnderground to Canada by Barbara Smucker ~ 1977. This edition: Puffin (Penguin), 1999. Introduction by Lawrence Hill. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-130686-6. 144 pages.

My rating: 9/10  – A very good historical fiction novel for its intended audience, middle grade to young teen readers. Older readers may notice the simplified plotting and some plausibility gaps, but in general a well-written story with a gripping main character and dramatic situations, well-researched and well-presented.

*****

Author’s Note:

The escape from Mississippi to Canada by two fictitious characters, Julilly and Liza, could have happened. It is based on first-hand experiences found in the narratives of fugitive slaves; on a careful study of the Underground Railway routes; and on the activities of two Abolitionists: Alexander M. Ross of Canada and Levi Coffin of Ohio.

Twelve-year-old June Lilly – Julilly – is a slave on Massa Hensen’s Virginia plantation. He’s not a bad slave owner, comparatively speaking, but when he gets ill and can no longer oversee his cotton farm, his slaves are offered to a buyer from Mississippi, where conditions are notoriously the worst in the slave-owning states of the South.

Night music droned through the slave quarters of Jeb Hensen’s Virginia plantation. The words couldn’t be heard but they were there beneath the rise and fall of the melody.

Julilly hummed them as she sat in the doorway of her cabin, waiting for Mammy Sally to come home from cooking in the Big House kitchen. She was as still and as black as the night. The words of the song beat in her head.

When Israel was in Egypt’s land
Let my people go
Oppressed so hard, they could not stand
Let my people go.

Old Massa Hensen didn’t like this song. He said it came when there were whisperings and trouble around. There were whisperings tonight. They murmured beneath the chirping of the crickets. They crept from ear to ear as soundless as the flickering of the fireflies.

When the slave trader does indeed come, Julilly is separated from her mother and is sent with a group of other young slaves to a much harsher owner in Mississippi. When an opportunity to escape arises, Julilly and her new friend Liza grasp their chance and set out on an epic trek north, finding help through the network of the “underground railway”, hoping beyond hope to one day reach the far off land called “Canada”, where slavery is outlawed.

They succeed, but not without many hardships.

The ending of the story was realistic though rather optimistically contrived in its reconciliation scene between Julilly and her mother; I found it hard to accept so much “coincidence” in such widely separated characters reuniting with such apparent ease. That was really my only objection, though. Oh – and the lack of complexity with the secondary characters. Even though others share the stage, this book is very much centered on one character only – Julilly.

Julilly is a quite beautifully drawn character, and I found myself completely engaged with her story, much as I already knew the plot line both from previous readings and from the inevitability of the stereotyped story arc.

One of Barbara Smucker’s best novels for young readers, and the one which made her reputation as a writer. A very Canadian novel, though most of the action takes place in the United States. Canada’s presence as a destination for the escaping slaves, and the involvement of real Canadian Abolitionist Andrew Ross are key plot elements.

This would be good for independent readers 10 and older. This would also make a good Read-Aloud, for all ages, though the subject matter is intense and might not be suitable for sensitive younger listeners. Era appropriate use of the derogatory term “nigger” throughout; Lawrence Hill’s short Introduction is a must-read for its discussion of this aspect. Fast paced and engagingly written.

Recommended.

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