Monday, March 26, 2012

Hugo Cabret

Title: The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Author: Brian Selznick

Rating: ** (2 stars out of 3 possible, "B")

Audience: 3rd grade through middle school

The best part of reading as a family may not be sharing your favorites with your kids. It may well be what your kids share with you as their favorites!

Do you realize what a privilege that is? If we want our kids to take our suggestions, we'd better be willing to take some of theirs. When we do, we can find some real gems. My 5th grade daughter had been asking me for 2 years to read this book and I'm glad I finally took a Sunday afternoon to do so.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret takes a story about an unusual artifact (a 19th century automaton - pronounced "a-TOM-a-ton") and explores it in an unusual, graphic writing style. The book won a well-deserved Caldecott Medal for its rich, etching-like illustrations. Though 500 pages in length, it is a short read as illustrations comprise about two-thirds of the book. It defies description because the remarkable topic is combined with a storyline told partly in prose and partly in picture.

Set in the 1930s, Hugo is an orphan living in a Paris train station. He secretly maintains all the clocks as a way to salvage his absent uncle's job. When he discovers a project his deceased father had been working on, Hugo hopes to unlock a special message from his parent. The tension builds as Hugo must avoid discovery by the Station Inspector, appease the resident toymaker, keep all the clocks wound, and complete his father's restoration project.

Now, about that project. The best part for me in this clever story was learning that "primitive," clockworks robots known as automatons did (and do) in fact exist!


Title: Freckles

Author: Gene Stratton Porter

Rating: D/F (0 stars out of 3 possible)
Not Recommended

Audience: 5th grade and up

Even as I write this, I toy with a "C minus" rating for dear Gene Stratton Porter. Porter was a turn of the century writer and naturalist who rightly receives credit for the impact she had on conservation in Indiana. I also have a lot of reverence for classic literature, and while I appreciate what Porter was trying to do with this book, I have to be honest with my readers (all two of them) that this novel sadly does not quite stand the test of time.

My 5th grade daughter and I read this aloud together and I feel it is an example of a classic that would truly benefit from an update and an abridgment. While the plot is slow in developing, the chief drawback is the dated language, which is probably fixable.

The main story concerns a disabled, orphaned young man ("Freckles") who finds a job and home protecting lumber interests in the massive Indiana swamp/forest known as the Limberlost. Freckles is mostly disabled by his own low self-esteem, however, and despite his meaningful job and caring friends, he still questions his worth in life.

Even "The Swamp Angel," object of Freckles affection and unattainable daughter of the wealthy "Man of Affairs," is unable to convince Freckles of his value and her unconditional love. Porter solves this conflict by providing miraculous proof of Freckles parentage. Not only does she provide this solution at the last possible moment, she also provides the miracle of a rags to riches story.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Great Depression

Title: Nothing to Fear

Author: Jackie French Koller

Rating: ** (2 stars out of 3 possible, "B")

Audience: 7th grade and up

Set in New York City during the Great Depression, Nothing to Fear is narrated by 13 year old Danny Garvey, a first generation Irish Catholic. His family is hit hard by the Depression and his father leaves to find work while his mother takes in laundry. Their lot in life seems mild when compared to the Riley family next door: nine children and a father in jail.

Danny is sworn to honesty and hard work while his father is gone, but the reader will still encounter the harsh difficulties of the Depression: homelessness, unemployment, violence, hunger, prejudice. Koller offers believable characters and settings, including the curmudgeonly Jewish shopkeeper who has a heart of gold and Danny's fiesty, devout Catholic mother. Danny and his family display a strong sense of honor and integrity. Mature themes include adolescence (Danny and Mickey become attracted to Kitty and Maggie Riley), alcohol abuse, domestic violence (Mr. Riley is arrested after assaulting his family). From the standpoint of these characters and situations, President Franklin's New Deal is a much-needed and anticipated improvement, but faith in God and personal diligence is at least equally valued.

World War II Titles

Titles: Number the Stars/Lois Lowry (***=A)
Highly Recommended
Lily's Crossing/Patricia Reilly Giff ( *=C)
Recommended with Reservations
Across the Blue Pacific; The Greatest Skating Race;
The Little Ships/Louise Borden ( **=B) Recommended

Audience: Ages 10 and up for Number the Stars and Lily's Crossing
Ages 8 and up for Louise Borden

We just completed a short home study on World War II and I find one of the best ways to reinforce history is to supplement with historical fiction. These books are a good selection.

Number the Stars is a Newbery Award winner and well deserving of the honor. In a mere 140 pages the author deftly describes the efforts of the Dutch Resistance to rescue 7000 Jews and secure their safe passage across open water to Sweden. Told from the perspective of 10 year old Annemarie, the novel carefully shows the reader when and how it becomes necessary to stand against evil. In discussing the themes of courage and honesty, I'm reminded of the apostles Peter and John before the high priest in the book of Acts: "We ought to obey God rather than man." (Acts 4:19)

The writing in this book is some of the best I've read. No word is wasted or unnecessary; the plot is engaging and suspenseful. Lois Lowry ends the book with a clever historical twist and adds an afterward that clearly explains to the reader the facts and the fiction of her book. When your middle schooler is not yet ready for Anne Frank, give him or her Number the Stars.