Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett


Five stars!! Five stars!!

I LOVED this book! I was surprised myself by how much I enjoyed it. I have to admit, I went in with relatively low expectations. I liked The Secret Garden, but I didn't love it, and the title "A Little Princess" just seemed kind of, well... lame. Haha. So glad I didn't judge this book by its title.

I love Sara Crewe. Such grace! Such compassion! Such quiet strength in the face of adversity! I am sure plenty of young readers will enjoy her fancy for pretending to be a princess, but what I really liked about this book was Sara herself. Readers of all ages just might pick up a bit of what it means to have strength and beauty of character. I know I did.

Best of all, everything was tied up nicely at the end. I loved this book so much I think I might just consider it one of my all-time favorites!

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Wedding Planner's Daughter Roundup

I really enjoyed the first book, which read like a fairy tale. Its "happily ever after" ending was so fitting that I really wasn't even interested in finding out what happened next. Still, I can't pass up a series, so I gave the second book a read. Unfortunately, for me, the tone of the book changed from "girl struggles with family and fitting in" to "girl loves boy, does boy love girl back?" Not really my kind of read, so I think I'll pass on the rest of the series, unless Isabelle shows interest and picks up the books for herself first.

The Cupid Chronicles (The Wedding Planner's Daughter #2) by Coleen Murtagh Paratore


The first book was so much like a fairy tale that I was surprised to discover that it was only the first in a series. Usually I enjoy reading every book in a series, but The Wedding Planner's Daughter ended with such a fitting "happily ever after" that I really wasn't even curious to know what might have happened next.

I'm all for books including topics that young female readers can identify with, and I'm sure tween-aged girls everywhere can relate to Willa's crush on JFK. There's a big message in support of community service in this book, but the central theme is clearly romance. Throw in a predictable plot, and this book just felt too much like tween chick lit. (The first book included romance, yes, but mostly it was about Willa trying to find her place in the world around her.)

I liked some of the dialogue, especially Tina's no nonsense way of speaking. It's definitely a breezy, beachy read, and I can see how it might be a good option for an upper elementary or middle school girl who is into boys but not usually into reading.

Overall, though, it was a disappointing follow-up for me, and I don't think I'll bother reading the rest of the series unless Isabelle picks them up herself first.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Dear Pen Pal (The Mother-Daughter Book Club #3) by Heather Vogel Frederick


Another great installment of The Mother-Daughter Book Club series!

When you get right down to it, this book is pretty much just "more of the same" - but in a good way. The book itself readily admits that Savannah Sinclair is basically like a Becca 2.0, but she's just different enough to make the story line seem new. Again, each of the teenage book club members - now in 8th grade - has her own problems, and most middle school readers will probably relate to some part of the book in some way.

I really like the general tone of these books. The girls get along with their parents. They struggle with typical teenage problems and are able to deal with them. Sometimes they learn to accept things as they are, and sometimes they learn to stand up and take action. Sometimes they make poor decisions, but when they do, they are always called to account for them. There's a nice "take your time with relationships, don't rush" message, and friendships, of course, are meaningful.

Most intriguing, for me, was the book the club was reading - Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster. I had never heard of it!! The book discussions and quotes have certainly piqued my interest, and I've added it to my to-read list. In fact, one quote in particular really resonated with me, and I keep coming back to it: "It isn't the big troubles in life that require character. Anybody can rise to a crisis and face a crushing tragedy with courage, but to meet the petty hazards of the day with a laugh - I really think that requires spirit." (Pg. 95)

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, but I still found myself giving it just shy of 5 stars. The Chadwicks are now official members of the book club, but why doesn't Becca narrate any chapters? Anyway, many of the chapters got so into describing general events that they lost the first-person perspective; they read more like third-person narratives, and only when an "I" statement was thrown in did I remember that everything I was reading was supposed to be the perspective of just one of the girls. Also, there's just a lot going on in this book. Lots of new characters, pen pals, and of course, the over-the-top climax at the end.

Oh, and as a Massachusetts native, I was just a bit irked by a factual inaccuracy. At one point, Jess explained that Colonial Academy had a different vacation schedule from Concord public schools - a week of vacation in February and another week off in the spring. Yet, in reality, that is exactly the same vacation schedule as most (if not all) public schools in MA! Of course, as a book of fiction, it doesn't really matter, but it's always nice when books gets local details right.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Books of Ember Roundup

Isabelle got me started on this series by reading and enjoying the first book. She quickly lost interest with the second book, but I decided to forge on.

While the first book offered up a really exciting adventure, the second and third books were really more thinking books, posing questions of "good" versus "bad" and exploring how people - individually and in groups - might respond to various moral dilemmas. The fourth book, having elements of excitement and suspense, returns to a format more similar to the first. Incidentally, it seems to me that if you are more interested in adventure and less interested in philosophy, you could probably read just books #1 and #4, skipping books #2 and #3 altogether. #2 helps to set the stage for #4, plus it fills in some information that was left out of #1, but there's probably just enough back story in #4 that reading #2 isn't essential. (#3 is a bit of a detour and doesn't add much to the story arc of the series.)

The Diamond of Darkhold (The Books of Ember #4) by Jeanne DuPrau


This book had a rocky start for me - some of the developments seemed a bit far-fetched - but it got better as it went along. In the end, I liked it. Except, at the very end, when - just as I thought that one last loose end wasn't going to get tied up - it was, but in a kind of far-out, oddball way.

After the little detour the series took in The Prophet of Yonwood, I was happy to see Lina and Doon again. In this book, the people of Ember have settled in in Sparks, but now that it's winter, life is hard, and food and supplies are scarce. They sure could use a helpful push. Fortunately, one of the Builders had the foresight to leave for the people of Ember one magnificent invention that would help them as they embark on their task of re-creating civilization in a post-apocalyptic world. Of course, this one item is lost, and its instruction manual is in tatters. It's up to Lina and Doon to piece the puzzle together.

I really enjoyed the return to Ember. And though plenty of hints were dropped regarding what the mystery helpful item might be, I had no idea how this thing would be packaged. I have to admit, it was a clever little item.

As in The People of Sparks, I liked how the trading with roamers emphasized that in a world in which survival itself is a struggle, the most valuable possessions one can have are the items that are the most useful, e.g., cooking pots and tools. Jewels are pretty, but completely worthless!

Overall, a satisfying end to this series, which I enjoyed much more than I thought I would.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

My Heart is on the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl, Carlisle Indian School, Pennsylvania, 1880 by Ann Rinaldi (Dear America Series)


*** Warning: This review contains spoilers! ***

Ken picked this book up randomly from the library. Isabelle and I read it separately, and then together decided to give it 4 or 5 stars. Then, I went online... Now, I can't in good conscious give this book more than 2 stars. I am giving it 2 stars, instead of just 1, only because I really did enjoy reading it, and I have to admit, I liked the story.

To summarize the plot: Nannie Little Rose is a 12-year-old Sioux girl who is sent to a boarding school for Native Americans in Pennsylvania. The entire book is presented as the text of her private diary. It's an interesting perspective that makes for compelling reading, especially for the young target audience of 9-to-12-year-olds. We follow Nannie Little Rose's journey as she grows from being a scared new student who longs for her Native American ways to an educated and contributing member of the school community who still holds her Native American ways dear. I especially liked one particular message comparing large acts of bravery that make people proud to small acts of kindness that make people beautiful (page 141 in my edition).

So, what's the controversy here? Basically,the way Native Americans feel about this book is the way I, as a Chinese-American, feel about Tikki Tikki Tembo.

Here is an article that clearly delineates the problems with this book:

Fiction Posing As Truth: A Critical Review of Ann Rinaldi's My Heart Is on the Ground: The diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl

And, for good measure, here is an article I wrote about the problems with Tikki Tikki Tembo:

Rethinking Tikki Tikki Tembo

In one respect, I am almost more forgiving of Tikki Tikki Tembo, which was published in 1968, before there was widespread appreciation of cultural diversity in the United States. (Still, I resent the way the book continues to be considered a "classic" and to be used as an example of Chinese culture.) My Heart is on the Ground, however, was published in 1999, well after the widely acclaimed book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee publicized the injustices and humiliations suffered by Native Americans. To publish such a whitewashed account of Native American history at this point in American history - and to do so with seemingly good intentions! - just goes to show how deeply ignorant and racist (even if unintentionally racist) people can be.

Of course, keeping in mind this book's target audience, I can understand toning down some of the information. For example, in describing these Native American boarding schools, perhaps it is age-appropriate to simply say that the United States government required Native American children to attend these schools, that many children did not want to go at all, and nor did their parents want them to go. Maybe third graders don't need to know that school officials, working for the federally funded boarding schools, actually kidnapped children to populate their schools. Maybe it's enough to tell them that students who clung to Native American ways, perhaps by speaking their native language, were "punished". Do they need to know that punishment consisted of severe beatings? Maybe it's understandable these types of details would be more appropriate in a young adult book or in middle or high school lessons on Native American history.

Still, there is no excuse for the factual errors listed in the above article. Nor should the history be so whitewashed that the reader leaves with the impression that Captain Pratt was a kind of father figure (his actual motto: "Kill the Indian, save the man.") or that the boarding school was wholly beneficial for all who attended.

To find out about the true impact and long-lasting damage done by these boarding schools, this article from The Seattle Times is as distressing as it is informative.

After doing my research, I had to have a small follow-up discussion with Isabelle about how not everything in the book was accurate, and that even though it was a good story, it didn't really show the typical boarding school experience that actual Native Americans had.

One final thought. If you still plan on reading this book, or giving it to an elementary school-aged child to read, you should be aware that this book does include death, and in particular, one rather disturbing death in which a girl is possibly buried alive.

1/27/14 Update: I just came across another article about American Indian boarding schools.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Wedding Planner's Daughter by Coleen Murtagh Paratore


Another book that got a resounding 5 stars from Isabelle!

In many ways, this book reminded me a lot of The Mother-Daughter Book Club series. While The Mother-Daughter Book Club had characters named Emma and Darcy in tribute to Jane Austen, The Wedding Planner's Daughter pays homage to Charles Dickens with a main character named Estelle Havisham. Both books feature a middle school girl who loves to read, aspires to be a writer, and has typical middle school problems. Both books also make frequent mention of other popular children's classics that might be worth reading, even going so far as to start each chapter with a relevant literary quote. Finally, both books incorporate the location - Concord in the mother-daughter series, Cape Code in this book - almost as a character in itself, and information about local history and lifestyle are peppered throughout.

In this book, 12-year-old Willa is the daughter of a famous wedding planner, Estelle, who suffered such a heartbreak that she has closed herself off from love entirely. Estelle has spent years literally running away from her fears, but now that they've moved to Cape Cod, Willa finally feels like she's found a home, a place where she belongs. The only thing missing is what she wishes for every chance she gets: a father. Luckily, there's an eligible man right next door, and Willa starts to get her hopes up.

Chapters are short and easy to read. Like the Kirkus Reviews blurb on the front cover says, the story is a "smart and funny fairy tale". It's an uplifting read, and probably good for upper elementary school girls. Willa engages in a bit of name-calling in private, which is realistic in the emotions of middle schoolers, and at least she doesn't make fun of people out loud.

I stopped short of giving this book 5 stars because there was one incident that didn't quite sit right with me towards the end of the book. I don't want to give away any spoilers, so I'll just say that it bothered me that when Willa thought her best friend Tina may have betrayed her, she got angry, but when she found out that it was really Joey, her love interest, who betrayed her, it didn't matter. I just think it sent the wrong message of a double-standard, like, don't let your girlfriends get away with betraying you, but it's okay if your boyfriend does.