Review of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

FairylandbyCatherynneValente.jpgWhat was it about?

While washing dishes one day, twelve-year-old September is suddenly whisked away from her home in Omaha, Nebraska to Fairyland by the Green Wind and the Leopard of Little Breezes. She befriends a wyvern named A-Through-L, saves a marid named Saturday, and goes on a mission to retrieve a sword for the Marquess, who is the dictator of Fairyland. September struggles to understand Fairyland, remember the Green Wind’s rules, and escape from the traps set by the Marquess. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente is the first book of the Fairyland series, which ended this year. It is an adventure in the tradition of Alice in WonderlandThe Neverending Story, and The Wizard of Oz. September goes on a quest to save her friends from the Marquess even though she’d rather return home to her mother.

What did I think of it?

This is a strange book. The creatures are odd and the rules of Fairyland are so unlike those of our world. I found it hard at times to follow the action and remember the prohibitions. The Green Wind gives September a list of prohibitions at the beginning of the adventure, but I must admit that I forgot them immediately after they were named. Still, the story was straightforward enough that a middle-schooler could reasonably follow it. I liked how it was hard for September to categorize the creatures she met. A-Through-L looks like a dragon, but he believes he is half-library (!). Saturday looks like a fairy, but he only grants wishes if he is forced into submission. We, like September, have to learn about Fairyland mostly from scratch. Our expectations are constantly called into question. The characters are multi-dimensional; nothing is black or white. It looks like the Fairyland series will break common fairy-tale tropes. I do worry though about the direction the story is taking. I was not fully satisfied with the twist at the end of the first book. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is not the first fairy-tale adventure ever written. I have read plenty. Some I’ve loved (such as The Neverending StoryThe Little Prince, and Gulliver’s Travels) and some I’ve not liked as much (such as The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland). Late medieval religious and secular literature has also exposed me to quite a lot of allegory, so if an author employs allegory it better be good. I have very high expectations. I was not disappointed by the first book in the Fairyland series, but it didn’t wow me. It is simply too soon for me to tell whether I will love the series or not. I may need to reread the first book before continuing because (as I indicated) I forgot a lot of details.

Favorite Quote

“That’s what happens to friends, eventually. They leave you. It’s practically what they’re for.”

Review of Out of the Dust

What was it about?

Billie Joe is growing up during the Depression and Dust Bowl period of the 30s in Oklahoma. Her mother has died, she suffers from horrible burns on her hands, and she can no longer relate to her father. In a series of poems written in blank verse Billie Joe describes her hobbies, family, and schooling from 1934 through 1935. Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse won the Newbery Medal in 1998.

What did I think of it?

It seems to me that the Association for Library Service to Children likes to award Newbery Medals to really depressing books written for middle grade students. Out of the Dust is one of those books. If it had not been written in blank verse the book would have been unsuitable for children. The subject matter is just too tragic. However, this work is a good introduction for children to an important period in American history. Because it is written in verse, middle grade students should not be too disturbed by the content. My only major criticism is that the narrative style did not really add much to the story. While a few poems left an impression on me, most of them weren’t very memorable. What Billie Joe was trying to communicate could have been communicated just as effectively if not more effectively in prose. All in all, it was a pretty underwhelming read. I don’t know what other children’s books were published in 1997, but I didn’t think Out of the Dust was as good as some of the other award winners.

Favorite Poem

Breaking Drought

After seventy days
of wind and sun,
of wind and clouds,
of wind and sand,
after seventy days,
of wind and dust,
a little
rain
came.

This book counts toward the Newbery Medal Challenge

Review of Parnassus on Wheels

What was it about?

Helen McGill’s brother Andrew is at once a farmer and a famous author. Unfortunately, he doesn’t spend enough time caring for the farm, leaving most of the farm responsibilities as well as all of the housework to his sister. One day, while Andrew is out of town, Helen sees a wagon parked outside of the farmhouse. The wagon is filled with books, and the owner wants to sell it to Andrew for 400 dollars. Helen thinks Andrew owns enough books, and a wagon of books would only encourage him to neglect the farm more. After some negotiation, Helen offers to buy the wagon from the owner, Roger Mifflin. Mifflin has spent the last few years covering the region with his traveling bookshop Parnassus on Wheels. He intends to sell his business to someone who loves literature and who wants to share the love of reading with children and adults in the countryside. Helen accepts the challenge. Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley is a short but delightful adventure about books, friendship, and life.

What did I think of it?

There is no better place to buy a book like Parnassus on Wheels than from a book sale. And that is where I bought my copy. Parnassus on Wheels is a fun book to read on a sunny day. Books and authors are referenced throughout, and Helen is a compelling protagonist. There could have been more of a discussion about the merits of literacy, and the literary references could have been more elegantly and subtly woven into the tale, but I was still satisfied by the story. Sometimes you have to read something light and fun. Parnassus on Wheels was that book.

Favorite Quote

“What absurd victims of contrary desires we are! If a man is settled in one place he yearns to wander; when he wanders he yearns to have a home. And yet how bestial is content—all the great things in life are done by discontented people.”

Review of Roverandom


What was it about?

A real dog named Rover is transformed into a toy by a wizard he offended. Two boys play with the toy until Rover manages to get away through the help of the sand-sorcerer Psamathos Psamathides. Rover (later renamed Roverandom) meets the Man-in-the-Moon, flies on the back of a seagull, and encounters a ferocious dragon all while searching for the wizard who transformed him into a toy. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien is a fantastical adventure riddled with wordplay and literary references.

What did I think of it?

Although Tolkien wrote Roverandom for his four-year-old son Michael, it was published after Tolkien’s death. Tolkien’s writing never ceases to impress me. He has a great mastery of the English language and creates such odd creatures. None of these elements were lacking in this book. However, it was very obvious to me that Roverandom was an unfinished, unedited work. At times, it was hard for me to follow Roverandom’s adventures. None of the characters were developed and there was no rhyme or reason to the magic in the book. It was quite a forgettable story. The illustrations were beautiful, but they were stuck in the middle of the book, so I didn’t always know what scenes they were supposed to depict. I also wish the editor had used footnotes instead of end-notes. I didn’t realize there were notes to the text until after I finished the story. If you are a Tolkien completionist then by all means read Roverandom. I am glad that I read it, but it definitely left much to be desired.

Favorite Quote

“Not every old man with ragged trousers is a bad old man; some are bone-and-bottle men, and have little dogs of their own; and some are gardeners; and a few, a very few, are wizards prowling round on a holiday looking for something to do.”

 

Review of The Phantom Tollbooth

What was it about?

Milo is bored. He is no longer interested in the toys and books he owns. Suddenly, he notices a package in the corner of his room. As it is neither Christmas nor his birthday, Milo doesn’t know what the package is for, but he is curious to unwrap it. The package contains a turnpike tollbooth with instructions for constructing it. It also includes highway signs and coins for paying tolls. Milo gets inside a toy car, drives up to the tollbooth, and is transported to a world in which words are food, watchdogs keep time, and numbers are mined but real gems discarded. In this Kingdom of Wisdom, two brothers (King Azaz the unabridged and the Mathemagician) live on opposite sides of the kingdom because of their rivalry over whether words or numbers are more important. Unfortunately, the rivalry led to the banishment of their adopted sisters Princesses Rhyme and Reason to the Castle in the Air. With King Azaz’s support, Milo, the watchdog Tock, and a prideful insect named Humbug set off for the Castle in the Air to rescue Princesses Rhyme and Reason and bring peace and harmony back to the Kingdom of Wisdom.

What did I think of it?

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster is replete with wordplay, metaphors, and common expressions. I personally enjoy didactic tales for children wrapped up as fables/fantasy stories. The Phantom Tollbooth is of this tradition. It is witty, and insightful. Children can enjoy meeting the wacky monsters, and teenagers and adults can pick up on all the clever wordplay. Parts reminded me of La Grammaire est une Chanson Douce (Grammar is a Sweet, Gentle Song) by Erik Orsenna, which I read for one of my French classes last semester. Parts also reminded me of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the Disney film Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land. The illustrations by Jules Feiffer brought the story to life. They were an essential component of the story because they helped me imagine the creatures in the Kingdom of Wisdom. I highly recommend The Phantom Tollbooth.

Favorite Quotes

“Time is a gift, given to you, given to give you the time you need, the time you need to have the time of your life.”

“You can’t improve sound by having only silence. The problem is to use each at the proper time.”

“Infinity is a dreadfully poor place. They can never manage to make ends meet.”

 

Review of Adam of the Road

AdamOfTheRoad.JPGWhat was it about?

Adam attends a preparatory school, befriends a boy named Perkin, and secretly cares for a stray dog named Nick. But Adam is not like any other child at the school. He is the son of Roger Quartermayne, a well-known minstrel in the kingdom. Adam dreams of being like his father and living life on the road. But he never expected the journey to start so soon. All of a sudden, Adam is separated from Roger and Nick. Over the course of the story, Adam takes an unintended pilgrimage through thirteenth century England, meeting new places and new faces at every turn of the road. Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray is about one boy’s search for his father and a purpose in life.

What did I think of it?

Good historical fiction is hard to find. Many bestsellers are sensationalist but can hardly be considered historical. Adam of the Road is quite the opposite. The sights and sounds of thirteenth century England come alive in this children’s book; the time period is described in such a way that the reader feels fully immersed in the world. The writing is as simple and unassuming as Adam’s journey.

But despite the elegance of the narrative, the story lacks a plot or a purpose. I know that Adam of the Road is supposed to be more about the journey than the end goal, but the journey is quite underwhelming. The people Adam meets don’t really leave a lasting impression on him. To be perfectly honest, it was a boring story. I love a good character study, but Adam isn’t a very compelling character. It is never clear how the people he meets contribute to his personal growth.

Overall, I thought the book was OK. My expectations going into the book may have been too high, but I wasn’t really wowed by anything. Adam of the Road won the Newbery Medal in 1943. I can certainly understand why the Newbery committee thought this book was deserving of the medal. With respect to historical accuracy and plausibility, this is historical fiction at its finest. I just did not find it very memorable.

Favorite Quote

“A road’s a kind of holy thing,” said Roger the Minstrel to his son, Adam. “That’s why it’s a good work to keep a road in repair, like giving alms to the poor or tending the sick. It’s open to the sun and wind and rain. It brings all kinds of people and all parts of England together. And it’s home to a minstrel, even though he may happen to be sleeping in a castle.”

This book counts toward the Newbery Medal Challenge

 

Review of Julie of the Wolves

What was it about?

The story begins with Miyax, an Alaskan Eskimo, who is attempting to join a wolf pack. She is stranded in the wilderness and depends on the wolves to find food. Amaroq is the leader of the pack. He is naturally the most majestic of the wolves and the one with whom Miyax establishes a spiritual connection. She names another wolf Kapu because he reminds her of her father Kapugen, the person who taught Miyax so much about the natural world.

She is running away from an oppressive and frightening past. In a letter addressed to Miyax, her Gussaq (means ‘White’ in Eskimo) pen pal Amy had offered her a place to stay in San Francisco. But she got lost in the Alaskan wilderness, and to survive, Miyax must turn to her Eskimo heritage for guidance.

Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George explores the boundaries that divide the tame from the wild, the traditional from the modern, and one culture from another.

What did I think of it?

I love wolves. This should come as no surprise since this is the second book I have read this year about wolves (the first was The Call of the Wild). There are, in fact, quite a lot of similarities between the two works even though the story lines are vastly different. In Julie of the Wolves, Miyax is the protagonist but the story is just as much about her as about the wolves she lives with. In The Call of the Wild, Buck is the protagonist, but once again, the humans are important players in the narrative. The tone as well as some of the themes of the two stories are also quite similar. (Both, for example, speak about “the call” of the wild.) I was surprised by the sometimes blunt realism in Julie of the Wolves. One scene in particular has placed this work on a list of the 100 most frequently challenged books in America. Jean Craighead George offers a pretty convincing tale about a runaway Eskimo girl living with wolves. While the author clearly loves the natural world, the story is (for the most part) grounded in reality. No culture is purely good or purely evil, and the wilderness is not an idyllic paradise. My only criticism is that at times, I found it hard to believe that it was possible for a person to develop such a tight friendship with wild and fully-grown wolves. George clearly had an understanding of the “language” of wolves, but Miyax makes a lot of physical contact with the animals and doesn’t ever get injured. Despite this minor criticism, I am definitely in agreement with the committee that awarded the Newbery Medal to Julie of the Wolves in 1973.

Favorite Quote

“Julie is gone,” she said. “I am Miyax now.” 

This book counts toward the Newbery Medal Challenge