The view from my reading pile.

Book Review: Little Blog on the Prairie, by Cathleen Davitt Bell January 20, 2010

Filed under: book review — stackscene @ 1:52 pm
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This past weekend was the American Library Association’s Annual Midwinter Conference, held this time around in Boston. Since it was local for me, I attended, and had a pretty fantastic time. I have some things to post about from the conference, but today you’re getting a book review, because one of the things about ALA is that publishers give you books. Lots of them. Um, kind of a ridiculous amount, actually. So consider this Standard Disclaimer 1 (am I weird that I am totally considering writing up my standard disclaimers and just linking to them as needed?), which is that the publisher provided this advanced copy free of charge for review. Also this is an uncorrected proof, so I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt on the typos.

Genevieve Welsh is convinced her summer has been ruined. The 14 year-old is being forced to go on a “Frontier Camp” vacation with her family, where they and several other families will spend the summer pretending to be in the year 1890, with no technology, no swimming pool, and no indoor plumbing. Gen manages to smuggle in a cell phone, and her texts to her friends back home are used as a blog, which turns the girl into a celebrity.

I have to admit, after the first couple of chapters I almost put this book down. I was a fan of the “Little House” books as a kid, but let’s face it: going back to that time would be very uncomfortable for more than just physical reasons. Reading the set up in the book, and the first few days at Frontier Camp just made me annoyed thinking about the realities of life in the 1890s for minorities and women. I did pick the book back up after a day or two, and I’m glad I did.

There’s really a lot going on here about parents and children, and about the choices that parents try to make for their children. Ron and Betsy, the couple that runs the camp, have raised their daughter almost entirely as though it really were 1890. Sure, there are communities that do this for various reasons, but a key word there is “community”. Ron and Betsy’s daughter Nora has grown up almost entirely isolated with her parents, except during the summer when campers come to the camp, hate it all summer, and then claim to be “transformed” at the end of the experience. At the end of the book Nora is chance to leave the frontier behind, and her parents are horrified that she might choose the modern world, when they’ve worked so hard to show her something better. The fact that they did not give her a choice, and have only let her tangentially experience modernity doesn’t seem to occur to her parents, and I thought it was a really interesting parallel with Gen’s conflicts with her own parents. Gen of course has been raised entirely in the modern world, but really wasn’t given a choice about going to the camp for the summer. Gen and her brother do find things they love about this life, and when Gen is offered fame and a book deal, she turns it down rather than hurt the people at the camp. This could have been an incredibly cheesy ending, or felt false, but the perspective from Gen’s narration does ring true with her motivations. The major difference between Gen and Nora is that Gen has been given choices, and Nora has been forced into something she never agreed to.

I said earlier that I the idea of the camp itself annoyed me, and I should also say that I think deals with most of these issues in a fairly satisfying way. A few of the women nearly lead a feminist uprising (which would have been AWESOME), and when there’s a medical crisis and the illusion of 1890 is broken, Ron is honest with the kids about how things would have gone differently if it were actually 1890.

I totally want to do a book club discussion of this someday, to talk about the good and bad aspects of life on the frontier as the characters are experiencing it, finding balance in life (is it ok that Ron and Betsy occasionally take breaks from 1890, even though they so desperately wanted to leave the modern world?), the decisions parents try to make for their kids and the ways that can go wrong, and some of the other issues the book raised.

Overall I would absolutely recommend this to teenage girls and boys, especially if they read the Little House books as younger kids.


Books to movies and back again, with Hayao Miyazaki September 7, 2009

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I love my Google reader. More specifically, I love how my friends share things that make me think. Honestly, I could do a whole post about how having good people sharing with you on your Google Reader is almost like having a do-it-yourself reference section. Maybe another day.

TODAY, what I want to talk about, on this lovely holiday, is this post from the io9 blog about Hayao Miyazaki’s films and the genres they inhabit, sort of. If you don’t recognize Miyazaki’s name right away, you’ve almost certainly heard of his films, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and the latest, Ponyo, are some of his better known titles here in the States. Let me just say, I love most of the movies Miyazaki makes (I say most because there’s a couple I still haven’t seen). He does seem to inhabit a genre all his own though, which is what the io9 post is getting at.

I really enjoy the way they try to fit the movies into specific genres, noting at the same time the places the movie breaks out of the genre norms and expectations.

Now, though, the real reason this post piqued my interest so quickly: most of Miyazaki’s movies are also books. I love being able to tie popular movies into the books that inspired them. I also love the quick synopses of the stories in the movies given by the blog post. I’m not saying copy them for book/movie talks, but I am saying they’d be a great place to start writing a talk about Miyazaki movies and books. Not all of the movies started as books, but many of them are published as manga after the movie is released. Thing is though, they’re usually really, really good. In the case of Nausicca of the Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki actually did an entire manga series himself, then based the movie off the first few books in the series. Howl’s Moving Castle, on the other hand, was based on the Diana Wynne Jones novel of the same name. Both book and movie are excellent, but must be enjoyed on their own terms, as they are quite different. Still, I think a booktalk that begins with a movie and then moves into the book the movie is based on could be a lot of fun. Double bonus if they’ve already seen the movie, because then you don’t have to worry about spoilers, and can still let them be surprised by some of the turns the book takes.

And obviously, this is not a new idea to me, but more of a reminder that displays of books that correspond to popular movies are always a good idea, as well as book/movie clubs. Watch the movie, read the book, have discussion, ??? profit? Ok maybe not that last part, but the book and movie discussion club seems like it could be a lot of fun.

After all, as XKCD reminds us, Hollywood will never stop making movies from books, so we’ll have plenty to choose from for the displays and discussion groups. But some people still think books are dead. Oh well!