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
Tags: , , , , , ,

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.


Book Review: Project Mulberry December 16, 2009

Filed under: book review — stackscene @ 12:47 pm
Tags: , , ,

Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park (Amazon link for illustration only, please support local bookstores when possible)

First, a tangentially related review. If you’re a librarian, spend a lot of time at you library, know librarians, or maybe a teacher and you aren’t reading Unshelved, well, you should be, is all. On Sundays they do “Book Club” strips which are basically book talks, and that’s how I found out about Project Mulberry. (The strip in question is here.)

Since reading that strip gives a better and more concise overview than I could, I’m just going to jump into my reactions to this book. LOVED it! The characters are all really likeable, and the changing relationship between the main character, Julia, and her younger brother is sweet. Not in a cloying way, just realistic. Not that I had a younger brother, but I remember seeing my friends with siblings go through a similar sea change when we were young. I would definitely recommend this book to kids having trouble getting along with younger siblings. Julia’s friend Patrick not only explains some of the reasons why siblings might have trouble with each other, but models some good coping and redirection tactics for the older sibling to use. I also enjoyed that Julia is amazed by how well her friend handles her younger brother, but also points out that he isn’t able to do the same thing with his younger siblings.

Between chapters Park has included sort of a running commentary, like you might find on a dvd, that takes the form of conversations between herself and Julia, her main character. She explains what she’s doing at the beginning of the book, and makes it clear that these are not at all necessary to the story, and can be entirely skipped if the reader so chooses. The interludes function as a behind the scenes look at how the story was written and what the author and character think about the book. There are also tidbits including where character names came from, and certain character quirks. Many young readers probably will skip these, but any kid who wants to write could learn a lot about story crafting from the way Park interacts with her character.

Another big reason for me to recommend this book isĀ  the discussion of race that comes up. The author and main character are Korean-American, Julia’s best friend is white, and the character of Mr. Dixon is black. Park doesn’t shy away from the topic, nor does she offer an easy solution or fix to the problem. Instead the reader is invited to the discussion and confusion happening in Julia’s head as she works through the problems she sees before her. Is her mom racist because she doesn’t seem to trust Mr. Dixon? Or is she just concerned about her daughter? Is Mr. Dixon racist because he assumes Julia is Chinese? What about Julia’s own issues with being Korean, and not liking the silkworm project because it’s “too Korean?” I felt like the questions were raised in a sensitive manner, giving readers something to think about without telling them what to think, exactly. I appreciated that the main character is a person of color, giving her perspective on such a difficult subject that many young readers will be faced with as they grow and see racism around them.

*Spoiler alert, I am about to discuss the ending for a second.*

I also loved that in the end, the kids had a fantastic project but didn’t actually win in their categories. They still got a triumphant ending without being totally unrealistic, and it’s something I’d like to see more of in childrens’ literature.

Overall this book gets an A+. I really enjoyed reading it and I think the 9-12 age range will get a lot out of it. I may go check out the author’s other books, including her Newberry winner, A Single Shard.