Children's/Coming-of-Age, Konigsburg, E. L.

Review of The View from Saturday

What was it about?

Mrs. Eva Marie Olinski has chosen four students from her sixth grade class to participate as a team in the Academic Bowl. The students – Nadia, Noah, Ethan, and Julian – call themselves The Souls, and become the first sixth graders ever to win the Bowl at Epiphany Middle School. But when asked how she chose the team members, Mrs. Olinksi can’t give a good reason. Mrs. Olinski doesn’t really know why she chose those particular students.

Izzy Diamondstein, Nadia’s grandfather, has recently married Ethan Potter’s grandmother, Margaret Draper, at Century Village, a retirement community in Florida. Shortly before the wedding, Nadia’s mother obtains a divorce from Allen Diamondstein, Izzy’s son. As part of the divorce agreement, Nadia visits her father in Florida during the summer holidays. During one of these summers, Nadia meets Ethan who reluctantly tells  her that, after the divorce, Grandmother Margaret had found Nadia’s mother a job at a dentist office in New York. The dentist is the father of Noah Gershom, the boy who was best-man at the Diamondstein-Draper wedding. Although Nadia, Noah, and Ethan are related by familial ties, they do not become friends until they meet Julian Singh, an Indian boy who was educated in England but is now a new student at Epiphany Middle School.

The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg tells the story of four sixth graders whose personal experiences have equipped them to win the Academic Bowl. While the events of Bowl Day are told in the third person omniscient, every other chapter is told from the perspective of one of the students. The novel’s unique narrative style allows the reader to learn about the students’ personalities and stories from the students’ own perspectives.

What did I think of it?

The narrative style really sucked me in. Some of the children jump from thought to thought which can be hard for an adult reader to follow, but it would not do for the story to be told in an adult voice. Children do not speak in highfalutin language. In an interview, E.L. Konigsburg explained how she decided on the writing style for her book. She said, “I thought children would enjoy meeting one character, and then two characters, and that they would enjoy seeing parts of the story repeated but in a different way. I thought that they would enjoy having the second character interact with the first character, with each story moving the general story along. And I had hoped that readers would feel very satisfied with themselves when they had it all worked out.”

My favorite chapter was the one told from Nadia’s perspective. A Divorce  is always complicated. Two people who were once in love no longer want to share a life together. Nadia resents the fact that no one ever consults her about anything. She feels like nothing more than a clause in a divorce agreement. It is refreshing to read a book in which divorce is seen through a child’s perspective. While divorce is not a major plot element in the story, Nadia’s reactions to her father and grandparents were powerful and memorable.

Admittedly, the plot is very predictable, but as I wrote on Goodreads,  we all need to read a feel-good story once in a while. We all need a story that embodies the values we hold dear. The View from Saturday does just that. It celebrates diversity, equality, and respect. Because of the values it promotes and because of its unique narrative style, I am glad that The View from Saturday won the Newbery Medal in 1997.

Favorite Quote

[Ethan]: “The way I see it, the difference between farmers and suburbanites is the difference in the way we feel about dirt. To them, the earth is something to be respected and preserved, but dirt gets no respect. A farmer likes dirt. Suburbanites like to get rid of it. Dirt is the working layer of earth, and dealing with dirt is as much a part of farm life as dealing with manure. Neither is user-friendly but both are necessary.”  

 This book counts toward the Newbery Medal Challenge

Children's/Coming-of-Age, DiCamillo, Kate

Review of The Tale of Despereaux

What was it about?

The_Tale_of_DespereauxDespereaux is a tiny mouse, born to Lester and Antoinette Tilling. In his first year of life, his brother Furlough notices that Despereaux does not act like the typical mouse. His interests lie not in finding bread crumbs but in reading books and listening to music. But because the Tilling family lives in the castle of a powerful king, Despereaux’s odd behavior is cause for alarm.

One day, Furlough sees Despereaux dangerously close to the Princess Pea and her father. Despereaux is standing in the middle of the room with one of his large ears dilated and turned toward the princess, the source of the music in the room. Suddenly, Princess Pea notices the mouse, and picks him off the floor. She then proceeds to talks to him. At first, the king mistakes Despereaux for a fly, but the girl eventually convinces him of his mistake. The king does not share the princess’s interest in the mouse. He reminds the princess that it was a mouse that indirectly brought about her mother’s death. So, with “I honor you” still on his lips, Despereaux is forced to return to his hole.

Furlough races back to his father to give him the alarming news. Despereaux has violated the most important rule among mice. He has been in the presence of a human and by doing so, has jeopardized the safety of the other mice in the castle. Lester gathers together the whole mouse community and holds a Mouse Council to decide on his son’s fate. After hearing from the witnesses, the Mouse Council, with Lester’s blessing, motions to send Despereaux to the dungeon where he is expected to be destroyed by the rats.

Despereaux may be the hero of the story, but he is not the only important character in the book. The Tale of Despereaux is a tapestry with characters woven into it like different colored threads. The book is divided into four parts. Each of the first three parts introduces the reader to a different character whose individual story is uniquely connected to the fates of the other characters. The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo is ambitious in its plot structure and unconventional in its storytelling, but because the hero is an odd, misunderstood mouse, the style of the story fits its subject matter.

What did I think of it?

While the story was quite interesting, I was shocked by the level of violence and abuse in the book. None of the parents love their children, but commit perfidy (a word the author loves) to get what they want. In Book 3: Gor! The Tale of Miggery Sow, a young girl is sold by her father to an abusive relative for a red tablecloth, cigarettes, and a hen. But one passage from that section really caught my attention:

“[Miggory] was twelve years old. Her mother was dead. Her father had sold her. Her Uncle, who wasn’t her uncle at all, had clouted her until she was almost deaf. And she wanted, more than anything in the world, to be a little princess wearing a golden crown and riding a high-stepping white horse.”

My full reactions to this passage will be elucidated in a future post. Suffice it to say that I felt that there were themes in the story that were not appropriate for children. I am leaving my criticism of certain themes in The Tale of Despereaux for a future post because I realize that they contradict my feelings toward the equally dark children’s stories of Roald Dahl.

I was also quite irritated by the frequent asides to the Reader. The asides really disrupted the telling of the story, and were quite unnecessary. A story should be interesting enough that a child is naturally excited to read on to the end. Instead, the author’s asides resembled the comments of an overzealous parent who is trying to convince his/her child to read the book. These asides were also irritating because there was way too much telling and not enough showing. When characters were untruthful, the author straight up told the reader. I found that offensive because it seemed as if the author underestimated the intelligence of the Reader. Even if that was not her intention, it sure came across that way.

Overall, the story itself was quite captivating. I thought the organization and design of the book were very lovely. However, I do not think that it should have won the Newbery Medal. I have a feeling that the librarians chose this work primarily for its creative storytelling.

Favorite Quote

“The world is dark, and light is precious.”

 This book counts toward the Newbery Medal Challenge

 

Children's/Coming-of-Age, O'Brien, Robert C.

Review of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

Frisby2Mrs. Frisby finds herself in a pickle. Dr. Ages diagnosed her son Timothy with pneumonia, but Moving Day is just around the corner. No one had expected Moving Day to fall so early this year, but the ice has thawed, and Mr. Fitzgibbon will be plowing his fields soon. Out of desperation, Mrs. Frisby seeks the help of the wise owl.

In Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, danger is ever-present. Small animals must be alert at all times or they could be eaten by Mr. Fitzgibbon’s cat Dragon, trapped by human beings, or crushed by a plow. With Timothy sick in bed, Mrs. Frisby faces even more challenges. The fields are ripe for plowing, but there is still a chill in the air. What if Timothy fails to survive Moving Day?

Owl urges the widowed field mouse to consult a colony of rats. The rats of NIMH are highly intelligent creatures that live in a rosebush on the Fitzgibbon farm. Their lives are shrouded in mystery. Just that morning, Mrs. Frisby had seen the rats drag a piece of wiring across the ground and into the rosebush. Although the rats are unfriendly to strangers, owl is sure that Mrs. Frisby will get an audience with the leader Nicodemus. After all, she IS the widow of Jonathan Frisby.

­_ _ _

Robert C. O’Brien won the Newbery Medal for Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH in 1972. The novel is a cross between fantasy and science fiction. Animals and humans frequently cross each other’s paths, but only the most intelligent survive. O’Brien’s genius lies in his ability to bring the characters to life through simple yet fluid prose. Adult readers may find the rats’ story highly unlikely, but children (for whom this novel was written) are too immersed in the novel’s fantasy world to care. Each year, the Newbery Medal is awarded by the American Library Association to an author who has contributed the most to children’s literature. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH was a great choice. It is an enjoyable read and easily accessible to children ages 6-12.

 

Favorite Quote

“All doors are hard to unlock until you have the key.”

This book counts toward the Newbery Medal Challenge