Monday, February 28, 2011

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead

Rebecca Stead's Newbery Medal-winning "When You Reach Me" is a very smart and unique urban novel...a tale that departs in a most dramatic way from it's inspiration: "A Wrinkle in Time", by Madeleine L'Engle. Set in the late 1970's, as opposed to L'Engle's early 1960's, it's a period piece that manages to capture the essence of what it is that makes the "good" in human nature timeless. Recommended for readers aged 9-13.

The Dreamer, by Pam Munoz Ryan

Munoz Ryan's autobiographical novel "The Dreamer" is remarkable in a magical way - an essay of contemplation and presence, of both the present and the reflective journey of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Christened Neftali, the child Neruda is a collector of objects and simultaeously a collector of identities - physically weak but mindfully strong, he is an abused son, steadfast brother, awe-inspired nephew, hopeful romantic, and idealistic writer. Stuttering, his childhood traumas first intimidate, then strengthen him, and Ryan's poetic prose gracefully portrays the child blossomming into a man who follows his convictions and passions, taking him away from his family, into a new identity and newfound happiness.

Recommended for sixth grade through early high school; students of poetry would find it especially interesting, too.

The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie: A Doll's History and Her Impact on Us, by Tanya Lee Stone

Wonderful introduction and first few chapters - I loved hearing about Mattel founder Ruth Handler's story! Ruth Handler was amazingly ambitious, especially for her day (she was born in 1916). She married an artist who loved to design everything under the sun, it seems. They were the perfect team - she the all-around perfectionist: new and trendy ideas gal, marketer, salesperson, and practical follow through person (through manufacturing, etc.); he the artist and design guy who could conceptualize a product and make something appealing for it's target audience, whether that was furniture, jewelry, or toys. Ruth and Elliott Handler met as teenagers, and founded their business in their early days of marriage (circa 1939) by finding artistic and useful ways of incorporting the newly-invented product Plexiglass. They had two children, Barbara (1941) and Ken (1944). By building on the new American prosperity and creating demand for toys marketed to children, they had built Mattel into a very successful toy company by 1955, when Ruth took a $500,000 gamble on being the sole toy company advertising sponsor for the new Mickey Mouse Club t.v. show. A Barbie-like doll was long her dream, wanting to make a 3-D version of fashion paper dolls (infinitely more durable) played with by older girls and early teenagers. She made that dream her reality by debuting Barbie, Teenage Fashion Model, in 1959. The rest is history.

The book documents Barbie's many phases and changes, which was interesting to see. Many people of all ages were interviewed in making this book, and their opinion of the doll seems reflective of what they projected on it - feminist longings and independence were just as prevelant as views in the negative. I'm sure this is exactly why Barbie is such a hot topic of conversation no matter who you talk to, and what year it is!

The Night Fairy, by Laura Amy Schlitz

Saying Flory the Fairy is adventurous is an understatment. Injured, losing her wings, and finding herself even more utterly alone than she was after her parental abandonment (apparently normal for fairies), she enters survival mode. She is quick-thinking and seeks shelter, clothing, and food. With spells and a dagger she fights off a squirrel, spider, racoon and praying mantis. Flory starts out so fiercely independent it prevents her from caring for others' feelings and needs, although she eventually begins to sense what true friendship entails. Throughout most of the book, she seeks companionship as she needs help - not because she wants friendship. Therein lies the interesting character development - she really exhibits the traits you'd expect in a male warrior character, an Indiana Jones type if you will: someone who carries a weapon, is resourceful, adventurous, self-serving, cunning, and not looking for attachments to tie her down. Someone who grows to love her new home so much she'd not seek to settle down with her own kind when given the opportunity (by the bat, at the end of the novel). A character who is also very much a wild female attracted to colorful and fast, handsome hummingbirds - attracted to their speed and flashiness even though they don't even notice her. Hmmmm, maybe I'm reading too much into this. Maybe I really enjoyed the beautiful prose and the illustrations, but saw that, for me, there was dischord between what the beautiful, delicately drawn artwork told me (pixies, sweetness and light, and old-fashioned softness) and what the text instinctively and subconsciously told me (this is a modern-day girl growing into an independent young woman who knows how to fight to survive). However, that IS the beauty of this book: it is a modern-day fairy tale, and will appeal to those adventurous modern girls of today. Perhaps yesterday's fairy tales appealed to the other type of girl, the "sweetness and light" and acquiescent young maiden. "The Night Fairy" was not written for those girls - it was written for today's delicate AND fiercely strong girls.

Recommended for readers 8-11. It's probably best read aloud to the younger readers.