Seeing Rightly: In Search of the Little Prince [Book Review]

I finally made time to read In Search of the Little Prince: The Story of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and I’m glad I did. This picture book biography tells the life of Saint-Exupéry and his never-flagging passion for flying.  It also reveals some of the real-life inspiration for his beloved The Little Prince.

Tonio, as his family called him, delivered mail by plane in Morocco and Northern Africa, and it was on one of those stopovers that he tamed a desert fox.  He loved poetry at a young age and preferred flying to any other job. He called himself “a farmer of the stars.”

The flat, almost one-dimensional watercolor (?) illustrations were not to my personal liking, but delightful photographs of Saint-Exupéry line the front endpapers.

Antoine and his siblings, 1907. Antoine is second from right.

 

Antoine in France, 1921

The best part of the book was this quotation:

 

It’s a short read, intended for children, and the child in everyone will appreciate this book.

 Illustrated by the author.

 

Landmann, Bimba.  In Search of the Little Prince: The Story of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Books For Young Readers, 2014. Print.

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You’re Never Too Old To Run Away and Join the Circus

When I was 28 years old, an older friend remarked that by the time you reach 35, you start to accept that some of your dreams will go unfulfilled; she realized she would likely never become a Carnegie Hall concert pianist.  It’s the primary reason I started taking my writing seriously the year I turned the mystical groundbreaking age of 40. I didn’t want to be on my deathbed moaning “I wish I had written my novel.”

It’s unpleasant to the realize that as we age, our bodies start to fail, and certain activities become more difficult. I’d always said that I wanted to be one of those 60-year-olds who could run a marathon. One day I realized I would actually have to start training, and do more than talk. It’s not impossible. Only harder.

I’m not opposed to the literary device of an older narrator reflecting on his/her youth. Lately I’ve read quite a few novels in which an end-of-life protagonist tells a present-day story while a younger self in alternating chapters reveals the main plot thread, each narrative informing the other. John Boyne uses this technique to great effect in his 2013 The House of Special Purpose. The title takes its name from the final prison and assassination site of Czar Nicholas and his Royal family. Character Georgy was bodyguard to young heir Alexei, but how Georgy spends the final days of the Russian Revolution, and what he does or doesn’t do at the titular prison is the secret the novel unravels.  It’s crafted beautifully, but it’s pure historical fantasy, and readers seeking accuracy should look elsewhere. Despite its fluidity with the truth, it’s a well-written novel about a history-defying love that long remains with the reader.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sara Gruen’s Water For Elephants had a less compelling narrative. Perhaps it’s because the Prologue reveals the “secret” before the story has even begun. A circus veterinarian and an animal-act showgirl fall in love with the remarkably sensitive and apparently stupid elephant. The tension driving this novel is not what happened but how such a drastic circus-tent murder came to be. Interspersed between the main plot relating Jacob’s flunking-out of veterinary college due to grief over his parents’ unexpected deaths and his subsequent hiring by the Benzini Brothers circus is the present-day narrative of ninety-year-old Jacob’s day-to-day existence in a nursing home.

The nursing home chapters are especially poignant, capturing the horror of an everyday existence with only invalids, incontinents, and screamers as neighbors.  (My mother-in-law recently spent three months in a short-term facility while she recovered from a broken ankle, and we can attest that such a facility is excruciating for one who still has their wits.) No wonder old Jacob prefers to dwell on his glamorous circus past.

Timothy Tegge, Tegge Circus Archives. Photo leading Chapter 18

Gruen’s details about life in a traveling circus are well-researched and fascinating, and heading each chapter are actual photographs of historical circuses. The developing romance between young Jacob and Marlena carries the plot along. Yet I was frustrated by the chapters set in the nursing home: angered by the way our society hides and forgets our elders and disturbed by this accurate fictional portrayal.

More: I was perturbed by the basic premise that once one reaches a certain age, all there is left to do is to wait to die. The “main plot,” the circus plot, was thrilling; the nursing home tale was as dull and mundane as the mushy peas served to the residents.

Until the ending: and the true surprise is not the fleshed-out expanse of the pre-indicated murder.

At the age of ninety-one—or is it ninety-three?—Jacob Jankowski runs away and joins the circus, proving it’s never too late to live a life that gives your great-great-grandchildren something to talk about.

 


For more information about the photos in Gruen’s book, see the article at Two Roads Books.

Tra-la! It’s May

It’s been a busy, successful Spring.

I have two exciting announcements:

My story, “The Good Neighbors” has been published in Wild Musette Journal. Wild Musette is a home for “Dancers, Dreamers, Drummers, [and] Readers.” They offer books, short stories, cards, coloring books, and poetry. They are organizing an Irish Dance Vacation to County Sligo, Ireland in July 2018. I’m so proud and happy to be a part of this community.

“The Good Neighbors” is a story about the fey disrupting a young marriage. Set in Boston, the young woman protagonist studies Library Science at Simmons College–where I myself studied and earned my MLS. The rest of the story is fiction. Purchase a copy of Wild Musette Journal Issue #1701 to read my story.

 

Issue 1701

My poem, “The Faerie Queen” has been published in the Beltane 2017 issue of Three Drops From A Cauldron. Read it online for free, or purchase a copy.

More good news coming soon. Stay tuned!

 

 

Every Heart a Doorway [Book Review]

             Seanan McGuire. Every Heart A Doorway. N.Y.: Tor, 2016.

            Entering another world by stepping through a portal is a common enough trope in fantasy literature, with origins as old as faerie itself. So too is the boarding school for precocious preternatural students, from Hogwarts and Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children to the Xavier School For Gifted Youngsters and many, many more. The reader is in familiar territory accompanying Nancy Whitman on her first day to Eleanor West’s Home For Wayward Children. Nancy, and all her classmates, have been sent to reacclimatize to the  so-called ‘real’ world after returning from a variety of distinct, unique, impossible lands. Nancy traveled to the Halls of the Dead. Nancy and nearly all of her classmates want nothing more than to get back to their otherworlds, a world they now call home.

It’s a slim book, ~169 pages, and I might be forgiven for wondering if my local library had mis-shelved it in general fiction when it belonged in Young Adult. Until page 40, when Nancy’s new roommate inquires if she likes a handsome classmate by abruptly asking, “Do you want to fuck him?”  The roommate also asks her opinions on masturbation. It’s not the topics themselves that preclude Y.A., but the tone and ease with which they are mentioned.  They are not the focus; there is no exploration of themes.  It’s startlingly matter-of-fact.

A murder mystery ensues. One after another, students are being murdered and dismembered— one for her eyes, one for her hands. As the new girl lately returned from the Halls of the Dead, Nancy is the likely suspect. The plot is slightly predictable and the point-of-view unexpectedly variable, but that doesn’t matter.  Suspension-of-disbelief transcends such novelcraft imperfections.  As with most portal fantasies and precocious schools, the quest for belonging is what unites character and reader.

A stellar, engrossing book appreciated all the more by this busy reader for its slender length.  A winner of numerous awards and honors including an ALA Alex Awards Winner (Adult Books for Young Adults); Goodreads Choice Awards; Library Journal Best Books of the Year; and both a Nebula Awards Nominee and a Hugo Award Nominee.

A series is planned. Book 2, Down Among The Sticks And Bones, is expected this June.

 

 

Bonus: Author website with amusing alternate biographies.

Read an excerpt, courtesy of publisher Macmillan.

The Snow Child: Thawing Frozen Hearts [Book Review]

Eowyn Ivy’s The Snow Child is one of those quiet books that resonate within you after you have closed the last chapter. This thoroughly American retelling of the Russian folktale “The Snow Maiden” is at its heart a story about families, grief, and reconnection.  Connection is what makes us human, even connection with a not-quite-feral snow child, a ghost-like orphan raising herself in the cold wilderness who arrives in Winter and leaves in Spring and comes and goes as she pleases. This is historical realistic fiction with a mythic twist, fully rooted in the real world of 1920’s Alaska.

The book opens grippingly with Mabel’s ambivalent suicide attempt, a walk across a frozen Alaskan river. She hopes to break through the ice, a tragic accident, unprovable as suicide. But the ice holds, and she returns home, still carrying her grief and a heart as frozen as the river.

She and her husband Jack left sophisticated Philadelphia to start over after miscarriage, and Alaska proves to be more of a challenge than they expected. When Jack is injured in a farm accident, they are forced to rely on their “closest” neighbors, Esther and George Benson. (“Closest” is a relative term in remote Alaska; the Bensons live quite a distance downriver.) Guarded politeness develops into real friendship. In adversity we are forced into accepting help. A deep bond forms.

Mabel learns friendship and trust again, and through Faina, their “snow child,” she learns to love. First by believing in, and then by accepting and parenting Faina with Jack, what was once a grief-damaged perfunctory marriage blossoms again.  In time, Faina shows herself to the Bensons, and Esther realizes the snow child is real and not the product of grief. The Snow Child evolves into a multi-generational tale.

Like all folktales, The Snow Child conveys a powerful truth: through connection we are healed; through connection we become human.

 

Read an Excerpt.

E.863-1980, Colour lithograph from a set of 50 by Ivan D. Suitin (or Suytin) entitled ‘Narodnuiya Kartinui’ [Russian Folk Pictures], mounted on card and published in Moscow, ca. 1900. Victoria and Albert Museum.

Further Reading

Crescente, Joe. “Kostroma: The Home of Russia’s Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden.” RBTH (Russia Beyond the Headlines) December 11, 2014.

Hibbard, Ruth. “A Shifting Snow Maiden” [blog article]. Victoria and Albert Museum. December 19, 2015. Online.

Lang, Andrew. The Pink Fairy Book. “Snowflake.”  1889. Online.

Ransome, Arthur. Old Peter’s Russian Tales. “The Little Daughter of the Snow.”  1916. Online.

 

 

Band of Bear Brothers [Book Review]

            soldier-bear

             Soldier Bear is the story of the bear Voytek who became both mascot and comrade-in-arms to the men of the Second Polish Corps during World War II. Caught outside their homeland due to the war, 120 Poles joined up with the British and became part of the Allied invasion of Italy and the fight to liberate Europe from the Nazis. “Private” Voytek became a valued member of their company: in addition to improving morale, he once caught a spy in their camp and even helped carry artillery shells. For this latter action, he was immortalized forever as the emblem of the 2nd Polish Corps.

The badge of the 22nd Artillery Support Company of the 2nd Polish Corps from Wikimedia Commons

The badge of the 22nd Artillery Support Company of the 2nd Polish Corps; from Wikimedia Commons

The book begins strongly with an amusing anecdote, told from the bear’s point-of-view, about Voytek wandering into the women’s camp, terrifying the women and upsetting their laundry; then the narrative voice asserts itself: “The bear had at least ten pairs of undies on top of his head. One pair was hanging from his snout and he had a bra around his neck . . .” (9). Middle-Elementary readers will howl with laughter and be instantly hooked.

The company came to adopt a menagerie of animal companions including Dottie the dalmation and a mischievous monkey named Kaska who liked to ride on the back of another dog named Stalin. But Voytek’s adventures are the most interesting, and the other animals are minor characters who sometimes take up too much of the narrative—although juvenile readers, the intended audience, would likely enjoy it.

By Unknown - Imperial War Museum id: HU 16545, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25241510

Voytek meets a dog as a Polish soldier watches.       Photograph: By Unknown – Imperial War Museum id: HU 16545, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25241510

 

            Author Bibi Dumon Tak describes her writing style as “blend[ing] literary technique with fact to produce stories that are both compelling and accurate” — in other words, creative nonfiction. Then in the next sentence, she indicates that Soldier Bear is a novel. Cataloging-in-Publication calls it fiction, and juvenile fiction is where my local library has shelved it. We all would have done better to call it creative nonfiction, slap a nonfiction call number on it [940; World War, 1939-1945] and leave it there.

In structure, the book reads like a traditional biography—bearography—birth, or early life and adoption by the Polish Company; life, including the anecdotes mentioned above and others; and death, or at least farewell, as he goes on to live his post-war life in the Edinburgh Zoo. As fiction, quite frankly, it lacks dramatic tension and a strong plot arc. Its scenes are chronological; there is no big climax; and the post-war denouncement is elongated. Despite its title, this book perhaps works better as a war chronicle of the men in the Second Polish Corps.

One strength is the skill with which the author explained the war to children:

            ‘World War II started when the Germans and the Russians went into Poland, the Germans from the left and the Russians from the right. They stopped exactly in the middle, where they drew a line.

“This half is ours now,” the Germans said.

“And we’ll take the other half,” the Russians said.

Poor Poland! From that day on, the country as everyone knew it no longer existed…’

The author continues

             ‘…Then something unbelievable happened: an entire army of Germans invaded Russia.

“We thought you were our friends!” the Russians shouted at the Germans.

“Ha!” the Germans shouted back, “We’re only friends with ourselves!”…’

Similarly, grisly war details are handled with tact. The war violence gets no more explicit than one soldier reflecting how he almost got blown up, but was instead witness to a death. Spoiler alert: the death of the monkey Kaska and her baby monkey is a stand-in for the emotional toll of war. In all, the author handled the difficult aspects of war with skill and age-appropriateness.

However, American readers are likely to be taken aback by a few additional details in this telling. Note that it was originally published in the Netherlands (2008) where some of the questionable elements may be more acceptable. What is an American reader to make of a bear who prefers beer and cigarettes to honey? Fact is fact, but I expect that some parents might be uncomfortable, especially given its middle-elementary target audience. Then we have a few of the author’s descriptions sometimes veering into what we would call politically incorrect.  One of the characters disdains goodbyes filled with “sobbing away like a bunch of girls” (134) while another greets the death of Hitler with the religious expletive “Holy Mary, Mother of God” (130). To further problematize the text, I suspect this is the creative part of creative nonfiction, or invented dialogue.

I commend the publisher Eerdmans for taking on such a risky book. (In library school, we learned about an illustrated version of Little Red Riding Hood that had been challenged or banned because Red was bringing wine in her basket to Grandma.) Certainly the true story of the war bear Voytek deserves to be told. Reservations aside, this book could fit into an interdisciplinary unit on war or W.W.II . or as the perfect book for the budding history buff. As Americans, we so often view the War through an American or British lens. Soldier Bear is noteworthy because it is one of the few books about the war from the Polish Army’s perspective. In sum, it is an important book.

Middle Elementary/Grade 3 and up; 145 pages with illustrations and photos. Recommended with reservations for larger libraries or specialized readers, parents, and teachers.

Tak, Bibi Dumon, author, and Philip Hopman, illustrator. Soldier Bear. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Books For Young Readers, 2011. Print.

By Pernambuko - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9177366

By Pernambuko – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9177366

Bonus Material

Actual video footage of Voytek (Wojtek) produced by British website The War Years.

2011 Documentary Film: Wojtek – The Bear That Went To War.

Article with Photos from Business Insider.

Another article from the BBC.

Daily Mail article.

Reading/Study Guide by the Publisher.

 

Follow these Breadcrumbs to a Magical Fairy-tale Novel [Book Review]

breadcrumbs-cover

Sometimes people change. Friends change. Marriages end. People move. Sometimes loved ones with problems, or friends in trouble, don’t want to be saved. These are the heartbreaking truths of adulthood that Anne Ursu beautifully and brilliantly explores in her mid-grade novel Breadcrumbs.

It’s hard for boys and girls to stay best friends as they grow older. Jack is the only person Hazel knows who has a real imagination. Once they played tea parties in the Arctic or Wonderland or outer space and invented superhero baseball (because superheroes need organized sports too), but lately Jack’s started playing capture the flag and football with the boys at fifth grade recess.

“Sometimes your friends change,” Hazel’s mother tries explaining. “Sometimes when you get older you grow apart” (86). The astute reader knows that the mother could as easily be speaking of her own divorce.  As a divorced woman myself, this double theme of loss struck me deeply; I identified with both Hazel and her mother. (I cried.)

Because of the divorce, the change in family finances lands Hazel in public school for the first time. Public school, unlike her previous school, stresses rules over creativity; she has trouble adjusting. She learns that “school [is] very easy … if you just disconnected your heart.” (117).  At the same time, Jack’s mother’s chronic depression turns his heart cold, and in true fairy-tale fashion he goes off with the white witch into an enchanted frozen woods, “and by the time [he] came to her palace, he felt nothing at all” (112). Hazel knows she is the only one who can save him.

erin-mcguire-breadcrumbs-art

Drawing by Erin McGuire

By fairy-tale, I don’t mean sanitized and happily-ever-after. Ursu’s book is breathtakingly beautiful, a moving retelling of “The Snow Queen” and a superb homage to her forbearers with her delightful allusions to “The Red Shoes,” “The Little Match Girl,” “The Swan Maiden” and of course “Hansel and Gretel” and others.

Every quest is a journey into self-knowledge, and Hazel comes to realize that just “because someone needed saving” it doesn’t mean that “they were savable” (247). The term codependence never appears in the text: Hazel is a strong heroine, a “brave knight” and not a victim — Jack must and does participate in his own saving. I still applaud Ursu for introducing to readers the truth that I hope every young woman learns before adulthood: one cannot save another.

The themes of friendship and belonging are seamlessly intermingled with questions of identity, adoption, skin color, and parental problems (depression; grief) in a rich, multilayered and fully realized whole.  Brava. Stunning and breathtakingly beautiful.

An exquisite gem. Recommended for all fairy tale girls and women.

 

Ursu, Anne. Breadcrumbs. Walden Pond Press / HarperCollins. 2011. Print.

A Discussion Guide is available on the author’s website.