Picture books dot the Newbery Medal landscape. According to the terms of the Newbery award, any genre–fiction, nonfiction, or peotry–may be considered, and the target audience includes “persons of ages up to and including fourteen, and books for this entire age range are to be considered.” Still, it seems to me that it would require a picture book of some complexity or with a very compelling theme to stand up to what an entire novel can sustain at least for the purpose of garnering the attention of an awards committee. There happens to have been two picture book winners during the 1980s, one of which is Doctor De Soto by William Steig. Doctor De Soto is a sophisticated story–one that might serve as a cautionary tale to intelligent but trusting mice everywhere. 😉 It’s the story of Doctor De Soto, a dentist who happens to be a mouse, and his assistant wife. Accustomed to treating all sorts of animals, they break their own rule about treating animals that are natural enemies of mice when a fox with a very bad toothache begs for their help. They keep their wits, though, and, with a very clever dental treatment, manage to thwart the fox’s plan to eat them. It’s the juxtaposition and sheer improbability of first, a mouse dentist, and second, that a mouse in such a precarious position (inside a fox’s mouth, no less) could outfox the fox, that make this story delightful. Couple those improbabilities with fantastic illustrations (Steig was cartoonist for The New Yorker for years) and intelligent and very endearing characters, and you have a winning combination. It’s like a modern-day Aesop’s Fable, only perhaps the moral mostly goes for mouse dentists. 🙂 Highly Recommended for any age.
Curious to read more from Paul Fleischman’s varied oeuvre, I picked up a collection of three of his short stories that won a Newbery honor in 1983. Entitled Graven Images, the stories share a common element of some sort of statue or figure that represents something to the characters in the stories.
The first story in the collection is “The Binnacle Boy.” Set in the seaside town of New Bethany, Maine, it is the story of a ship, Orion, that returns to port with all its crew inexplicably deceased. The main character in the story is Miss Evangeline Frye, whose adopted son was on the Orion. Miss Frye’s home is within sight of the binnacle boy–the wooden statue that held the ship’s compass. It was taken off the ship and placed before the townhall as a sort of memorial for the ship’s crew. It quickly becomes a confessor for the people of the town, and it is looked at with awe and reverence. A cadre of town busybodies soon learn that Miss Frye’s hired girl can read lips (because she is hearing impaired), so they press her into service as their spies to learn the secrets of the town. These secrets include everything from the mundane to the deadly. The story ends with a shocking revelation of the identity of the person who killed the Orion‘s crew.
The second story is “Saint Crispin’s Follower,” and it is the story of a cobbler’s apprentice in Charleston, South Carolina, who is in love with a young woman, Juliana, who works in the local grocery. The master cobbler is always reminding his apprentice, Nicholas, about the patron saint of cobblers, Saint Crispin, and how he watches over cobblers and directs them. Thus, it is the metal weathervane in the shape of St. Crispin that becomes Nicholas’ compass, especially in relation to his pursuit of Juliana. This results in a comedy of errors that ultimately ends in the coming together of not just the one couple, but two.
The last story is “The Man of Influence,” which is the story of Zorelli, a proud stone carver. He has been without work for a while because although he lives in a prosperous (Italian?) trading city, his usual patrons, the tradesmen, have fallen on hard times. He is out wandering one night, engrossed in his own dejected thoughts, when he comes upon an apparition who hires him to carve a likeness of himself. The ghost hasn’t the appearance of one Zorelli would usually consider worthy of his craftsmanship, but because he promises Zorelli a more than adequate remuneration for his work, Zorelli consents. The result of Zorelli’s work is that he learns a lot about his own misplaced pride and judgment.
These are very sophisticated stories thematically. All three of them are what I would consider dark in tone, although the degree of darkness varies. By far the darkest is the first one, and I’ll admit I didn’t like it very much. “The Binnacle Boy” reminds me of something out of one of Hawthorne’s stories. My favorite by far is the third, “A Man of Influence.” One of its themes is that appearances can be deceiving, and I positively love that Zorelli learns that just because someone looks to be fine and upstanding doesn’t mean that he is. (I think this is something that we could all use more practice in discerning.) These stories remind me of something that might be in a high school literature anthology; in fact, they would make good comparison/contrast pieces to pair with works (like some of Hawthorne’s, for example) with similar themes.
Fleischman is a master wordsmith, that is for sure. I marked so many passages to share! Here are a few snippets from “Saint Crispin’s Follower”:
The shoemaker studied his lanky apprentice. The boy was thin as a wrought-iron picket, with a shirt that hung like a sail in a calm.
The apprentice stared at her in awe. His heart broke into a trot, then a gallop.
He looked down, and suddenly realized that his entire supply of words had fled his mind like a frightened flock of birds. Trembling, Nicholas glanced around, ransacked his brain for something to say, and finally , in desperation, mutely thrust the bouquet at Juliana.
These are the opening lines from “The Man of Influence.”
Lightning twitched like a dreaming dog’s legs. The wind blew. Rain fell. And Zorelli lay awake in the night.
And one final description which I love:
He eyed the ghost’s teeth, crooked and sparse, leaning like tombstones in a forgotten graveyard.
Fleischman’s writing is rich and entertaining. I wouldn’t say these stories are enjoyable, exactly, but if you don’t mind dark stories heavy with meaning and symbol, these are the stories for you.
My reviews of other books by Paul Fleischman
- Bull Run
- The Animal Hedge, a picture book that I love
- Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, a Newbery Medal-winning poetry collection
There aren’t many books I’d call perfect, but Charlotte’s Web tops this elite list. I just finished reading it aloud for oh, I don’t know–the third time, maybe, this time to a very interested six year old and a squirrely three year old. No matter the audience, the story never gets old; in fact, I’d say that there are so many nuances about it that I am only now old enough to appreciate: the changing of the seasons, the fleetingness of childhood, the nature of friendship and loss.
What I really want to say about it, though, is this: E.B. White’s descriptions are beautiful, as in take-my-breath-away when I read them again after not having read them in a while. I just want to share a few of them here. This, from chapter two:
The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell–as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world. It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope. And whenever the cat was given a fish-head to eat, the barn would smell of fish. But mostly it smelled of hay, for there was always hay in the great loft up overhead. And there was always hay being pitched down to the cows and the horses and the sheep.
The barn was pleasantly warm in winter when the animals spent most of their time indoors, and it was pleasantly cool in summer when the big doors stood open to the breeze. The barn had stalls on the main floor for the work horses, tie-ups on the main floor for the cows, a sheepfold down below for the sheep, a pigpen down below for Wilbur, and it was full of all sorts of things that you find in barns: ladders, grindstones, pitch forks, monkey wrenches, scythes, lawn mowers, snow shovels, ax handles, milk pails, water buckets, empty grain sacks, and rusty rat traps. It was the kind of barn that swallows like to build their nests in. It was the kind of barn that children like to play in. And the whole thing was owned by Fern’s uncle, Homer L. Zuckerman.
This makes me want a barn like this, doesn’t it you? Reading an description like this, I take note of the diction and rhythm, the lists and imagery. Again, perfection. It makes me want to pay attention to every sentence. It makes me want to ferret out my copy of Strunk and White and actually read it for once.
Reading this description from chapter ten makes me long for a childhood I only had a glimpse of while playing with older cousins in my papaw’s barn, sliding down stacked bales of hay:
Mr. Zuckerman had the best swing in the county. It was a single long piece of heavy rope tied to the beam over the north doorway. At the bottom end of the rope was a fat knot to sit on. It was arranged so that you could swing without being pushed. You climbed a ladder to the hayloft. Then, holding the rope, you stood at the edge and looked down, and were scared and dizzy. Then you straddled the knot, so that it acted as a seat. Then you got up all your nerve, took a deep breath, and jumped. For a second you seemed to be falling to the barn floor far below, but then suddenly the rope would begin to catch you, and you would sail through the barn door going a mile a minute, with the wind whistling in your eyes and ears and hair. Then you would zoom upward into the sky, and look up at the clouds, and the rope would twist and you would twist and turn with the rope. Then you would drop down, down, down out of the sky and come sailing back into the barn almost into the hayloft, then sail out again (not quite so far this time), then in again (not quite so high), then out again, then in again, then out, then in; and then you’d jump off and fall down and let somebody else try it.
I’m terribly afraid of heights and just a big chicken to boot, but that description makes me want to swing on the Zuckerman swing.
Today’s reading of the last couple of chapters of Charlotte’s Web was well-timed, for a group of my friends did something incredibly kind for my family today. It occurred to me how these kindnesses, even small or anonymous ones, really do matter–they add up to something really beautiful. What a testimony to the power of friendship!
The Fair Grounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all.
Ah, the poignancy of this story. I hope I never read it with jaded eyes. I’m glad I have at least one more chance to read it aloud.
Related posts at Hope Is the Word:
- My review of The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims
- “He’s appealing to your stomach, Wilbur!”
- Charlotte’s Web audiobook
**My copy of the book is one I received as a gift from my cousin on November 21, 1983, while I was in the hospital with a broken leg. What a treasure!
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor has long been on my TBR list (the one I carry around in my head). I read Taylor’s The Land right after it was published, and as a prequel to Roll of Thunder, it really piqued my curiosity. I devoured it and LOVED it. Fast forward over a dozen years, and I finally got around to reading the best-known of the Logan family stories, Newbery medal-winning Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.
Set in Mississippi during the 1930s, this story chronicles the Logan family’s desperate attempt to hang onto the land they own in the segregated South. Told from the perspective of the family’s only daughter, ten year old Cassie, the story paints a picture of a loving family whose work ethic is honed razor-sharp by their desire to keep their land in a society where sharecropping for African Americans (as well as poor whites) was the norm. What makes the situation even worse is, as history has shown us, that society is also characterized by suspicion and violence. Cassie is full of moxie, to the point that she doesn’t use wisdom as she is so often admonished to do by her mama and her Big Ma (grandmother). This story goes from one crisis to another, until the book finally ends just after the biggest crisis of all–one that leaves us perched on the edge of an emotional cliff (and which is presumably resolved in the next book, Let the Circle Be Unbroken). My suspicions are there probably isn’t a real resolution for the Logan family.
I read this one aloud to my girls and used The Boomerang for dictation and discussion ideas. I hope to take them out for fro yo tomorrow night and talk about the story. I also hope to find the next book and hand it off to them. We thoroughly enjoyed this one as a read-aloud. I couldn’t help but compare this one to To Kill a Mockingbird just a wee bit, and I hope to remember to draw the comparison when we get to TKM in a few years. My only complaints about it are the (unfortunately historically accurate) use of the N-word (which gave us food for discussion!) and the long chapters. I prefer for my read alouds to have short chapters, and this one most definitely does not. I have the novella The Friendship by Taylor, which is an episode from the Logan family chronicles, waiting in the wings for us to read while we wait for our next history read aloud to come in the big brown truck. Highly Recommended. (1976)
We kicked off February with a new history read-aloud at lunchtime, and what a joy this one is! I’m a huge fan of Richard Peck, so when I was considering read-alouds for the turn-of-the-twentieth-century time period, Fair Weather came to mind. I read this one years ago and enjoyed it, and I felt pretty certain that my girls, at ages 11 2/3 and 10, were ready for the subtle and sarcastic humor of Richard Peck. I was right! This novel, set mostly in Chicago during the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, is just a hoot. Truly–I’ve never laughed so hard when reading a book aloud as I did while reading this one. For those uninitiated to the genius that is Richard Peck, let me offer a brief synopsis of this story: Rosie Beckett, her older sister Lottie, her younger brother Buster, and their grandfather (along with his beloved canine companion, Tip) leave their farmhouse on the Illinois prairie after they’re invited by Aunt Euterpe to visit her in Chicago for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend the exposition. While it is a case of country bumpkins come to town, Peck writes it in such a witty and slyly sophisticated way that it raises a rather familiar plot line to a new level of hilarity. The humor in his stories is the result of his deft characterization, creating characters that are annoyingly lovable. With an unexpected twist of phrase, Peck can leave me laughing to the point of tears. Peck’s humor is very Mark Twain-esque, which is high praise indeed. I will always remember this book as the first one that I myself was so fully engaged with, even as a read-aloud, that I almost completely forgot my children and just enjoyed the experience myself. The smiles on their faces were merely the bonus of an already hilariously enjoyable experience. That is good stuff. (Dial, 2001)
Other Richard Peck novels I’ve reviewed at Hope Is the Word:
- Here Lies the Librarian (lots of quotes here)
- The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail
- Secrets at Sea
- The Teacher’s Funeral (includes lots of quotes; another quote here)