Charlotte’s Web redux

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 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!

 

 

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Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor

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)

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Fair Weather by Richard Peck

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:

 

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Newbery Through the Decades: 1920s

newbery through the decades

Welcome to the first post for the 2016 Newbery Through the Decades challenge!  If you’re new to the challenge, please check out this post for more details.

I thought it might be interesting and helpful to share a bit of background information about the Newbery Medal, especially since January is the month for the 1920s decade, which is the decade in which the Newbery awards began.  This is from the ALA website:

The Newbery Medal is awarded annually by the American Library Association for the most distinguished American children’s book published the previous year. On June 22, 1921, Frederic G. Melcher proposed the award to the American Library Association meeting of the Children’s Librarians’ Section and suggested that it be named for the eighteenth-century English bookseller John Newbery. The idea was enthusiastically accepted by the children’s librarians, and Melcher’s official proposal was approved by the ALA Executive Board in 1922. In Melcher’s formal agreement with the board, the purpose of the Newbery Medal was stated as follows: “To encourage original creative work in the field of books for children. To emphasize to the public that contributions to the literature for children deserve similar recognition to poetry, plays, or novels. To give those librarians, who make it their life work to serve children’s reading interests, an opportunity to encourage good writing in this field.”

The Newbery Award thus became the first children’s book award in the world. Its terms, as well as its long history, continue to make it the best known and most discussed children’s book award in this country.

From the beginning of the awarding of the Newbery and Caldecott Medals, committees could, and usually did, cite other books as worthy of attention. Such books were referred to as Newbery or Caldecott “runners-up.” In 1971 the term “runners-up” was changed to “honor books.” The new terminology was made retroactive so that all former runners-up are now referred to as Newbery or Caldecott Honor Books.

January’s Newbery Through the Decades Challenge book list is as follows.  Title links are to my reviews here at Hope Is the Word.  Other links are to last year’s Newbery Through the Decades participants’ reviews.

1929 Medal Winner:

Honor Books:

1928 Medal Winner:

Honor Books:

1927 Medal Winner:

  • Smoky, the Cowhorse by Will James

Honor Books:

  • [None recorded]

1926 Medal Winner:

  • Shen of the Sea by Arthur Bowie Chrisman

Honor Book:

  • The Voyagers: Being Legends and Romances of Atlantic Discoveryby Padraic Colum

1925 Medal Winner:

  • Tales from Silver Lands by Charles Finger

Honor Books:

  • Nicholas: A Manhattan Christmas Story by Annie Carroll Moore
  • The Dream Coach by Anne Parrish

1924 Medal Winner:

  • The Dark Frigate by Charles Hawes

Honor Books:

  • [None recorded]

1923 Medal Winner: The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting (Stokes) (review at Simple Things)

Honor Books:

  • [None recorded]

1922 Medal Winner: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon

Honor Books:

  • The Great Quest by Charles Hawes
  • Cedric the Forester by Bernard Marshall
  • The Old Tobacco Shop: A True Account of What Befell a Little Boy in Search of Adventure by William Bowen
  • The Golden Fleece and The Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles by Padraic Colum
  • The Windy Hill by Cornelia Meigs (review at Becky’s Book Reviews)

Because I have several other books I’m committed to reading this month, I am going to plan to read one Newbery title:  The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting.

Should I need another title, I will read Smoky, the Cowhorse by Will James.I’d love to hear what your plans are.  If you’re reading along, leave a comment and share your title(s).  Let’s encourage one another!

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Jenny and the Cat Club by Esther Averill

I have this memory of a book about a cat named Pickles–a fire cat, to be exact.  I was tickled when I found a copy of it, albeit a completely-falling-apart one.  Then, in all of my internet ramblings, I learned that Esther Averill, the author of The Fire Cat, was quite prolific, and that her stories had been reprinted as a part of The New York Review Children’s Collection.  I promptly ordered one of the books, Jenny and the Cat Club, for the DLM.  What a delightful collection of stories!  The main character (er, cat) in the story is the little red scarf-wearing, black cat Jenny Linsky.  Jenny lives with a human named Captain Tinker (who knitted her her scarf).  She wants to gain membership in the Cat Club that meets in her neighborhood.  The Cat Club is a select and diverse group of cats, and to gain membership, Jenny must prove herself worthy of the club.  She gains the attention of the club by ice skating.  Yes, she “cut figure eights and flowers and stars” across the ice.  Can you imagine?  Oh, my.  What fun!  That’s just the first story.  This book contains five stories, all of which are a little over thirty pages each.  Every two-page spread includes at least one illustration, and they are delightful!  The illustrations are black and white, with occasional splashes of red (Jenny’s signature scarf!) and yellow.  These are sophisticated and witty stories, and the DLM and I are both smitten with them.
These stories are just right for the DLM’s attention span, and the fact that each story stands alone but is related to the others is perfect for him right now.  I’m planning to order another The School for Cats for our next read-aloud.  Highly Recommended.  (1944)

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