Kid Lit Review of “The Camping Trip” by Jennifer K. Mann

Ernestine is invited to join her Aunt Jackie and her cousin Samantha on a camping trip. She tells us, “I’ve never been camping before, but I know I will love it.” She then shows readers everything she is packing for her trip.

The girls have fun in the car on the way from the city to Cedar Tree Campground, but are excited to get to their destination:

“Finally, we’re here! It’s so quiet. And big. It smells like trees, and fire, and dirt.”

Ernestine discovers camping isn’t just non-stop fun however – as she had imagined – but involves a lot of work. They have to set up the tents and all their gear, and she gets some surprises for which she wasn’t prepared, like swimming with actual fish in the water! Hiking is harder than she thought too, but there are lots of rewards along the way.

At night, they make s’mores (recipe included) and read by flashlight before going to sleep. . . . or trying to go to sleep. Ernestine is hot, then cold, then scared, and misses her dad.

Aunt Jackie shows the girls the stars and they even see a shooting star and make a wish. Finally, Ernestine is ready to sleep.

The next day, Ernestine has overcome the newness and fear, and enjoys everything, even the hard work of packing up the car. She can’t wait to come back the next year!

When she gets back home, she and dad hug, and she says, “I think Dad missed me.” “Dad,” she asked him, “have you ever tried s’mores?”

In the back matter we learn that the author/illustrator spends a week each summer camping with her family and their friends. Much of what they do in real life is echoed by all that Ernestine and Samantha experience in the story.

9781536207361

The earth-tone dominant illustrations, which combine simple pencil line drawings with digital collage and painting, are adorable. Their simplicity, along with speech bubbles, are reminiscent of a comic book or graphic novel style, perfect for young readers. I especially loved how Mann depicted the process of traveling, and I always appreciate when an illustrator can accurately depict emotions, even when using so few lines.

Evaluation: In addition to being a good story full of humor and gentle ribbing, this book offers plenty of useful information about camping and hiking.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Candlewick Press, 2020

Posted in Book Review | Tagged | Leave a comment

Review of “Ariadne: A Novel” by Jennifer Saint

Ariadne is another retelling of Greek myths, this one from the perspective of the women involved in the stories. It seeks to redress the ways in which these stories have traditionally been told from the male point of view, and focuses on “the price [women] paid for the resentment, the lust and the greed of arrogant men.” This book turns the tale of Ariadne into a “herstory.”

In Greek mythology, Ariadne was a princess of Crete, daughter of King Minos and brother of the Minotaur.

Poseidon, the powerful god of the sea, had sent a magnificent bull to King Minos to sacrifice to Poseidon, acts of sacrifice and praise being very important to the gods, even if they have to provide assists. Minos wanted to keep that very fine bull for himself, so he sacrificed a different, and inferior, creature. Poseidon retaliated by afflicting Minos’s wife Pasiphae with a bizarre passion for the bull Poseidon had sent, such that she even mated with it. Out of this unholy union between Pasiphae (Ariadne’s mother) and the bull, the Minotaur was born. The Minotaur, a ferocious creature that was half man and half bull, preferred a diet of human beings.

As Ariadne learned, “What the gods liked was ferocity, savagery, the snarl and the bite and the fear. . . . Our fear. That was how the gods grew great.”

Moreover, as Ariadne observed, when gods want to punish a man’s actions, they come for the women. Besides the story of what happened to her mother, she was particularly affected by the tale of Medusa. At first Ariadne knew of Medusa only as a monster with a head full of snakes who turned anyone who looked at her to stone. Then her handmaiden Eirene told her the real story of Medusa, originally a virgin priestess in Athena’s temple. Medusa, whose beauty drew people to the temple (much to Athena’s chagrin) was raped by Poseidon (a recurring villain in this story) right in Athena’s temple, thus defiling the temple as well as Medusa. Who gets punished for all that? Why the woman of course:

“Athena struck Medusa’s hair and crowned her instead with living snakes. She took her beauty and made Medusa’s face so terrible that it would turn onlookers to stone. And so Medusa rampaged . . . .”

Eventually Perseus, a son of Zeus known as the slayer of monsters, chopped off Medusa’s head and used it as a weapon against his enemies. Medusa thus continued to pay the price for men’s actions.

Medusa, by Pieter Paul Rubens

Minos coveted the same kind of “greatness” the gods had. He wanted power and he wanted to display his dominance to the world by demanding sacrifices. He was proud of the fear and hatred he elicited among his people, because it made him god-like. He conquered Athens and required its people to send a tribute each year – seven Athenian youths and seven Athenian maidens. These young people were used to feed the Minotaur, who was kept, for everyone’s safety, far below the ground in the center of a labyrinth built by Daedalus, the skillful architect and craftsman of Greek mythology.

In the third year of tributes from Athens, one of the youth that came to Crete for sacrifice was the prince of Athens himself, Theseus. Both Ariadne and her younger sister Phaedra were immediately smitten. They snuck out at night to see him, concocting a plan with the assistance of Daedalus to help Theseus kill the Minotaur and escape. Theseus agreed that afterwards, he would take the girls with him back to Athens.

Thanks to the sisters, Theseus killed the Minotaur, but tricked the girls. He misled Phaedra about the meeting point, and abandoned Ariadne to die on the island of Naxos. He furthermore arranged it so they wouldn’t know he had done it all on purpose.

Just as Ariadne ran out of food and water, the half-god Dionysus arrived on Naxos, restored food and water and wine to the island, and courted Ariadne.

Theseus Fighting the Minotaur, 1826, by Jean-Etienne Ramey, marble, Tuileries Gardens, Paris

Back in Crete, a new king was needed: Minos had run off to find Daedalus, who left in disguise for fear of his life. Ariadne’s mild-mannered older brother Deucalion took over the throne. Deucalion arranged for Phaedra to go to Athens to become the wife of Theseus. Phaedra accepted, thinking Ariadne dead, and not yet aware of Theseus’s treacherous and self-serving nature. As she got to know who and what Theseus really was, she only felt happy when he left on his travels. Theseus, as Ariadne later assessed, was like Minos:

“[He] emulated the worst of the immortals: their greed, their ruthlessness, and the endless selfish desires that would overturn the world, as though it were a trinket box, and plunder its contents for a passing whim because they believed it belonged to them anyway.”

Ariadne was able to find contentment on Naxos, however, in spite of the trick Theseus played on her. She and Dionysus married and began to have children. Neither she nor her sister Phaedra knew what had happened to the other. When they found out and reunited, each negatively impacted the other. In particular, Phaedra sowed seeds of doubt in Ariadne about Dionysus and what he did when he was away from Ariadne.

Ariadne and Dionysus had a bigger problem of course, about which they often spoke: he was immortal, but she and her children were not; would he still love her when she was old? Would he be able to bear the pain of losing all of them when they died? Dionysus always wondered why “mortals bloomed like flowers and crumbled to nothing.” How, he asked, could everything they once were be extinguished so completely and “yet the world did not collapse under the weight of so much pain and grief?” But he also concluded this was the source of the appeal of mortals – “human life shines more brightly because it is but a shimmering candle against an eternity of darkness, and it can be extinguished with the faintest breeze.”

As for the gods, Dionysus explained to Ariadne, “their passions do not burn brightly as a mortal’s passions do, because they can have whatever they desire for the rest of eternity. . . . Nothing to them is more than a passing amusement, and when they have done with it, there will be another and another and another, until the end of time itself.” All of the brightness of mortals appealed to Dionysus, at first.

Dionysus, god of wine and revelry

Ultimately though, the evanescent nature of humans got to Dionysus:

“Being a god and loving mortals means nothing more than watching them die. I know that all too well. . . . Can you blame me for thinking it better to garner the love of a thousand mortals instead, to hold the adoration of a city instead of one consort’s frail, mortal flesh?”

Ariadne mused:

“ . . . if I had learned anything I had learned enough to know that a god in pain is dangerous. . . . What was I to do now that my god-husband was ravenous for the company of all the women of the world, now that the love we had built together seemed to cause him only pain?”

She soon finds out, and the story ends – like many Greek stories – tragically for the women involved.

Evaluation: Saint’s writing is excellent and evocative of the style of Greek mythology. She gives the usual obeisance to Homer in his use of the expression “wine-dark sea” in the Iliad and the Odyssey. She adds a similar construction of her own when Ariadne says of her baby: “he slept, milk-drunk and dazed, against my skin.”

The inequalities for women that Saint draws attention to are, unfortunately, timeless – still today women are blamed for their own rapes (“she must have been asking for it”) and men are feted as heroes when often their deeds were dependent on the contributions of women. While many of the injustices recounted in the book are perpetrated by men, Saint doesn’t address the fact that some are by female gods. Even though they are angry over misdeeds of men, they too blame other women instead of the men. And yes, still today, when men are unfaithful, wronged women often direct their hatred at ‘the other woman” rather than at the men who betrayed them.

Saint also depicts more general and timeless matters that affect everyone: relationships among families and between partners, the importance of trust, the conflicting joys and pains of children and the guilt it inspires in mothers (but not so much in fathers) and the challenges of aging. These are all issues that remain of importance and interest, making this book an excellent choice for book clubs.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Flatiron Books, 2021

Posted in Book Review | Tagged | Leave a comment

Kid Lit Review of “Box: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom” by Carole Boston Weatherford

This book tells the story of Henry Brown, who, in 1849 at age 34, escaped from slavery by having himself mailed from Richmond, Virginia to Philadelphia in a box 3 feet long by 2 feet 8 inches deep by 2 feet wide, labeled as “dry goods.” (Henry enlisted the help of his choir-member friend, a free black who knew a white sympathizer. The sympathizer in turn contacted a white abolitionist of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society for help on the other end.) Henry traveled 350 miles in the box, in a nail-biting trip that took twenty-seven hours. Henry “Box” Brown became one of the most famous escaped slaves, and his story remains incredibly inspirational.

Weatherford has chosen to tell Henry’s story in poetic verse as if written in his own voice. All but one of the poems has six lines making a “sexain,” reflecting the cubic structure of a box.

Each sexain has a title that both summarizes the poem and puts the slave experience in sharp relief. Henry experiences “Brutality,” “Fear,” and “Hell,” but also “Friends,” “Church,” and “Courage.” The final sexain makes for a powerful and apt coda to this story in particular, and to the American story in general:

AXIOM

Freedom
Is
Fragile.
Handle
With
Care.

Colorful mixed-media collages by artist Michele Wood evoke quilts that also reflect the box theme. In an Illustrator’s Note, Wood explains that she chose a palette based on colors predominant in the 1800s.

A timeline, notes, and bibliography are included in this book recommended for ages 7 and up.

Evaluation: The author and the illustrator each have won many awards. This particular book won the 2021 Newberry Honor. Besides the amazing story of Henry, both the writing style and artwork give teachers opportunities to expand on the lessons of the book.

In fact, because of the rich educational possibilities of this book, it is part of the Black Creators Series. Presented by Candlewick Press and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University and hosted by Sonja Cherry-Paul, the Black Creators Series is an educator-focused virtual speakers’ series that highlights the work of Black authors and illustrators. You can watch each new episode on the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Facebook page here.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Candlewick Press, 2020

Posted in Book Review | Tagged | 1 Comment

Review of “The Postscript Murders” by Elly Griffiths

This is the second book in the author’s new series featuring Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur, a member of the West Sussex, England Murder Squad. Harbinder is 36 but still lives at home with her Punjabi parents, with whom she gets along well although they don’t know she is gay.  But her mother is a good cook, after all.   Harbinder is peppery, witty, and very clever, but underestimated by her peers, much to her chagrin.

In this installment, a young Ukrainian care worker, Natalka Kolisnyk, comes to see Harbinder about her suspicions that a client, Peggy Smith, although 90, did not die of old age but was murdered. Peggy was in excellent shape and seemed in fine health just the day before. Natalka explains that while cleaning up Peggy’s apartment along with Peggy’s friend and neighbor Edwin (a dapper and young-at-heart 80-year-old), the two found a number of alarming signs that Peggy’s death could have had a more sinister cause than just “old age.” Peggy’s apartment was full of mystery books, and a surprising number of them were dedicated to Peggy. Moreover, Natalka found a business card identifying Peggy as a “murder consultant.” Then she saw a postcard with the ominous message: “We are coming for you.” But the biggest sign something was unusual was that while Natalka and Edwin were in the flat, a masked person came in with a gun and stole one of the mystery books – very odd indeed!

Harbinder agreed to look into it, especially after one of the mystery authors who dedicated his books to Peggy was murdered soon after Peggy’s death. He too had received a threatening postcard.

Meanwhile, Natalka, Edwin, and Benedict, an ex-monk who ran the local coffee shop, take off on a hilarious Scooby-Doo type mission to an Aberdeen book festival to try and find out what was going on. Harbinder now had to chase after them in addition to doing her own investigation, as well as arranging for her injured mother to have a caregiver (Natalka recommended one for her) while Harbinder was in Aberdeen.

The plot thickens with more murders, mysterious Ukrainian thugs, and romantic complications. As if that weren’t enough to keep readers entertained, there are red herrings and twists galore.

Evaluation: Griffiths’s main protagonists always manage to come across as wryly funny and even adorable. The author’s sense of humor is so delightful that I often find myself laughing out loud even while reading about murder. For fans of murder mysteries like those of Anthony Horowitz that feature books within the books and explore the world of writers, literary agents, and publishers, for my money Griffiths is much better. Her tongue-in-cheek self-deprecatory takes on authors and the book industry are funny and insightful rather than tediously self-aggrandizing, as I find Horowitz to be. One can’t help loving Griffiths’ recurring characters, and I can’t wait to read more about them.

Rating: 4/5

Published in the U.S. by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021

Posted in Book Review | Tagged | 1 Comment

Kid Lit Review of “All Because You Matter” by Tami Charles

This picture book for young readers (age 4 and up) is addressed to “you, dear child”: a young African American boy confronting the world around him. 

The boy learns:

“Long before you took
your place in this world,
you were dreamed of,
like a knapsack
full of wishes
carried on the backs
of your ancestors . . .

. . . to them, you always mattered.”

Similarly, he is told, no matter what happens, he always has, and always will, matter to his family.

Nevertheless, the author says to the little boy, “there will be times when you … will question your place in the universe.” She gives examples of those times, such as:

“. . . . when your Pop Pop turns on the news, and you see people everywhere take a breath, take a stand, take a knee. And you hear Pop Pop’s whispered prayers, as another name is called: Trayvon, Tamir, Philando, and you wonder, if they, or you, will ever matter.”

The author writes:

“But did you know that you do?

Did you know that you were born from queens, chiefs, legends?

Did you know that you are the earth?
That strength, power, and beauty lie within you?”

“Since the beginning of time,” she concludes, “you mattered. They mattered. We matter. . . . and always will.”

In an Author’s Note, Tami Charles explained that when her son began to ask questions, she knew she needed to have “The Big Talk” with her son:

“The one where I tell him that while there are many nice people in the world, not everyone is. And that sometimes people will treat others unfairly because of their skin color, race, or religion.”

She explains that she wrote this book to provide parents with a starting point for those conversations, and to remind all children that no matter where they come from, they matter.

Bryan Collier has won a number of Caldecott Honors, in addition to other awards, for his illustrations. Here he employs paint and collage images in a rich palette to show the young boy surrounded by all the influences in his life. He adeptly conveys the emotions of the boy as he reacts to his world with wonder, fear, love, and joy. In his Illustrator’s Note, Collier writes that his grandmother, who raised him, was a quilt maker, and explains how her influence is reflected in his artwork in this story. The use of collage to suggest quilts is evident throughout the story, and adds to the meaning of the words about ancestry, inheritance, and cultural influences.

Evaluation: The words and illustrations combine to create a caring, reassuring message, and perhaps more importantly, an empowering message. Children of all backgrounds will find something to take away from this story.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Orchard Books, an imprint of Scholastic, 2020

Posted in Book Review | Tagged | 1 Comment