Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Golden Compass

Pullman, Philip. 1995. THE GOLDEN COMPASS. Great Britain: Scholastic Children’s Books. ISBN 0679879242

Lyra Belacqua lives at the Jordan College where the scholars have raised her since she was a little girl, with her daemon Pantalaimon. Being the curious young girl that Lyra is she decides to eavesdrop on the scholars who are meeting with her uncle, Lord Asriel, who has just returned from the North. During this meeting she learns about a magical and mysterious world in the North and how the missing children of the country might be apart of this world. Lyra soon finds herself on an amazing adventure where she meets gyptians, witches, armored bears and a camp where experiments are being conducted on children.

The characters of THE GOLDEN COMPASS truly make this book come alive and keep the readers engage throughout the story. Lyra, the main character, who is young in age proves herself as the heroine of the story. Her side kick or daemon, Pantalaimon is another key character to the story. In this world each human has a daemon that stays by their side throughout their lives and can read and feel their emotions. As a child the daemon can change into different shapes of animals depending on what the child needs. Pantalaimon turns into a moth when Lyra needs to spy on someone, or a cat to fight off attackers, or an ermine to keep Lyra warm. Mrs. Coulter the villain of the story is described as “…beautiful and young. Her sleek black hair framed her checks, and her daemon was a golden monkey.” Throughout the novel we learn that Mrs. Coulter is behind the disappearance of the children and is running the experiments on the children. My other favorite character in the story is the armored bear Iorek Byrnison who protects Lyra on the adventure and takes back his kingdom after a deathly fight.

The true adventure of this story begins when Lyra runs away from Mrs. Coulter and begins living among the gyptians. Soon after meeting the lord of the western gyptians they decide to take Lyra on the journey to find the missing children who have been reportedly taken to the North. Along their journey they stop at several villages but the one that is described in the most detail is the land of the bears, Svalbard. “Vast building… carved all over with representations of warfare, showing bears victorious and Skraelings surrendering, showing Tartars chained and slaving in the fire mines, gifts and tributes to the king of the bears, Iofur Raknison.” What is also unique about the setting of most of the book is once Lyra begins to travel North the weather is freezing. There are many times the author explains the type of dress she is wearing to give the reader a good sense of how cold the land is.

Philip Pullman’s style of writing in this book is high fantasy. There are made up creatures, cities, pets, and tools to tell the future. As Lyra is leaving Jordan College to live with Mrs. Coulter the head master gives her an alethiometer, which is an instrument that tells the owner the truth of their questions. “It was very like a clock, or a compass, for there were hands pointing to places around the dial, but instead of hours or the points of the compass there were several little pictures… there was an anchor, an hourglass surmounted by a skull, a chameleon, a bull, a beehive… thirty six altogether.” This tool helped Lyra to find a lost boy, save the armored bear, and escape her kidnappers. This example of the authors’ imagination is one of many the reader will discover while reading the book. My personal favorite example of his imagination is the daemons that each human has throughout their lives. Other examples of the daemons in the book are: dog, raven, snow leopard, squirrel, goose, and monkey.

*Publishers Weekly- “As always, Pullman is a master at combining impeccable characterizations and seamless plotting, maintaining a crackling pace to create scene upon scene of almost unbearable tension. This glittering gem will leave readers of all ages eagerly awaiting the next installment of Lyra's adventures.”
*Children’s’ Literature- “This is a complex fascinating fantasy, the first volume of his "Dark Materials Trilogy." The heroine is Lyra Belacqua who lives with the scholars of Jordan College. Headstrong and independent, she is caught in a web in which science and politics are entangled. Why are hideous experiments being performed on children? Alliances with Gyptians, witch clans, battles with trained mercenaries and armored bears keep the reader on edge.”
*School Library Journal- “This is a captivating fantasy, filled with excitement, suspense, and unusual characters. The armored bears are wonderful and more interesting than most of the humans. There is some fine descriptive writing, filled with the kind of details that encourage suspension of disbelief. The story line moves along at a rapid clip, but flags when it delves into philosophical matters.”

*Have students journal what animal they think their daemon would be and why.
*Discuss with students some of the themes that this book illustrates like good vs. evil, courage, trust, and fear.
*Complete a character analysis about four characters in the book: Lyra, Mrs. Coulter, Lord Asriel and Iorek Byrnison.
*Read other books by Phillip Pullam:
- THE SUBTLE KNIFE. ISBN 9780375846724

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Witch of Blackbird Pond

Speare, Elizabeth George. 1958. THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND. New York, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN 0395913675

THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND is about a young girl from Barbados who is traveling to Connecticut to live with her Aunt, Uncle and two cousins. As she is aboard the ship she becomes friends with the captain’s son who informs her on the life of New England, and the witch trails and accusations. One afternoon Kit jumps into the water to save a young girls dolls and is quickly told that only witch’s are suppose to swim; this is the first time that Kit realizes her life is going to be very different in American. After many weeks of hard work, punishment, and frustration Kit stumbles upon a place where she can find comfort and friendship, Blackbird Pond. By the pond is an old house where widow, Hannah Tupper, lives who has also been accused of witchcraft. Although Hannah become a dear friend her friendship leads to a horrible accusation, trial, and heartbreak for Kit.

THE WTICH OF BLACKBIRD POND is by far one of my favorite historical fiction books that I have ever read. Elizabeth George Speare writes a story about a character who is likeable yet struggling so hard to fit into the world that she doesn’t know anything about. The first example of this is seen on the ship when she jumps into the water and is able to swim. “A true witch will always float. The innocent ones just sink like a stone.” This quote is from Nat as he tries to explain to Kit about the water trials and witch accusations. Throughout the story Kit is constantly getting herself and others in trouble, but the reader is always pulling for her hoping that everything works out. This theme of courage and perseverance is seen throughout the novel and what each character. I also enjoyed learning about the smaller characters in the story and how each one impacted Kit in different ways. Hannah is probably the most interesting, because she has had such a hard life yet she is loving, caring, and nurturing.

Wethersfield, Connecticut as described by Kit as, “a narrow sandy stretch of shoreline, a few plies sunk in the river with rough planking platforms.” Her uncles’ house, “looked solid and respectable.” The only place that Kit finds comfort and beauty is that of Blackbird Pond. The other scenes of the story take place in town, on the Dolphin or in the fields. The scenes in town all seem to be awful events, such as meeting, the Town House where the trail was held, and the time when Nat was sentenced to the stocks. Although these events are bad memories for Kit they allow the reader to understand what the times were like back then and how different it is today.

*School Library Journal- “The setting is the Colony of Connecticut in 1687 amid the political and religious conflicts of that day. Sixteen-year-old Kit Tyler unexpectedly arrives at her aunt and uncle's doorstep and is unprepared for the new world which awaits her… Unprepared for the religious intolerance and rigidity of the Puritan community, she is constantly astounding her aunt, uncle, and cousins with her dress, behavior, and ideas. She takes comfort in her secret friendship with the widow, Hannah Tupper, who has been expelled from Massachusetts because she is a Quaker and suspected of being a witch. When a deathly sickness strikes the village, first Hannah and then Kit are accused of being witches. Through these conflicts and experiences, Kit comes to know and accept herself. She learns not to make hasty judgments about people, and that there are always two sides to every conflict. There are several minor plots as well, including three romances, which help to bring this time and place to life.”
*Newberry Award Winner

*Have students respond in their journal about the time period and setting of the story and discuss with the class the difference between then and now.
*Students will create a timeline of major events that lead to the Salem Witch Trials, and label a map of the locations of the events that took place in the book: Connecticut, Barbados, and England.
*Read other stories by Elizabeth George Speare.
- SIGN OF THE BEAVER ISBN 9780440479000

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The River Between Us

Peck, Richard. 2003. THE RIVER BETWEEN US. New York, New York: Dial Books. ISBN 0803727356

THE RIVER BETWEEN US is about two different stories of a family set in very different times. Although, the first story is only told in the first and last chapter, it helps you understand how much the times have changes and what eventually happens with the characters. The majority of the story is set in 1861 in Tower Rock, Illinois with the Pruitt family. Tilly Pruitt and her twin brother Noah are very normal fifteen year olds except for the fact that the Civil War is about to begin and Noah is learning how to be solider. Tilly’s sister Cass also has an unusual quality about herself; she can look into the past and present to see how people are going to die.

One evening a riverboat from New Orleans came into the harbor with two very unique women who were about to change this town and the Pruitt family forever. Delphine Duval and Calinda, who may or may not be a slave, are not like the other women in this town; Delphine wears corsets, bonnets, gloves in the summer and knows how to get her way with men. During their stay with the Pruitt family, the Civil War heats up which eventually calls Noah away to be with the rest of the soldiers. Over the next few months the adventures of war, love and death become the main characters in the story.

Richard Peck’s develops a handful of characters in this story that all struggle with finding themselves and dealing with the consequences of the Civil War. Tilly the main character begins the story as a timid and shy young girl that is holding her family together. She is there to comfort her sister Cass, watch over her brother Noah, and attend to a mother who is so fearful she is about to lose the only man still in her life. The other strong character in the book is Delphine Duval from New Orleans. The author paints a very visual picture of the first time the two characters meets and how shocked Tilly was to see this woman from the South. “Heavens, I’d never seen such skirts- rustling taffeta stretched wide over hoops… She must be from New Orleans. No town between here and there could have produced her.”

It was also such a surprise to find out the real secret Delphine had been hiding about her past at the end of the story. As the readers is finding out more about this strange yet beautiful woman you know that something is not right but Peck does a brilliant job of revealing a past that no reader would have guessed. The other character that brings a lot of mystery to this story is Calinda, who wore a tignon on her head, sold pralines to make extra money, and took care of Delphine and the rest of the Pruitt family.

Much of this story setting is in the small town of Tower Rock but the scenes in Cairo, Illinois with the soldier tents and hospital paints the true picture of the Civil War. When Tilly and Delphine stepped off the train in Cairo they could already smell the rotten food, diseases from the troops, and the many soldiers who were already dead. Camp Defiance was described as, “A tent city inside, row and row of whiten tents, close as teeth. The first ones were raised over wooden floors.” What was also interesting to read was the techniques these two women used to nursed so many soldiers back to health. They brought quilts, built a bonfire for warmth and washing clothes; hand washed the weak, and cooked them meals.

Peck’s style of writing in the book is in the first person, through the voice of Tilly. He also uses the French dialect of New Orleans in his character of Delphine. Some examples of the dialect used by this character are: enchantee madame, bonjour, tante blanche, papa, and maman. The last few pages of the book are notes from Richard Peck that describes facts and true stories from this period in time.

My overall opinion of the book, THE RIVER BETWEEN US was that is was ok. I had a few problems at the beginning understanding the story in 1916 and how those characters were relating to the characters in the story in 1861. I also felt like the author jumped around a lot in terms of Civil War events and who was on what side. My favorite part in the book is the last few chapters when Tilly and Delphine go to save Noah and all the secrets are revealed, but this point in the story started and then abruptly ended. Also, I am not sure how the Cass character and her visions really affected the story and what significance it had. The book has some good characters and good themes but I wish some of the story would have been elaborated and other parts deleted.

*Publisher Weekly- “In our Best Books citation, PW wrote, "The author crafts his characters impeccably and threads together their fates in surprising ways that shed light on the complicated events of the Civil War."
*Children’s Literature- “The strength of the two characters and the relationship they establish transcends the horrors of war and the prejudices of gender and race, and highlight lesser known historical facts and make them real.”
*Kirkus Reviews- “Peck writes beautifully, bringing history alive through Tilly's marvelous voice and deftly handling themes of family, race, war, and history. A rich tale full of magic, mystery, and surprise.”
*2004 Winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

*Read other historical fiction novels about the Civil War.
-RIFLES FOR WATIE ISBN 9780064470308
*Complete the Literature Circle Questions based on the book.
*Have students create a timeline of historical events that happened during the Civil War: Lincoln inaugurated, Battle of Shiloh, Battle of Gettysburg, Lee Surrenders, etc.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Catherine, Called Birdy

Cushman, Karen. 1994. CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY. New York, New York. Clarion: Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN 0395681863

CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY is about a young girl growing up in England during the year 1290. Her brother, Edward who taught her to read and write, convinces her to write in a journal each day so that she might learn from her childish ways. Each journal entry tells of a different adventures Catherine goes through, including, visiting her brother at the abbey, staying with a duchess in her castle, traveling to a fair, and warding off many suitors who wish to marry her. Throughout the entries the readers are able to see the many struggles that her family members are going through as well as what her daily life is like. The biggest obstacle she faces is learning to be a lady so her father can find a suitable person for her to marry. By the end of September Catherine finally agrees to marry a man she refers to as Shaggy Beard and discovers that this life of being married might not be as bad as she thought.

CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY is an outstanding book for young readers to discover what life was like in the 1200’s. The main character Catherine is a modern day feminist who believes that women should be able to be crusader or a monk and never get married if they wish. The author paints a picture of 14 year old Catherine that many readers could identify with her struggles including arguing with her parents and siblings, hardships with friendship, and daydreaming about their life as an adult. On one account Catherine uses an old wives tale to try to determine who her future husband would be, “Last night I tucked a pin into a onion and put it under my pillow so I would dream of my future husband.” She is a very likable and funny character. What I also like about the book is that we only learn about the characters from the perspective of Catherine’s eyes. The reader never gets to met them or hear their side of the story, we just learn what Catherine wants us to know.

This story is what I picture most young girls going through in this time period. They work extremely hard doing household duties, and are learning the many rules of becoming a lady. “A silent woman is admired more than a noisy one, maids should be mild and meek, swift to hear and slow to speak.” Many girls are raised to be proper and delicate so their family’s can benefit when they get married be gaining more land or animals. Throughout the book the reader also witnesses the many festivals people had and the unique food and entertainment that was there. “We had oceans of fish and acres of dried apples, and musicians and jugglers and tumblers…”

The setting of the story is in 1290 on a medieval English manor. Although most of the story does take place at Catherine’s home the author paints the picture of what most villages were like during that time. There were churches, cottages, an alehouse, and a blacksmith. What is also interesting to read is how people got their entertainment during this time. One of Catherine’s journal entries describes a time where her and her friend go to a neighboring village to watch the hanging of two thieves. Another time Catherine goes to the Bartlemas Fair where she buys beads, a wooden whistle, and bone rattle, parchment paper and watches a dancing bear do silly tricks.

My favorite part of the entire book that also summarizes so much of Catherine’s personality is when she fights with her mother about going skating on a frozen pond. When her mother won’t allow it Catherine decides to make a list of all the things girls are not allowed to, “go on crusade, be horse trainers, be monks, laugh very loud, wear breeches, drink in ale house, cut their hair, piss in the fire to make it hiss, wear nothing, be alone, get sunburned, run, marry whom they will, and glide on the ice.”

*Publishers Weekly- “The period has rarely been presented for young people with such authenticity; the exotic details will intrigue readers while they relate more closely to Birdy’s yen for independence and her sensibilities toward the downtrodden. Her tenacity and ebullient naivete are extraordinary; at once comic and thought-provoking, this first novel is a delight."
*Children’s Literature- “Cushman brings the Middle Ages alive with a revealing, humorous and riveting story of a young girl who devises clever schemes to escape marrying all the repulsive men her father would give her to. In the end Catherine marries, but the ending is also a beginning of a possible new life. All of this is revealed in Catherine's diary that details her fourteenth year growing up in a medieval English manor.”
*Booklist- “The diary format helps portray the tedium of life in the Middle Ages, the never-ending sewing, cooking, and other chores; the dirt and the illness; and, worse, the lowly role of women in medieval life. But this diary style also inhibits the ability of the characters to come alive. Birdy's is the only real voice. Fortunately, it's a sprightly voice, complete with its own brand of cursing ("God's thumbs!"), that moves the action.”
* Newbery Honor Book and Horn Book Fanfare award.

*Have students compare and contrast Catherine’s life to their own life.
*Allow students to create their own journals where they document their feelings and activities throughout the day.
*Read other Karen Cushman novels.
-RODZINA. ISBN 9780440419938