New Biographies in the Library: July, 2016

I’m going to start posting here about the books that I acquire for my library. For those of you who don’t know, I have a private subscription library in my home, mostly for homeschoolers, although others who are interested in quality books are welcome to visit or to join. I have a lot of older books that are no longer available from the public library as well as some new books that I think will stand the test of time.

Here’s an annotated list of some of the new/old books I’ve acquired (from thrift stores, used bookstores, library sales, donations) in the past month:

Harry Houdini: Young Magician by Kathryn Kilby Borland. Illustrated by Helen Ross Speicher. Childhood of Famous Americans series.

Albert Einstein: Young Thinker by Marie Hammontree. Illustrated by Robert Dorms. Childhood of Famous Americans series.

Kate Douglas Wiggin: The Little Schoolteacher by Miriam E. Mason. Illustrated by Vance Locke. Childhood of Famous Americans series.

George Eastman: Young Photographer by Joanne Landers Henry. Illustrated Rawson. Childhood of Famous Americans series.

I have a young library patron who devours these Childhood of Famous Americans series books. They are a series of somewhat fictionalized biographies of almost all of the famous Americans you can think of. They’re written on a primary grade/easy chapter book reading level, and the stories are engaging and adventure-filled. The bios focus on the childhood years of the subject, hence the series title, but do give information about each person’s adult life as well. I recommend them for second to fourth graders who want to read about real people. I find them to much more readable and “narrative” than more recent biography series for that age group, which sometimes tend to be dry and factual and focused on the adult lives of the biographical subject.

The War in Korea: 1950-1953 by Robert Leckie. World Landmark series is another great series for children and young adults, this one more middle grade level and usually about historical events or time periods, although some are biographies. I didn’t really have any books in my library about the Korean War or set during the Korean War, so I was glad to pick up this Landmark history book.

The Story of Beethoven by Helen Kaufmann. Another series, Signature Books from Grosset and Dunlap publishers. Excellent biographies written by top-notch authors.

Giants of Invention: Stories of the Men Whose Inventions Remade our World by Edgar Tharp. Illustrated by Frank Vaughn.

History’s 100 Greatest Composers: Life Stories of the Immortals of Music Selected by America’s Top Music Critics by Helen L. Kaufmann.

On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne. I found this more recent title, a picture book biography emphasizing Einstein’s unrelenting curiosity, at a thrift store. It’s a lovely introduction to the great scientist and his work.

Thistle Games by Mike Nicholson and Jo Litchfield

Just in time for the summer Olympics, here’s a rhyming picture book about a different kind of sports event, the Thistle Games. Subtitled “a braw Scots story for bairns,” this Picture Kelpies imprint book from Scotland gives a lovely introduction to traditional Scottish games and competitions and also to all those fun Scottish words. How many of these do you know? (The definitions are in white font, so that if you move your cursor to highlight the spaces immediately after the word, you can read the definition.)

Dour: stern, severe

Dwam: a blank or dreamy state of mind

Gie-ing it laldy: giving it energy and enthusiasm

Havering: talking nonsense (I thought it meant wanting or desiring.)

Hirple: to limp or hobble

Keek: a peek or glance

Lugs: ears

Mingin: stinky

Numpty: a silly person

Skiver: someone who dodges work

Sleekit: sneaky, cunning Isn’t this word used in that Burns poem about the mouse?

Spurtle: a short stick for stirring porridge

Stookie: a plaster cast

The fun thing is that you don’t have to memorize these words in your study of Scotland: they’re all used in the rhyming text of this rollicking good story about a community picnic, games competition, and musical event, with races, food, shopping and dancing. Unless you’re a numpty or in a dwam, you should queue up and take a keek at this braw Scots story.

Thistle, by the way, is a made-up place and the Thistle Games are imaginary, too, but real in the sense of being played by Scots, old and young. The authors have written two other “Thistle” books: Thistle Street and Thistle Sands.

Thumbelina, illustrated by Elsa Beskow

In the mail the other day, I received a review copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s Thumbelina, illustrated by famous Swedish artist Elsa Beskow. Ms. Beskow’s illustrations are justly known throughout Sweden and the world as classic artwork, both for her own books and for stories by other authors. Of course, Andersen’s story of a tiny girl “no taller than your thumb” is perfectly suited to Ms. Beskow’s lovely watercolor pictures.

This edition of Thumbelina features beautiful framed, full-page illustrations. The illustrations probably come from one of the eight (!) fairy tale collections that Elsa Beskow illustrated. Like Beatrix Potter, Ms. Beskow was a close observer of nature, and her pictures remind me of Potter’s, except larger. The “largeness” of the world, from Thumbelina’s vantage point, is portrayed quite well in this book, and a child reader will identify with Thumbelina as she travels through the countryside until she finally finds a home with the tiny King of the Fairies.

Elsa Beskow also wrote thirty-three stories of her own in Swedish, many of which have been translated into English and published along with her original illustrations. In my library I have Ollie’s Ski Trip and Pelle’s New Suit. Floris Books, the publisher of this Thumbelina, also has available and in print: Peter in Blueberry Land, The Land of Long Ago, The Sun Egg, Princess Sylvie, The Children of Hat Cottage, Emily and Daisy, Children of the Forest and many more. If you like classically styled picture book art, like the picture on the cover of Thumbelina, and then you will probably enjoy all of Ms. Beskow’s books.

The author and her husband Nathanael Beskow, a minister, had six children—all boys. I’m sure she enjoyed creating the pictures for Thumbelina and feeding the “girl-y” part of her nature, while surrounded by all those boys.

The Chequer Board by Nevil Shute

I have had this book on my TBR list for a few years, but I haven’t been able to find a copy anywhere, not in my big city library system, not at the local used bookstores. So when I found a copy at the Blooms’ little bookstore, I was delighted. Britisher Nevil Shute (Norway) is most famous for two of his other books, On the Beach, an apocalyptic novel about nuclear holocaust, and A Town Like Alice, a story of post-World War II development in the outback of Australia. However, I’ve enjoyed others of his books, too, including The Pied Piper, The Far Country, and Trustee from the Toolroom.

So, The Chequer Board begins with Mr. John Turner going to see a doctor, a specialist, for help with some troubling physical symptoms that have been interfering with his life and work as a sort of traveling salesman for the company, Cereal Products, Ltd. Mr. Turner’s life is about to take a “turn” for the worse when he receives the news from the doctor that an old war injury is about to take his life. Mr. Turner only has a few months, maybe a year, to live.

Dr. Hughes, who is a sort of framing narrator for the novel, appearing only in the first and last chapters, is not terribly impressed with his patient, John Turner, at first. The good doctor describes Turner as “not very prepossessing. He was about forty years old with a fresh complexion and sandy hair, going a little bald. He had a jaunty air of cheerfulness and bonhomie which did not fit in well with my consulting room; he was the sort of man who would be the life and soul of the party in the saloon bar of a good-class pub, or at the races. He was wearing rather a bright brown suit with a very bright tie, and he carried a bowler hat.” With the added information that this book was published in 1947 and takes place in about that year, can’t you just picture Mr. Turner, in all his florid, Willie Loman-esque splendor?

Mr. Turner reminded me of Willie Loman (Death of a Salesman) in other ways, too. Turner is a little bit crooked, we find out, not above taking advantage of an opportunity to make a good deal on the side or skim a little money off a sale. Otherwise, he says, the taxes would make it impossible for a man to get ahead at all. And he and his wife have settled into a rather typical middle class life, with not much in common, and a lot of low-level wrangling and mis-communication between the two of them. The news of Mr. Turner’s imminent death changes everything.

Turner begins to reminisce about the time he spent in hospital with three other injured servicemen, and he becomes fixated on finding the other three men and helping them, if they need help. As it turns out, Turner is more helped by the search and by what he finds out about his three fellow hospital mates than he is able to help them.

I must have been in just the right mood for this novel. There’s some World War II adventure involved, and themes of racial harmony and overcoming adversity, but it’s really just a gentle, rather philosophical, story about people muddling their way through life. my life is in sort of a muddle right now, and I appreciated Mr. Turner’s frequent, though cliched reminder that “we’ll all be the same in a hundred years.” In spite of its tendency to promote Buddhism and denigrate Christianity, the novel was still a comfort to me. It’s about normal, average people dealing with the war and its aftermath in interesting and somewhat unpredictable ways.

The characters do make frequent (and jarring to a 21st century reader) use of the n-word in reference to a black American soldier who was one of Turner’s three hospital mates. The word was fairly typical, I think, in 1947 in England and in America, and perhaps didn’t carry quite the same derogatory meaning in British parlance. Anyway, the book treats its black characters and other POC characters (Burmese) with respect and understanding, while showing how many people in the 1940’s did not do the same.

The title of this book by Mr. Shute is fun to think about, too. It could refer to the past events that Mr. Turner explores in the book, chequered with light and dark. Or the theme of white and colored people reaching for racial reconciliation and even community is another meaning that finds an apt image in the light and dark chequerboard. The idea that life is a sort of game in which one makes moves either good or bad, and that in consequence each person might be reincarnated as a higher or lower being than he was before is also alluded to in the title and in the story.

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier

Peter Nimble is a blind orphan and a thief. His other senses are, of course, exceptionally sharp and perceptive. When he steals a box with three sets of magical eyes and receives a quest to travel to the Vanished Kingdom and rescue the people there, Peter Nimble is challenged beyond anything he has ever experienced in his thieving life. Maybe the Vanished Kingdom needs a blind thief, and maybe Peter Nimble needs to become a hero and find a real home.

Beautiful, humorous, and meaningful writing characterizes this fantasy adventure. The author also inserts little asides that illuminate and explain the story and the world of Peter Nimble. Here are a few sample quotes to whet your appetite:

“Now, for those of you who know anything about blind children, you are aware that they make the very best thieves. As you can well imagine, blind children have incredible senses of smell, and they can tell what lies behind a locked door – be it fine cloth, gold, or peanut brittle – at fifty paces.
Moreover, their fingers are so small and nimble that they can slip right through keyholes, and their ears so keen that they can hear the faint clicks and clacks of every moving part inside even the most complicated lock. Of course, the age of great thievery has long since passed; today there are few child-thieves left, blind or otherwise.”

“There is something wonderful that happens between true friends when they find themselves no longer wasting time with meaningless chatter. Instead, they become content just to share each other’s company. It is the opinion of some that this sort of friendship is the only kind worth having. While jokes and anecdotes are nice, they do not compare with the beauty of shared solitude.”

“If ever you have had the chance to spend quality time with a villainous mastermind, you will know that these people are extraordinarily fond of discussing their evil schemes out loud.”

“You may be thinking that his blindness is no handicap at all, and that it somehow gives him an advantage over the average seeing person. Some of you may even be thinking to yourselves, ‘Boy! I wish I were blind like the great Peter Nimble!’ If you are thinking that, stop right now. Because whatever benefits you may believe that blindness carries with it, you must understand that there are just as many disadvantages.”

Caveats: The story does include some rather violent and creepy images and episodes. There’s a murder of murderous crows who peck out Peter’s eyes and who peck another (villainous) character to death. There are gangs of evil apes and a few dangerous sea serpents. The children in the Vanished Kingdom are degraded and enslaved, and the adults are brainwashed into acquiescence. However, evil is ultimately defeated, and goodness and light win.

An interview with Jonathan Auxier in which he discusses the difficulties of writing a story from the point of view of a blind character.

Mr. Auxier also wrote The Night Gardener, another creepy tale with fantastic themes and images.

New Picture Books in the Library: July 21, 2016

I’m going to start posting here about the books that I acquire for my library. For those of you who don’t know I have a private subscription library in my home, mostly for homeschoolers, although others who are interested in quality books are welcome to visit or to join. I have a lot of older books that are no longer available from the public library as well as some new books that I think will stand the test of time.

Here’s an annotated list of some of the new/old books I’ve acquired (from thrift stores, used bookstores, library sales, donations) in the past month:

Sing in Praise by Opal Wheeler. I am familiar with Ms. Wheeler’s biographical stories of famous composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and others, but I didn’t know that she had written a book about hymns and hymn writers. In this volume, with beautiful full color and pen-and-ink illustrations, Ms. Wheeler tells the stories of such famous lyricists and musicians as Isaac Watts, Lowell Mason, Charles Wesley, and several others.

The Birds of Bethlehem by Tomie dePaola. “The story of the Nativity from a bird’s-eye view.” It’s Tomie dePaola—and an unusual Christmas story.

On A Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne. Illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky. A picture book biography of the great physicist. “And in his mind, right then and there Albert was no longer on his bicycle, no longer on the country road . . . he was racing through space on a beam light. It was the biggest, most exciting thought Albert had ever had. And it filled his mind with questions.”

D is for Democracy: A Citizen’s Alphabet by Elissa Grodin. Illustrated by Victor Juhasz. Part of a series of beautiful alphabet books from Sleeping Bear Press.

H is for Home Run: A Baseball Alphabet by Brad Herzog. Illustrated by Melanie Rose. Another in the Sleeping Bear Press series.

Daisy Comes Home by Jan Brett. A Chinese girl, Mei-Mei, raises “happy chickens” and sells their eggs in the market. The story reminds me of the classic Story of Ping because one of the chickens, Daisy, runs away from home because she’s tired of being pecked and pushed out of the nest by the other chickens. Lovely Jan Brett illustrations.

Stone Giant: Michelangelo’s David and How He Came to Be by Jane Sutcliffe. Illustrated by John Shelley. “On the front of the stone, he drew the outline of his David. Then all that was needed was to carve away what was not David. . . . Day after day Michelangelo worked furiously. Every night he went home floured with the dust of not-David. He combed bits of not-David from his beard.”

Cathedral Mouse by Kay Chorao. A small spotted mouse finds a real home in a big, beautiful cathedral. This one reminded me of Norman the Doorman by Don Freeman.

Behold Your Queen! by Gladys Malvern

Behold Your Queen! is a fictionalized version of the book of Esther from the Bible. The novel is by Gladys Malvern, a popular writer of what we would now call “Young Adult fiction”. Back in the 1940’s and 50’s it was called teen fiction or just children’s fiction for older children. Many of her books are set in either Old Testament or New Testament times and are embellishments on familiar Bible stories. Books such as The Foreigner (about Ruth), Saul’s Daughter (about David’s wife, Michal), Tamar, and Rhoda of Cyprus were favorites of mine when I was a teen, and as I re-read Behold Your Queen!, I was again impressed with how Ms. Malvern was able to make the Bible story come alive and make her characters into real, breathing people.

There are a few deviations from the Biblical story. In Ms. Malvern’s book, Esther gives only one feast for the king, her husband and Haman, the evil Amalekite minister. At that first feast, she begs for the lives of her people to be spared and denounces Haman as the enemy of the Hebrew people as well as the enemy of the king himself. The author adds many details and descriptions of Persian court life and of King Xerxes/Ahasuerus and other characters and settings in the story. However, the basic story is the same, and the author has the Jews give credit to Esther and to “Almighty God” for their deliverance from the hand of the evil Haman.

I’ve posted before about the book of Esther. It’s a fascinating story. Chuck Swindoll wrote a book about Esther called Esther: A Woman of Strength and Dignity. I also have a couple of other post about Esther, Soundtrack for the Book of Esther and Esther, Illustrated. On the latter subject, the “decorations” in Gladys Malvern’s Behold Your Queen! are done by her sister Corrine, who was the illustrator for most (all?) of Gladys’ books.

I had a fascination with historical fiction based on Biblical narratives or set in Biblical times for a while when I was a teen, and Gladys Malvern was one of my go-to authors. Others who wrote these kinds of tales back in the early to mid twentieth century or before were Lloyd C. Douglas (The Robe, The Big Fisherman), Lew Wallace (Ben-hur), Norah Lofts (How Far to Bethlehem?), Elizabeth George Speare (The Bronze Bow), Joanne Williamson (Hittite Warrior), Marjorie Holmes (Two from Galilee), Patricia St. John (Twice Freed), and Frank G. Slaughter (The Road to Bithynia and many others). All of these stories were more or less Biblically accurate and made me think about the Biblical narratives in new ways as the people in them began to feel like real people instead of the flannel-graph one-dimensional characters of my childhood understanding. Whether it’s by means of historical fiction or the kinds of imaginative Bible study, I think it’s important that the people of the Bible be understood in this way as one grows and learns more about them.

Saturday Review of Books: July 16, 2016

“We have grown to associate morality in a book with a kind of optimism and prettiness; according to us, a moral book is a book about moral people. But the old idea was almost the opposite; a moral book was a book about immoral people.” ~G.K. Chesterton

SatReviewbutton

Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.

Heidi’s Children by Charles Tritten

The two sequels to Johanna Spyri’s beloved Heidi, Heidi Grows Up and Heidi’s Children, were neither written nor endorsed by Spyri, but were adapted from her other works by her French translator, Charles Tritten, in the 1930s, many years after the Swiss author of Heidi died. Nevertheless, I read them both when I was a girl, wanting more Heidi, and I found them to be satisfyingly Heidi-like in style and substance.

I decided to re-read Heidi’s Children, after purchasing a used copy from a friend. It’s really a beautiful and intriguing story. In Heidi Grows Up, Heidi goes away to boarding school and then returns to Dorfli to teach in the village school. Eventually, she and Peter are married (as everyone who has read Heidi would know and want them to do). Heidi’s Children begins in the springtime with Heidi and Peter expecting their first child.

Several things about the ideas and perspective in this book impressed me.

Heidi’s and Peter’s attitude about marriage, unremarkable in the 1930’s when this book was published, seems charmingly antiquated in these oh-so-enlightened times:

“. . . with Spring would come one of the greatest joys that a young wife can experience. For both Peter and Heidi felt that no marriage was complete until it was blessed with children. Spring held this promise. Even at the wedding the great event had been prepared for and the cradle had stood ready. This was the custom. Often at a Grisons wedding, the cradle was prepared and a child walked with the bride and groom carrying wheat. This was a sign that the marriage would be fruitful, that there would soon be children.”

Who would think that almost a century after the time of this story, people not only would see children as a nuisance and even a curse rather than “one of the greatest joys” and a blessing and a promise, but would also devalue marriage itself to the point that it has become an unnecessary burden or a meaningless “piece of paper” to many?

I also like the way Heidi and Peter live with their extended family and in community. Heidi’s grandfather, the Alm-Uncle, lives with them, and so does Peter’s mother, Brigitta. Jamy, the village school teacher and a school friend of Heidi’s, boards with the family, and Jamy brings her little sister, Marta, to live with the family as well. Other visitors, such as Klara and Herr Sesemann, are in and out, and it’s just a wonderful picture of a loving community, several generations, helping and serving one another.

I also liked the themes of courage overcoming fear, forgiveness and understanding, visual images and stories as vehicles for knowing God and His love. Little Marta is a good replacement child character for little Heidi, and the grown-up Heidi is someone an adult reader feels as if she would like to have for a friend. Altogether, the Heidi series is a delight, even if the authors are two different people. Tritten writes of his justification for writing the sequels in his foreward to Heidi’s Children:

“I knew Madame Spyri as well as one human, even of a different race, could know another. Every book she wrote was a labor of love for the children she knew so well. Each was written in memory of that little ‘lost one’ who used to ask her to tell him what lay beyond ‘forever after.’ I know that she never refused to grant a child’s wish as long as she lived.”

Saturday Review of Books: July 9, 2016

“‘Oh, hurry up and get the supper work done so we can read,’ Mary said eagerly. But Ma said, ‘Never mind the work, Laura! Read us a story!'” ~Laura Ingalls Wilder, On the Shores of Silver Lake

SatReviewbutton

Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.