Archives

Poetry Friday: Hosie’s Aviary by Tobias and Leonard Baskin

Hosie’s Aviary is a book of bird poems and drawings. It’s a lovely collection, a family project, and a delight to the ear and the eye. For example, the poem “EGRET”:

Long hair
and pencil bill,
does this egret write poems?

Leonard Baskin was planning and studying to become an Orthodox rabbi like his father until at age 14 he saw a sculpture demonstration in Macy’s department store, and he began studying art instead. Baskin became a famous sculptor and also illustrated many children’s books; however, it was for Hosie’s Alphabet (Viking), text written by his children Hosea and Tobias and by Lisa, his second wife, that he received a Caldecott Honor in 1973. In 1979, Mr. Baskin illustrated and published Hosie’s Aviary, also published by Viking Press and also written by his children Tobias, Lucretia, and Hosea, and by Lisa Baskin.

Leonard Baskin, who died in 2000, seems to have been a fascinating man. He was a friend of Ted Hughes, for whom he illustrated the poetry collection, Crow. The first Crow poems were written in response to a request by Baskin, who had at the time produced several pen and ink drawings of crows. Hughes’ wife, Sylvia Plath, dedicated one of her poems, “Sculptor”, to Leonard Baskin. Mr. Baskin was the sculptor for one section of the memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Washington, D.C.

Tobias Baskin, who just happens to have been born the same year I was, became a “self-directed learner” much like his father. He is now a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. In the following video, he gives an acceptance speech to a homeschool group called North Star in Massachusetts which gave him an award for self-directed learning, or as he says, for dropping out of high school:

Tobias Baskin, 2010 from North Star on Vimeo.

Saving Lucas Biggs by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague

A best-selling author of adult women’s novels and a picture book author, who happen to be married to each other, team up to write a middle grade time travel adventure. It sounds as if it might be a good idea.

However, I just don’t think they pulled it off. The plot is fine: Margaret’s only hope to save her father from dying for a crime he didn’t commit is to go back in time and stop the chain of events that turned her father’s harsh judge into a merciless tyrant. Luckily for Margaret and for her dad, time travel runs in the family, even though the family members have all made a solemn vow not to use their time-travelling abilities.

It’s not the plot; it’s the characters themselves and their motivations that are clunky and unreal. Lucas, the unjust judge, becomes a minion of the very forces and people he wanted his father to fight against, and he loses faith in his father with very little warrant. Margaret’s father is sentenced to life imprisonment on the basis of little or no evidence, and the fact that the “company”, Victory Fuels, owns the town and is out to get him doesn’t really seem plausible. They’ve bought not only the whole town, but also the entire state of Arizona it seems.

The authors live in Delaware, and their concept of the backwardness of Arizona, both in 1938 and in 2014, just doesn’t ring true for me. Hove they been to Arizona? Of course, I’ve never been to Arizona myself, so I could be wrong. Maybe Arizona is just full of towns owned by energy companies who are evilly fracking away the environment and railroading whistle blowers into long prison sentences on trumped up charges. After all, it’s Arizona. Villainous energy companies. Anti-environmentalists. Corrupt justice system.

Then, to top it all off, Margaret and her friends Josh and Charlie are able to effect a complete turn around in the judge’s character and actions with an insignificant little historical artifact. Just as Lucas Biggs became a father-hating minion of evil on the basis of very little evidence, he also repents and does a 180 without much reason to do so.

I just couldn’t swallow this one. But the time travel aspect is handled well.

Spunky Girl Spies and Tries (To Keep Hoping)


Harriet M. Welch.
Ramona Quimby.
Jo March.
Trixie Belden.
Flavia de Luce.
Nancy Drew.
Hazel Kaplansky.
Star Mackie.

One could go on listing spunky girl heroines, wannabe spies and detectives, and just generally nonconformist and stubborn females in children’s fiction for a long time. (In fact, Jen Robinson made just such a list of 200 “cool girls from children’s literature” a few years ago.)

I read Hope Is a Ferris Wheel by Robin Herrera and The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill by Megan Frazer Blakemore back to back, and the female protagonists, Star and Hazel, will forever be associated and somewhat confused with one another in my mind. Star and Hazel definitely fit into the cool, spunky female character category. If you read one of these two books and like it, you’ll probably like the other.

Hazel Kaplansky of Spy Catchers is a girl sleuth who models her detective activities on the famous Nancy Drew. Set in 1953, Spy Catchers of Maple Hill has as its historical background and key conflict the Cold War and the Red Scare of the 1950′s. Hazel is determined to find and expose the “Commie” spies that she is sure are conspiring to infiltrate and destroy Maple Hill, Vermont—if not the entire United States.

Hazel is relentless and somewhat arrogant in her search for truth, justice, and the American way. “What’s the point of modesty?” she says at one point to her friend and fellow detective, Samuel. “I’ll be modest when other folks start to realize how remarkable I am.”

By the end of the book Hazel has come to a few realizations herself—and received a bit of a comedown when she finds out that her unfounded suspicions have hurt good people. However, the last few pages of the story show Hazel, as determined and undaunted as ever, spinning new theories and visualizing herself as “Hazel Kaplansky, star student, holder of knowledge, solver of mysteries, and future double agent.”

Star Mackie in Hope Is a Ferris Wheel is just as stubborn in her sense of right and wrong and her quest to make sense of her world as Hazel. Star is a little younger than Hazel, and in spite of Star’s somewhat dysfunctional family life, she’s a bit more innocent than Hazel. Star’s father disappeared when she was a baby. Her mother says her dad is a no-good bum and won’t let Star even communicate with him. Her sister Winter, whom Star idolizes, has been kicked out of school for writing horror stories with lots of “characters in them [that] have the misfortune of dying horrible deaths, like having all of the blood explode out of their bodies” and a “family of inbred mutant cannibals” who happen to have the same names as her classmates.

The whole family, Star, her mom, and Winter, have moved from Oregon to California in search of a fresh start, and their home is “the pink-tinted trailer with the flamingo hot glued to the roof” in Treasure Trailers trailer park. Star (like Hazel) is unpopular with her new classmates because of her trailer park origins and general lack of conformity, and so she tries starting a club to make new friends. But Star, again like Hazel, is rather bossy and stubborn, and friendships are hard to initiate.

I liked the fact that both of these books feature imperfect young protagonists, and not everything is resolved in the end of either book. Hazel doesn’t become subdued and older but wiser. Star doesn’t really connect with her father, and her new friends are, well, a little flaky and unreliable. Nevertheless, as Star would say in imitation of Emily Dickinson, “Hope is a Ferris Wheel. . . Hope becomes A Thing/ That, When you’re getting Off,/ You take With you to Bring.”

There’s still hope for Hazel Kaplansky and Star Mackie to grow into strong young women with wisdom tempered by experience. And they’re the kind of girls who will experience a lot because they aren’t going to sit around and wait for life to come to them. If you’re a fan of Harriet the Spy or Flavia de Luce, you might very well enjoy either or both of these middle grade novels.

Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

Since January, I’ve been on the wait list at the library for Robert Edsel’s The Monuments Men, about the WWII exploits of art preservationists saving valuable artwork form the Nazis in liberated Europe. I think I read about the book because there was a movie released in February called Monuments Men starring George Clooney. Hence the popularity of the book. (Has anyone seen the movie? Is it any good?)

Under the Egg is a children’s novel that incorporates a lot of World War II history about the Monuments Men and stolen works of art and concentration camps into an art adventure for inquiring minds. I enjoyed the story, which features two thirteen year old girls investigating a possibly valuable, possibly stolen, painting by Raphael during a hot New York City summer. However, there are several weaknesses in the story which may make it a no-go for some readers.

The plot is great. However, the execution of the story leaves something to be desired. The impetus that begins the action and the denouement of the story each depend on huge coincidences that were hard to swallow. Although I’m not an author and don’t know exactly how it could be done, I think the plot could have been managed without the coincidences.

'The resurected Christ' photo (c) 2012, Helena - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Also, I loved all the history that is interspersed thoughout the story. I like reading about history. But I’m not most readers, and I think that some juvenile readers in particular will balk at the amount of historical exposition that is included in the novel. Maybe not. Again I loved it, but there is a lot of information and commentary about art and Nazi art thefts, about Renaissance artists and symbolism, especially Raphael, about the Monuments Men and about German internment camps and the Holocaust.

QOTD: Who is your favorite Renaissance artist? (I’m rather fond of Rembrandt, myself.)

The Windy Hill by Cornelia Meigs

Big Hair and Books

I had intended to get a review written and posted about Cornelia Meigs’ 1922 Newbery Honor book, The Windy Hill, soon. I just read the book last night. However, I forgot about Rosemond’s Way Back Wednesday link-up, and of course, The Windy Hill is way back, almost a century back. So, here goes.

The very first year that the Newbery was awarded, Cornelia Lynde Meigs’ story of two young teens solving a family mystery at their cousin Jasper’s house in the country won a Newbery Honor. Ms. Meigs was a teacher whose first book, The Kingdom of the Winding Road, was published by Macmillan in 1915. Meigs’ books won Newbery Honors again in 1929 for Clearing Weather and in 1933 for Swift Rivers. I read and reviewed Swift Rivers a few years ago, and I still remember quite a bit about that story, something I can’t really say about many of the more recently published children’s books I’ve read. Finally, in 1934 Ms. Meigs’ biography of Louisa May Alcott, Invincible Louisa: The Story of the Author of Little Women won the Newbery Medal. Over the course of her career, Cornelia Meigs wrote over thirty books for children.

On to the book at hand, The Windy Hill tells the story of a family feud, a rather polite New England sort of feud, but a family quarrel nonetheless. The author tells her story from the point of view of fifteen year old Oliver and his sister Janet who have come to visit Cousin Jasper in his country mansion near Windy Hill. Unfortunately, Cousin Jasper is not himself. Something, or someone, is troubling him, and Cousin Jasper is not a very entertaining host. Oliver first decides to run away from the problem and return home on the next train. But on his way to the station, he meets The Beeman, a beekeeper with a penchant for storytelling, and as Oliver thinks and listens to the Beeman’s stories of the history of Windy Hill, he decides to stay and figure out what is wrong and do something to help.

The historical stories, one about an Indian named Nashola, another set during the War of 1812, and a third during the California Gold Rush, illuminate both the past and the present, and the main story comes to a climax when evil is revealed, good is rewarded, and all is made right. It’s probably unsuited for the internet generation, but I enjoyed the slower pace. The Windy Hill served as a good old-fashioned antidote to all the dark, weird, and twisted children’s books I’ve been reading for the past week or so. If my children were still young enough for read-alouds, I’d put it on the read aloud list.

QOTD: What’s your favorite Newbery Award or Newbery Honor book? What Newbery Award book do you think should definitely not have been chosen for the award?

The Port Chicago 50 by Steve Sheinkin

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Sheve Sheinkin, National Book Award Finalist and Newbery Honor Winner for Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon.

I’ve never heard of Port Chicago or the Port Chicago 50. So Mr. Sheinkin’s tale of 50 black seamen who defied orders to load dangerous munitions onto ships during World War II and who were subsequently tried and convicted of mutiny was a revelation to me. It’s a story of the civil rights movement before there really was a civil rights movement, or at least before the part I knew about.

I knew about Truman’s order to integrate the U.S. armed forces. I knew about Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights struggles of the 1960′s. But way back in 1944, at the height of World War II, when the outcome of the war was still in question, a massive explosion on the docks at Port Chicago in San Francisco killed 320 servicemen, many of them black Navy men who were segregated and assigned the dangerous job of loading bombs and ammunition onto ships for the war effort in the Pacific. These men, both the ones who died and the ones who escaped, were never trained to handle explosives. They were ordered to load and load fast, and their white officers made bets on which division or work group could load the most cargo in a day. Almost all of the stevedores who were handling this ammunition under very unsafe conditions were black.

A few weeks after the explosion, the men were ordered to go back to the very same work of loading ammunition under the very same conditions. When they refused the order, they were tried for mutiny, a crime which in the naval code carried a possible death sentence. Most of the men who were “on strike” backed down when they were threatened with the firing squad, but fifty of them did not.

The author’s sympathies are completely on the side of the alleged mutineers, with good reason. They do seem have been mistreated and subjected to unnecessarily dangerous working conditions. Their crime, disobeying a direct order, didn’t really rise to the level of mutiny. (Mutiny: “an unlawful opposition or resistance to or defiance of superior military authority, with a deliberate purpose to usurp, subvert, or override such authority.”) The defense argument when the men came to trial was that there was no plan to subvert or override authority, just a refusal by a bunch of traumatized men to return to loading ammunition under the very same conditions that caused the original explosion.

I found myself in sympathy with the Port Chicago 50, too, even as I could see the reasons that impelled the Navy authorities to bring the men to trial. The United States was at war. The military was a segregated force, wrong but true. Even though the black seamen who were loading the ammunition were treated abominably and the working conditions were hazardous, their work was a necessary part of the war effort. No member of the armed forces can be allowed to disobey orders from a superior officer with impunity. However, the Port Chicago 50 were right about the stand they took, and they were brave to take it. So, I stand conflicted and confused as to what I think about the entire episode.

Joe Small, unofficial leader of the group called the Port Chicago 50: “I realized that I had to work. I wasn’t trying to shirk work. But to go back to work under the same conditions with no improvements, no changes, the same group of officers that we had. . . . Improve working conditions this is what I, personally, was after. And desegregation of the base.”

Steve Sheinkin also wrote Lincoln’s Grave Robbers, a book I reviewed last year when I was reading and reviewing Cybils nominees for YA nonfiction.

QOTD: Who is a person from history that you respect? Why? Is there any historical figure that you admire while at the same time you acknowledge the person’s faults?

March 18th: St. Alexander of Jerusalem and Second Lieutenant Owen

St. Alexander was a bishop in Jerusalem in the third century, and he is known for having founded a theological library and a school in Jerusalem during his tenure there. When he was an old man, he was arrested and taken to prison in Caesarea where he died, after being physically tortured and almost fed to the wild beasts.

“The glory of his white hairs and great sanctity formed a double crown for him in captivity.” Feast Day Of St. Alexander of Jerusalem, March 18th.

Wilfred Owen, World War One poet, b.March 18,1893, d.November 4, 1918.

2nd Lt, Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, 5th Bn. Manch. R., T.F., attd. 2nd Bn.
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the Fonsomme Line on October 1st/2nd, 1918. On the company commander becoming a casualty, he assumed command and showed fine leadership and resisted a heavy counter-attack. He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun from an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy. Throughout he behaved most gallantly.

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young
by Wilfred Owen

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King

This Sherlock Holmes tribute starts off slowly, but the pace picks up about halfway through when the author has finished setting up the relationship between Holmes and his teenage, female apprentice, Mary Russell. Mary, a sharp-eyed, feminist mirror image of Holmes himself, is, from the beginning of their acquaintance, mach more actively involved in Sherlock Holmes’ experiments and detection than was the ever-admiring, but frequently dim-witted Watson. Russell, as Holmes calls her, becomes Sherlock Holmes’ protege, and eventually his equal partner in sleuthing as the two of them face off with an enemy even more subtle and diabolical than the deceased Moriarty.

I had a good friend in high school/college days who was a great fan of Sherlock Holmes. I preferred Nero Wolfe or Miss Marple. I wish I knew where Winona was. I would definitely recommend The Beekeeper’s Apprentice to her—and to any other Sherlockian mystery fans, at least those who aren’t offended by the non-canonical addition of a female genius apprentice who sometimes outdoes even the Great Sherlock Holmes himself in her deductions and observations.

I’m in the middle of the second book of the series, A Monstrous Regiment of Women, and the feminist themes are definitely predominating in this one. However, the plot and characters and the writing are all stellar, and I’m definitely in for the long haul, unless the quality goes down or the feminist* propaganda gets to be too much. I’m looking forward to getting to know Ms. King’s version of Sherlock Holmes and his (now) partner, Mary Russell, over the course of twelve books.

*I would never use the word “feminist” to describe myself because the term has way too many connotations and associations that are anti-Christian and anti-male. However, Mary Russell’s version of feminism, so far (only in the second book), has much to recommend it. Ms. Russell is an independent and highly intelligent young woman who is learning how to relate to and older male mentor in a way that is dignified and and at the same time grateful for the things that he is able to teach her. So far, I like Mary Russell very much.

Poetry Friday: Winston Spencer Churchill

Winston Churchill was a fascinating man, and he cultivated many vocations and avocations: soldier, politician, journalist, essayist, biographer, historian, bricklayer, painter, pilot, architect, lecturer, spymaster, head of the navy, member of Parliament, and Prime Minister—just to name a few. However, I’ll bet you never thought of him as a poet.

All students of World War II remember those inspiring and memorable speeches he gave in the House of Commons, on the radio, and in political gatherings. His speeches were carefully formulated, written out and memorized, with stage directions to himself such as “pause here” or “fumble for the correct word.” The orations he gave were typed up (by secretaries) in broken lines to aid his delivery, ‘speech form’ or ‘psalm form’, as William Manchester calls it in his biography of Churchill, titled The Last Lion.

'Churchill, Winston' photo (c) 2010, SDASM Archives - license: http://www.flickr.com/commons/usage/So, after Chamberlain’s betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich, Churchill declaimed:

The whole equilibrium of Europe
has been deranged,
And the terrible words
have, for the time being,
been pronounced
against the Western democracies:

“Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.”

And do not suppose that this is the end.
This is only the beginning of the reckoning.

This is only the first sip–
the first foretaste of a bitter cup
which will be proffered to us year by year–

Unless–
by a supreme recovery of our moral health and martial vigor,
we arise again and take our stand for freedom,
as in the olden time.

Or on October 1, 1939, Churchill spoke the following rather lyrical thoughts on Russia in his first wartime broadcast over the BBC, just after the Russian/German joint invasion of Poland:

'IMG_0510' photo (c) 2014, zaphad1 - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia.
It is a riddle
wrapped in an mystery
inside an enigma.

But perhaps there is a key.
That key is Russian national interest.

It cannot be in accordance
with the interest or safety of Russia
that Germany should plant itself
upon the shores of the Black Sea.

Or that it should overrun the Baltic States
and subjugate the Slavonic peoples
of southeastern Europe.

No, it doesn’t scan or follow a regular meter, but Mr. Churchill’s “poetry” certainly follows the conventions of free verse with its parallelisms and vivid images, and as I read, I can hear in my mind the familiar voice of Winston Churchill with its rolling cadences and barking baritone:

I would say to the House,
as I have said to those who have joined this Government:
“I have nothing to offer but good, toil, tears, and sweat.”

You ask, what is our policy?
I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air,
with all our might and with all the strength God can give us . . .
That is our policy.

You ask, what is our aim?
I can answer in one word: It is victory,
victory at all costs,
victory in spite of all terror,
victory however long and hard the road may be;
for without victory, there is no survival.

'Winston Churchil' photo (c) 2010, Cambodia4kids.org Beth Kanter - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/On June 4, 1940:

We shall not flag or fail.
We shall go on to the end.

We shall fight in France,
we shall fight on the seas and oceans,
we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air,
we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.

We shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
We shall never surrender.

Finally, perhaps Churchill’s most famous poem/speech, broadcast on June 18, 1940 after Petain’s surrender of Vichy France to the Nazis:

Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization.
Upon it depends our own British life,
and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire.

Hitler knows that he will have to break us on this island
or lose the war.

If we can stand up to him all Europe may be free
and the life of the world may move forward
into broad, sunlit uplands.

But if we fail, then the whole world,
including the United States,
including all we have known and cared for,

Will sink into the abyss of a New Dark Age
made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted,
by the lights of perverted science.

Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties,
and so bear ourselves
that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth
last for a thousand years,

Men will still say:
“This was their finest hour!”

A poet indeed.