Philomena by Kate Seredy

Philomena is sturdy young country girl who lives with her grandmother in a village in the Czech Republic sometime in the early twentieth century. After her Babushka’s death, Philomena goes to the city of Prague to learn to be a servant and to find her Aunt Liska who deserted the family many years ago.

The story is very Catholic, and Philomena receives messages via circumstances that she believes are from the sainted Babushka. This aspect of the story didn’t bother me even though I don’t believe in praying to or receiving guidance from the dead. Philomena does believe that her grandmother is guiding her and caring for her from beyond the grave, and the device creates a gentle logic and organization to Philomena’s journey to the city and her growth from an innocent little girl to a self-sufficient and mature young lady.

“Everybody else in the village went to church every Sunday. First they listened to Father Matthias. Father Matthias was a wise priest who knew all about the weather, the sheep, and the chickens. He told the men of the village when to plant potatoes and corn. He told them what to do when animals got sick. He knew about God and Heaven, of course, but he also knew that people must have enough to eat to be happy, and therefore good, so he taught them to be good farmers. Good farmers have so much to do that there simply isn’t enough time left over for them to do anything that would make God angry with them! The good priest told them about Heaven, to be sure, but he just took it for granted that all his people would go there. He didn’t have to bother to tell them about the other place. He was a very wise man.”

While Father Matthias’ teaching or lack thereof doesn’t exactly fit with my own reading of the Bible and its soteriology, it is refreshing to read about such a good and down-to-earth priest.

Kate Seredy (pronounced SHARE-edy) was born in 1899 in Budapest, Hungary, and she grew up as an only child in the home of her teacher father. After World War II, Ms. Seredy emigrated to the United States and became an illustrator, first of cards and book covers and other low-paying artistic endeavors, then textbooks and books by other authors. Eventually, Ms. Seredy began to write and illustrate her own stories, mostly set in Central Europe, Hungary and this one in Czechoslovakia. The White Stag, based on Hungarian mythology and folklore and not her best book in my opinion, won the Newbery Medal in 1937. Philomena was published in 1955 after several other books, either written or illustrated or both by the talented Ms. Seredy, had won Newbery awards or honors.

Aim by Joyce Moyer Hostetter

Aim is a prequel to Ms. Hostetter’s two books about Ann Fay Honeycutt, Blue and Comfort. Aim is about Junior Bledsoe, a secondary, but beloved, character in those other two books. (Ann Fay is the minor character in this one.)

The story takes place in 1941-1942. Fourteen year old Junior Bledsoe of Hickory, North Carolina has a troubled life. His father is a drunk. Junior doesn’t like school and can’t really see the point of it. His cantankerous and sometimes cruel granddaddy has moved in and taken over Junior’s bedroom. And World War II is about to involve the United States of America, except according to Granddaddy, “That yellow-bellied president is too chicken to take us to war. He ain’t half the man the Colonel was.” (The Colonel, in Grandaddy’s jargon, refers to Teddy Roosevelt.)

While Junior worries about school and the draft and impending war and that fact that his father seems distant and stern most of the time, Junior’s dad manages to go on a drinking binge and get killed in a accident. Or was it an accident? How can Junior go back to school when he’s not sure what really happened to his Pop? And what are they going to do about Grandaddy who’s becoming more verbally abusive and demanding every day? Should Junior drop out of school and get a job? Or join the army? Or investigate the moonshiners who may have been involved in Pop’s death?

This story is really all about a boy who’s trying to find his way to adulthood without the guidance of a father. However, the wonderful thing is that the community steps in to work together and separately to help Junior find his “aim” in life. Even when Junior Bledsoe makes some really poor choices and gets himself into what could become serious trouble, members of his extended community help his now-single mother guide Junior back to the path of good sense and responsible moral judgement. Junior is a good kid, but he’s looking for a way to deal with his father’s death and a way to earn the respect of his family and his friends. It’s not easy for a fourteen year old boy to lose his father, especially not the way Junior Pop dies. It was inspiring to read about how ordinary, ind neighbors, teachers, and friends help Junior to process his father’s death and to decide which parts of his father’s legacy he wants to continue and which parts he wants to leave in the grave.

Aim is an excellent coming-of-age novel, and I would also recommend Blue, about Ann Fay and her encounter with the dreaded disease of polio about a year after the events in Aim have taken place. I have yet to read Comfort, the sequel to Blue, but it is definitely on my TBR list.

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New York Herald Tribune Spring Book Festival Awards

In 1937 two awards of $250 each were established by the New York Herald-Tribune for the best books for younger children and for older children published between January and June. In 1941 the system of awards was revised. Three awards, of $200.00 each, were given to the best books in the following three classes: young children, middle-age children, and other children. Each year a jury, composed of distinguished experts in the field of juvenile literature, was chosen to make the selections.

1937 Seven Simeons, by Boris Artzybasheff. For younger children. Illustrated by the author. (Viking.)

The Smuggler’s Sloop, by Robb White III. For older children. Illustrated by Andrew Wyeth. (Little.)

1938 The Hobbit, by J. R. Tolkien. For younger children. Illustrated by the author. (Houghton.)

The Iron Duke, by John R. Tunis. For older children. Illustrated by Johari Bull. (Harcourt)

1939 The Story of Horace, by Alice M. Coats. For younger children. Illustrated by the author. (Coward.)

The Hired Man’s Elephant, by Phil Stong. For older children. Illustrated by Doris Lee. (Dodd.)

1940 That Mario, by Lucy Herndon Crockett. For younger children. Illustrated by the author. (Holt)

Cap’n Ezra, Privateer, by James D. Adams. For older children. Illustrated by I. B. Hazelton. (Harcourt.)

1941 In My Mother’s House, by Ann Nolan Clark. For younger children. Illustrated by Velino Herrera. (Viking.)

Pete by Tom Robinson. For middle-age children. Illustrated by Morgan Dennis. (Viking.)

Clara Barton, by Mildren Mastin Pace. For older children. (Scribner.)

1942 Mr. Tootwhistle’s Invention, by Peter Wells. For younger children.
Illustrated by the author. (Winston.)

I Have Just Begun to Fight: The Story of John Paul Jones, by
Commander Edward Ellsberg. For middle-age children. Illustrated
by Gerald Foster. (Dodd.)

None But the Brave, by Rosamond Van der Zee Marshall. For
older children. Illustrated by Gregor Duncan. (Houghton.)

1943 Five Golden Wrens, by Hugh Troy. For younger children. Illus-
trated by the author. (Oxford.)

These Happy Golden Years, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. For middle-
age children. Illustrated by Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle.
(Harper-.)

Patterns on the Wall, by Elizabeth Yates. For older children.
(Knopf.)

1944 A Ring and a Riddle, by M. Ilm and E. Segal. For younger children.
Illustrated by Vera Bock. (Lippincott)

They Put Out to Sea, by Roger Duvoisln. For middle-age children.
Illustrated by the author. (Knopf.)

Storm Canvas, by Armstrong Sperry, For older children. Illustrated
by the author. (Winston.)

1945 Little People in a Big Country, by Norma Cohn. For younger children. Illustrated by Tashkent Children’s Art Training Center in Soviet Uzbekistan. (Oxford.)

Gulf Stream by Ruth Brindze. Illustrated by Helene Carter. For middle-age children., (Vanguard.)

Sandy, by Elizabeth Janet Gray. For older children. (Viking.)

1946 Farm Stories. Award divided between Gustaf Tenggren, illustrator, and Kathryn and Byron Jackson, authors. For younger children. (Simon & Schuster.)

The Thirteenth Stone, by Jean Bothwell, illustrated by Margaret Ayer. For middle-age children. (Harcourt)

The Quest of the Golden Condor, by Clayton Knight. Illustrated by the author. For older children. (Knopf.)

Other than The Hobbit and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s These Happy Golden Years, has anyone read or reviewed any of these prize-winning books? I know of the authors Jean Bothwell, Elizabeth Janet Grey, Armstrong Sperry, Roger Duvoisin, Elizabeth Yates, John Tunis, and Ann Nolan Clark, but not these particular books of theirs.

Up the Trail from Texas by J. Frank Dobie

Texas Tuesday.

This book, published in 1955, is one of the Landmark History series from Random House. The publisher had a policy of hiring the best writers, award winning authors and experts in history and in particular historical eras and events, to write these books, and it shows. J. Frank Dobie was a journalist and a rancher and a professor at the University of Texas at Austin for many years. He was instrumental in saving the Texas Longhorn from extinction. He wrote over twenty books about the history, folklore, and traditions of Texas. If anyone was qualified to write a Landmark history book about the history of the cattle, cowboys, and trail drives of Texas, it was Mr. Dobie.

And Up the Trail from Texas is certainly a well-written, exciting nonfiction compilation of the stories of various cowmen, trail bosses, and cowboys that Mr. Dobie interviewed personally, along with information about the real life of a trail driving cowboy and the logistics and work of a trail drive from Texas to the northern cattle markets in Kansas or Nebraska or Montana. Read about drouths, blizzards, lightning, and floods, encounters with the Comanche and other Indians, and about the jobs the cowboys were expected to perform. Dobie’s writing especially shine when he is recounting the stories that the cowmen told him, many of them recalling in old age their youthful exploits and adventures on the cattle trail.

I remember when I was a kid of a girl watching Clint Eastwood as drover Rowdy Yates in the early 1960’s TV series, Rawhide. I think the writers of Rawhide must have read Mr. Dobie’s books, especially this one. If I were teaching a unit on the cowboys and trail drives of the 1860’s, I’d read a couple chapters of Up the Trail from Texas to my students each day until we finished the book, and then I’d let them watch a few episodes of Rawhide.

Keep movin’, movin’, movin’,
Though they’re disapprovin’,
Keep them dogies movin’, rawhide.
Don’t try to understand ’em,
Just rope ’em, throw, and brand ’em.
Soon we’ll be livin’ high and wide.
My heart’s calculatin’,
My true love will be waitin’,
Be waitin’ at the end of my ride.
Move ’em on, head ’em up,
Head ’em up, move ’em on,
Move ’em on, head ’em up, rawhide!
Head ’em out, ride ’em in,
Ride ’em in, let ’em out,
Cut ’em out, ride ’em in, rawhide!

At the end of each episode, trail boss Gil Favor would call out, “Head’em up! Move’em out!”

FNFC: Sully and The King’s Speech

We watched two of the movies on my Friday Night Film Club list this past week, one on Thursday night and the other on Friday. And in both cases the person who chose the movie wasn’t there to watch it. Oh, well, the rest of us enjoyed the movies.

Engineer Husband and I went to see The King’s Speech when it first came out in theaters. It meshed well to watch it again this week after I had just finished watching season one of The Crown, about the first several years of the reign of Elizabeth II, George VI’s daughter and heir. In both The Crown and The King’s Speech, David (aka Edward, Duke of Windsor), the abdicating king and George’s older brother, comes across as a despicable and selfish brat. Maybe he really was. I’m not sure how much happiness he gained by giving up the crown for the sake of his love for the twice divorced Wallis Simpson, but then again he probably wouldn’t have been too happy as king either. George VI and Elizabeth II aren’t exactly portrayed as “happy”, but definitely satisfied with their fulfillment of what they each perceive as their duty to the nation. Anyway, I can recommend both The King’s Speech and the Netflix series The Crown. Much food for thought.

Sully, also based on a true story, was a thought-provoking movie, too. It’s a a 2016 drama, directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Todd Komarnicki, based on the autobiography Highest Duty by Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow. Sullenberger, aka Sully, is the pilot who landed US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River after a bird strike took out both of the plane’s engines in mid-flight. This heroic landing and the rescue of all 155 passengers and crew on board happened almost exactly eight years ago on January 15, 2009.

Tom Hanks plays Sully, and as usual, he does an excellent job of making us forget about Tom Hanks and think instead about the pilot and his ability to make a split-second decision that will either save or cost the lives of all the people on board the airplane. Inevitably, I wondered whether I could function as well in a crisis as Sully and his co-pilot did, not a crisis in flying a plane, of course, since I don’t know how, but some other life-threatening crisis where I had to make a life-or-death decision. I just don’t know. How can one train for such a thing?

If I were to choose one of these two movies over the other to recommend to you, I’d choose Sully, I suppose. Although The King’s Speech is fascinating in a historical sense and as a story of one man overcoming adversity, the “overcoming” involves some misplaced and over-dramatized Freudian analysis of George’s childhood that probably had very little to do with curing his stuttering. But then again, maybe he did stutter because they made him switch from being left-handed to right-handed or because his nanny disliked and mistreated him. Who knows?

Sully is a more straightforward hero story certainly with an obstacle to overcome, namely the investigation after the emergency landing by National Transportation Safety Board, but all’s well that ends well. And as the characters in the movie point out in 2009, “it’s been a while since New York had news this good. Especially with an airplane in it.” After a year like 2016, it’s good to watch a movie about someone competent but humble, and even heroic coming out of New York.

This Friday’s movie will be Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man with Henry Fonda, Vera Miles, and Anthony Quayle. Watch it with us if you’d like to join in.

Adrift at Sea by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch with Tuan Ho

Adrift at Sea: A Vietnamese Boy’s Story of Survival by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch with Tuan Ho, illustrated by Brian Deines.

This nonfiction picture book opens with a bang: our narrator, Tuan Ho, comes from school to his home in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to find preparations being made for a journey. His first reaction is to ask his mother, “Are you leaving me now, too?” A year before Tuan Ho’s father had left Vietnam with his older sister, but then-five year old Tuan and his other three sisters were too young to make the journey as “boat people” refugees from Vietnam. Now, Tuan’s mother tells him that he and two of his sisters will be leaving with “Ma” in the dark of the early morning. It’s a secret; no one must know that they are going. And they must leave Tuan’s four year old sister, Van, behind with family members. “She’s too young to travel.”

The family ride in a truck to the beach. There they are chased and shot at by soldiers as they run to board the boat. On the boat, they face even more hardships: a shortage of food and water, engine trouble, too many passengers, a leaky boat. But the book finally ends with a rescue and a tall glass of milk for the relieved and smiling Tuan Ho.

The illustrations in this book, full color paintings, are absolutely stunning. Canadian illustrator, Brian Deines, has outdone himself in two-page spreads that bring this refugee story to life.

The story itself, a slice of life, begins abruptly without any explanation as to why the family must leave Vietnam. Nor does the main part of the text explain what happens to Tuan Ho and family after they are rescued at sea. However, there are some explanatory pages with both photographs and text at the end of the book that tell readers about the history of the Vietnam War and about the entire history of Tuan Ho’s family and their emigration from Vietnam and eventual reunification in Canada. It’s a good introduction to the subject of the Vietnamese boat people for both older students and middle grade readers. Even primary age children could appreciate Tuan Ho’s story with a little bit of explanation from a parent or teacher about the war and the Communist persecution that they were fleeing.

Another good 2016 entry for my impromptu Refugee and Immigrant Week here at Semicolon.

Skating With the Statue of Liberty by Susan Lynn Meyer

Yesterday I read this 2016 middle grade fiction novel about a twelve year old French Jewish boy named Gustave and his experience of immigrating to the United States during World War II. Because of this book, and yesterday’s review of It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel, and some other upcoming reviews, it seems to have turned into Refugee and Immigrant Week here at Semicolon. It was an unplanned emphasis, but one that is quite apropos considering the news and the times we live in.

In Skating With the Statue of Liberty, Gustave and his extended family come to the United States from war-torn France, after having hidden and then escaped from the Nazis. The family faces many challenges. They are not allowed to bring adequate funds with them to start a new life, and so they are forced to smuggle in what little money they have. No one in the family speaks English, except for Gustave who has learned a little bit of English in school. Gustave’s father can only get a low-paying job as a janitor. Gustave doesn’t understand many things about American culture and customs, and even in America, he faces instances of anti-Semitism and racism as he becomes friends with a “Negro” girl, September Rose.

I read in the book cover blurb that this novel is a companion to the author’s debut novel, Black Radishes. Now I want to go back and read that one because Skating With the Statue of Liberty was a great story. It feels historically accurate, and yet the themes and scenes are quite applicable to the issues of racism and anti-Semitism that we see in the news today. Gustave struggles with whether he should think of himself as French or American or something else, perhaps Jewish. He discusses with a rabbi his lack of faith in a God who would allow the horror and persecution of Jews in German-occupied France. September Rose’s family struggles with how to support their country and the war effort and also stand against the injustice and discrimination that they face as black Americans.

I found this book, by a Jewish author and based partly on her father’s stories of his childhood escape from Nazi-occupied France, to be well-written, historically informative, and absorbing. The plot doesn’t sugarcoat the issues of prejudice, anti-immigrant persecution, discrimination, and even racial and anti-Semitic violence, but the ending and the growing friendship between Gustave and September Rose are hopeful and encouraging.

I just think kids (and adults) need books like this one and like It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel to help them begin to make sense of what is happening politically and socially in our nation. It may have been a coincidence that I read these two books almost back to back, but it gave me an idea to showcase the many really good books about refugees and immigrants that I have read and loved. So that’s what I’ll be doing this week.

Waiting for Augusta by Jessica Lawson

The first question you must ask yourself before you decide to read this book: can you accept the premise of the cremated ashes of his deceased father speaking aloud from the funeral urn to a twelve year old boy? Second question: do you like golf? If you answer both of these questions in the affirmative, this book is for you. If you can deal with the talking ashes, but you’re not much of a golf fan, you might still want to go along fro the ride. (I did.)

Ben Hogan Putter (get the pun, “putter”, as in golf?) just lost his dad to cancer. Now Ben has a permanent lump in his throat that he believes is an actual golf ball, and his barbecue-loving, golf-loving daddy is speaking to him from beyond the grave, asking Ben to take his ashes to Augusta, Georgia, home of the most famous golf course in the world. That’s where Ben’s daddy, Bo Putter, wants his ashes to rest: Augusta National Golf Club.

On the journey from his home in Hilltop, Alabama to Augusta, Georgia, Ben Putter acquires a traveling companion, a girl named Noni. The two of them beg, borrow, and steal their way across country to get to Augusta in time for the Masters Tournament. Both children have secrets, and both have daddy issues. The suspense in the story is tied up in whether or not they will be able to get to Augusta in time for the Masters, but also in how the two will resolve their respective relationships with their fathers. It’s a tearjerker, very emotional.

Almost too emotional. Ben Putter works out years of grief, anger, estrangement and misunderstanding over the course of a few days. And Noni has a deep-seated trauma of her own to work though. There are several very sentimental and pathos-filled scenes in which Ben Putter talks to his dad, in which the two children take a stand against the segregationists of the early 1970’s, in which Noni forgives and reconciles with her father, in which Ben says good-bye to the father who never really understood him. Much Sturm-und-Drang. Father issues. Tears and trials.

But it’s not a bad little Mississippi, golfing, and dealing with death story.

Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

Edith Nesbit’s classic story of siblings and magic, The Five Children and It, was first published in 1905. In Five Children on the Western Front, British children’s author Kate Suanders gives us the Bastable children about nine years older and wiser and the Psammead (pronounced Sammy-ad) as irascible as ever, but not quite so magical. Maybe that’s because the world itself was more magical in 1905 than it became in 1914.

World War I has intruded upon the lives of the grown-up or nearly grown-up children, Cyril, Anthea, Jane and Robert, and even The Lamb (Hilary) and the new little Bastable sister, Edie, are living in a wartime Britain rather than the idyllic turn-of-the century British countryside in which the older children first encountered magic. The story covers the wartime years, 1914-1918. The Psammead has returned to see the children through the war—or maybe he’s come back because he can’t really control his magic or grant wishes anymore, and he just needs a place to live. He thinks he’s been “de-magicked and dumped” in the Bastables’ garden by an angry universe. At any rate, Edie, nine years old at the story’s inception, takes a liking to the grumpy and rather sleepy sand fairy, and occasionally even manages to be involved in some magical adventures on his behalf.

I thought this was a fascinating look at “what ever happened to the five children and It”, but I would have to try it out on a real child to know whether this is just a book for nostalgic adults and teens who were Nesbit fans or whether actual children would enjoy it, too. There’s a lot of kissing and war romance and war scenes, shown from a child’s (sometimes eavesdropping) perspective and totally appropriate for children, but the story is really about adults as much as it is children.

It’s also about repentance. The Psammead has a cruel and tyrannical past life, and part of his task during the years of the book’s tale is to repent. Repentance in this particular case means understanding that he’s done something bad and feeling a bit sorry. No reform or payment is required, but the Psammead has trouble with even a minimal amount of humility or apology. So, the children take turns laughing at his unrepentant cruelty and carelessness and trying to convince him that he is not the center of the universe. Again, I was interested in whether or not the old Psammead would ever be able to “go home”, reconciled to the universe, but I don’t know how many children would stay interested.

For fans of Edith Nesbit or Downton Abbey (for the history) or maybe World War I settings.

The Three-Year Swim Club by Julie Checkoway

The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui’s Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory by Julie Checkoway. “For readers of Unbroken and The Boys in the Boat comes the inspirational, untold story of impoverished children who transformed themselves into world-class swimmers.”

The author, Julie Checkoway, is a National Endowment for the Arts individual artist grant recipient and a journalist for the New York Times and other respected publications. She chose a really good and inspiring Olympic story, from poverty in the sugarcane fields of Hawaii to Olympic glory in the swimming pool. However, the execution and the storytelling just weren’t up to par.

I read the entire book, and I’m glad I know the story of these swimming champions from Hawaii and their eccentric Japanese-American coach. However, I feel that the same story in the hands of a Laura Hillenbrand or John Krakauer could have been so much better. I never really understood what motivated the non-swimming coach, Soichi Sakamoto, to spend so much time and energy teaching a bunch of kids to swim competitively. Although Sakamoto is the central character in the book, he remains an enigma throughout, with a shadowy and stereotypical Japanese inscrutability. And when Ms. Checkoway moves the focus to other characters, one of the kid swimmers in training or the famous Hawaiian veteran swimmer Duke Kahanamoku or Sakamoto’s wife, that focus is still soft and indistinct. I never felt I knew any of these people or what they lived for.

Another problem with the story is the lack of suspense or dramatic tension. Almost anyone reading would know that the Hawaiian swimmers’ dreams of going to the Olympics in 1940, and Japan’s dreams of hosting the 1940 Olympics, were doomed by World War II. The only suspense that remains for us is to watch and read about how the characters in the book find out that that there will be no Olympics in 1940 nor in 1944. And after the war, the focus changes again to a new generation of swimmers who didn’t have to train in a sugar ditch and who are more “normal” and middle class and therefore less compelling and interesting than the original group of come-from-behind swimmers who somehow managed to learn to swim and win national championships in spite of their poverty-stricken beginnings.

I think Ms. Checkoway tried to to flesh out her characters and make them more knowable and therefore more interesting, but unfortunately, probably because of a dearth of people to interview almost eighty years after the fact, she often speculates or imagines what the thoughts and feelings of her characters might have been. As I just did. I really don’t know why the author couldn’t or didn’t find out more about what her characters were thinking and feeling, but I assume it was a lack of access to interviews of the characters themselves. Ms. Checkoway makes these sort of assumptions throughout the book, and I didn’t always agree with her imaginary attribution of feelings and thoughts to the people she writes about.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown are still the gold standard for Olympic narrative nonfiction. This book, while it has its moments, doesn’t even medal. Do you have nominations for the bronze medal in this genre?