Hooray for Cybils Speculative Fiction (Middle Grade)

I am excited and honored to be joining the following fellow bloggers as a member of the Cybils judging panel for Middle Grade Speculative Fiction (Science Fiction and Fantasy) this year.

Rana Bardisi
Reader Noir

Maureen Eichner
By Singing Light

Cindy Hannikman
Fantasy Book Critic

Katy Kramp
A Library Mama

Brandy Painter
Random Musings of a Bibliophile

Charlotte Taylor
Charlotte’s Library

This assignment means that my fellow panelists and I get to read LOTS of middle grade speculative fiction, probably over 200 books in the genre published between October 15, 2013 and October 15, 2014. And we get to discuss them all via the magic of the internet, and we get to share the best of the best (or the worst of the worst) with readers of our respective blogs. What a privilege.

Nominations for the Cybils in all categories open October 1st at the Cybils website. Get your nominees ready, and check back here for speculative fiction reviews and commentary galore.

30 Bits of Wisdom and Advice from Mostly Cybils Sources

Last year when I was reading Middle Grade Science Fiction and Fantasy for the Cybils, I made a collection of wise sayings and proverbs from the books I was reading so that you could choose your own “philosophy”, a la Charlie Brown’s sister Sally, for the new year. This year I made another from the Cybils nominees I read.

1. “Do not expect to find all your answers in the first asking.” ~The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail by Richard Peck.

2. “Economy is a poor man’s revenue, and extravagance a rich man’s ruin.” ~Nobody’s Secret by Michaela MacColl.

3. “Be the cockroach.” ~A Matter of Days by Amber Kizer. (Meaning: survive like a cockroach.)

4. “There are no coincidences. Just miracles by the boatload.” ~Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool.

5. “Sometimes it’s best not to see your whole path laid out before you. Let life surprise you.” ~Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool.

6. “The reward for working hard is getting to do more work. And better work.” ~Andrew Jenks: My Adventures as a Young Filmmaker.

7. “These days may not be the best days of your life, but like it or not, these days will define you. Live them.” Katherine Longshore in Dear Teen Me: Authors Write Letters to Their Teen Selves.

8. “One failure often sparks another success.” ~The Incredible Charlotte Sycamore by Kate Maddison.

9. “Always be truthful to yourself and your beliefs.” ~The Incredible Charlotte Sycamore by Kate Maddison.

10. “Leading a very public life can be injurious to your health.” ~Bad Girls by Heidi E.Y. Stemple and Jane Yolen.

11. “Just because you make it up doesn’t mean it isn’t true.” Bad Girls by Heidi E.Y. Stemple and Jane Yolen.

12. “It’s wrong to believe a thing till your mind has examined it.” ~Home Front Girl by Joan Wehlen Morrison.

13. “Life always goes on . . . even in Troy.” ~Home Front Girl by Joan Wehlen Morrison.

14. “Unexpected things could even be good.” ~Listening for Lucca bySuzanne LaFleur.

15. “Words matter . . . What we say about ourselves matter[s]. The words we use to represent ourselves matter. We have only so many ways we can express ourselves, and words are the most powerful.” ~Lena Roy in the essay “Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll”, Breakfast on Mars, edited by Rebecca Stern and Brad Wolfe.

16. “A single story can change many lives.” Craig Kielburger in the essay of the same name, Breakfast on Mars, edited by Rebecca Stern and Brad Wolfe.

17. “When no one knows you’re there, they say all kinds of things, and you can learn from what they say.” ~Maile Meloy in the essay “Invisibility”, Breakfast on Mars, edited by Rebecca Stern and Brad Wolfe.

18. “Sometimes you have to dig deep.” ~Alane Ferguson in the essay “Death Is Only a Horizon”, Breakfast on Mars, edited by Rebecca Stern and Brad Wolfe.

19. “It’s always worth making new friends in new places.” ~Casey Scieszka and Steven Weinberg in the essay “Death by Host Family”, Breakfast on Mars, edited by Rebecca Stern and Brad Wolfe.

20. “We need our imaginations. There’s a part of us that hungers to be creative.” ~Joshua Mohr in the essay “Creative Boot Camp”, Breakfast on Mars, edited by Rebecca Stern and Brad Wolfe.

21. “Sometimes . . . [you] just gotta break the rules. And I mean BRAKE the rules. No, I mean BRAKE. I put my foot on the brakes. NO MORE RULES.” ~Ellen Sussman in the essay “Break the Rules”, Breakfast on Mars, edited by Rebecca Stern and Brad Wolfe.

22. “Words are free and plentiful. They’re for choosing, admiring, keeping, giving. They are treasures of inestimable value.” ~Hold Fast by Blue Balliet

23. “Hold fast to dreams. You can do this. Not as hard as it seems.” ~Hold Fast by Blue Balliet

24. “Secrets can be lovely. They give you a chance to surprise people you love.” ~Hold Fast by Blue Balliet

25. “Always go to the funeral.” Cindy Rollins at Ordo Amoris.

26. “Waste nothing. Be always employed in something useful. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.” ~Benjamin Franklin in Becoming Ben Franklin by Russell Freedman. (originally from Franklin’s Autobiography)

27. “She who hates, hates herself.” ~South African proverb from A Girl Called Problem by Katie Quirk.

28. “Children are the reward of life.” ~Congolese proverb from A Girl Called Problem by Katie Quirk.

29. “[E]veryone has some evil inside them, and the first step to loving anyone is to recognize the same evil in ourselves, so we’re able to forgive them.” Allegiant by Veronica Roth.

30. “Life damages us, every one. We can’t escape that damage. . . . But, we can be mended. We mend each other.” Allegiant by Veronica Roth.

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

My mother’s a prostitute. Not the filthy, streetwalking kind. She’s actually quite pretty, fairly well-spoken, and has lovely clothes. But she sleeps with men for money or gifts, and according to the dictionary, that makes her a prostitute.

That’s how Ruta Sepetys’ second YA novel starts out, and that intro pretty much tells you whether or not this coming-of-age novel set in the 1950’s about a girl who’s desperate to get out of NOLA is the right kind of book for you. I liked it—with reservations.

Let’s get the reservations out of the way first. The obligatory homosexual subplot and gay minor character are forced and awkward. I’m tired of authors notching their figurative diversity belts by shoehorning in a gay character or an episode in which their authorial lack of homophobia is displayed. But I expect to see more and more of this sort of thing in books just as I’m seeing it in TV series and movies. Skim time.

Some of the other characters are rather stereotypical, too. Our protagonist, seventeen year old Josie, has a mother-substitute, since her own mother is a witch. Of course, the maternal figure is a brusque, sharp-tongued madam with a heart of gold. Maybe madams with hearts of gold exist in all “respectable” brothels, I wouldn’t know, but they are a little too cliche to be believed. Then, there’s the old quadroon servant/chauffeur, Cokie, who knows his place but turns out to be the the most intelligent and dependable person around. Again, possible but hackneyed.

Nevertheless, these drawbacks can be overlooked because Josie herself is such a wonderful character. She lives and works in a bookstore in the lower class part of New Orleans. She loves to read. She also cleans the cathouse every morning, and she knows she wants to do and be more than her mother, more than her friends in the NOLA underworld, and more than New Orleans can ever give her. When Josie gets the bright idea that she could apply to go to the prestigious Smith College in far-off Massachusetts, she gives the application and the preparations her best effort, even when her mother’s cruelty and criminal connections threaten Josie’s dream.

Out of the Easy was one of the books nominated for the 2013 YA Fiction Cybils Award, and I liked it a lot more than I liked the winning book, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your A–. Rose Under Fire was the best of the shortlisted books, by the way. What all three books have in common is the rough, filled with evil, poverty and hardship, settings. There’s not a whole lot to choose between the barrio, the New Orleans underworld, and Ravensbruck. OK, Ravensbruck is much worse, but on the other hand, Rose Under Fire is a much more tragic, and ultimately redemptive, story than either Out of the Easy or Yaqui Delgado. Anyway, I would recommend Out of the Easy with the above caveats, and if you’re able to stomach another book with a truly horrific mother.

Cybils Challenge

I’ve decided I’m going to at least TRY to read all of the Cybils nominees, although there are a few (mostly YA) that I’m fairly sure I won’t like well enough to finish. Also, I don’t do graphic novels or book apps. Prerogative of age. (I sound old and grouchy. But I’m not. I’m actually excited to start a new Cybils reading adventure.)

So, I’m all set to join Beth at Library Chicken and Stephanie at Love.Life.Read in my modified version of a Cybils finalists challenge. I wonder if I can manage to read all or most of them by February 14th, the announcement date for the winners?

Elementary & Middle Grade

Fiction Picture Books
Count the Monkeys, Mac Barnett
If You Want to See a Whale, Julie Fogliano
Journey, Aaron Becker
Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, Peter Brown
Open This Little Book, Jesse Klausmeier
Sophie’s Squash, Pat Zietlow Miller
The Bear’s Song, Benjamin Chaud

Anubis Speaks!: A Guide to the Afterlife by the Egyptian God of the Dead, Vicky Alvear Shecter
Barbed Wire Baseball, Marissa Moss
How Big Were Dinosaurs?, Lita Judge
Locomotive, Brian Floca
Look Up!: Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard, Annette LeBlanc Cate
The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos, Deborah Heiligman
Volcano Rising, Elizabeth Rusch, illustrated by Susan Swan

Easy Readers
A Big Guy Took My Ball! (An Elephant and Piggie Book), Mo Willems
Joe and Sparky Go to School, Jamie Michalak
Love Is in the Air (HC) (Penguin Young Readers, L2), Jonathan Fenske
Penny and Her Marble (I Can Read Book 1), Kevin Henkes
The Meanest Birthday Girl, Josh Schneider
Urgency Emergency! Big Bad Wolf, Dosh Archer

Early Chapter Books
Dragonbreath #9: The Case of the Toxic Mutants, Ursula Vernon
Home Sweet Horror (Scary Tales), James Preller
Kelsey Green, Reading Queen (Franklin School Friends), Claudia Mills
Lulu and the Dog from the Sea, Hilary McKay
The Life of Ty: Penguin Problems, Lauren Myracle
Violet Mackerel’s Natural Habitat, Anna Branford

Follow Follow: A Book of Reverso Poems, Marilyn Singer
Forest Has a Song: Poems, Amy Ludwig VanDerwater
Poems to Learn by Heart, Caroline Kennedy
Pug: And Other Animal Poems, Valerie Worth
The Pet Project: Cute and Cuddly Vicious Verses, Lisa Wheeler
What the Heart Knows: Chants, Charms, and Blessings, Joyce Sidman
When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders, J. Patrick Lewis

Speculative Fiction
Jinx, Sage Blackwood
Lockwood & Co.: The Screaming Staircase, Jonathan Stroud
Rose, Holly Webb
Sidekicked, John David Anderson
The Rithmatist, Brandon Sanderson
The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, Kathi Appelt
The Water Castle, Megan Frazer Blakemore

Middle Grade Fiction
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, Chris Grabenstein
Prisoner B-3087, Ruth Gruener
Serafina’s Promise, Ann E. Burg
The 14 Fibs of Gregory K., Greg Pincus
Ultra, David Carroll

strong>Young Adult

Breakfast on Mars and 37 Other Delectable Essays, Roaring Brook READ and reviewed.
Imprisoned: The Betrayal of Japanese Americans during World War II, Martin W. Sandler. READ.
The Boy on the Wooden Box: How the Impossible Became Possible . . . on Schindler’s List, Leon Leyson READ and reviewed.
The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, Catherine Reef READ and reviewed.
“The President Has Been Shot!”: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy, James L. Swanson READ and reviewed.

Speculative Fiction
Conjured, Sarah Beth Durst
Dark Triumph (His Fair Assassin Trilogy), Robin LaFevers
Pantomime (Strange Chemistry), Laura Lam
Shadows, Robin McKinley
The Summer Prince, Alaya Dawn Johnson
The Waking Dark, Robin Wasserman
William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, Ian Doescher

YA Fiction
Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets, Evan Roskos
Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell READ.
Out of The Easy, Ruta Sepetys
Rose Under Fire, Elizabeth Wein READ and reviewed.
Sex & Violence, Carrie Mesrobian
Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, Meg Medina

Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty by Tonya Boldenn

Award-winning children’s and young adult author Tonya Bolden “offers readers a unique look at an often misunderstood American document.” It is unique. Part 1 of this nonfiction book about the proclamation that “freed the slaves” begins with a quotation from Frederick Douglass, recounting the the atmosphere on Thursday, January 1, 1863 as about three thousand people waited at Tremont Temple in Boston for word from Washington, D.C. that the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed:

“We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky . . . we were watching,as it were, by the dim light of the stars, for the dawn of a new day; we were longing for the answer to the agonizing prayers of centuries.”

Part 1 continues on in third person plural as if both author and reader were there, waiting, too. “We waited for all America to repent.” “We abhorred the compromise of 1850’s Fugitive Slave Law.” “Many of us put great faith in the fledgling Republican party.” Since I wasn’t there and since I’m not a “person of color”, I found the continued use of “we” and “us” to be off-putting, at best, confusing, at worst.

Then comes Part II which is written as straight third person history. The author tries to get behind the history and unravel the enigma of Lincoln’s thoughts and motivations, but like most other authors who’ve tired, she meets with limited success. Lincoln was “moody, prone to brooding,”; he “truly loathed slavery.” Yet, Lincoln told abolitionist Charles Edward Lester in regard to freeing the slaves, “We must wait until every other means has been exhausted. This thunderbolt will keep.” And so, throughout Part II of this narrative history, Lincoln is is pushed and pulled back and forth by the events of the Civil War and the politics of maintaining what there was left of the Union, and he proposes or considers first one solution and then another for the slaves: partial emancipation of some slaves, compensation to slaveholders, banning slavery in the territories, gradual emancipation, allowing escaped slavs (contraband) to enter the Union Army, confiscation of Confederate property including slaves, deportation of freed slaves and free black persons to Africa or South America.

Part III returns to the disconcerting “we” for a couple of pages (p. 75-76) and then, inexplicably, back to third person narrative voice. I compared the entire book to the old classic children’s history of the same vent that I have on my shelves, The Great Proclamation by Henry Steele Commager, published in 1960. Other than the fact, dissonant to modern ears, that Mr. Commager calls African Americans “Negroes”, the book differs from Ms. Bolden’s account of the same events in other ways. Commager paints Lincoln as an unadorned hero, bravely attempting in every way possible to free the slaves as quickly as practicable. Commager does not quote Lincoln’s famous statement in a letter to Horace Greeley in 1862:

“If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”

That statement of intent should be a part of any discussion of Lincoln and his attitude about emancipation, and Ms. Bolden includes it prominently in her book. Ms.Bolden’s book also has the great advantage of 21st century illustration techniques, layout and design. Mr. Commager’s text in a layout similar to that of Ms. Bolden’s book would be a great improvement. However, what Mr. Commager does well is tell the story of the “great proclamation” straight, without the confusing changes in point of view. So, in the end I think I would either go with Commager’s book or find something else that would be less poetic and and more attuned to current historical perspectives than either of these books. There seem to be several to choose from.

Other books for children on the Emancipation Proclamation (found on Amazon):
Lincoln, Slavery, and the Emancipation Proclamation by Carin T. Ford.
The Emancipation Proclamation by Karen Price Hossell.
The Emancipation Proclamation (Cornerstones of Freedom) by Brendan January and R. Conrad Stein.
The Emancipation Proclamation: Ending Slavery in America by Adam Woog.

Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty by Tonya Bolden has been nominated for the Cybils Award in the category of Young Adult Nonfiction. The thoughts in this review are my own and do not reflect the thoughts or evaluations of the Cybils panel or of any other Cybils judge.

Cybils 2013 Middle Grade Fiction

This Cybils category is for realistic ficion for ages 8-12, either historical or contemporary. Here are a few suggested titles if you’re looking for something to nominate, or for a reminder about something you’ve read and loved:

Andi Unexpected by Amanda Flower. Reviewed at Melissa’s Mochas, Mysteries and More.

Escape into the Night by Lois Walfrid Johnson.

A Surprise for Lily by Mary Ann Kinsinger and Suzanne Woods Fisher. Reviewed by Becky at Operation Actually Read Bible.

How to Make Friends and Monsters by Ron Bates. Reviewed by Becky at Operation Actually Read Bible.

Down the Rabbit Hole: The Diary of Pringle Rose by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. A Dear America diary. Reviewed at the Fourth Musketeer.

Back Before Dark by Tim Shoemaker. Reviewed at Book Him Danno!

The Girl from Felony Bay by J.E. Thompson. Reviewed at Jen Robinson’s Book Page.

The Hunt for the Well-Hidden Treasure by Bob Sheard and Timothy Taylor.

Itch: the Explosive Adventures of an Element Hunter by Simon Mayo. Reviewed at Redeemed Reader.

Chocolate-Covered Baloney (The Confession of April Grace) by K.D. McCrite.

Nominations for the Cybils close on October 15th. If you have a favorite, listed here or not, be sure you nominate it before the deadline.

Cybils 2013 Young Adult Nonfiction

I am a Cybils panelist for the Young Adult Nonfiction category this year, so I’d like to see lots of great books nominated in that category. The category is aimed at young adults, ages 13-18, who like to read the real stuff, the ones who only want to read it if it really, truly happened–or is happening.

“We are looking for the best of the best for nonfiction. We are seeking nominations for outstanding nonfiction that reads so much like a story, readers cannot believe it is nonfiction. Narrative nonfiction reads like story because the information is blended into a well written and meaningful text.”

Here are some possible nominees for the 2013 Cybils Young Adult Nonfiction category:

“The President Has Been Shot!”: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy by James L. Swanson. NOMINATED

Looks Like Daylight: Voices of Indigenous Kids by Deborah Ellis. NOMINATED

Shanghai Escape (Holocaust Remembrance Series) by Kathy Kacer.

Gettysburg: The True Account of Two Young Heroes in the Greatest Battle of the Civil War By Iain C. Martin.

Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices by Mitali Perkins, Editor.

The Nazi Hunters: How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World’s Most Notorious Nazi by Neal Bascomb. NOMINATED

Imprisoned: The Betrayal of Japanese Americans during World War II by Martin W. Sandler NOMINATED

Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent (Women of Action) by Pearl Witherington Cornioley.

Master George’s People: George Washington, His Slaves, and His Revolutionary Transformation by Marfe Ferguson Delano. NOMINATED in the Elementary/Middle Grade Nonfiction category.

The Brontë Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne by Catherine Reef. Semicolon review here.

Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty by Tonya Bolden.

Once Upon A Road Trip by Angela N. Blount.

Angel Island: Gateway to Gold Mountain by Russell Freedman.

Wild Boy: The Real Life of the Savage of Aveyron by Mary Losure. NOMINATED in the Elementary/Middle Grade Nonfiction category.

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World by Michael French.

Trafficked: My Story of Surviving, Escaping, and Transcending Abduction into Prostitution by Sophie Hayes.

This is Not a Writing Manual: Notes For the Young Writer in the Real World by Kerrie Majors 07/09/2013

For the Good of Mankind?: The Shameful History of Human Medical Experimentation by Vicki Oransky Wittenstein.

Tillie Pierce Teen Eyewitness To The Battle of Gettysburg by Tanya Anderson.

Andrew Jenks: My Adventures As a Young Filmmaker by Andrew Jenks.

Helga’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp by Helga Weiss.

The Boy on the Wooden Box: How the Impossible Became Possible . . . on Schindler’s List by Leon Leyson. NOMINATED

My American Revolution: A Modern Expedition Through History’s Forgotten Battlegrounds By Robert Sullivan.

A Chance to Win: Boyhood, Baseball, and the Struggle for Redemption in the Inner City by Jonathan Schuppe.

Your Food Is Fooling You: How Your Brain Is Hijacked by Sugar, Fat, and Salt
By David A. Kessler, MD.

Dear Teen Me: Authors Write Letters to Their Teen Selves (True Stories) by Miranda Kenneally and E. Kristin Anderson. NOMINATED

Bones Never Lie: How Forensics Helps Solve History’s Mysteries
 by Elizabeth MacLeod.

Holy Spokes!: A Biking Bible for Everyone
 by Rob Coppolillo.

The Hatfields and the McCoys by Bruce Wexler.

I haven’t read, or even seen, all of these, but if you have read one and liked it, please take the time to nominate it—or another of your favorite young adult nonfiction books from 2013—at the Cybils website. A couple of these might fit under middle grade and elementary nonfiction category, but it’s OK. If we get the category wrong, the organizers will fix it. Nomination time.

Cybils Nominations Open Today

What’s a Cybil?
The Cybils awards are given each year by bloggers for the year’s best children’s and young adult titles. Nominations open to the public on October 1st.

Can anyone nominate?
Yes, anyone may nominate one book per genre during the nomination period. The online form for nominations will be posted at the Cybils website from Oct. 1-15.

Which books are eligible?
Any books published between the end of one contest and start of another. For 2013, that means books released between Oct. 16, 2012 and Oct. 15, 2013.

What are the categories?
Young adult nonfiction. The one I’m helping to choose the finalists for this year. Narrative nonfiction for young adult readers.
Elementary/Middle Grade nonfiction. Narrative nonfiction for beginning readers and middle grade informational readers,ages 3-12.
Middle Grade Fiction. Realistic fiction for ages 8-12.
Young Adult fiction. Realistic fiction for ages 13 and up.
Poetry. Anthologies and collections for children.
Graphic novels. They used to be known as comic books, but now they’re longer and get more respect.
Fiction Picture Books.
Speculative Fiction: Elementary and Middle Grade. AKA fantasy and scifi.
Young adult Speculative Fiction. The same but for older readers.
Easy Readers and Early Chapter Books.
Book Apps.

I’ll be posting some possible nominees in each of the categories later during the nomination period.

Does it help if a book has lots of nominations?
NO! In fact, the online form will kick the nomination back if a book has already been listed. It needs to get on the Cybils nomination list only once for consideration. After that, it’s up to the judges.

More contest info:
Finalists are posted January 1st. Winners are announced February 14th. Winners receive a fountain pen in an engraved wooden box.

Go forth and nominate your favorite young adult and children’s titles for 2012-2013.

The Bronte Sisters by Catherine Reef

The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily and Anne by Catherine Reef.

Brief, indeed. Emily was 30 years old in December 1848 when she died of tuberculosis. Anne died of tuberculosis a few months later in May 1849. She was 29 years old. Their older brother Branwell had predeceased them by a few months (September 1848). He was 31 years old.

Charlotte wrote: “A year ago–had a prophet warned me how I should stand in June 1849, had he foretold the autumn, the winter, the spring of sickness and suffering to be gone through—I should have thought–this can never be endured. It is over. Branwell—Emily—Anne are gone like dreams.”

Charlotte managed to outlive her siblings by a few years. She died at the age of 39—probably of tuberculosis. Oh, and by the way, the Brontes had two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, who died when they were young. Want to guess what killed them?

Therefore, one thing I learned from reading this tragic, true story of Victorian genius was that tuberculosis was (is?) really, really deadly, and I’m glad I didn’t live back then, before antibiotics. And I hope I don’t live to see a resurgence of TB, post-effective antibiotics.

I’ve alway found the Bronte family to be fascinating, even before I read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. I read a different book when I was just an elementary school student called The Return of the Twelves by Pauline Clarke. Ms. Clarke’s fantasy about the Brontes’ toy soldiers who come to life and try to return to the Bronte home in Yorkshire won the Carnegie Medal in 1962 (British title The Twelve and the Genii). Anyway, I loved that book, and it’s the story about the Brontes as children and about the stories they told to each other that first got me interested in the Bronte family.

I didn’t actually read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights with understanding and enjoyment until I was in college. And I also read Mrs. Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Bronte when I was in college. What an amazing family! Even Branwell, with his Heathcliff/Mr. Rochester/Byron alcoholic character, hold a certain fascination.

This biography by Catherine Reef was more than decent, and I did learn a lot about the Bronte family. The book mentions the toy soldiers, and the friendship between Charlotte and Mrs. Gaskell, and several other details that were familiar to me. I also gleaned some new information. For instance, I had forgotten that Charlotte married, after Emily, Anne, and Branwell died. And I never knew how very dissolute Branwell was.

Nevertheless, I’m not sure Ms. Reef really understood the Christian faith of Charlotte and Anne, and perhaps Emily, although Emily seems to have been more private and perhaps less orthodox. She writes several times about how “religious” Anne was and about how Charlotte’s faith was “unshaken.” But their faith comes across in the book as a kind of quaint Victorian notion, rather than a real conviction and solace in grief. The author does quote Charlotte’s reaction to atheist Harriet Maritneau’s apologetic for atheism, Letters on the Law of Man’s Social Nature and Development. Charlotte wrote in response to Ms. Martineau’s lack of faith in God:

“The strangest thing is that we are called on to rejoice over this hopeless blank, to welcome this unutterable desolation as a pleasant state of freedom. Who could do this if he would? Who would do it if he could?”

Still, if this biography doesn’t capture the fullness of the Brontes’ faith, it does give a reasonably detailed picture of the life and times of this remarkable family suited to readers age 12 and up. After reading Ms. Reef’s biography, I am wanting to read Charlotte Bronte’s other novels, Villette and Shirley, and Anne’s two books, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I’d also like to re-read Wuthering Heights and The Return of the Twelves, but not until after Cybils season is over.

Cybils 2013

Yeah, hooray, I’m going to be judging Cybils again this year. Along with a great team of litbloggers, I’m going to be helping to choose the finalists for the Young Adult Nonfiction category this year, a category which I expect to add to my knowledge base and broaden my reading horizons.

My fellow nonfiction panelists are:
Jessica Tackett MacDonald, Her life with Books

Kim Baciella, Si Se Puede

Stephanie Charlefour, Love, Life, Read

Cheryl Vanatti, Reading Rumpus

Alyssa Feller, The Shady Glade

Sarah Sammis, Puss Reboots

This year’s Cybils is going to be fun. I hope you enjoy it, too, as I read and review nonfiction on all sorts of topics. I may even sneak over to the fiction side and read some of the nominees in the other categories. Hang on, and get ready to start nominating your favorite YA and children’s titles starting October 1st at the Cybils blog.