The Tune Is in the Tree by Maud Hart Lovelace

In the several boxes of discarded books from a local private school library that a friend rescued on their way to the dumpster, I discovered some real gems—in more ways than one. The Tune Is in the Tree is one of Maud Hart Lovelace’s other novels, not about Betsy Ray and her friends Tacy and Tib. However, in the book Betsy’s Wedding, Betsy says, “I think I’ll write a story about a little girl going to live with the birds.” It’s not too much of a stretch to think that perhaps The Tune Is in the Tree is Betsy’s story, fleshed out by Ms. Lovelace herself, especially since Ms. Lovelace wrote that The Tune Is in the Tree is “just the sort of a story Betsy used to tell to Tacy.”

In this 177-page fantasy, Annie Jo, who lives with her parents Jo and Annie, gets left alone by mistake, and Mr. and Mrs. Robin feel compelled to take her into their nest until her mother and father return home. For that plan to work, Annie Jo must become a lot smaller, and she needs a pair of wings, both of which are provided for by courtesy of Miss Ruby Hummingbird, who happens to be have a little Magic. After Annie Jo shrinks and gets her wings, she learns all about the birds of the meadow and forest, including the Thrush family, Mr. and Mrs Catbird, the Misses Oriole, and the Perfidious Mrs. Cowbird who causes trouble all over by laying her eggs in other birds’ nests.

This jewel is such a lovely and funny story, and the illustrations by Eloise Wilkin are a perfect match to the story. The book was first published in 1950, in the middle of the time period during which Ms. Lovelace was busily writing and having published the Betsy-Tacy books. I like to think of Ms. Lovelace taking a break from the adventures of Betsy and her friends to write this homage to the world of birds. The child who is interested in bird-lore could learn a lot from reading or listening to The Tune Is in the Tree. The birds in the story are fantasy birds who talk and practice their concerts and even bake cookies (the Ovenbird family). However, the birds actually do embody some of the characteristics of real birds. Thrushes do make beautiful music. Ovenbirds do have nests shape like little ovens, hence the name. And the Perfidious Cowbird really does lay its eggs in the nests of other birds.

Then, there’s the poetry, both the poetry of Ms. Lovelace’s luscious prose and the poetry she makes reference to in the course of the story. Emily Dickinson, Robert Lowell, and John Keats are all invoked as the birds keep their libraries in the Brook which “reads aloud all day.”

“And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.”
~As You Like It by William Shakespeare

Unfortunately, The Tune Is in the Tree is a book not to be found in either trees or brooks. I looked it up on Amazon, and used copies are priced at anywhere between $200 and $800. I don’t plan to sell my newly discovered treasure, but patrons of my library can borrow it and enjoy a wonderful tale.

The Nargun and the Stars by Patricia Wrightson

This Australian classic won the Children’s Book Council of Australia Award for Book of the Year in 1974, and its author, Patricia Wrightson, is the only Australian author to have been awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Award for lasting contributions to children’s literature. I found a copy of The Nargun and the Stars in the multitude of books that were donated to my library from a local private school’s discard pile, and I read it to see if it would be a good addition to my own library.

It’s a dark and perhaps humanistic, or even pagan, book, but I would say that it’s pagan in the sense of drawing on pre-Christian era mythology, in this case the mythology of the Australian aboriginal peoples. Just as C.S. Lewis drew on both Greek and Norse mythology for his depiction of Narnia and as Tolkien drew from Norse, Saxon, and Celtic myths to create the creatures and world of Middle Earth, Ms. Wrightson used the Australian aboriginal myths and legends to tell a story that speaks into our own time.

The novel begins and ends with the Nargun, a stone and earth creature, full of hunger and anger and “slow, monstrous coldness”. Over centuries, or millennia, the Nargun slowly moved across the Australian landscape and settles into Wongadilla, a place in the mountains of southern Australia.

The actual story takes place in the 1970’s, when the book was written and published. Simon, an orphan, comes to live with his second cousins, brother and sister Charlie and Edie, on a sheep run in Wongadilla. Simon begins to explore the strange place where he has landed, so to speak, and he finds and gets to know odd and mythical creatures in the swamps and forests and caves of Wongadilla. However, it is the Nargun that is a threat to the sheep ranch, to the humans who live there, and even to the Potkoorak of the swamp and the Turongs of the forest. Charlie and Edie and Simon become a family and a team as they work together to understand and to defeat the impersonal but powerful malevolence of the Nargun.

I can see why this book won the acclaim that it did. The writing is quite beautiful and evocative, and I am sure that the atmosphere of this book will become a part of my mental concept of Australia and all things Australian. The Nargun and the Stars won’t be a book for everyone. It might give some children (or adults) nightmares, and some parents could object to the idea that the evil Nargun is only confined by the end of the book and only by means of completely human ingenuity, but not finally defeated or destroyed. However, that ending reminds me of the book of Revelation (which I doubt was the author’s intent) when Satan himself is chained for 1000 years (Revelation 20). Perhaps the Nargun, from Australian aboriginal mythology, is really a demon, or at least that’s way I thought of it as I read.

According to Gunai/Kurnai tribal legends, the Nargun is a fierce half-human half-stone creature that lived in the Den of Nargun, a cave under a rock overhang behind a small waterfall in the Mitchell River National Park, Victoria, Australia. Aboriginal legend describes the Nargun as a beast that was all stone except for its hands, arms and breast. The fierce creature would drag unwary travellers into its den, and any weapon directed against it would be turned back on its owner.

As Shakespeare so aptly said via Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Stories like The Nargun and the Stars serve to remind us in our materialistic and naturalistic philosophical world that we don’t have it all figured out and that there are all sorts of “dragons” and enemies that have yet to be finally defeated and destroyed.

This novel also reminded me of G.K. Chesterton and his observation to the effect that “fairy tales do not tell children the dragons (Nargun) exist. Children already know that dragons (Nargun) exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons (Nargun) can be killed (or at least chained).”

One more impression: there is a definite affinity between The Nargun and the Stars and N.D. Wilson’s The Boys of Blur. If you liked Wilson’s take-off on Beowulf, I’d recommend Ms. Wrightson’s fantasy/horror story of Australian monsters and heroes.

The Dungeoneers by John David Anderson

Author John David Anderson (Side-kicked, Minion) seems to be interested in moral ambiguity for middle grade readers. In this kinda sorta medieval/fairy tale setting, our protagonist, Colm Candorly, shows talent as a pickpocket and is invited to go to a school for “dungeoneers”, adventurers who steal treasure from goblins and orcs and other nasty creatures. The teachers and the lessons are mostly all about greed for treasure and revenge for past wrongs, but maybe Colm learns a lesson about greed and revenge by the end of the book?

It’s obvious that Mr. Anderson did some Dungeons and Dragons-style dungeoneering in his (possibly misspent) youth. There’s also a touch of HP in the story as Colm makes friends at his new school and learns that not all of the students, teachers, and mentors at the school are trustworthy or even kind. Colm’s new treasure seeking team consists of himself, an erstwhile Rogue, Lena the Barbarian, who faints at the sight of her own blood, Quinn the Mage who casts stuttering, dangerous, and unpredictable spells, and Serene the Druid, a pacifist who is scared of big animals but communicates well with spiders. Together, the four of them are out to win at in-school contests, protect one another from their bullying compatriots, and get as much treasure as possible with the management taking fifty percent or more.

Side-kicked and Minion were about superheroes and the moral choices involved in becoming a hero or a villain. The Dungeoneers goes back to a more classic fantasy setting, but the theme is still same. Is a rogue, who steals from goblins and orcs, a hero or a thief? What’s the difference? Is there any honor among thieves? Will Colm choose to become a rich rogue or a honest but penniless cobbler like his father? If you have a talent for thievery and pickpocketing, what is it good for? Is Colm one of the good guys, one of the bad guys, or something in-between?

The Fog Diver by Joel Ross

A post-apocalyptic (Hunger Games) sort of adventure story pitched for younger readers, maybe 9 to 12 years old. The nanites that were supposed to combat the air pollution of a long-ago civilization have instead taken over the entire surface of the earth, creating a deadly fog that brings sickness to anyone who spends time in it. The ruthless Lord Kodoc is out to get Chess, the fog diver or tether boy for a group of scavengers from the slums who use their air raft to search for salvage in the fog. Unfortunately for Chess, he’s a freak, born in a cage, down in the fog, with one fog-filled eye to betray his origins. As Chess and his scavenger buddies–Hazel, Bea and Swedish—try to escape the notice of Lord Kodoc, they also need to earn enough money to leave the slums and go to Port Oro where their mentor, Mrs. E, might be able to find a cure for her life-threatening fog-sickness.

The book moves along at a steady clip with lots of peril and near-death experiences. It also has lots of Star Wars references, which are fun to catch, and the plot itself is very Star Wars-y. There are humorous references to various pop culture artifacts and ephemera as Chess consults his father’s old scrapbook for an understanding of history but misunderstands many of the references. So the children think that Burger King and Dairy Queen were real monarchs from long ago, and they tell each other stories about Skywalker Trek and the X-wing Enterprise.

I though the ending was adequate, not really a cliff-hanger, although it’s obvious that a sequel is in the works. Fog Diver is one of the books on the shortlist for Cybils in the Middle Grade Fiction category. That’s why I read it, and I’m glad I did. I’m definitely looking forward to that sequel, The Lost Compass (May, 2016).

“My name is Chess, and I was born inside a cage.

Imagine a wooden platform jutting from a mountain cliff. Now picture a chain falling from that platform and vanishing into the Fog, a deadly white mist that covers the entire Earth.

That’s where I was born: locked in a cage, at the end of a chain, inside the fog.

And I would have died there, too, if Mrs. E hadn’t saved me.”

Doctor’s Boy by Karin Anckarsvard

This Swedish import, published in the 1960’s, was a delight. The plot is a bit slow-moving for the internet generation, but if you can slow down long enough to enjoy the scenery of early twentieth century Sweden, the moral dilemmas of a boy who is learning about poverty and class distinctions for the first time, and a thoughtful, maturing kind of story, then Doctor’s Boy will be a good change of pace.

There is action: attempted robbery, health crises, of both human and dog variety, troubles at school, and the excitement of accompanying Father (the doctor) on his house calls every evening. However, the characterization of the doctor’s son, Jon, and his new friend, Rickard, a poor boy from the slums of this “little Swedish town of Soltuna”, is the centerpiece of this story. Jon learns to appreciate Rickard’s strengths and challenges, and Rickard learns to respect the doctor’s boy, who has grown up a lot while helping his father in his work.

In fact, a twenty-first boy or girl who reads Doctor’s Boy might be a bit jealous of the freedom and the interesting experiences that Jon and Rickard have. Ten year old Jon is allowed to walk to and from school by himself. He doesn’t like to tell his parents much about what happens at school, so he doesn’t. He goes with his father in the gig to his evening house calls and manages the horse while his father goes into homes with possible contagion or goes in with him to help when the cases are not dangerous. Later in the story, Jon and Rickard go out to an island where a man is deathly ill, along with father, but they get to stay and take care of the man while the father returns to get help.

Even though Jon attends a private school, along with Rickard who is there on scholarship, the story has a homeschooling feel to it as Jon is mentored by his father and initiated into the “family business” of doctoring. It would be a great read aloud for discussing Swedish life and culture or fathers and sons working together or the way to relate to people in poverty. If you can find a copy, you should definitely take a look. I first saw it recommended in Elizabeth Wilson’s Books Children Love, where she writes that “the story is full of lively events and portrays a warm, loving family with a consistent concern for the needs of others.”

The Sign of the Cat by Lynne Jonell

Cat lovers (and tiger lovers) everywhere who also enjoy fabulous fantasy adventure stories should pick this one up right away. Duncan McKay has a special, secret ability: he can speak cat. Of course, cats understand human language anyway, but rare is the human who can speak to and understand cats in their own language. Duncan is going to need all the advantages he can get when he’s kidnapped, almost drowned–twice!–attacked by a tiger, locked in a cage, and stranded on a deserted island, not necessarily in that order. Will Duncan be able to save not only himself but also all the kittens and cats of Arvidia from a kitten-squishing villain?

What a great story! Duncan is a likable protagonist, almost twelve years old, and beginning to chafe under his mother’s restrictions on his behavior. So, it’s a coming of age novel with Duncan figuring out what it means to be honest, brave, and noble. The cats are personable with distinct and engaging personalities of their own. Some people complained on Goodreads and Amazon that the story was a bit predictable and that the big reveals were obvious and easily figured out, but I must be a little slow. I didn’t really know what was going to happen, although I had my theories, some of them right and some wrong. I think middle grade readers, even those who are not particularly cat lovers, will really enjoy this adventure story, unless they are too jaded, or too smart for their own good, or maybe too old. Just call me 58, dumb, and happily unobservant when it comes to discerning plot twists when I’m enjoying the ride.

This volume is probably the first in a projected series, but it’s perfectly satisfying as a stand alone novel. That’s what I like, and I like this one well enough to see if Ms. Jonell can do it again in the second book in the series. I would enjoy some more adventures with Duncan and the other characters in The Sign of the Cat. I’ve decided I like cats–in books.

Baker’s Dozen: 13 Upcoming Children’s Books I Want to Read in 2016

Audacity Jones to the Rescue by Kirby Larson. “Audacity Jones is an eleven-year-old orphan who aches for adventure, a challenge to break up the monotony of her life at Miss Maisie’s School for Wayward Girls. Life as a wayward girl isn’t so bad; Audie has the best of friends, a clever cat companion, and plenty of books to read. Still, she longs for some excitement, like the characters in the novels she so loves encounter.” (Amazon blurb)

The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan. Three children, enslaved in a cocoa plantation in modern-day Ivory Coast, attempt escape. This book is by the same author who wrote Golden Boy about an albino boy in Tanzania.

The Goblin’s Puzzle: Being the Adventures of a Boy with No Name and Two Girls Called Alice by Andrew Chilton.

The Last Boy at St. Edith’s by Lee Gjertsen Malone. One boy is stuck in a girls’ school and decides to get himself expelled.

Pax by Sara Pennypacker, wonderful author of the Clementine books and of this book for adults. I’m sure this new book will be good, too.

Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart. Boy goes after his stolen horse.

The Turn of the Tide by Roseanne Parry. Earthquake, tsunami, and second chances.

When Mischief Came to Town by Katrina Nannestad. Set in Denmark.

A Week Without Tuesday by Angelica Banks. Fantasy about a fairy tale world which collides with ours.

Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo. National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and a two-time Newbery Medalist. ‘Nuff said.

Booked by Kwame Alexander. A new sports (soccer) verse novel by the Newbery author of The Crossover.

The Gallery by Laura Marx Fitzgerald. An art mystery set in the roaring twenties.

The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner. “Unsure of how to get her family’s attention, Charlie comes across the surprise of her life one day while ice-fishing . . . in the form of a floppy, scaly fish offering to grant her a wish in exchange for its freedom. Charlie can’t believe her luck until she realizes that this fish has a funny way of granting wishes.” (Amazon blurb)

If any publishers want to send me an ARC of any of these, I won’t turn it down.

Baker’s Dozen: The Best Middle Grade Fiction I Read in 2015

1. Mennyms Under Siege by Sylvia Waugh. Greenwillow, 1996. This doll story is not a new book, and it won’t appeal to all readers, even those who like stories of dolls and the creatures living hidden lives alongside human beings (The Borrowers? The Doll People series by Ann Martin?). Mennyms Under Siege is much darker and more philosophical than most doll books, and its concern with the themes of death and thwarted love and over-protection feels almost young adult rather than middle grade. Anyway, it’s a good book, and I look forward to reading the first two books in the series and the last two.

2. I Don’t Know How the Story Ends by J.B. Cheaney. (2015)

3. Lost in the Sun by Lisa Graff. (2015)

4. Down Ryton Water by Eva Roe Gaggin. Another oldie, published in 1941, and winner of a Newbery honor in 1942.

5. Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley. (2015)

6. Twelve Bright Trumpets by Margaret Leighton.

7. The Cottage in the Woods by Katherine Coville. (2015)

8. The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall. (2015)

9. The Green Ember by S.D. Smith. (2015) Rabbits with swords, and very popular in my library and among homeschoolers that I know.

10. Master Cornhill by Eloise Jarvis McGraw.

11. Mikis and the Donkey by Bib Dumon Tak. (2015)

12. Walking Home by Eric Walters. (2015)

13. Take Wing by Jean Little.

Baker’s Dozen: Books to Read for my Around the World Project

I’m planning a new project for 2016, an expansion of my Africa Project. This one is an around the world project in which I hope to read at least one children’s book from or related to each nation of the world. Some countries are easier than others to find books, available in English and written by a citizen of that country. I may have to settle for folktales retold by American or Births authors from some countries or even for books that are simply set in the target country, preferably written by someone who has at least visited the particular setting in the book.

So, here is the page for my Around the World Reading Project. Do you have any suggestions to add to my project list, especially for those countries for which I have no books listed? The books must be for children, available in English (translation or original) in the United States, and preferably written in and popular in the country of origin.

Here are thirteen of the books I already chose that I am planning to read this year:

Blinky Bill by Dorothy Wall. (Australia)

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch. (Canada)

Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson. (Finland)

The Horse Without a Head by Paul Berna. (France)

The Adventures of Maya the Bee by Waldemar Bonsels, 1912. (Germany)

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie. (India)

The Shadow of Ghadames by Joelle Stolz. (Libya)

A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer. (American author) (Mozambique)

The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt. (Netherlands)

Platero y yo by Juan Jimenez. (Spain)

The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren. (Sweden)

Go Ahead, Secret Seven by Enid Blyton. (England)

Jamela’s Dress by Niki Daly. (South Africa)

I chose these particular books from the list mostly because I have them or have access to them. Have you read any of them? Any recommended or not?

Christmas in Montana, 1960

The Loner by Ester Wier is the story of a boy without a name, without a home, without a family, who travels with the migrant farm workers, picking crops and living hand to mouth, until he comes to rest, by accident, with a lady everyone calls Boss on a Montana sheep ranch. Boss gives the boy the name David, and like his Biblical namesake, David becomes a man while guarding and caring for the sheep.

“It was the first real Christmas the boy had ever known. He sat on the bench and watched as Tex put a tiny fir tree on the table and Angie decorated it with small ornaments. Boss unwrapped the cold, carved turkey and dressing and heated the gravy on the stove. She set the pies to warm and put some coffee on to boil.
After they had eaten, Angie gave David his presents—a warm sweater she had knitted for him, a pair of long woolen socks, and two books. ‘You’ll be reading them soon,’ she promised.
Tex gave him a flashlight of his own, with a box of extra batteries. Boss motioned to Tex and he went back to his horse and returned, carrying a rifle. Boss held it in her hands a while before holding ti out to the boy. ‘It’s a .375 Magnum,’ she said, ‘Ben’s gun. I figured one of these days I’d teach you how to shoot it.’ The boy and Tex exchanged glances. ‘But it’s to be kept up there on that shelf and you’re never to touch it unless I tell you to. Do you understand? I’ll skin you alive if you do.'”

The gun turns out to be significant in David’s maturation, and the two books have a part to play, too. The Loner is a great story, for boys and girls, but especially for young men who are struggling with what it means to grow up and become a good, responsible person. Highly recommended.