Monday
Dec052016

The Door That Led to Where

The Door That Led to Where by Sally Gardner is not your average time travel novel.

Beginning in the present day, AJ fails a major exam boding a poor future for him. Set in England with unfamiliar terms for the exams, I immediately wondered if the book would be a difficult read for an American student. Test names may be different but anxiety surrounding them and results of failure carry a familiar feeling. Other English terms are easily understood from context and add a layer of atmosphere to the novel.

AJ and his friends Slim and Leon share something in common – their broken families. His mother describes AJ as a “waste of space” and gives him an envelope with a request that he come in for a job interview. She and his stepfather will not have him lollygagging around. Things take a turn when AJ gets the job, seemingly helped by a strange conversation revealing his exceptional knowledge of the works of Charles Dickens.

On the job, he finds a key mysteriously labelled with his date of birth. Ultimately, this leads to the door that will take him back in time to 1830. He moves back and forth between the two time periods looking to solve mysteries in both. Slim and Leon join him in the era of Dickens where all three must make some decisions. Which is the time period where they belong? Will they choose differently or will they remain together?

The mysteries, time travel that moves back and forth between the two eras, and personal relationships make for an interesting read especially for Anglophiles and Dickens fans. I qualify as both, but the novel will also satisfy those looking for a good read.

Friday
Dec022016

Season's Greetings?

I avoid arguments in this blog much like I avoid that “Rithmetic’” in its title – not an easy thing during this election season. However, I have an issue that I feel I must address. I ask that you follow me to the end before you decide to abandon the blog and cancel the friendship.

Yet another disparaging post about the “political correctness” of the greeting “Happy Holidays” brought this on. Let me make it clear that I love Christmas. My tree goes up the Saturday after Thanksgiving and comes down while I watch New Year’s bowl games. I carol and sing in the Christmas choir presentation, watch all the old Christmas movies, and take in celebrations with any family members I can round up. You’ll see my annual blog on a favorite Christmas on December 23. I post it every year on my blogging date closest to Christmas.

However, I am rich in friends who celebrate different holidays. I look forward to following these friends’ family celebration pictures on Facebook each year. I googled other winter holidays and found six in the National Geographic Kids site and another seven in a different site. It seems we love holidays for the winter solstice and try to brighten up this dreary time of year with light as a recurring theme.

My Baptist roots run deep, beginning in infancy and continuing to this day as you can see by how often my Facebook tags come from the University Baptist Church site. But I am a Roger Williams kind of Baptist. In case you missed that day in history class (there was probably only one), he established the colony of Rhode Island with the new and dangerous idea that church and state should be separate and that all people should be allowed to worship as they feel led or not at all.

All this to say my wishing of “Happy Holidays” has nothing to do with being politically correct. It has more to do with a command from the one that Charles Dickens called the Founder of the Feast. One of the most lasting and memorable statements Jesus made in the Sermon on the Mount was, “Just as you want people to treat you, treat them the same way.” The same idea, in slightly different words, can be found in many religions.

An example of this behavior on my Christmas tree came from a Muslim friend. She went home to Palestine to visit her family and brought me a gift – a set of Christmas ornaments, beautifully carved from olive wood. Friendship, not political correctness, motivated her to bring something that would enhance my Christmas that she did not celebrate.

I’ll return your “Merry Christmas!” if that is your greeting to me since I hope we both have one. But I may start with “Happy Holidays.” I like its efficiency since it reaches all varieties of winter celebrations and all the time through New Year’s – and on through Mardi Gras in South Mississippi and Louisiana.  

Now if you decide to abandon the blog and cancel the friendship, you may, but I hope whatever you are celebrating is joyful all the same. 

Monday
Nov282016

Before Morning

Not only am I making sure November does not end without my taking note of picture book month, I am invoking my oldest child personality and telling you how to read my newest treasure in this genre.

Having fallen in love with the author/illustrator team of Joyce Sidman and Beth Krommes in Swirl by Swirl, I didn’t even need to see the great reviews to know I had to have their newest book, Before Morning. I bought it for myself, but as you can see, I’m willing to share.

The illustrations by themselves tell a story. The poem, that Joyce calls an invocation in her author’s note, also has meaning when taken alone. I can only think to describe what happens to the combination in terms of a Reese’s peanut butter cup. The peanut butter layer is tasty, the chocolate layer is luscious, but the combination is exquisite.  That’s where my advice comes in.

I recommend a first read of the illustrations with close attention to the longing of the child for the mom to stay home. (The child could be boy or girl by the way the paintings are done. I took it to be a girl because I relate to that, but I think a boy reader might do the opposite.) The painting of the girl hiding the pilot’s hat and the opened Amelia Earhart biography gives a clue about her mother’s job and why she might be leaving as night falls. Follow the visual clues for emotions of the characters from the beginning to the end. The second time through add the story invocation. Exquisite!

Feel free to do as my sisters often did and ignore my suggestion, but you can see that I tried it out with stellar results.

It’s no wonder that Before Morning made the Kirkus List of Best Picture Books of 2016. It made mine, too. The cover lists Joyce Sidman as a former Newbery Honor winner and Beth Krommes as a former Caldecott medalist. I’m predicting that Before Morning will join their other books on awards shelves as the 2016 honors begin to come in.

Friday
Nov252016

About That Dressing

If you’re from the South, we can agree right off the bat that stuffing is out, dressing is in – not the location, the rightness component. I realize that technically, the reverse is true – dressing is cooked outside the bird and stuffing is cooked inside. We can also agree that cornbread forms the base of the concoction. After that, it’s pretty much every cook to his/her own devices.

How moist it should be and what gets added to the mix can vary from cook to cook. My mother believed in cornbread replete with the Holy Trinity (onion, green peppers, and celery), though she used that term only in another context, not in cooking. When I married, I discovered sage since my mother-in-law used a tad of onion and a generous supply of sage. Somehow with the same cornbread base, it also had a finer texture than my mother’s. I happily stuffed myself on either or both for a number of Thanksgivings.

When it came my turn to cook the dressing, I combined the best of each and added some poultry seasoning. Since we are fond of dressing, I have not limited my production to the holidays. Many a winter meal has been comfort food with chicken and dressing which may be even tastier than the turkey. Since winter is a very short season in South Mississippi, that still leaves a good-sized break between the times for making dressing. With no exact recipe, every Thanksgiving as I make the first round for the season, I fret over the proportions and whether I will remember just how much of the sage and poultry seasoning becomes too much of a good thing.

I knew all was well this year when a daughter-in-law held up a fork loaded equally with cranberry sauce and dressing and pronounced it the epitome of what Thanksgiving dinner was all about.

I hope this Thanksgiving found you with a long list for thankfulness and enough dressing (or stuffing if you prefer) to relish yourself into a nap-inducing coma on Thanksgiving Day with plenty of leftovers for later.  

Monday
Nov212016

The Wolf Keepers

“A few feet away, the wolf stared at Lizzie with pale silver eyes, ears pricking forward in sharp triangles.” So begins Elsie Broach’s middle grade novel The Wolf Keepers.

Quickly, the ethical issue of keeping animals in cages as opposed to releasing them to the wild arises with valid arguments for each woven into the warp of the novel. The weft weave carries interesting information about the animals, like the long necks of the giraffe making it hard for them to throw up. Against this background, the zookeeper’s daughter Lizzie soon meets Tyler who has run away from his foster parents and has been hiding with the elephants.

Together they keep Tyler hidden and search for answers to several mysteries. Why are the wolves getting sick and dying? Where is John Muir’s cabin in the woods in Tenaya Canyon? Lizzie ponders an additional mystery. What is the story of Tyler’s original family and why has he run away from his foster parents? After what seems to be a rash action that leaves them lost in Yosemite, they must also answer the mystery of how to survive and get back to the zoo.

The mysteries keep the reader in suspense while liberally seasoning the story with both the history and rationale behind John Muir’s love of nature. His quotes are written in pertinent places as Lizzie keeps her summer journal assignment. She reads to Tyler, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.” Tyler, having experienced hunger, is quite sure that people need bread more than beauty.

In the end, Lizzie and Tyler along with the reader, must decide if it is right to do a terrible thing for a good reason. The author does not tie up solutions to all the issues but leaves room for great discussions considering all sides of the problems of rescuing wild animals, displaying them in an educational manner that raises awareness in the public, and recognizing the need for animals to be free in their own environment.

Elsie Broach closes with an informative author’s note giving background on the real history she has included and noting which parts are fictional. I highly recommend the book for middle schoolers and for people concerned for wildlife.