Monday, July 19, 2010

Chinese Cinderella

I meant to post a new chapter book review every Thursday, but I was away being a camp counselor for our church camp, and I forgot to pre-schedule it. I love biographies and memoirs and this is one I've been meaning to read for a while. When I received a copy of the author's first fiction book, it was the perfect motivation to read her original and most famous book. This memoir for children is an abridged/reworked version of her adult memoir, Falling Leaves, but even as an adult, I enjoyed the children's version more.

Book: Chinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter by Adeline Yen Mah
Vital Stats: Published in 1999 by Delacorte Press, 205 pages
Awards: 2000 ALA Best Books for Young Adults
Marketed Toward: The "Young Adult" market, more or less teens 12+
The Quick and the Short of It: Recommended for the emotionally mature

Book Synopsis
Adeline Yen Mah tells the difficult story of her childhood. She is the fifth child, and a daughter, unwelcome in her family. When her mother dies from complications from childbirth, Adeline is blamed. After her father's remarriage, her place in her family is even more insecure. She is alternatively ignored and abused, only receiving minimal praise from a father who can't remember her name when she wins school prizes. Set during a backdrop of WWII and then communist revolution in China, Adeline Yen Mah (or Yen Jun-Ling in Chinese) had a rough childhood to say the least. The only ones who take an interest in her are her aunt and grandfather, but they are powerless to make a substantial change in her life. Yet she manages to overcome a cruel stepmother (worthy of any fairytale), an apathetic father, and siblings who are alternatively friends and foe to find herself and her own path in life.

My Take
Fantastic book! It's well written and captivating (I got through it in two days). Most fascinating for me were the insights into Chinese culture, the explanations of language and family structure. This book would be the perfect accompaniment to a unit on China. However it is not an easy book to read. The maturity level required for this book is higher than the reading level. While not as intense as A Child Called It, I would still recommend taking your child's emotional level into account. That being said, this is still a fantastic book. The children's biography covers her life until she is finally granted an escape, college in England. The adult biography glosses over the childhood years and focuses more on her life as an adult and her continuing struggles with her family even after she achieves her independence.

Possible Issues/Christian Connection
The abuse doesn't usually take the form of physical abuse, but abandonment and emotional abuse can be as traumatic for the child and the reader. There is one particularly disturbing scene in which the author's beloved pet duck is killed by her father's dog. Both her grandfather and aunt are devout Buddhists, but their traditions are not lingered on much, actually I wanted more. Overall this program shouldn't be a problem for a Christian family provided you choose an appropriately emotionally mature child. I would think a minimum age is 12 or 13.

Your brothers, your own family—
even they have betrayed you;
they have raised a loud cry against you.
Do not trust them,
though they speak well of you.
-Jeremiah 12:6

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Touch Blue by Cynthia Lord

One of my favorite middle grade children's chapter books (4th to 6th grade) in the last five years was Cynthia Lord's debut novel Rules, so I was thrilled to get an advance copy of her new book. I highly recommend Rules, especially to those whose lives are touched by someone with autism, and I found her newest book to be as poignant as her first.

Book: Touch Blue by Cynthia Lord
Vital Stats: Published August 1, 2010 by Scholastic, 192 pages
Awards:Lord won the Newbery Honor for Rules and a host of other awards
Marketed Toward: Ages 9 to 12
The Quick and the Short of It: Highly recommended

Book Synopsis
A small town on an island in Maine decides to bring foster children into their houses to raise the number of students and keep their school from being closed. Tess, still reeling from her best friend moving away, places high hopes on Aaron who is coming to live with her family. Of course he isn't exactly what she had hoped (an orphan like Anne in Anne of Green Gables), but real life is always more complicated than a book. Aaron is a gifted musician, but he's never played Monoply. He's angry, uninterested in island life or catching lobsters, and he's curious about his real mom. Grace tries desperately to help him consider the island his home, but when she tries to reconnect him with his mom she might have gone too far.

My Take
Simply put, I loved this book. It's beautifully written. The island life in Maine is so perfectly drawn that the setting could be an additional character. (I love books where the setting is rich and evocative as this one is.) Tess has a number of superstitions (such as the titular touching of blue which will make a wish come true) and each chapter is headed with a new superstition that naturally weaves its way into the action of that chapter. As I read this book, I flashed back to all the superstitions of my own childhood. Tess is a believable and a relateable character trying to make the most of what life has given her. If you're anything like me, you'll be rooting for Tess, for Aaron, and for the rest of the characters in this exceptionally well done book. Cynthia Lord deserves at least another mention on the Notable list for this marvelous book.

Possible Issues/Christian Connection:
There are the obvious issues inherent with a foster child, including that Aaron's mother has lost custody of him due to drinking issues. Other than that (which is minor and shouldn't be an impediment), I don't see any issues that would cause concern for a Christian family. Acutally I was thrilled to read a book where they attended church regularly. Tess performs Peace Like a River for the talent show and Aaron becomes the church organist. It's a refreshing book and one that I whole-heartedly endorse. There are a number of families in my church who have welcomed foster children into their homes and I'm thinking about sharing my copy of this with them.

"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." - James 1:27

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Prince of Mist

At the risk of sounding like a literary snob, I love reading Spanish Magical Realism. If you're unfamiliar with that genre, it is a mix of reality and fantastical elements by Spanish (or Mexican) authors. Great examples includes authors such as Gabriel García Márquez and Laura Esquivel and books such 100 Years of Solitude and Like Water For Chocolate (my personal favorite). Last year when a coworker introduced me to a new author from Barcelona, I immediately devoured the two adult works of Carlos Ruiz Zafón that had been translated (The Shadow of the Wind and it's companion The Angel's Game). Those are amazing books, some of the best I've read in years, but definitely adult books. I do not recommend them to kids or teens. That why I was so excited (thrilled, over the moon, doing a happy dance) to get a copy of his first (translated) book for teens.

Book: The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, translated by Lucia Graves
Vital Stats: Published in May 2010 by Little, Brown and Company, 200 pages
Marketed Toward: Teens
The Quick and the Short of It: Recommended, with a few reservations, for teens 14+

Book Synopsis
It's 1943 and the war is pressing in on daily life in Spain. On his 13th birthday, Max's father announces he is moving the family away from the city to a coastal town to escape the war. There his father opens up a watchmaker's shop and they move into a beach home abandoned after tragedy struck and the son of the previous owners drowned. That was not the only tragedy to strike this small community: years before a ship had sunk leaving only one survivor. Said survivor built the town's lighthouse and took in his orphaned grandson to raise. Max and his older sister become friends with the grandson, Roland, and together discover a mystery surrounding the drowned ship, the lighthouse keeper, a garden of creepy statues, and the previous occupants of the house. It's primarily a ghost story, with a bit about a deal with a devil thrown in, and of course a sense of magic.

My Take
I am not a person who enjoys being scared for the sake of being scared, but I loved this. The intertwining of the real and the not-quite-real is brilliant. It's not as fluid and poetic as Zaf´o;n's adult works, but it is much shorter and a quicker read. The story is less complex and fleshed out, but has the same interweaving of characters and places that make Zaf%acuteo;n's works so spine-tingling. Anyone who likes a creepy read, or beautiful writing, will find something to like here. However, I do have a couple of reservations, as always, read on.

Possible Issues
The first line of the book sets the stage: Max would never forget that faraway summer when, almost by chance, he discovered magic. So yes, this book includes magic. Choose for yourself how you feel about that. No main (or likeable) character practices magic, magic is shown as an evil force, and a consequence is always paid for practicing magic. The titular "Prince of Mist" is an evil-magician who grants wishes for people for a terrible price. (There's a nice object lesson about making a deal with the devil.) I do not feel that the presence of the supernatural element in this book should automatically preclude it from being enjoyed by an older Christian teen. Parents should also be aware that in the developing intimacy between Max's older sister, Alicia, and Roland, there is some physical intimacy. Max observes the two kissing and rolling around in the sand on the beach. Alicia also removes her dress before going swimming with Roland. Nothing is ever graphically described and at no point do they explain to exactly what level the intimacy between Roland and Alicia progresses.

"Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against your magic charms with which you ensnare people like birds and I will tear them from your arms; I will set free the people that you ensnare like birds. I will tear off your veils and save my people from your hands, and they will no longer fall prey to your power. Then you will know that I am the LORD." -Ezekiel 13:20-21