Linda D. Labbo
Reviews Section Editor
University of Georgia
Athens, Georgia, USA
Editor's Note: Letters, birthday cards, notes, and journaling are the forms of writing that play interesting roles in the five books reviewed in this column. Authors of these books, which include a short story collection, two novels, an informational picture book for young children, and an engaging history book, masterfully weave the use of writing into their unfolding tales. As a bonus in this column, the reviewer has included a list of suggestions for extending children's engagement with the books through various types of writing response activities.
The reviews of this ecclectic book collection are sure to be useful for adults who want to help younger readers understand the central role that writing plays in stories, in history, and in our lives. Readers who enjoy this column may also be interested in Beth Matlack's review of Paula Graham's Speaking of Journals, in the Professional Materials area of the Reviews section.
The books reviewed are as follows:
Where possible, links to authors' and publishers' websites are provided. Clicking on any of these links will open a new browser window.
Gone from Home: Short Takes. Written by Angela Johnson. New York: DK Publishing, 1998. ISBN 0-7894-2499-1. 112 pages. Recommended for ages 13 and up.
Authors of well-crafted short stories have the ability to make a few well-chosen words evoke rich imagery and strong emotions in readers. Angela Johnson readily creates this literary experience in this collection of 12 short takes. The stories, frequently stark in theme and harsh in plot development, are not for those seeking fairy tale settings or suburban slice-of-life niceties. Instead, they discuss such troubling issues as poverty, child neglect, homelessness, death, alienation, attempted suicide, violence, and a thirst for an awareness of God -- issues that are not usually addressed from a youngster's perspective. While the reader may or may not find a tale with which to identify personally, he or she will assuredly have many opportunities to gain insights into the human need for kindness and affection.
Home is about 13-year-old Pearl, who survives as a homeless runaway by masquerading as a boy. As the story unfolds, readers catch glimpses of Pearl's life through a letter she writes to a friend back home. Woven through the tale are images of the reality of living on the street, a young girl's successful search to find her homeless mother, and the importance of finding love in unlovely circumstances.
Sweetness is about the friendship of two young inner-city girls, Rey and Sweetness. In the midst of Sweetness's daily trials brought about by her parents' neglect, the girls somehow manage to enjoy what most young girls enjoy: dressing up, laughing, and sharing dreams. However, their dreams turn into nightmares when one of them gets involved in robbery and violence. This thought-provoking story is likely to prompt serious discussion about gun control, the death of friends, and personal searching for religious beliefs.
Barns, also set in the inner city, tells the story of a young man fascinted with barns. Walter's friends figure that when he is not in detention hall or serving suspension, he is spending his time thinking about, drawing, or even exploring barns in the nearby countryside. He is so enthralled with barns that he gathers his friends into a rickety old truck and takes them on a Saturday morning field trip to the country. By the end of the story, readers will have a keener insight into why barns are a symbol of peace, tranquility, and a better way of life for Walter, who has experienced much trauma within the chaos of urban living. Readers of this short story will be exposed to the environmental and cultural dichotomy inherent between earth and pavement.
One of the shortest stories in this collection is truly brief -- only three pages -- but as poignant as the others. A Summer's Tale describes a short-lived encounter between a girl and a street person. The girl believes everyone has a story, and she wants to know his. For the price of a six-pack of beer, he shares a stark tale about how eggs saved his life.
Then there is Souls, the story of a boy and his best friend, Mick, and their attempts to save the souls of creatures and people alike. Mick, a modern-day Dr. Doolittle, convinces his buddy to aid him in rescuing petshop animals and finding them good homes. Although the boys suspect that stealing the animals is wrong, they somehow feel justified in their belief that they are doing a good deed for all involved.
These a just a few examples of the stories from Gone from Home. Some of the stories are subtly humorous, some are bitterly sad, but all share the message that humans need to offer and receive acts of kindness.
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In My Neighborhood: Postal Workers. Written by Paulette Bourgeois and Kim LaFave. Toronto: Kids Can Press, 1999. ISBN 1-55074-504-2. Unpaged. Recommended for ages 4 to 7.
This picture book details the in and outs of writing, mailing, and receiving a letter. It begins as Gordon, a young boy, writes a birthday card to his Grandma. Gordon takes his card to the post office, selects a special stamp, and puts the card in the mail slot. The book then describes the postal process in detail, tracking the letter from Gordon's hands to the postal machinery and all the way to the delivering postal worker. An explanation of the importance of postal and zip codes is included.
When the card is delivered to Grandma, she is delighted with both it and the stamp -- which she adds to her very special stamp collection. Grandma continues the cycle by sending a birthday gift back to Gordon for his upcoming special day. Vivid pictures and text detail Grandma as she addresses the envelope -- making sure she has a delivery and return address. The book closes as Gordon awaits the arrival of his gift, eagerly checking his community mail box.
While the recommended reading level of this book is ages 3 to 7, it could also serve as a resource book for slightly older students. The text has fairly sophisticated vocabulary, and some of the concepts, such as zip codes, may be difficult for younger children to comprehend. In addition, the book would be useful in conjunction with other readings and activities for learning about the mail process. This text shows the letters being placed for delivery in a big blue public mailbox, and being delivered by a postal worker on foot. It would be important to discover all the other ways mail can be sent and delivered (from home, by car or truck, etc.), making certain that the students' own experiences are reflected in the lesson.
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My Name Is Seepeetza. Written by Shirley Sterling. Toronto: Groundwood Books/Douglas & McIntyre, 1998. ISBN 0-88899-165-7. 126 pages. Recommended for ages 10 to 12.
Racism has been documented all over the world, and Canada has not been spared its share. What would you have done if you had been a 12-year-old Native girl living in British Columbia in the 1950s? If you were the title character in Shirley Sterling's insightful book, you would have learned how to cope with many of life's injustices by writing in your secret journal, your one constant friend in life.
Through the craft of the author, the reader is invited to imagine that he or she is that 12-year-old girl. Imagine being unwillingly taken away from your beloved home and family to a boarding school, because it is the law of the land. Imagine, once you get there, that you must comply with strange and stringent rules enforced by a nun, a looming and strict sort of person you have never encountered before. Imagine that, when asked to give your name, you respond with the only one you know and are told that it is Indian and therefore unacceptable. Imagine that in countless experiences you are forced to deny your heritage.
These events provide a harsh reality for Seepeetza, or Martha Stone, as she is known at school. She learns to find solace in a secret journal. The weekly entries contrast Seepeetza's two very different life experiences: Those made at boarding school serve as an escape from the unhappy circumstances she is forced to endure while, in vivid contrast, the entries made at home remind her of her family life, which, though not always happy, has always served as a strong source of her self-concept and pride. For example, in grappling with her unique perspective on her situation, Seepetza writes in her journal, Real Indians are just like anyone else, except they love the mountains.
The startling realism of this fictional account, which is based on the author's childhood experiences, provides insight into the effects racism can have on a person. If it is true, as many have argued, that developing knowledge and empathy are the first steps in preventing of racism, then readers of this book are likely to take those first steps. By knowing Seepeetza through her journal entries, the reader is permitted to know what it feels like to experience racism.
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Weep Not for Me, Dear Mother. Written by Elizabeth Whitley Roberson. Gretna, LA: Pelican, 1998. ISBN 1-56554-389-0. 168 pages. Recommended for ages 11 and up.
Have you ever had the experience of reading pages and pages of linear facts, names, and dates in a history text -- and then you can't recall any of them five minutes after putting down the book? Unfortunately, this is not an unusual experience for many youngsters who encounter text that is dry or difficult to read. On the other hand, trade books on historical subjects can fascinate readers by providing glimpses into causes and outcomes of events that frequently have ramifications across the years. However, younger readers don't want to encounter just the facts of history. They want to know the story -- the central characters' motivation for decisions they make, their background, their relationship with their friends and families, and perhaps most important, how they feel about events unfolding around them. Young readers are likely to remember key historical events when the words and images of a book transport them back in time. History has intriguing stories to tell. We just need the right format in which to relive it.
In writing Weep Not For Me, Dear Mother, author Elizabeth Whitley Robinson took about 100 letters actually written by U.S. Civil War soldier Eli Landers, his friends, and family, and compiled them into a trade book. The text centers on accounts of several famous battles, intertwined with authentic letters and notes from and to the young soldier, to provide a first-hand perspective through primary source documents.
Eli Pinson Landers, a Georgia boy, helped his widowed mother run the family farm. He was not particularly political -- for example, he did not proclaim support for slavery, but with the onset of the Civil War, he was determined to do his part for Southern independence. Eli joined the Flint Hill Grays, Company H of the 16th Regiment of Georgia volunteers, and left home a member of the Confederate Army on August 11, 1861.
The book takes us through Eli's journeys. Each chapter in the book represents a different chapter in Eli's military career. Accurate historical essays are interspersed with Eli's own words, making the experiences haunting and very human.
Chapter One begins when Eli was a young man of 18. The letters included in this chapter reflect his sentimental emotions about leaving home, his growing sense of independence, and his fervent devotion to the Southern cause.
Chapter Two follows Eli as he travels with his regiment. The soldiers arrive at their temporary destination, Richmond, Virginia. What is especially noteworthy here is the description of the cultural attitudes of the times. Eli, a southern Confederate, sees northern Yankees as low, vulgar, and inferior. This chapter vividly reveals the common views of the time -- something often absent in traditional history texts. Additionally, this chapter explains the often unpleasant living conditions of the soldiers, and gives insight into their daily lives.
As Chapter Three commences, we find Eli on sick leave. His regiment continues on to Yorktown, where Eli joins them when he is well enough. Small details, such as discovering the soldiers taking pot shots at seagulls as they travel by boat, and Eli's authentic language as he writes home make the story all the more real. The 16th Regiment travels to Suffolk, Virginia, and Eli's letters trace the movement of the Federal Army as they close in on the Confederates. Unease rises as the reality of a battle becomes eminent.. On April 17, 1862, Eli is involved in the Battle of Lee's Mill, and the tension becomes palpable as the Confederates rally against the Federals. In a letter home, Eli describes this battle in vivid detail, and although he writes of a man being shot right next to him, his overall description is that it was fun. As Eli's letters continue, his tone becomes more serious and he describes some of the horrors of war, such as having to dine among the dead. He also becomes nostalgic about home.
In Chapter Four, Eli's regiment travels through the aftermath of the Battle of Manassas, and a letter home describes the carnage. The high death toll among the Yankee soldiers gives the Confederates false hope for a timely victory. During this period, as the 16th Regiment travels through Virginia and Maryland, the text and letters intertwine to detail the battles leading to Antietam. Eli's letters depict a shocking reality as he describes the losses of several friends and relatives in his brigade, as well as his own close calls with capture and death. Eli discusses a soldier's honor, as a response to being accused of cowardice in battle. This chapter also provides some captivating insight into the strategies of General Lee.
Chapter Five: Eli's company moves south to Fredericksburg. The text describes the conditions before the infamous battle. In anticipation of the exchange of fire, General Lee provides the local residents an opportunity to evacuate. Eli describes the exodus with a sympathetic pen, as many of the women and children had to walk barefoot in the cold. An intermingling of perspective between text and Eli's letters describe the gore of the battle. As the chapter closes, a calm has overtaken the 16th Regiment, and they become, unbelievably, restless for battle again.
The next chapter finds Eli and the Confederates still in Fredericksburg, awaiting spring. Eli writes, This war was forced on us by proud fanatics of the nation. It is no wonder he is becoming weary. The Yankees have a new commander, General Hooker, to lead the 125,000 Federal troops against the 60,000 Confederates. Stonewall Jackson is killed. The Battle of Chancellorsville occurs. Eli is a central figure in the battle and his letters home describing the grim facts are undeniably telling. After the battle, Eli's company is left with 36 men.
As the Confederates regroup and march to Gettysburg in Chapter Seven, Eli's letters attest to a rise in spirit. He is in good health and supplies are plentiful. It is striking to read his description of Yankee soil, the soil from an opposing country that has thus far been untouched by the war. The text continues to describe the events leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg, including the rarely told story of how the battle began. There are gaps in Eli's letters during this period, and while he does not write about Gettysburg, the author uses letters from other Confederate soldiers to continue the story of the infamous day.
The final chapter of Eli's story has him and his regiment moving toward Georgia as the war heats up in the west. As the troops travel by train, they have a stopover in Atlanta, but Eli misses seeing his family. He writes of his disappointment. Eli's last letter home is dated October 2, 1863. It is almost illegible. He is critically ill and dies October 16, 1863. He is spared the fighting at Knoxville.
The remainder of the book contains a reflective epilogue, Eli's extended family history, and additional letters that were not used in the main text. Throughout, maps and sketches are used to further enhance the reader's experience of the Civil War.
I have never before read an interpretation of any historical event that left me moved to tears as this one did. The haunting echo of Eli's voice reaching beyond the grave reveals indisputably the realities of war. Too often, remembrances of war are either romanticized or reduced to dates, places, and facts. Eli reminds us of the human side of war -- an important side for students to see if they are to learn of its terrible reality.
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Wings to Fly. Written by Celia Barker Lottridge; illustrated by Mary Jane Gerber. Toronto: Groundwood Book/Douglas & McIntyre, 1997. ISBN 0-88899-346-3. 209 pages. Recommended for ages 10 and up.
Don't you just love novels that have it all -- interesting characters, mystery, suspense, inspiring themes, exciting subplots that draw the reader emotionally into the story? Young readers are no different! They yearn for the same dimensions in their reading as adults do, and Wings to Fly has them.
This novel for young readers is a sequel to Ticket to Curlew. It is an inspiring tale of a young girl named Josie Ferrier who lives with her pioneer family on the Canadian prairie during the early 1920s. It is a fast-paced, multifaceted tale that is sure to captivate both boys and girls. Here are just a few of the highlights from the book.
First, young readers are likely to be drawn into trying to figure out the mystery of the silver house, a wooden house on the prairie that has been abandoned by a heartbroken farmer. Josie and her friend Margaret love to study the house, and they fantasize about living there. As they gain courage, the girls come closer and closer to the home. Eventually, they begin to peer in the windows and talk about the lonely, dusty rooms. On one of their many visits, they notice that someone has been to the house, cleaning it, and making it shine. But who?
Second, when Josie becomes enthralled with Katherine Stinson, a female aviator, young readers have opportunities to gain insight into the dawn of the women's movement. A family friend wishes to go to university and become an astronomer, in spite of others who tell her that it is not a woman's job. Josie's mother shows courage as she defends her rights as a taxpayer -- as well as refuses to bake bread simply because it is what a good farm wife is supposed to do.
Third, young readers will appreciate the suspense involved in stepping into a subplot involving survival. Josie gets stuck in subzero temperatures with a spooked pony. Will she find her way home?
Also inviting to young readers are inspiring moments of courage and determination that are interspersed throughout the novel. For example, Josie, her family, and friends experience the hardships of living on a newly settled prairie, including an influenza epidemic and brutally harsh weather. In their attemps to survive hostile situations, Josie and her family must take on extra work. Will they survive?
Most of all, Wings to Fly is a tale of courage and determination. It is especially admirable for its portrayal of strong female characters set in a time when woman had few legal rights. Josie Ferrier hasn't figured out what kind of woman she wants to be, but she certainly has learned about how to grow a mature woman's heart and how to stand on the convictions of her faith...and she can lead young readers to do the same.
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Matlack (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org) holds a bachelor's degree in speech correction and received her M.Ed. in early childhood education in Spring 1999 from the University of Georgia, Athens, GA, USA. She believes that children need to be offered authentic opportunities to write, both at home and in the classroom, and finds that the most meaningful instruction -- even for preschool children -- bridges reading and writing. Beth is currently working on her own journal writing at home while caring for her young family. She looks forward to returning to the education profession some time in the future.
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