Round-up Of Austin Books by Madeleine L’Engle
Posted by: Allison on: January 1, 2012
When I decide to review books by a favorite author, I approach my choice with both excitement and trepidation. I feel excitement over the chance to reread novels that I love. I feel trepidation over the possibility that those novels will have lost their appeal since I last read them. Thus, I felt both delighted and relieved to discover that Meet the Austins by Madeleine L’Engle still makes for a pleasurable and solid read. As for the remaining four Austin books, my feelings are mixed.
Here’s the funny thing about Meet the Austins. When I read it in elementary school, I found the pace slow and so almost never discovered Madeleine L’Engle. I reread Meet the Austins only after I fell for Madeleine L’Engle’s other books. Yet now upon rereading the Austin books, Meet the Austins is by far my favorite because of its rich thematic depth. The rest of the world almost never discovered Meet the Austins either, given that it was rejected by publishers for two years. Why? Because Madeleine L’Engle dared to write about the then-taboo subject of death. In first chapter, called “The Telephone Call,” the Austins receive a call from their close friend Elena that changes their lives. Her husband Hal had an accident with his plane. Both he and his co-pilot were killed instantly. The co-pilot had a little girl, who doesn’t have a mother. Guess who ultimately takes her in? As such, Meet the Austins is partly about grief. If you think that makes for a depressing book, take comfort: It’s more about understanding life itself. Vicky’s brother John most aptly puts it this way: “I don’t understand about anything. I don’t understand about people dying, and I don’t understand about families, about people being as close as we are, and then everyone growing up….” Meet the Austins is about even more, in that it’s also about family. Maggy rarely saw either of her parents, but was regularly left with nurses and governesses. In contrast, the Austins are a close-knit nuclear family with loving parents who take their time to talk with their children about the confusing events unfolding around them, but at the same time make clear that certain actions such as playing in their father’s office are wrong and therefore have consequences. Over the years, I’ve also grown to appreciate how subtly Madeleine L’Engle slipped in positive references to God; something that still remains unusual for a book not published in the religious market.
My rating? Bag it: Carry them with it. Make it a top priority to read.
How would you rate this book?
There are so many other compliments I could bestow on Meet the Austins. For example, I also like our first introduction to main character Vicky, who becomes the center of three of the subsequent Austin books. I’ll now turn to them, starting with The Moon by Night.
I discovered The Moon by Night in a high school library. After devouring it, I was hooked on Madeleine L’Engle. I love all the introspective passages from Vicky’s viewpoint. Her thoughts hook me from the very first page: “Indoors there was excitement and confusion and I guess a lot of happiness. I was the only one who seemed to be unhappy because nothing would ever be the same again. Up to a few days ago my life had been all of a piece, exciting sometimes and even miserable, but always following the same and simple pattern or home and school and family.” From this point onward, Vicky faces the confusion of change starting with the decision of her parents to move the family to New York. Then there’s the fact that her Uncle Douglas and Elena have gotten married. There’s also the fact that Maggy, who by the point has lived with the family for two years, will now move in with Uncle Douglas and Elena. To cushion all these changes, the Austin parents decide to take the family on a camping trip to California to visit the newlyweds. Along the way, however, Vicky encounters even more changes, starting with the car that sped through their campgrounds. As the car passed “something was flung out of the window and shattered against the side of our station wagon with a sound like an explosion.” This event leads to showdown with a gang, along with questions about stereotypes: Should the Austins be frightened by teenagers? Or should they resent Tennessee, the state in which this gang appeared? With the introduction of these questions, Madeleine L’Engle sets the stage for the arrival of troubled boy Zachary Gray. Through him, Vicky is forced to deal with the reality of evil and therefore questions about God’s part in it. Being a teenager facing my own first doubts when I first read this book, I found great comfort in Vicky’s conversation with her Uncle Douglas about faith. Since then, I have spent much time sorting through my questions about God. Oh, and I have also thought a lot about the nature of love, a topic that is naturally a large part of books for young adults. Yet I don’t know if anyone ever truly has all the answers about faith and love. For that reason, even as an adult, The Moon by Night still resonates with me.
My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.
How would you rate this book?
In high school, I probably would have flown through additional books about Vicky with as much fervor as readers today were sucked into each new Harry Potter book. Sadly, as an adult, I instead found myself a little impatient with Vicky in A Ring of Endless Light. Her family loves her. Two boys have been attracted to her. And, at the end of The Moon by Night, she knew who she was. Forgive me if I thought that A Ring of Endless Light, present a more mature Vicky. Yet Vicky is not quite sixteen. She is facing a funeral for the first time. She’s also facing death upfront and personal for the first time, in that her grandfather is dying of leukemia. And then there’s the dilemma of boys. Now she has three suitors! Leo, the son of old friend Commander Rodney, needs her in the face of his father’s death. Zachary is back, having flirted with suicide and needing her help holding the broken pieces of his life together. And then there’s new boy Adam, a friend of John, who asks for her help with—of all things—dolphin research. A previous love interest, Andy, has dropped out of the picture with no explanation. Despite my moments of impatience with Vicky, I still do like A Ring of Endless Light. Vicky has finally found a talent: creative writing. Adam turns out to be someone with whom she might just develop her first serious relationship. And throughout her encounters with death and love, Vicky must explore even more deeply what it means to live a life in God. For example, what does it mean to choose between light and dark? What burdens should we accept as servants of God? What is the purpose of prayer? And how much exactly does God involve Himself in our lives? Vicky faces a lot of choices in A Ring of Endless Light. The culmination of those choices makes for my favorite part of the book.
My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.
How would you rate this book?
And now I have reached that less-than-happy place in my roundup where I need to discuss the books that I didn’t like. The Young Unicorns takes place between the events of The Moon by Night and A Ring of Endless Light, but I choose not to refer to it above because I don’t consider it an Austin book. Yes, I know the Austins are featured as part of the lives of Josiah and Emily, but Vicky isn’t the main character. Moreover, The Young Unicorns is written from a third-person omniscient viewpoint. Enough said—at least in a roundup of books about the Austins.
If you haven’t figured out by now, despite my occasional impatience with her moods, Vicky is the reason I read the Austin books. For that reason, I was happy to recently discover Troubling a Star. The first few chapters also reunite us with her family and with love interest Adam Eddington from A Ring of Endless Light. Unfortunately, Troubling a Star left me dissatisfied. At the start, Vicky reveals that she wished for more than friendship from Adam. Yet she spends most of the book traveling to meet him and so nothing really ever has a chance to develop. With Troubling a Star being the last of the Austin books, we’re doomed to forever wonder if Vicky will ever find love. Near the start, Vicky also says that she feels lost and alien. Unlike in L’Engle’s earlier Austin books, however, I don’t feel that Vicky grows through her adventures to know more about faith, love, or really anything. Oh, there are references throughout to how the more we love, the more vulnerable we are. And through some of the multitude of characters we meet during Vicky’s voyage to the Antarctica, there is an exploration of what honor is. Yet neither of these applies to Vicky, who is already vulnerable and honorable, and so Vicky simply becomes a pawn in a novel about politics, ecology, drugs, and even murder. These are amongst the darkest issues to appear in the Austin books and so might have proved for an engrossing novel but instead left me cold. Part of the reason for my apathy is that there are far too many characters for me to care about. Of those whom I do get to know, their trustworthiness remains uncertain until the end and so again I really never feel comfortable caring about anyone. Through her conflicted characters, L’Engle might have wanted to explore the dual nature of man. Yet seems to me that Vicky still needed to have someone she could turn to, so that she has stability in the midst of chaos. In the end, maybe, Vicky isn’t the only reason I loved the Austin books. Perhaps, I also needed for her family and God to be right there with her, providing her with hope and answers.
My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.
How would you rate this book?
- Explorations of Family: Meet the Austins (tor.com)
Grace Lin’s Juvenile Fiction
Posted by: Allison on: December 17, 2011
Anyone remember the B is for Betsy and E is for Eddie books by Carolyn Haywood? These were favorite chapter books of Grace Lin during her childhood. In many ways, Haywood’s books are similar to Lin’s three semi-autobiographical books for eight to twelve-year olds: The Year of the Dog, The Year of the Rat, and Dumpling Days. Haywood and Lin both wrote stories about average children and the ordinary events that took place in their lives at home, in school, and around the neighborhood. The main difference is that Lin has written about her experiences growing up Asian in a mainly Caucasian community. Lin has compared her reading of the Betsy and Eddie books to being wrapped in a warm hug. Despite our different ethnic backgrounds, Lin’s books feel that comfortable to me too.
The Year of the Dog and The Year of the Rat both start and end with Pacy’s family celebrating the Chinese New Year. The dominant theme of these two books is also related to the year being celebrated: The Year of the Dog is about finding new friends; The Year of the Rat symbolizes changes. The newest installment of the Pacy books, Dumpling Days, is different in being about Pacy’s trip to China with her family. Like the other two books, however, the clue to the theme of the book can be found in the title: No matter how bad Pacy’s day has been, dumplings can always brighten it. All three books are also about family, friendship, and love. Moreover, Grace Lin mixes in a lot of Chinese culture. The latter is often revealed through family stories, which enhance rather than interrupt the plots, and in the superstitions of various relatives.
In The Year of the Dog, Pacy makes a new friend. If you think this friendship theme is overdone, the twist is that before Melody’s family moves into the neighborhood Pacy has been the only Asian girl in school. The day Melody arrives at school, Pacy is lined up in the cafeteria as usual for lunch. The lunch lady initially refuses to serve Pacy because she thinks she’s just served her. That’s when Pacy discovers to her great delight that she’s no longer the only Asian around. If now you’re thinking instead that this is another book about prejudice, you’d be wrong. That is not to say she doesn’t sometimes encounter racism, as when she attends a Taiwanese-American Camp (TAC), the Asian girls call her “Twinkie” because Pacy can’t speak Chinese and so has been in their words “Americanized”. Mostly though, Year of the Dog is a fun mix of small and big moments in Pacy’s life with her family and friends. For example, upon the birth of their cousin Albert, Pacy and her two sisters (Lissy and Ki-ki) color eggs red. Older sister Lissy tells Pacy that not all Chinese babies get Red Egg parties: “You didn’t.” When Pacy asks why, Lissy says it’s probably because Pacy was a sick baby. When younger sister Ki-Ki explains that Pacy got sick from ammonia, the two try to rid the house of it—much to the amusement of Lissy. Another day, after Melody and Pacy become best friends, the two girls stuff themselves with children’s chewable vitamins because Melody’s family keeps only healthy food in the house. Then there is the school book contest. One day the librarian comes to their art class and announces a book contest, wherein the winning entry is to be published. Pacy discovers “herself” through the book contest: She decides to make books when she grows up!
In The Year of the Rat, one of the changes that Pacy faces is saying good-bye to Melody, whose family moves from New York to California. Yes, I know this can be a cliché. By removing a friend from the picture, an author is left with the ability to introduce new friends and hence new adventures. Remember, though, Grace Lin’s books are semi-autobiographical; Melody’s family is based on a real situation, which Lin weaves into her sweet and charming tale of family and friendship. In drawing upon her Asian heritage, she also ensures that her tales are unique. For example, one day the family heads off to Albany to visit Pacy’s cousin Max who is turning one. Presents are opened, platters of food are served, and then Uncle Clifford brings out the destiny plate. Each item placed on the plate symbolizes a different job. Whichever one Max picks is thought represent the job he will one day hold. True to what you might expect from a toddler, Max just wants to eat his cake. Maybe he’ll be a baker? One of my favorite and bittersweet moments in the book occurs when Pacy helps Melody pack. Melody is told she can’t take all her books with her and so must give half to Pacy. The girls struggle to pick who will get which books, until they hit upon a compromise. After Pacy is done with with a book, she’ll mail it back to Melody. In the aftermath of this plan, a funny incident happens that I’ll leave to you to find. As with The Year of the Dog, not everything is perky and light. Pacy continues to struggle to find balance in her mixed identity as American and Chinese, especially when her peers try to match her with a new Asian boy at school solely based on their common ethnic background. After being cautioned that writers and artists are typically poor, she also begins to explore the wisdom of her career choice.
If you think that “dumplings can brighten your day” is lame for a theme, you might be right. For several chapters of Dumpling Days, I found myself wondering if it would be all about new sights, new food, and new relatives. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, it is kind of like being awestruck by a movie simply because of its special effects. At some point, the glitter loses its sparkle. So as much as Lin made me desire to see China, and especially sample its delectable foods, I reached a point where I wanted Dumpling Days to be about something more than just Pacy’s trip to China. Eventually, a theme did emerge: identity. While in China, Pacy is introduced to Ghost Month. During this month, Chinese people make food or burn special money for ghosts to have in the spirit world. Throughout Pacy’s visit in China she encounters those who dislike her because she can’t speak Chinese and so compares herself to the forgotten or lost ghosts. Pacy comes to eventually realize that even her parents and relatives struggle with their identity or “ghosts” too. For example, Pacy’s mom (who grew up in China) feels sad after her purse is stolen—because pickpockets normally only target outsiders. Not everything in Dumping Days is gloomy and serious. There are plenty of fun moments such as when Uncle Clifford takes the sisters for a ride on his scooter. My favorite is when the girls are feeling cranky from jet lag, but perk up when they hear a chiming, jolly song which they mistake for the sound of the ice-cream truck. In China, the garbage truck plays music so that everyone knows when to throw out their garbage. Yet for all the festive and silly episodes in Dumpling Days, it remains the most reflective of Lin’s three semi-autobiographical books.
The Year of the Dog, The Year of the Rat, and Dumpling Days are all about a normal family without princesses or magic. In contrast, Lin’s Newbery Honor book Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a fantasy inspired by Chinese folklore. In the tradition of journey stories, this is about Minli, who goes on a trip to seek a solution to a problem. Her family work hard in the fields but are still poor. Minli seeks the Man of the Moon to ask how the family can change their fortune. As in The Wizard of Oz, Minli meets characters along the way who also need help from the Man of the Moon. Unlike in The Wizard of Oz, only one travels with her: a dragon who can’t fly. In what seems almost too conveniently like The Wizard of Oz, these two comrades encounter evil monkeys when trying to cross the woods to their destination. Other dangers are more original to Lin such as a poisonous tiger. I recognized two motifs from folklore: the disguised king and sacrificed children. Others such as the guardians of the city, the borrowed line, and the fruitless mountain may or may not be derived from Chinese tales with which I am less familiar. In any event, Lin has seamlessly blended various aspects of folklore into one beautiful story. Readers familiar with Lin’s aforementioned chapter books will appreciate that most chapters also contain a mini-story. Many of these are told by Minli’s father; others are told by those whom Minli meets on her way to find the Man of the Moon. What makes Lin’s books so special are their themes of family, friendship, love, and heritage. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon has another theme, which is found in the answer to Minli’s question about how her family can change their fortune. I’ll leave it for you to discover. Happy reading!
Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Posted by: Allison on: July 17, 2010
Lucy Maud Montgomery is one of my absolute favorite authors. She is Canadian like me and situated her stories in her beloved province of Prince Edward Island. Her first book Anne of Green Gables, published in 1908, has sold more than 50 million copies and become a classic orphan story. For these reasons, I felt nervous about reviewing her book. However do I critique a book which has so strongly won the heart of myself and so many people worldwide?
For those unfamilar with Montgomery’s book, this is the story of a red-headed orphan girl sent to Marilla Cuthbert and her brother Matthew by mistake. They had requested a boy from a nearby orphanage to help with the farmwork but by providence received a girl. Anne Shirley was no ordinary girl either. For one thing, she wanted her name spelled with an E. Actually, she would rather be called Cordelia. For another, she had hair as “red as carrots” and a temper just as furious. She was a girl of moods and imagination, both of which landed her in no small heap of trouble.
Snakes by Sandra Markle
Posted by: Allison on: May 22, 2011
The reviews from my students are in! For the most part, everyone liked Snakes Biggest! Littlest! by Sandra Markle. What are your favorite books about snakes? If you check out this one, come back and post your opinion too.
Snakes are a really cool reptile! They eat people whole. They can kill you when they spit venom. The snake’s tail can act like a worm and trick frogs and toads to jumping at it. Then the snake gets its prey. The pictures show a snake eating a bird, a snake that camouflaged itself in the desert, and how the snake rolls up its tongue. There isn’t anything I didn’t like about the book. I really liked all of it!
Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
Posted by: Allison on: June 19, 2011
“If you do not wish to read a story of tragedy and sadness, this is your very last chance.” However, should you wish to read a book in which tragedy after tragedy befalls about main characters, I encourage you to keep reading my review. For it is my sad duty to tell you dire situations will plague the Baudelaire children, starting with the house fire that robs them of their parents, their home, and happy life. Just remember: You have been warned!
Daniel Handler Book Reading and Signing Event
Posted by: Allison on: June 18, 2011
Has anyone seen Lemony Snicket? It’s 6:00, the crowds are gathering and activities are in progress
Secret Agent Jack Stalwart: Books #13 and #14
Posted by: Allison on: December 10, 2011
“Before I get to my review of the Secret Agent Jack Stalwart books by Elizabeth Singer Hunt, here’s a three-word review from some of my students: “These are tight!” If you aren’t familiar with the lingo, “tight” is a compliment.
No, this isn’t another student review. Sarah Burningham of Little Bird Publicity sent me books #13 and #14 of this popular series. After I read my two copies, I felt the books had a lot of appealing features but I also wasn’t sure whether to recommend them. And so I took them to their target audience: reluctant readers. Throughout my review, I will be sharing the perspectives of some of my students.
Let’s start with what’s “tight” about Secret Agent Jack Stalwart: Hunt for the Yeti Skull and Secret Agent Jack Stalwart: Mission to Find Max. While mystery books do exist for five-to-eight-year-olds, the Jack Stalwart books are the first series about a secret agent. And what kid doesn’t like a good secret agent story? Next, there are the covers. They’re bright, bold, and immediately attracted my students. Based on the cover alone, one student wanted to know where he could buy the books. Inside are several pages of information: a map showing the country where Jack will visit, information related to Jack’s destination and the stolen artifact, two pages from the Global Protection Force which Jack works for, descriptions of the agent gear available to Jack, and information about his family. Incidentally, his family knows nothing about Jack’s second life. And what kid doesn’t dream of a secret identity? Also, his brother used to work for the agency but throughout the series is missing in action. As for all the data, it made me sentimental for the popular 1980’s Carmen Sandiego computer games, where one plays the part of a detective who used geographical knowledge to capture criminals. Knowing that elementary-aged students often prefer nonfiction, I thought these informational pages would have great appeal—but perhaps that was the adult in me. While I studied the information, half my students just wanted to know where the first chapter began. The last “tight” feature about the Jack Stalwart series is that they are heavy in good action. While I wouldn’t rank action at the top of my favorite genres, I did grow up enjoying classics in the adventure genre. Moreover, I can easily site movie scenes that glued me to my seat while also looking incredibly fun. In other words, I appreciate well-crafted action! So do my students, who have reacted to these books with the same enthusiasm they normally reserve for sports. Any book that can turn my reluctant readers on to fiction wins my favor.
Now for what’s not so “tight” about Secret Agent Jack Stalwart: Hunt for the Yeti Skull and Secret Agent Jack Stalwart: Mission to Find Max. I’m starting to realize that I need to read a greater variety of primary books. Greater exposure might just negate my number one problem: The writing style is, oh, so simple. Here is a sample paragraph: “Jack looked towards the glass exit doors. As always, his dad was waiting for him. Jack said goodbye to Richard and walked over to his father.” Yet it’s exactly this low vocabulary that kept my students drawn to the Jack Stalwart books. Incidentally, my students are too old for picture books, but they also aren’t ready to read the majority of chapter books that the rest of their peers are reading. Herein lies my conundrum as a resource teacher. Jack Stalwart books to the rescue! Nothing that I’ve read about the author indicates she deliberately set out to write high interest low vocabulary books, but that is how I’d categorize these books. Now what does all this mean for me as a reader? I found the “information dumps” intrusive. Jack also seemed able to find the bad guys and the stolen treasures far too easily, given that my tastes in action books run the gamut from Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys series to Robert Louis Stevenson. Ultimately, the books for me were a fun one-time read.
However, if you’re looking for that perfect gift for young readers ready to move on from picture books (but are not quite ready for Harry Potter) the Secret Agent Jack Stalwart series is a great place to start. As for which book to begin with, each book in the series is standalone and so you could easily start with In Hunt for the Yeti Skull. In it, Jack and two fellow kid agents use climbing skills to tackle Mount Everest, while they look for a team of missing scientists who were carrying the first true Yeti skull. Who doesn’t wonder if this mysterious creature exists? You could also pick up any of the other twelve earlier books. A sample chapter for each of them is available on author Elizabeth Singer Hunt’s website. Then there’s Mission to Find Max, the last book in the series. As I noted above, Jack’s brother used to work for the agency but throughout the series is missing in action. In it, while renewing a search for his brother, Jack meets up with a girl agent and discovers King Tut’s diamond might be the clue to finding his brother. So, while I liked the Max book more than the Yeti one, I’d recommend keeping Max until the end; it sums up the series and will make a satisfying finish to an action-packed read.
My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.
How would you rate this book?
Have a reluctant young reader on your holiday list? Post a comment to my review or interview to have a chance to win one of the final two Secret Agent Jack Stalwart books. You must live in the continental United States to enter. See the right column for more details.
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Round-up of Writing Guides for Young People
Posted by: Allison on: August 28, 2011
For this round-up, I read five writing guides new to me. All of them were on how to write fiction, rather than nonfiction or other projects such as letters. As such, they all included a chapter on how to come up with ideas. They also all covered most of the basic elements of stories: plot, character, point of view, dialog, and conflict. The two shortest books omitted the
main character’s motivation or the story’s theme. Did you notice there’s another element that I didn’t list? Even in many adult writing guides, information about setting is sparse although adult guides often at least discuss how to build atmosphere.
What Do Authors Do? by Eileen Christelow
Posted by: Allison on: September 24, 2011
One of my favorite lessons to teach during our writing launch at school is based on a mentor text called What Do Authors Do? by Eileen Christelow. Told through a combination of short sentences and comic-illustrations, What Do Authors Do? is surprisingly thorough in its coverage of the writing process for primary grades. The bright and bold artwork also makes it a fun read. When I heard Eileen Christelow was one of the guest authors at our local Plum Creek Literacy Festival this year, I decided it was time to buy my own hardcover copy. Hopefully, this Saturday, I’ll hear her speak and get my book autographed.