Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Do You Believe in Magic?

I'm generally not a fan of fantasy or science fiction, but realistic books with just a touch of magic seem to me to be of a different class.  Plus they have none of that dystopian, end-of-the-world, battle-to-survive element which seem to cast such a shadow (in my opinion) over the fantasy and science fiction genre.  These, instead, are pretty realistic, except that, you know, the protagonist can fly, maybe, or travel through time.  A side benefit of the time travel ones is that they also function as historical fiction.  Many play with the idea of meeting one's parents or grandparents as children and changing the future.  (Does anyone else feel a sudden urge to watch Back to the Future?)  Here are some of my favorites.

Black and Blue Magic.  This lovely story of a fatherless boy who is given wings (literally) is really about the power of faith - whether in god or the possibility for goodness in people and in life.  Mistaken for an angel as he flies through the night sky of San Francisco, Harry gives those who have given up on life new hope.  As his neighbor says, "... a little more believing in things would do this world a lot of good.  You take all the believing out of life and it doesn't leave much room to grown in... and... the unbelievable can happen almost anywhere."  What a beautiful, uplifting sentiment.

Half Magic and other books by Edward Eager.  Edward Eager's books all involve time travel as well. In Half Magic, four siblings come into possession of a magic coin, which grants wishes by halves. Until they realize how to wish for double what they want (e.g. "I wish to go back in the distance of home but twice as far...), they end up in some pretty sticky situations.  His other books have similar twists, including times when the protagonists meet their parents as children.  Eager's protagonists go back in time to Camelot, the Revolutionary War, the time of the Underground Railroad, and other exciting times in history and literature, which may either spark an interest in those periods and/or stories, or leave young readers confused.  

The Magic Half.  Miri is a singleton born between two sets of twins... or is she?  When she goes back in time to 1935 and rescues Molly from an abusive cousin, she realizes that "Magic is just a way of setting things right."  A sequel, Magic in the Mix, was recently published.

Seven Stories Up and other books by Laurel Snyder.  Published 6 years after The Magic Half, these two books are eerily similar, right down to the time period that the protagonists go back to, the fact that they both "fix" their families, and the presence of a character named Molly!  When Annie goes back in time to 1937 and meets her grandmother as a child, she gains insight into her grandmother's prickly, unpleasant nature... and changes the future.  Seven Stories Up contains more historical details than The Magic Half and author Laurel Snyder includes a note at the end about the research she did and what things were really like for children in 1937.  Her book, Bigger than a Breadbox, also features magic, but this one is my favorite.

What are your favorite magical - but not scary or dystopian - books?

Monday, October 6, 2014

Library Round-Up #15, Part 2: Picture Books

Mini-reviews of what we're reading now.

Picture Books

Chengdu Would Not, Could Not Fall Asleep.  Beautiful art complements a book that addresses a problem everyone - adult or child - has had at one time or another, and how snuggling with mom or dad or sister or brother can sometimes solve it.

Are You Awake?   This would make a nice complement to Chengdu, as it is about a child who wakes too early.  Clever and sweet, it exactly captures how an exasperated and exhausted parent still treasures this special time with her child.  If it sounds like one of those books more appreciated by adults than kids, it's not.  My 6-year-old loved it.

Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas.  The true story of an elephant seal who chose to live in the Avon River and sun herself on the streets of Christchurch, New Zealand, despite  being repeatedly returned to what was allegedly her natural habitat.   A lovely book about how home is where we choose to make it, with fascinating facts in the back matter.
Twenty-One Elephants and Still Standing.  A work of historical fiction that tells of when P.T. Barnum's circus elephants traipsed over the Brooklyn Bridge to prove its safety and strength.  The compelling facts overcome the weakness and confusion of the text - is it free verse?  Is it prose?  Why does some of it rhyme?

The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon.  More historical fiction, with interesting facts about Audubon and about scientists' and philosophers' very unscientific speculations about which birds migrate.  Melissa Sweet's trademark collage style is a nice match for the text.  This would be great paired with Summer Birds: The Butterfliesof Maria Merian, about another naturalist/artist.

In Front of My House.  A great concept, this book situates the narrator's house in it's place in the universe: "On a little hill, behind a brown fence, under a big oak tree, is... my house.  In front of my house... a rosebush.  On the rosebush... a little bird."  What starts out as a charming goes on for far too long, however.  While sorely in need of editing, this is still a fun read, with lovely, simply artwork, if your child has the patience for it.

The Emperor and the Nightingale.  A beautiful, and beautifully illustrated, retelling of a Chinese folktale about the power of true art and nature to move us and how wild animals should not be caged.  In this version, the live nightingale lives to continue to entertain the emperor.  I seem to remember other versions where the nightingale falls silent once caged and either remains so or is finally set free never to return.  Can anyone refer me to those?

The Green Line.   A quiet meditation on a walk in the park, illustrated with photographs, and a child's delight in simple pleasures, like rolling down a hill and blowing on dandelions.  A lovely little book for a child in the right mood.

I'm in Charge of Celebrations. The child narrator tells the reader in free verse about all the things in nature she celebrates, such as a rabbit in the mist looking at a triple rainbow, meteor showers, and the animals and weather of the desert southwest.  Again, a book with a more quiet feel.

Yussel's Prayer.  A retelling of a Jewish folktale about a boy who is unable to pray the traditional Hebrew prayers and plays his flute instead.  It turns out his flute playing is more sincere than all the rote prayers recited by the congregation, and it is his tune which opens the gates of heaven.

A Library Book for Bear.  Curmudgeonly Bear is back, with his bright-eyed, irrepressible friend mouse.  Not quite as funny as the other Bear stories, my daughter was amusingly shocked (or shockingly amused?) at Bear's proclamation that he owns 7 books and that is all he needs.