Book: Thora and the Green Sea-Unicorn

Thora and the Green Sea-UnicornThora and the Green Sea-Unicorn
Gillian Johnson
2005 (HarperCollins)

Thora is a half-mermaid who travels around the world in a boat with her mermaid mother, a British guardian, Cosmo the peacock and Shirley the Sea-Unicorn. At the beginning of the book they have arrived in London because Mr. Walters, Thora’s Guardian Angle, is sick and they think he might feel better on home soil. As soon as they arrive, however, they are spotted by Pamela P. Poutine, a mermaid who has been living in London by selling rare aquatic creatures to a collector in Japan. Pamela imediately decides to capture Shirley and begins plotting mischief. Eventually, Thora’s little family (minus Shirley) ends up moving temporarily to a country estate owned by one of Mr. Walter’s friends while Pamela franticly searches for the little Sea-Unicorn in London. Thora makes friends with the daughter of the estate and the two girls plot extensively to solve the money troubles faced by the duke.

This is a fun, energetic book and for the most part I enjoyed it a lot. The characters were a lot of fun, and I was surprised how much personality some of them got with relatively little time devoted to them (like Pamela’s assistant and Halla, Thora’s mother). Thora had the extremely annoying habit of frequently using the wrong word when she meant something completely different that sounded syntacticly similar. Thankfully Louella, the other child character, does not suffer from this flaw and actually corrects Thora from time to time (unlike the adults, who seem to ignore it). I really enjoyed reading about Thora and found her appealing, even with her annoying vocabulary problems!
The plot is surprisingly complex and interesting. There are numerous threads and Johnson weaves them together wonderfully well. The plot with Shirley’s attempted kidnapping and then disappearance, the thread of Halla’s past and what Pamela might or might not know about it, Pamela’s interest in the family besides Shirley, the plot surrounding the financial troubles at Snug and the croquet court fiasco, Blandina’s motivation at relationship with Jerome, and any number of other things all weave together to make a very complicated story that is, somehow, very easy to follow. Somehow Johnson manages to juggle all these threads and not drop any so that she arrives at a wonderfully satisfying ending. I was really impressed with the ending of this book and how incredibly satisfying it was, given that she had made us sympathize with Pamela but also see that she was certainly was not a good person. It was great.

I really enjoyed this book! It was fun and fast-paced and entertaining. The illustrations were absolutely central and served to help a lot with telling the story and make it fun. The characters were interesting and appealing. I definitely want to read more about Thora and her adventures on the Loki and I look forward to more fun stories about her from Gillian Johnson!

Book: Gender Play

Gender PlayGender Play: Girls and Boys in School
Barrie Thorne
1994 (Rutgers University Press)

Barrie Thorne studied the interactions among children at two different schools and in a few different classrooms with a focus on the gender relations. She looked at not only how boys and girls interacted when they were separate groups, but also how they interacted when they were integrated. She has a mountain of data from what seems like months of observation. She sat in class with these children, ate lunch with them and walked around on the playground with them. She had a great view of the children’s interactions and did a good job of trying to record what they did without the interference of adults, but she never loses sight of the fact that her very presence is adult interference.

This is certainly an interesting study. Thorne examines a number of theories about children’s development, particularly as concerns gender and gendered interactions, and attempts to construct her own theories on the subject. The problem is that Thorne really doesn’t want to over generalize. The biggest problems she finds in existing theories are because of over generalization of the data, and that is certainly a valid concern, but you have to simplify the data a little bit or you can’t make any logical conclusions from it. It’s very hard to create a coherent theory about anything that doesn’t simplify the data somewhat. It just doesn’t seem possible to make a theory that incorporates every piece of data and works as a useful theory.

This was a really interesting book and I highly recommend it. The data is fascinating and the anecdotes are great. It really makes you think about the way the environment kids are surrounded by might influence how they think of gender and how they think of it themselves. I wanted to go watch kids play in a park or something after reading this. It also made me think about what to pay attention to when I’m raising children of my own. I’d love to see more teachers think about these things, to be honest. This is a very interesting and thought-provoking book.

Poetry Friday: Birdsong

Jenny WrenI was just getting used to birdsong when the rain came back, so today I’m going to share a nursery rhyme from Mother Goose that tells a story about two little songbirds!

When Jenny Wren Was Young

‘Twas once upon a time, when Jenny Wren was young,
So daintily she danced and so prettily she sung,
Robin Redbreast lost his heart, for he was a gallant bird.
So he doffed his had to Jenny Wren, requesting to be heard.

“Oh, dearest Jenny Wren, if you will but be mine,
You shall feed on cherry pie and drink new current wine,
I’ll dress you like a goldfinch or any peacock gay,
So, dearest Jen, if you’ll be mine, let us appoint the day.”

Jenny blushed behind her fan and thus declared her mind:
“Since, dearest Bob, I love you well, I’ll take your offer kind.
Cherry pie is very nice and so is current wine,
But I must wear my plain brown gown and never go too fine.”

There’s a round up of Poetry Friday posts for today at a wrung sponge.

Tragic Heroes in Children’s Literature

Peter Pan and WendyA little while back there was some discussion in the kidlitosphere about tragic figures in children’s books. Since then I’ve been thinking about the topic and I recently went back and read what everyone else had posted on it and decided I really should just write about what I’ve been thinking.  I think the best post on the subject was Brooke’s at The Brookeshelf. She stated that the place to find real tragic figures would require going “back to a time before modernism hit the kidlit world”, back to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” and “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”. I can’t help but agree with her that Andersen’s mermaid and soldier are tragic figures.

I also found more of these types of figures in kidlit past than in its present, since, as she says, most of today’s books end with an “ever-pervasive “sense of hope” that leads us to believe that something good still exists for the protagonist in the future.” But I’m not sure that a sense of hope necessarily excludes one from being a tragic figure. It certainly doesn’t help, but one can still be tragic in that moment even if the future might not be. Spiderman almost always hopes that the future will be better, but he is a tragic figure just the same. If he wasn’t hoping for a better future, and we weren’t hoping for it for him, he wouldn’t continue doing what he does (thus continuing the printing of his comics) and we wouldn’t continue imitating him, dressing up as him and buying those comics. Constant misery does not sell comics, so he has to have some hope – but he is still a pretty tragic figure when you look at his story in the bigger picture (I would look at his comic story here, not his movie story, in which things turn out much better much faster for Peter Parker and why he’s a hero is much clearer).

Maybe the rise of movies as a medium of entertainment, and the storytelling tropes that are accepted within that medium, are part of why tragic figures are either rarer or more undercover today, depending on how you define the term “tragic”. Movies are essentially short stories and don’t require much in the way of an attention span. As such, we don’t expect them to ask much of us, in general. While a good, thought provoking movie might be really nice once in a while, do you really want every two-hour movie to make you ponder life’s great mysteries for hours and hours after you see it? Probably not. A lot of the time, you really just want two hours of a good, entertaining story. Tragic heroes make you think, at least when they are done well. They are upsetting, exciting, and thought provoking. They raise conversation, even debate. I like that in a movie, but a lot of people don’t. I can’t think of a lot of tragic figures in movies either. And the few I can think of are mostly in trilogies based on books, which implies that it takes more time to tell the complex stories of a tragic hero. Perhaps because we are getting used to the storytelling in movies, the tragic hero is becoming less common in books as well (or perhaps more authors are writing books they want made into movies, but that’s very cynical and I hope isn’t the motivation of too many authors when they write). Just a thought.

It just seems that while tragic figures still appear, they are rarer and rarer and seem to almost want to hide what they are. Figures like Peter Pan, whose tragic nature is subtle and almost heartbreaking but right out in the open, are fairly rare these days. I don’t think it’s just children’s literature, but since that’s mostly what I read, I’m not the best judge. Maybe there’s a whole slew of tragic figures in adult fiction today that I know nothing about. Who knows? I just know that when I read a book with a true tragic figure, it gets to me in a very real way. It makes me what to get other people to read the book and talk about it. Tragedy is powerful and thoughtful and very human. I hope the art of telling tragic stories isn’t a dying art, because that would make me very sad.

Book: Jim the Boy

Jim the BoyJim the Boy
Tony Earley
2000 (Back Bay/Little Brown)

This is the story of Jim, a ten year old boy living on a North Carolina farm during the depression in a town that doesn’t appear to have been particularly hard hit by the depression with his mother and three uncles. His father died suddenly a week before he was born and it seriously messed with his mother’s head so that she never got over it. Jim doesn’t seem to feel any big loss at not having a father because he has three uncles constantly caring for him and his slightly crazy mother. The book has no real plot, it just meanders through the year between Jim’s tenth and eleventh birthdays, stopping when notable and not-so-notable things happen. Throughout the year Jim makes friends with a boy who lives on the mountain where his father grew up. They often seem to see each other as rivals, but when it comes down to it they are the best of friends. Several episodes in the book are their various experiences together.

The writing in this book is amazing. It flows wonderfully and reads aloud beautifully. The problem is that often it’s not saying much. Writing alone cannot make a solid book that holds my attention, and that’s what it felt like this book was trying to do. For the most part, almost nothing really happened. Each chapter was pretty much self-contained and often what happened in it was never mentioned afterwards. The best example of this was a very long, rambling chapter where one of the uncles took Jim to South Carolina to buy some horses. When the got there, the horses were dead and the man who was going to sell them had been arrested (he’d shot the horses so no one would steal them while he was in jail). So they drove to the ocean and stared at it for a few minutes and drove home. This episode was never mentioned again, but it was the longest single chapter in the entire book and a whole section by itself. Why was this important? I have no earthly idea. So while I liked the writing, and stories the uncles told from their memories tended to be really amusing and interesting, the actual story in the book was not terribly engaging. And whenever it started to be interesting, the thread of plot was dropped and forgotten and the story moved on to something entirely different. I also felt like the characters didn’t get as much depth as I would have liked, even Jim. They all seemed somehow very flat to me, especially Jim’s mother. For as much face time as these characters got, I should have had a better sense of who they were as people, but I didn’t. None of them particularly stood out to me as being a strong character in any real way.

I’m just not sure what held this book together since it lacked plot and it lacked characters of note. I think this book, for me anyway, was really kind of forgettable. That makes me a little sad, since the writing was so good. I felt like this wasn’t an author who should be writing novels, though. This was a terrible novel, but it might have been a decent collection of short stories with a few modifications. I would love to read short stories by Earley, which I think he’d be brilliant at writing, but I doubt I’ll ever pick up a novel by him again. And as to the “all-age” appropriateness of this book I was promised, that didn’t pan out either. I can’t imagine a kid who’d get (or even sit all the way through) this book. Sorry, this was solidly an adult book, and not even one I’d recommend.

Television: The 10th Kingdom

The 10th KingdomThis was a miniseries about a woman from New York City who gets pulled into the world of fairy tales (the Nine Kingdoms).  The woman, whose name is Virginia, travels with her father, a prince who has been enchanted to look like a dog, and a man who is really a wolf (and in love with her).  They are trying to retrieve the magic mirror that will let them return to Manhattan and the prince is trying to save his kingdom.  A wicked queen is trying to take over the kingdom with a dog who has been enchanted to look like the prince.  Everything is very complicated and fairy tale references abound.  Chance plays a big part in the whole adventure, but it is highly entertaining and surprisingly well-woven together.  The story is interesting and enjoyable.

One of the things I found most interesting was the mythology of the Nine Kingdoms themselves.  The story took place two generations after the great fairy tale women supposedly ruled and made the lands great – and it was stressed that it was the women who made the kingdoms what they were (in general, their husbands were barely mentioned).   I was also surprised by who the five women were – Queen Snow White, Queen Cinderella, Queen Riding Hood (?), Gretel, and the Lady Rapunzel.  Gretel’s rank was not stated, how Riding Hood became a queen was never explained, and why Rapunzel was listed as a lady and not a princess was likewise never explained.  Snow White was the most talked about as she was the prince/dog’s grandmother and actually showed up as a fairy godmother sort of figure when they found her grave (death evidently isn’t as permanent in the Nine Kingdoms as it is here).  Her husband was also the only one mentioned – on her tomb and in the town based around where they fell in love.  As far as the movie was concerned, the other women may as well not have had husbands (and perhaps Riding Hood and Gretel did not, we don’t know).  It was interesting that in this world, though, it was clear that women are the historical leaders, both good and bad.

I found the interesting ways they worked in various references, artifacts, spells, curses, and effects from different tales and legends from around the world fascinating.  They were surprisingly varied and often quite subtly employed.  I most liked that the writers were clearly working from the classic Grimms’ versions of the German stories, especially Snow White, rather than the cleaned up and shortened versions we most often hear told today.  For example, the poisoned comb was a major plot point.  Many of the other details usually left out of the story were used as well.  The parts of the story that took place in New York were not as good as those in the Nine Kingdoms.  They felt more clunky and it just didn’t make as much sense.  The miniseries got a lot better once all the characters had fully crossed into the fairy tale world.

I very much enjoyed this miniseries.  It was fun and well told, if a little strange at times.  I doubt that my husband would have enjoyed it as much as I did, but I think that it required a certain appreciation for the type of story that they were telling.  I would definitely recommend it for fans of fairy tales and fairy tale retellings.  It is an entertaining experience, although a long one as well.  And the DVD breaks always come right when you want to know what is going to happen next!

Book: Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies)

Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies)Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies)
Justina Chen Headley
2006 (Little, Brown & Co.)

This is the story of Patty Ho and the summer after her freshman year of high school. Patty is half-Taiwanese and half-white, which causes her all manner of problems with identity and fitting in. Her community is small and nearly all white, so she and the few other Asian teenagers stick out a lot. But her biggest problem comes when a woman reads her fortune through her belly button and predicts that she will end up with a white guy, which sends her mother through the roof. She is shipped off to math camp at Stanford for the summer to meet a nice Taiwanese boy and stay out of trouble (or so her mother thinks). But of course, that isn’t what happens. She meets Jasmine, who teaches her that being Hapa (half-Asian) isn’t so bad and goes through the emotional roller coasters that are necessary for all teenagers at camp.

The first thing that struck me about this book was how fantastic the writing was. It’s absolutely phenomenal and draws you in. You can’t help laughing at the humor (of which there is a lot) and feeling exasperated right along with Patty at the ridiculousness of things that happen. One of the things I liked was that we always get enough context so that even though we see everything from Patty’s point of view, it is clear to the audience when she is being dumb (and sometimes she is). The “Mama Lecture Series” was one of my favorite parts of the book. It was her way of denoting when Patty’s mother had launched into a lecture that Patty heard over and over and the introduction was hysterical, something every kid (even non-Asian ones) will be able to relate to. One of the most difficult situations in the book was very early on, when a classmate literally spits on Patty after throwing a racial slur at her. Headley handled the situation perfectly. Every character reacted exactly the way real teenagers would – by standing there in shock as the bully laughs thinking he’s been brilliant. No one says or does anything because they are too surprised to do or say anything and once he drives off and the moment of shock passes, Patty just sinks knowing that there’s nothing she can do about it because of who he is (his mother is on the school board), so even if she reports it there will be no consequences. And she is frustrated. It was perfect. Absolutely perfect. You felt frustrated and angry and helpless right along with her.

The weakest parts of the book were the white girls Patty encounters. First there was her friend, who kept saying “that’s so Chinesey!” and generally was just very annoying. I was very happy when Patty left for camp and she was out of the picture. At Stanford, however, we are introduced to Katie, a spoiled rich brat who Patty calls “Malibu Barbie” and who, for all intents and purposes is Barbie. She had no depth at all, which really stood out next to the incredibly interesting Jasmine and Brian. She was a perfect stereotype and neither the author nor Patty ever made any attempt to go any deeper with her. She really had no depth. She was there to be hated and nothing else. Now, I’m ok with a character like that in many books, but this book was supposed to be about breaking through stereotypes. I was just a little bothered by the walking talking bitchy Barbie stereotype stomping through the middle of it distracting me from the otherwise very solid message-sending book.

The best part of this book was the focus on language and words. It was wonderfully subtle, but definitely present throughout the beginning and most of the middle. It wasn’t until maybe three-quarters of the way through that I figured out that labels and words had been the whole focus of the book all along. From the very first line Headley played with the way people label themselves and others, with a heavy focus on labels for Asians and partial-Asians. She did a great job of weaving that idea throughout with the exploration of the word Hapa and the labels Patty had for everyone from the “China Dolls” to herself. I even liked how she worked in the “naming lab”. It all worked together really well.

Overall I was quite impressed with this book. I wouldn’t say it was one of the best teen books I’ve read or anything, but it was definitely solid and had a lot going for it. It certainly had a lot more substance and more to think about than a lot of what is being offered for teen girls at the moment. Patty was a real, interesting character and I enjoyed reading about her. I would love to read more from Headley and look forward to seeing what she comes out with next as I think her work will only get better, and that bodes well! I do certainly recommend this book to anyone who thought it sounded at all interesting.

Movie: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Charlie and the Chocolate FactoryCharlie and the Chocolate Factory was a fun and wonderfully well done movie.  The casting was brilliant.  Charlie was charming and his grandfather, played by David Kelly, was just perfect.  Willy Wonka was great as well – funny, endearing, logical in his own quirky way, and just the littlest bit creepy.  The four other children and their parents were good too, each seemed to really grasp what made their characters tick and they certainly made us love to hate them!  The sets and costumes were fantastic, making for amazing visuals.  I particularly loved Wonka’s costumes.  The lush fabrics and slightly old-fashioned style were just right for his personality.  The Oompa Loompas were wonderful, they presented a great visual image and their songs, while not exactly catchy, were extremely appropriate in each situation.  My favorite song from the movie by far, however, was the welcome song.  The sets were beautiful and quirky (the boat, which appeared to be injection-molded plastic, was great), which presented the perfect image for the surreal story.  I really enjoyed this story.

The movie was a reasonable interpretation of the book and stood quite well on its own.  I was more impressed with this movie than with the old version in some ways, but they really are two completely different movies and quite difficult to compare.  This was a fun, energetic movie and I enjoyed it a lot.