The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Captain’s Log: Module 4

Port of Call: Gaiman, N. (2008). The Graveyard book. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

First Lines: There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife…

 

Cover of The Graveyard Book

Summary: An assassin has murdered a family sleeping in their beds, all except for the baby who likes to crawl out of his crib. Luckily, he has escaped the night of the murder, and toddled up the road to a nearby graveyard. The assassin is hunting for the child, but the citizens of the graveyard decide to protect him and raise him as their own. The boy is named Nobody, Bod for short, and is given the Freedom of the Graveyard, the ability to move as the dead do, and walk through walls, and more, so long as he remains within the graveyard’s walls.

The assassin is still looking for Bod though, and as the boy grows older and wonders more about the world outside the graveyard he finds himself wanting to explore outside his childhood home. Bod makes friends, but faces dangers too, and in the end he must face the killer who murdered his family.

First Impressions: I had not read any of Neil Gaiman’s works before, though I knew quite a bit about him as an author, since I follow his blog. I was not surprised at how well the story flowed, and I think also that this book managed to remain light-hearted and not particularly scary in spite of the grisly intro and the macabre setting.

Suggestions for use: This book is perfect for middle-schoolers and is already quite popular with many children that age. Wonderful reading for Halloween time, or for entertainment at any time. Many teachers talk about reading this book to their class with great success.

Reviews:

“With best-selling books for adults and children — including “Coraline,” a brand-new animated movie — Neil Gaiman has carved out a passionate following in the world of fairy tale and fantasy. Now his latest novel for children, “The Graveyard Book,” has won a top literary honor as well: this year’s Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature. After the prize was announced last month, a debate ensued among teachers, librarians and critics about whether the selection of a popular author was a departure for the Newbery, one of the most prestigious prizes in children’s books — and, if so, whether it was a welcome one. Gaiman himself seemed surprised by the honor. “There are books that are best sellers and books that are winners,” he said in an interview with The New York Times.

But none of this will matter to readers — for “The Graveyard Book,” by turns exciting and witty, sinister and tender, shows Gaiman at the top of his form.

The story opens with a pretty terrifying situation: a man has slaughtered a family in the middle of the night, all save a toddler who escapes unnoticed, walking out the front door and away from the mayhem. (Parents may worry about the violence, but they shouldn’t. The action isn’t described, and the fourth-grade class I read the book to had no problem whatsoever.)

Up the hill trots the toddler, to a graveyard full of ghosts who take him in. The tone shifts elegantly from horror to suspense to domesticity, and by the end of the first chapter Gaiman has established the graveyard as the story’s center. Within its reassuringly locked gates, the boy finds a safe and cozy place to grow up. (Gaiman has said that “The Jungle Book” was one of his influences.)

Among the dead are teachers, workers, wealthy prigs, romantics, pragmatists and even a few children — a village ready to raise a living child. And they do, ably led by Silas, an enigmatic character who is not really one of them, being not quite dead and not quite living. In this moonlit place, the boy — who is given the name Nobody Owens, or Bod for short — has adventures, makes friends (not all of them dead), and begins to learn about his past and consider his future. Along the way, he encounters hideous ghouls, a witch, middle school bullies and an otherworldly fraternal order that holds the secret to his family’s murder. When he is 12 things change, and the novel’s momentum and tension pick up as he learns why he’s been in the graveyard all this time and what he needs to do to leave.

While “The Graveyard Book” will entertain people of all ages, it’s especially a tale for children. Gaiman’s remarkable cemetery is a place that children more than anyone would want to visit. They would certainly want to look for Silas in his chapel, maybe climb down (if they were as brave as Bod) to the oldest burial chamber, or (if they were as reckless) search for the ghoul gate. Children will appreciate Bod’s occasional mistakes and bad manners, and relish his good acts and eventual great ones. The story’s language and humor are sophisticated, but Gaiman respects his readers and trusts them to understand.

I read the last of “The Graveyard Book” to my class on a gloomy day. For close to an hour there were the sounds of only rain and story. In this novel of wonder, Neil Gaiman follows in the footsteps of long-ago storytellers, weaving a tale of unforgettable ­enchantment.”

Edinger, M. (2009) New York Times book review of The Graveyard Book. Retrieved September 9th, 2010 from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/15/books/review/Edinger-t.html.

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The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean

Captain’s Log: Module 4 

Port of Call: McCaughrean, G. (2005). The white darkness. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. 

First Lines: I have been in love with Titus Oates for quite a while now – which is ridiculous, since he’s been dead for ninety years. But look at it this way. In ninety years I’ll be dead too, and then the age difference won’t matter. 

Cover of The White Darkness

Summary:  Fourteen year old Symmone has been obsessed with Antarctica for a long time, and she knows just about everything there is to know about that continent and the famous explorers who walked and died on its icy surface. One of those explorers lives in her head, Titus Oates, who she confides in. She also has a mother, and a smart-crazy Uncle Victor who knows a lot about everything. Victor takes Sym and her mother on a trip to France that he won, but when Sym’s mother loses her passport she has to stay behind and then Victor asks Sym if she’d like to take a trip to Antarctica instead. Thrilled, she agrees, and so they go to Antarctica where, not too surprisingly, it is revealed that Victor (and some acquaintances who have since appeared) have plans to do more than just look at penguins and see where Captain Scott died. What begins then is a story of adventure, self-discovery and survival across the frozen wild. A journey which tests everything Symmone has within her, her relationship with her Uncle, and with Titus. 

First Impressions: This book sucked me in almost immediately. I loved Sym’s ‘imaginary friend’ Titus who really is more of an imaginary boyfriend. I loved her passion for the antarctic and that she was so painfully shy around others. And once the story really got going, I could not put it down. This is a powerful book and it kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time. 

Suggestions for use: Recommend this book to teenagers looking for an adventure, to shy students, to girls, and to anyone who is interested in Antarctica. 

Reviews:

“Fourteen-year-old Symone is obsessed with Antarctic exploration. Ever since the death of her father, she has read every book and watched every movie she can find about Antarctica. She is particularly enamored with Capt. Lawrence “Titus” Oates, one of the explorers lost in the doomed Scott expedition. Titus is her companion and confidante, an imaginary friend who fills in for her grieving family and distant friends.

Outside of Titus, the only person to take an interest in Sym’s life is her Uncle Victor, a family friend who has cared for the family since her father’s death. Uncle Victor feeds Sym’s interest in Antarctica and arranges for a trip to the frozen continent. There, Sym must face the White Darkness, a phenomena of the polar summer where the sun never truly sets and the only indication of night is white, unmarred by shadow.

Sym identifies with the purity, isolation and silence of the white continent. She sees herself as particularly suited to a place that others see as dead:

“God sketched Antarctica, then erased most of it again, in the hope a better idea would strike Him.” Sym observes, “At the center is a blank whiteness where the planet isn’t finished. It’s the address for Nowhere…it mesmerized me. The idea of it took me in thrall. It was so empty, so blank, so clean, so dead. Surely, if I was ever to set foot down there, even I might finally exist. Surely, in this Continent of Nothingness, anything — anyone — had to be hugely alive by comparison!”

Sym does not know that she is a pawn in a larger conspiracy, subject to the fanatical beliefs of one man. Uncle Victor is obsessed with his own theories about discovery and becomes unhinged. He is less concerned with their ability to survive than in securing his place in history. Nasty secrets start to emerge as they travel across the ice. Sym must choose between trusting her uncle and listening to the inner voice she has always regarded as imaginary.

THE WHITE DARKINESS is told entirely from Sym’s point of view, offering her wry observations of the other travelers and sharing her expertise on the subject of the Arctic. Author Geraldine McCaughrean’s biggest challenge is convincing the reader that a smart girl like Sym would be taken in by the suspicious circumstances of her trip with Uncle Victor. McCaughrean succeeds by invoking other polar explorers, many of whom might be regarded as madmen, making discovery at the expense of their own lives.

The juxtaposition of Sym’s adventure next to the Scott expedition — which McCaughrean wisely summarizes in an appendix at the end of the book — asks if death is too high a price to pay for discovery. The irony of the Scott expedition was that, as they chose to push on to discover the South Pole knowing they were unlikely to return, another explorer, Roald Almundsen, already had beaten them to the Pole by two weeks and lived to tell the tale. Had the Scott expedition survived, they would not have been the first to reach the Pole. They found more notoriety through death than they would have in life.

The Arctic regions are ideal for asking the big questions about ethics and morality because one’s decisions, which might be regarded as opinions in ordinary life, hinge on life or death in such a harsh environment. Many 19th century writers were fascinated with the Arctic as a place representing the unexplored regions of the human psyche. In FRANKENSTEIN Mary Shelley sets the final showdown between creator and monster on the polar ice. Henry David Thoreau wrote about the Arctic explorers of his time in WALDEN saying, “…explore your own higher latitudes…there are continents and seas in the moral world, to which every man is an isthmus or inlet, yet unexplored by him, but that it is easier to sail many thousand miles through cold, storm and cannibals…than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific of one’s being alone.”

THE WHITE DARKNESS manages to ask some of these big questions without compromising plot or pace. It is a book filled with action, mystery and the slightest touch of the supernatural. Its strange story will be appreciated by readers interested in survival tales and the shadow side of human nature.”

Wood, S. (2005) Teenreads.com review of The White Darkness. Retrieved September 9th, 2010 from http://www.teenreads.com/reviews/0060890355.asp.

The Blacker the Berry by Joyce Carol Thomas and Floyd Cooper

Captain’s Log: Module 4

Port of Call: Thomas, J.C. (2008). The blacker the berry. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

First Lines: Colors, without black,

couldn’t sparkle quite so bright…

Cover of The Blacker the Berry

Summary:

This book is a collection of poems about skin color but truly are also about embracing who we are and what heritage has made us. Each poem speaks of our skin in vocabulary overflowing with  colors and tastes and smells. The poems are tied to a common theme of fruit/food as in, “I am red raspberries stirred in to blackberries”. And the ultimate message is that we are so much more than just the color of our skin, eyes and hair.

The poems are of medium length, and are accompanied by a full page illustration that portrays the character who is the topic of each poem. I thought every poem was lovely, skillfully crafted so that the book was interesting, vibrant, easy to read and full of sensory language that really made you feel the essence of each poem/person.

First Impressions: I’m not a big fan of reading poetry, so this book intimidated me a bit before I opened it. However, I was sucked in with the first few lines and flew through the poems in one sitting. I also loved the illustrations and spent time looking at each picture and picking out the elements that were representative of the poems they accompanied.

Suggestions for use: This is a book about celebration. This book’s message will most likely resonate loudest with African American children, but truly its message of acceptance and individuality can be a powerful message to all ethnic groups. I liked that this book taught the beauty that exists within all of us, and how we can wear our skin proudly and feel comfortable in who we are. Read this book to children who may feel they are not beautiful, and help them to point out the ways in which they are incredibly wonderful and special.

Reviews:

School Library Journal:

“Grade 1–4—The varieties of African-American ethnic heritage are often rendered invisible by the rigid construction of racial identity that insists on polarities. This collection of 12 poems makes the complexities of a layered heritage visible and the many skin shades celebrated. Read-aloud-sized spreads offer luminous artwork that complements the verses in which children speak of their various hues: “I am midnight and berries…” a child says in the title poem. In another selection, a boy recalls his Seminole grandmother who has given him the color of “red raspberries stirred into blackberries.” In “Cranberry Red,” a child asserts that “it’s my Irish ancestors/Who reddened the Africa in my face,” understanding that “When we measure who we are/We don’t leave anybody out.” The large illustrations match the lyrical poetry’s emotional range. Cooper’s method includes “pulling” the drawing out from a background of oil paint and glazes. With his subtractive method, he captures the joy of these children—the sparkle of an eye, the width of a grin, the lovely depths of their skin, and the light that radiates from within. This book complements titles that explore identity, such as Katie Kissinger’s All the Colors We Are (Redleaf, 1994).”

Pfeifer, T. (2008) School Library Journal Review for The Blacker the Berry. Retrieved September 9th, 2010 from http://www.amazon.com/Blacker-Notable-Childrens-Books-Readers/dp/0060253754.

Golem by David Wisniewski

Captain’s Log: Module 3

Port of Call: Wisniewski, D. (1996). Golem. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.

First Lines: Within the beautiful city of Prague, fierce hatreds have raged for a thousand years. People of differing beliefs in God and nation have clashed violently here: Czech against German, Protestant against Catholic, Christian against Jew.

The cover of Golem

Summary:

During a time when the Prague Jews are being persecuted by others a Jewish rabbi, Judah Loew ben Bezalel is searching for a way to bring relief to his people. He is given a dream in which a hand appears and writes the word ‘GOLEM’, a creature made from clay and brought to life with mystical Jewish words. Seeing this as a sign of an answer from God, Rabbi Loew sets out to make such a creature. He successfully brings the golem to life and charges it with protecting the Jews of the city from those who want to harm them. The golem is incredibly good at this task, and fiercely defends the Jews and destroys the attacking enemies. However, the golem is also a tragic figure, wistfully he just wants to watch the sunrise, and when the Jews are safe and the Rabbi prepares to disable the spell keeping the golem alive, the golem does not want to be turned back into clay. Nonetheless, he is dismantled with the promise that he will be brought back when the Jews need him once more.

First Impressions: Immediately I liked the heavy and dramatic illustration style of Golem. I also found the story to be intriguing as I had heard stories related to the myth of golems in other books. I did find parts of the book to be a bit scary or even depressing, so I wouldn’t recommend this book for very young children.

Other notes: The end of the book has a very informative section on the historical information this book was based on. This is a great resource for parents and children alike who want more information about the scenario described in Golem.

Suggestions for use: In addition to being a historical story, this book can also teach about the preciousness of life, the benefits and detriments of using another being as a ‘protector’, and the responsibility we have for the people in our care and our creations. This story could easily be a cautionary tale for anyone being persecuted or persecuting others.

Reviews:

Publishers Weekly:

“Elaborately composed cut-paper spreads give a 3D, puppet-show-like quality to a retelling of a Jewish legend. Rabbi Loew has a prophetic vision in 1580 when the Jews of Prague are accused of mixing the blood of Christian children into matzoh: he must create a Golem, “a giant of living clay, animated by Cabala, mystical teachings of unknown power.” Brought to life with apocalyptic explosions of steam and rain, the Golem seeks out the perpetrators of the Blood Lie and turns them over to the authorities. Thwarted, the enraged enemies of the Jews storm the gates of the ghetto, but the Golem grows to enormous height and violently defeats them with their own battering ram. Once his work is done, he pitifully (and futilely) begs the Rabbi: “Please let me live! I did all that you asked of me! Life is so… precious… to me!” Wisniewski (The Wave of the Sea Wolf) emphasizes the Golem’s humanity and the problems with his existence; instead of reducing the legend to a tale of a magical rescuer, the author allows for its historical and emotional complexity. The fiery, crisply layered paper illustrations, portraying with equal drama and precision the ornamental architecture of Prague and the unearthly career of the Golem, match the specificity and splendor of the storytelling. An endnote about the history and influence of the legend is particularly comprehensive. Ages 6-10. ”

Publishers Weekly (2006) Review of Golem retrieved September 9th, 2010 from http://www.amazon.com/Golem-Caldecott-Medal-David-Wisniewski/dp/0395726182.

Shark VS. Train by Chris Barton and Tom Lichtenheld

Captain’s Log: Module 5

Port of Call: Barton, Chris, & Lichtenheld, Tom. (2010). Shark vs. train. New York, NY: Hachette Book Group.

A shark and a train face each other in a display of bravado

Shark VS. Train cover

First Lines:  “SHARK VS. TRAIN Who will win?

 Well, that depends on if they’re…

in the ocean… 

or on railroad tracks.

If they’re on a seesaw…” 

Summary: Two little boys are playing and each picks up a different toy. Naturally, they then have to decide whose toy is best, in this case, shark vs. train. The ensuing competitions are all entertaining and ridiculous, illustrated cleverly and embellished with frequent humourous quips from the shark and train involved. In the end, the boys are called to lunch, and the competition is put on hold. (Until  fate pits shark vs. train against each other once more!) 

First Impressions: When I saw the title of this book on my booklist, I immediately started snickering. The title is funny, and reminds me of ‘CRAB BATTLE’ or ‘LOBSTER VS. MAGNET’ comedy on the internet. The title is an instant hook that makes you wonder ‘what the heck could be inside that book?’ and ‘who wins?’. 

Suggestions for use:  If there is a lesson to be learned from this story, it might be that each individual (be they shark or train) has scenarios in which they excel and scenarios in which they will fail, but there is a balance of each. I would use this story for its entertainment value – it’s a very cute rendition of the way children play and compete together – and it’s very funny and creative. I also think this book would be a good way to teach a lesson about healthy competition. In Shark VS. Train both shark and train take turns ‘winning’ the different scenarios.  This book can also teach us to laugh at our failures, and see the humor in them without getting too discouraged to go on and try something new.

The train successfully toasts the marshmallows over its smokestack, but the shark has drenched his with seawater

Roasting marshmallows...

 Reviews: 

From the Washington Post: “Also not to be missed is Lichtenheld’s visually clever take on the power of play in Chris Barton’s “Shark vs. Train.” Two lively young lads excavate the toy box. One grabs a shark (“GRRRRR”), the other a train (“CHUGRRR-CHUG”), and each instantly disappears into his chosen persona. Who wins the ensuing battles depends entirely on who chooses the game. Riding in a hot air balloon? Train’s weight sends him plunging earthward (“AAAiieee!”). Roasting marshmallows? Shark’s drippy fins put out the fire (“drat!”). And if detente and lunch are synonymous, well, that’s what kids (and happy endings) are all about.” Kristi Jemtegaard 

 Jemtegaard, K. (2010) Washington Post review of Shark VS. Train. Retrieved September 4th, 2010 from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/04/AR2010050404661.html

 From the San Francisco Review: “Literature, sports, politics… they all have their great rivalries, ones where competition stirs the spirit of the masses and drives the contenders to greater heights than ever. And to the pantheon of truly epic rivalries, Chris Barton proudly introduces two new worthy combatants in Shark Vs. Train

 As shark and train do battle in pie-eating contests, card games, and physical and intellectual challenges of all kinds, they learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses, even coming to question where the rivalry came from in the first place. Tom Lichtenheld’s illustrations are marvelously simple, offering funny little background details for the sharp-eyed reader while never detracting from the main imagery. 

Shark has smashed all the bowling pins

It depends on whether they're bowling...

 I could choose to see all kinds of context behind those words and images–a battle between the makings of man and the forces of nature, technology matching wits with the best evolution has to offer–but, come on, it’s a kid’s book. Just sit back and enjoy the spectacle. 

 Shark Vs. Train is the best struggle to come out of nowhere since “Monkey vs. Robot.” I just couldn’t bring myself to pick a side.” – Glenn Dallas  

 Dallas, G. (2010) San Francisco Book Review of Shark VS. Train. Retrieved September 4th, 2010 from http://www.sanfranciscobookreview.com/childrens/shark-vs-train/.