Friday, May 18, 2012
The first page of the book tells us “All of the happy animals in this book live now (or once did) at Farm Sanctuary, a shelter for farm animals, where their only job is to enjoy life and be loved.” In the following pages, each farm animal “writes” about itself, giving the reader an informative and charming story about its life at Farm Sanctuary. Wise old Maya the cow, also known as “Grandmama Moo,” waxes poetic about “the sweetest patch of grass,” Mayfly the rooster talks about keeping the hens safe, and JD the piglet joyfully announces that he loves to run… except when it’s time to eat. A dozen other animals follow, each with its own tale about how it spends its day. The illustrations that accompany the animals’ stories are a cross between rough sketch (complete with grid lines and pencil marks) and completed painting, with one or two full-color images enhanced by etchings of other animals. The ultimate result is a book that feels comfortable and familiar, like these animals really are speaking out loud while someone sketches them.
The book closes with a note for grown ups about the Farm Sanctuary, which was founded in 1986 as an antidote to factory farming with unsavory conditions for the animals. This is certainly a book with an ideology, but the message is a touching one, and animal lovers will find much to coo over in both the illustrations and the writing.
Thursday, May 17, 2012
Winner of the Governor General’s Award
Imagine waking up in the middle of the northern Canadian wilderness with no memory of your identity (even your name!), how you got there, or where to find home. Such is Jack’s predicament in the gripping opening of Timber Wolf.
He is wounded, but doesn’t remember the injury. As he struggles to find food, warmth, and shelter in the harsh winter climate, he meets two characters whose friendship has ironically ambiguous overtones: a native youth named Mahingan, filled with anger at the white men, and a silent, yellow-eyed timber wolf, without a pack. The wolf saves him from peril on multiple occasions – bringing him game, dragging him out of a frozen lake, and leading him back to Mahingan’s hut when he is lost. Mahingan, however, resents Jack, even to the point of shooting an arrow into his back.
Bit by bit, through narrative interspersed with dreams, Jack’s memory comes back, first of his father, then of his injury, and finally, of his family. As Mahingan and Jack spend more time together under the influence of Mahingan’s wise grandfather, they (and the readers) realize that the two boys are more alike than they believe: not only have both lost a father, but also both are striving for acceptance in an adult world. In a touching episode near the end of the book, the boys grapple (literally) with their emotions—Jack with guilt and Mahingan with anger. They learn that emotions need release, and their physical fight leads to a sincere friendship. As a reader, I couldn’t decide if the action felt too contrived, but perhaps it would be identifiable for a boy, rather than an adult woman. The elaborate thank you speeches at the close of the book felt just slightly too raw, too emotionally open—perhaps the characters had changed too quickly for my understanding of them to catch up—but here, again, I was on the fence about it.
The brilliant aspect of the book, in my opinion, is the construction of parallel journeys among the characters. Jack walks alongside Mahingan as the boys journey to manhood, and alongside the wolf as the two journey to find their “pack.” As the close of the novel, Pignat skillfully juxtaposes Jack’s reunion with family and the howls of the wolf pack. Jack becomes a man and finds his home because of and with Mahingan and the wolf.
Timber Wolf is the third stand-alone book of the “Greener Grass” series. If they’re all as well done as Timber Wolf, I wish I could read all three!
Wednesday, May 16, 2012
The first volume of Enid Blyton’s ‘Faraway Series’ tells the episodic adventures of three English children who live near a Magic Wood, which contains a Faraway Tree that provides an array of magic lands from the highest branches. The three children, Joe, Beth and Frannie, meet fantastical friends in the tree who share their sequence of exciting experiences in the ever-changing lands at the top of the tree. Silkie the fairy, Moonface, and Saucepan Man play particularly prominent roles in the children’s undertakings in such locales as the Roundabout Land, the land of the Magic Snowman, Rocking Land, the Land of Toys, and the book’s grand finale, Land of Birthdays. Along the way, the children encounter anthropomorphized toys and animals in imaginative settings and events that mix danger with wish fulfillment. While the perpetual stream of fantastic ventures may grow wearisome to older children, the book is ideal for children at the just-learned-to-read age, perhaps to be read aloud together, one sequence at a time. The two older protagonists, Joe and Beth, are about seven or eight (Beth has her 8th birthday at the end of the book), and Frannie is several years younger.
Critics have not always been kind to Blyton, but no wonder children love her! Her genius emerges in the narrator’s empathetic voice, which is unusually confidential and intimate, with frequent chatty interjections such as, when the children have returned home from an all-night adventure to be awakened for the day’s tasks almost immediately by their mother, “My goodness, they were sleepy all that day!” (85), or "'Plenty of time, plenty of time,’ said Moon-Face, pouring himself another cup of hot chocolate. But you know, there wasn’t plenty of time. For just at that moment…"(76)
Throughout the story, the narrator’s voice surrounds the reader with comfort and interest, as if the reader/hearer were curled up in a soft, loving lap, forever safe from mishap while sharing thrilling adventures. In fact, the narrator is so intimate at times that one isn’t sure if Blyton’s words are meant to be thoughts from the protagonists’ minds, comments from the narrator, or perhaps even thoughts from the reader’s mind considerately given voice in the text! At the end of chapter 26, for instance, the children run to the trap door at the base of the Faraway Tree to begin a daring rescue of their friends from the Red Army of Goblins. The last sentence is, “Ooooh! Another adventure!” (198). Again, in a singular example of metatext, when the protagonists (who are trying to find their way home from the Land of Toys) meet Santa Claus, he already knows about them because other children keep asking him for books about them, and Santa has read them all. The narrator--or the children--or the reader--share the reaction: “Well, wasn’t that a bit of luck?” (187).
The leap to magic isn’t so vast for a small child. Fantastic characters in the Faraway Tree in some ways resemble Mom and Dad, for example the workaholic Dame Washalot (the children’s mother takes in washing), or the rather grumpy Mr. Watzisname, or the ever resourceful and knowledgeable Moon-face. Silky magically produces Pop Cakes from her oven, and Mother Bear reaches into her closet for warm coats (never needed by the bears), in much the same way a grown-up retrieves, seemingly magically, whatever the small child needs at the moment. Similarly, punishment is dispensed without understandable cause by the more troublesome magical characters, and their authority is not questioned:
"'Naughty boy, to tell stories like that!' said Dame Snap, suddenly, in such a loud and frightening voice that it made him jump. 'Come with me, all of you.' There didn’t seem to be anything else they could do." (140)
Today’s scholar might trip on Blyton’s traditional gender characterization, with Joe taking the lead for adventure and Beth assuming nurturing responsibility, but such roles blend well with the period in which the text was first published, 1939. Perhaps even more startling to the contemporary reader is the children’s behavior in their ordinary home: they are cheerful, hard working, obedient, and respectful of their parents—without any sense of rebellion from the narrator or the characters themselves. Sometimes the children don’t get quite enough to eat. They count themselves lucky when, after a week or so of doing chores, their mother allows them an afternoon off to play outside by themselves with a picnic of bread and butter. They almost never complain or feel sorry for themselves.
For the adult, the text is interesting in its remarkable voice, as noted above, and in its unconscious reflection of early 20th century British culture. Perhaps most unique are some good tips should you ever find yourself in an enchanted wood: for example, if you want to understand what the trees are whispering to each other (“wisha wisha wisha”), wrap your arms around a tree and put your left ear to the trunk and you will know. My goodness, they are helpful!