Sunday, September 7, 2014

So Many Books . . . So Little Time

I love my job. Really, I do. But once the students come back, every spare minute of my day is suddenly sucked into an abyss. Combine this with my own five children who have to be shuttled about, and I suddenly have zero time to read or blog! I'm sure I could improve my time management skills somewhat, but unless I forego sleep, there's just not much wiggle room.

My workouts are also suffering, since it's too freaking dark to run at 5:30 a.m. anymore. The logical thing would be to run in the late afternoon, but by the time kids have been shuttled to their various things, and I get dinner on the table, it's just too late. Homework needs to be done, lunches made, and bedtime enforced!

So, here it is, nearly midnight on a Saturday, and I'm finally able to sit down and do a little blogging. This time I am reviewing the second and third Newbery books I read this summer. They were, "The Cat Who Went to Heaven" by Elizabeth Coatsworth, and "Crispin and the Cross of Lead," by Avi.

"The Cat Who Went to Heaven" is the second of my Newbery books . . . . loved this little story. I'm not sure if Coatsworth invented the story entirely, or if it's based on a Japanese folktale, but it has that dreamy, timeless quality of folklore. The main character in the story, a nameless Japanese artist, muses on the life and death of Buddha, thereby relating many traditional Buddhist stories. Many animals came to pay respects to Buddha as he lay dying, but the cat was not welcome, because the cat, alone of all animals, refused Buddha's teachings. This saddens the artist, who believes his beloved cat has brought him good fortune in life. The cat has even been named Good Fortune.

Compassion is the main theme of this book, and it takes many forms. The old housekeeper has compassion for her master, and he for her. He has compassion for his pet, and finally, Buddha exhibits compassion to Good Fortune, and to all cats.

This book is something more than a picture book, though it has lovely ink illustrations, and something less than a chapter book. It would be a quick read for most kids, though again, as with the last Newbery book I reviewed, it has a limited appeal to modern children.

As of yesterday, the final puzzle piece of my quest to read three Newbery books over the summer is in place! It took me a while to finish "Crispin and the Cross
of Lead," mostly because of a lack of reading time.

It wasn't a slow read because I didn't like it. On the contrary, this was a rich and wonderful adventure, with complex characterizations, and an engaging plot. Historical fiction isn't a big seller with kids nowadays. I think they see it as boring, old-fashioned, and lacking in action. Granted, the language and style is a bit different than in contemporary realistic fiction, but there is plenty of action and intrigue available if you find the right book.

Crispin had been brought up by his mother as a peasant in the small 14th century village of Stromford. He was called only "Asta's Son," and didn't discover his true name until his mother's untimely death. When she dies, mysteries concerning Crispin are suddenly brought to light. He is falsely accused of a crime and is forced to flee for his life. He escapes with only his mother's lead cross, upon which something is written. Like most peasants, he is illiterate, and doesn't know what it says, but he knows that it's important. Soon after hitting the road, Crispin becomes apprentice and surrogate son to Bear, a traveling entertainer. But even Bear's protection is not enough as Crispin's past comes back to haunt him.

I enjoyed Crispin's growth from shy, stuttering outcast to confident and courageous young man. The setting of the story was at a time when the lands were owned by lords, and the majority of the people worked for them, barely scraping by. People were wretchedly unhappy, and Crispin's new master, Bear, is involved in the struggle for change. He encourages Crispin to think for himself and speak truthfully. I also liked the spiritual element of the book; Crispin has a deep and profound faith, but learns from Bear that you can love and trust God without trusting the church, which was horribly corrupt at the time. When Crispin makes a vow, he considers it holy, and that to break such a vow would be mortal sin. That kind of conviction and integrity are in short supply these days!

This story continues in two more books. Though I have heard they aren't as good as the first, I've found the story intriguing enough to want to know what happens next.

I'm really enjoying the old Newbery books, and I'm going to continue trying to read one a month during the school year.

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