Wednesday, September 30, 2009

High School is Just "Heaven to Betsy"!

That's the name of my review of Maud Hart Lovelace's Heaven to Betsy, which I posted at Epinions the other day in honor of the Harper Betsy-Tacy reissues.

I had a lovely time re-reading and then reviewing HTB. And of course, I found myself wanting to keep going, so I'm now re-reading Betsy in Spite of Herself. Hopefully a review forthcoming in October!

I also got my copy of the reissue of Heaven to Betsy/Betsy in Spite of Herself (they've been bound as one volume) for giveaway! That's right, it's Betsy-Tacy convert week. I found a book-loving family at our church that had never heard of the series. They have two girls, somewhere around the ages of 10 and 12, and I passed the book on to them along with a letter telling them about my own lifelong love of the series.

All the folks participating in the B-T Convert Week have been assigned a society. I'm a Zetamathian, just like Betsy. Go Zets! Though darn, I hear that cute new boy Joe Willard is a Philo...

All this Lovelace reading has me in a very Betsy-Tacy frame of mind, so I've also spent time this week revisiting a B-T writing project I started last year. I'm tentatively calling it "The Betsy-Tacy Guide to Americana." More on this soon, if I'm able to continue working on it.

For Your Listening Pleasure

We've been enjoying two audio books around our house these past few weeks.

The first is the James Herriot Treasury for Children, as read by Jim Dale of Harry Potter audio book fame. The James Herriot treasury is truly beloved by our family...we read it at least annually, and I tend to bring it out in the autumn.

I was delighted to find this delightful audio version at the library, and the sweet girl enjoyed it at rest time for two weeks running. Dale does a very fine job of reading Herriot's tender Yorkshire tales about cows, sheep, horses, dogs and cats. And isn't it fitting that a man with the last name of Dale would read stories that made the Yorkshire dales so beloved to so many readers?

The other audio book is one that my husband and I have been enjoying during our occasional lunchtimes together. It's The Book of Three, the first book in Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain. I just finished reading the whole five-book series a few weeks ago, and I enjoyed them so much I told D. that I hoped I could read them aloud to him (a common practice around here). But the more I contemplated reading them aloud, the more I wished that I could hear someone else pronounce some of the Welsh names first!

So I went looking for an audio version of the first book in the series, and now that we've started, I wonder if we won't just keeping going this way. That's because I'm completely in love with narrator James Langton's interpretation of these characters. I confess I'm not always a huge audio book fan, often because I think the reader doesn't do the work justice (or read it the way I've been hearing it in my head, or the way I would read it aloud...I love to read aloud!) but Langton's narration is amazing. He's created incredibly distinctive voices for each of the characters, most of which feel "just right." I'm especially impressed with his reading of Eilonwy (and yes, I can say her name correctly now!) and of Fflewddur Fflam, the courageous and funny bard with the truth-telling harp.

Listening to The Book of Three after finishing the whole series has also been a pleasure because I'm realizing anew what an excellent job Alexander did of setting up so many of the important events and moments in the series right here at the start. So much of The High King, the fifth and final book, rings more powerfully when you go full-circle back to the beginning. I'm also realizing anew just how funny the books are. Langton's reading makes the humorous parts, even the small and subtle ones, shine through. I highly recommend this audio version, but I hope that you can find it at the library as it appears to be out of print. (I just noted that the only copy available on Amazon is selling for over $100!)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Blogging Betsy-Tacy

In honor of the reissues of the last six books in the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace (Heaven to Betsy, Betsy in Spite of Herself, Betsy Was a Junior, Betsy and Joe, Betsy and the Great World and Betsy's Wedding are being reissued this month as Harper Perennial Classics) a number of writers will be posting on their blogs about the Betsy-Tacy books for the next couple of weeks. The tour is already in progress: today's stop is at Here in the Bonny Glen, where one of my favorite bloggers, Melissa Wiley, weighs in with delightful ruminations on Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, the third book in the series.

Big Hill
is also one of my favorite books in the series. I reviewed it at Epinions back in 2006, under the title "Hills Were Higher Then." As I wrote in that review:

The older I get, and the more times I read these delightful stories, the more impressed I grow with their narrative artistry. Having recently re-visited these first three books, and knowing so well all that's still to come in the final seven, I'm especially moved by the way Lovelace used the landscape of Deep Valley's hills to portray both the concrete, physical community the girls grew up in, and the symbolic, more poetic image of the "wide world" that surrounded them. In each book, the girls find a way of pushing the boundaries of those hills a little further: from longing to climb the big hill near their homes, to actually doing it, to finally climbing all the way over it (in this installment) and finding a completely different community of people on the other side. Though this is the only book to reference the hills in its title, Lovelace will continue throughout the series to push at the notion of how the ever expanding boundaries of the world shape Betsy -- how the hills that surround her hometown confer familiarity and comfort and yet how they beckon her to step out, confident and curious, into a much wider space.

I just finished my umpteenth re-read of Heaven to Betsy (the first of the high school books) and plan to post a review at Epinions in the coming week, which I'll link here. I also want to do a post about how I first came to love the books, and the long journey to find and read them all!

I was delighted to hear about the blog tour. Although I'm not officially part of it, I hope at least some Betsy-Tacy fans will meander off the main drag and find my little path here, as I plan to post more about these beloved books in the coming couple of weeks. They've been such a huge part of my life for so many years -- what joy to be able to talk about them with other people who love them too!

Astronomy Picture of the Day

A friend recently told me about the Astronomy Picture of the Day website, and it's become one of my favorite online stops. The photos are usually fascinating and beautiful, sometimes taken of planets, stars, nebulas and galaxies but sometimes taken of things in the nightsky as seen over lands and seas here on earth. As much as I love the mysterious space photos (definitely the sweet girl's favorites) I'm partial to the ones taken from the surface of our own beloved planet.

Yesterday's photo, of gorgeous green auroras over the Northwest Territories in Canada, just about took my breath away. Something about the juxtaposition of the green lights in the blue skies, and that bright round white moon shining over the water, just filled my jar of beauty to overflowing. The heavens are telling the glory of God!

You can see yesterday's photo here.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Inner Life of Atticus Finch

Last night I finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It's not the first time I've read it, but it had been a few years.

What amazes me about some books is their ability to pull you back in so completely, even if you've read them before. That happened to me this time around: though I remembered much of the story, I felt absolutely compelled to keep going. I literally couldn't put it down for about three hours (and three straight hours of reading is unfortunately not something I can often allow myself these days, unless I have the excuse of not feeling well, which I had last evening).

I was also unprepared for how incredibly moving I would find the ending still. You would think that, minus the "surprise" element, the impact would lessen. Not so. The near perfect-pitch of the writing in those final pages grabbed me all over again. I chuckled over barefooted Scout in her "ham" costume, falling asleep and then running onto the stage late, to the consternation of the school-teacher who had poured so much heartfelt sincerity into the Maycomb County pageant. And then as soon as we left the comfort of the school carnival, I felt my heart clutch with fear as Jem and Scout walked home on that dark, shadowy Halloween night, stalked by the shuffling footsteps of...well, they don't know who (though the reader has a pretty good idea, which only ups the fright). I felt myself almost faint with relief when their unlikely rescuer appeared. And I dissolved into tears, lots and lots of tears, as I always do whenever I get to those two precious, whispered words "Hey, Boo," spoken later by Scout, in the warm lamplight of Jem's room.

Truly this is a brilliant novel. Just brilliant. I think I finally had a glimpse of understanding last night, as I closed its pages again, as to why Harper never wrote another one. If you could write one book this powerful, this beautiful, this profound, would you feel a strong need to write another one? Maybe. I don't know.

Part of its brilliance, I'm coming to see, is the way it counterbalances the two major story-elements: the children's obsession with their reclusive neighbor Boo Radley, and Atticus' defense of Tom Robinson, wrongfully accused of heinous crimes. How those stories weave together, through Scout's eyes and in Scout's voice, is just amazing story-telling.

And then there's Atticus. Oh, how I love Atticus Finch. I've been realizing lately how often my favorite fictional characters are like Atticus: the ones where still waters run very, very deep. The ones we get to know only obliquely, through someone else's eyes, thus primarily through their actions. We feel like we know Atticus through and through when this story is over, having seen him through the respectful and loving eyes of his daughter (herself a grown woman looking back and telling the story of her childhood, which adds another layer of complexity) and we really do know almost everything important, or at least important to the tale. We know him for his courtesy to everyone, his firm but open and easy discipline of his children, his respect for their housekeeper/nurse Calpurnia. We know him for what he doesn't do, as well as what he does: he doesn't ever carry a gun, even when it would seem expedient, but as it turns out and we discover on the day a mad dog wanders into the neighborhood, he's one of the best shots in the county. The fact that this is news to his wondering children also speaks volumes.

There's so much about Atticus we'd love to know, but never find out. What does he think about in the evenings as he reads that newspaper, or reads books in his office? How much grief does he feel over his departed wife? Does he doubt his own wisdom in raising his children? (We get hints that he does.) Does he fear for his life more than he lets on, when so many people are angry at him for defending Tom? Why has he chosen to distance himself (but only so much) from his distinguished family? Where did he get his integrity, his honesty, his desire to be the same person in one place that he is in another? Who instilled in him those exquisite, authentic manners, and the vision to see other people the way he sees them? What are his prayers like? His favorite portions of the Bible? The novels he goes back to time and time again?

I love asking the questions. I love that Harper Lee has given us a character so richly layered, so real, that I feel like there must be answers somewhere, even if only in stories and books that never got written.

Friday, September 11, 2009

New Books From Some Favorite Writers

At bedtime the other evening we read Mr. Putter & Tabby Spill the Beans, a new reader from the winning team of author Cynthia Rylant and illustrator Arthur Howard. Thank you to Erin, who put me on to the fact that there was a new one out this fall! Of course we loved it. My favorite part of any Mr. P & T is the almost-surefire moment when the adventure reaches its sweet but often hysterically funny heights, and the sweet girl dissolves into chortles or gives a shout of appreciative laughter. This book did not fail us!

While I'm on the subject of new books from favorite writers, I thought I'd mention a few more I'm looking forward to this autumn.

Children's poet laureate Mary Ann Hoberman, one of my favorite poets for children OR adults, has just come out with her debut novel, Strawberry Hill. It's so bizarre to use the word "debut" in connection with Hoberman, who has been publishing amazing poetry for over fifty years. I'm inspired to see her trying her hand at a new genre. As an added bit of excitement, it's illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin, an illustrator whose work I especially love. Halperin illustrated the "Cobble Street Cousins" books, and also the wonderful picture book Homeplace, a library staple we've checked out numerous times over the years.

I just started Strawberry Hill and am already taken by its lovely simplicity. It's the story of a little girl growing up in Connecticut during the Great Depression, and is apparently based on Hoberman's own childhood.

Newbery winner Kate DiCamillo has an intriguing looking new book out (just released this week) called The Magician's Elephant. It sounds like a fascinating fable; since it's by DiCamillo, you know it will be well told.

Sarah Beth Durst, author of Into the Wild and Out of the Wild, has a new YA fantasy arriving in October. It's simply called Ice, and the cover is certainly compelling. I wasn't too sure about my ultimate verdict on Out of the Wild, but the polar bear on that cover really makes me want to pick this one up and give this author another try.

Hunting around to see what some of my favorite children's authors were up to, I discovered that we missed the release of new Alfie book by Shirley Hughes in 2008. It's called Alfie and the Big Boys, and I've already put a request through with our library! While on the subject of Hughes, here's a a fascinating interview with her done just this past spring for the Guardian. There's a wonderful photograph of her too.

And of course, no posting about fall releases would be complete without a big Betsy Ray shout out ("Yoo-hoo! Betsy!") regarding the reissues of the Betsy high school books by Maud Hart Lovelace. I posted about this earlier this year but am getting really excited as the time draws near. I'm one of the Betsy-Tacy fanatics who will be receiving a free copy of the first two books (bound as one) Heaven to Betsy and Betsy in Spite of Herself, on the stipulation that I will share it with someone who doesn't know the series. (They're calling this Betsy-Tacy Convert week...I first heard about it via Facebook, where I'm part of the B-T fan group.) I've already decided to pass it on to two sisters at our church, ages about 9 and 12, who have never read the books. Their mom is delighted...and she's never read them either, so I may actually make three Lovelace converts all at once.

I'm also readying my review of Heaven to Betsy for Epinions, hoping to post it on or very near the release date at the end of the month. I reviewed the first four books in the series a couple of years ago, but for some reason held off on doing the older Betsy books. Now I'm glad I did!

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Sparrow Conversation

I've still not gotten used to the newly paved sidewalk that's replaced the grass that used to be across the road from us. I'm pretty sure the local wildlife hasn't gotten used to it either.

In fact, just the other morning, I was looking out the window and noticed two small, brown birds sitting on a building ledge overlooking that concrete slab of a sidewalk. They were nodding their heads in sideways fashion, looking very wise (as little birds tend to do) and apparently deep in conversation. It didn't take much imagination to figure out what they were saying. I strained my ears and caught just a little of it.

Sparrow 1: Wasn't there grass here? Just a couple days ago? I swear there was grass.

Sparrow 2: (a trifle more anxious personality) Well, I thought so. But I do tend to lose my bearings a bit in the city.

Sparrow 1: (snorting a bit derisively) Not I. I was raised in a nest just down the road in the churchyard and I know this place like the back of my wing. There's the sycamore trees, there are those scrubby pine trees, and there are those grape vines by the fence they've stuck vicious barbed wire all over. Yep, yep, yep. I'm sure. I tell you, the GRASS WAS RIGHT THERE. Green as can be.

Sparrow 2: (timidly) It's not green now. Just that awful gray-white. Looks like dirty snow in the middle of August, doesn't it?

Sparrow 1: It's September.

Sparrow 2: ALREADY?

Sparrow 1: Haven't you noticed the school buses? And the orange glow to the moon? And how chilly your feathers feel in the morning?

Sparrow 2: Now that you mention it...

Sparrow 1: What I want to know is where they think we'll go for eats now. I mean, this was the best all you could eat buffet place within blocks. I just faint with hunger thinking of those sweet, juicy little earthworms below-ground, trying to push their heads up through the dark, moist earth, only to bonk their wormy little heads on a big ol' patch of concrete.

Sparrow 2: (tenderly) Almost makes you feel sorry for the poor dears, doesn't it?

Sparrow 1: In a way. I mean, if you think you lose YOUR bearings, think how they must feel. They're probably digging new tunnels like crazy trying to locate the nearest exit.

Sparrow 2: (with a half-cheep, half-sympathetic cluck) And think of the poor little seeds! I was quite looking forward to seeing the new dandelions and clover push their heads up through the soil next spring.

Sparrow 1: You and the rabbits!

(Both sparrows look for a moment at the concrete sidewalk where the lovely green grass used to be. Sparrow 2 sighs.)

Sparrow 1: Kind of makes you want to migrate early, doesn't it?

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Those Unexpected Answers

One of the things I love most about teaching is the unexpected answer you sometimes get to a question.

This morning the sweet girl and I were talking about the earth: how big it is, how many people live on it, its shape, what it's made of, who made it.

When we got to the "who made it," she answered "God." And I asked: "And how did God make the earth?"

The answer I was expecting was some variation on "He created it" or "He spoke words" or "He made it out of nothing" (all things we've talked about before).

What she said, after a thoughtful pause was: "Special. And just for us."

Good answer!