Bluffton

Will Eisner Week 2014Did you know it’s Will Eisner Week this week, from March 1st through March 7th? Neither did I until I stumbled upon the announcement of the celebration in January. Will Eisner Week “is an annual celebration honoring the legacy of Will Eisner and promoting sequential art, graphic novel literacy, and free speech.” Looking for more information? Visit the website. In honor of Will Eisner Week, I’m going to take this opportunity to review graphic novels, which I’ll readily admit I don’t read enough of. My first featured book will be last year’s Bluffton, by Eisner Award nominee Matt Phelan.

Bluffton








Title: Bluffton
Author/Illustrator: Matt Phelan
ISBN: 9780763650797
Pages: 223 pages
Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press, c2013.
Publication Date: July 23, 2013

Henry Harrison realizes that the summer of 1908 is going to be different from every past summer when he sees an elephant stepping off train in his small Michigan town. That was the first summer the traveling vaudeville performers pay a visit and stay for their summer long vacation. Henry quickly meets Buster Keaton, a young slapstick comedian who travels and acts with his family. In other ways though, Buster is just like Henry who enjoys baseball, swimming, fishing, and playing elaborate practical jokes on people. Henry doesn’t know how he is going to survive the rest of the year while he waits for their return, which seems dull in comparison after their numerous adventures together.

I think “subtle” is the best way to describe this graphic novel. The mood of Matt Phelan’s story is portrayed primarily in the watercolor illustrations. Summer skies are bright blue over green grass and it feels like the sunshine can pop from the page and warm you if you sat there long enough with the book open on your lap. In contrast, the shorter winter sequences are painted with less color, and primarily blues and grays, with Henry’s shocking orange hair turning a muted mustard yellow in one school room scene.

Dialogue drives the action and provides conflicting views of the vaudeville lifestyle. Henry of course is jealous of Buster, who can do flips, is nationally admired, can travel the world, and doesn’t have to go to school. But readers also witness the flip side of a coin, as Phelan includes controversies about Buster’s age and accusations of child abuse, with hints of possible alcoholism. Buster was essentially forced into the family business, whereas Henry’s father, who owns a hardware store, alleviates his son’s fears of that same fate. “I never expected you to take over the store, Henry. Unless that’s what you wanted. [...] You’ll have lots of choices to make, Henry. Don’t worry so much about what you are going to do, Henry. Concentrate on who you are going to be.” (191-194)

Following that exchange is a poignant scene where Henry simply leans against his father in silence, soaking in the support. You have to wonder if Buster gets the same kind of support from his father. In an earlier spread, you do get the sense that Buster enjoys his life, taking opportunities away from his father to engage in his signature style of comedy. But long looks towards more traditional families lead readers to think more deeply about his desires. A quiet book that packs a punch with the range of subjects covered, it gives a glimpse of a time long past.

Coretta Scott King Awards 2014

The American Library Association announced their Annual Youth Media Awards earlier this year, and I’ve been slowly but surely catching up on reading all the winners and honorees. The Coretta Scott King Awards are a set of three awards that honor African American authors, illustrators, and new talent of outstanding literature for children and young adults. I’ll be focusing on the Illustrator and New Talent Awards in this post, with the longer author winner and honorees in a separate post once I finish reading them. I have to say though, there were really no surprises in these categories, as the same people are continually recognized for their contributions.

For the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Book Award, the committee chose one winner and one honoree.
Nelson MandelaTitle: Nelson Mandela
Author/Illustrator: Kadir Nelson
ISBN: 978006178374
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, c2013.
Publication Date: January 2, 2013

The honor was given to Kadir Nelson, who authored and illustrated a picture book biography on Nelson Mandela, published at the very beginning of 2013. Nelson Mandela’s passing at the end of 2013 serves as an ironic footnote to the book’s publication and award recognition. Kadir Nelson’s name has cropped up a host of times, and his work has been recognized over an over again.
Won the 2012 Coretta Scott King Author Award Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans
2012 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor for Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans.
Caldecott Honor for Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine
Caldecott Honor for Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford, for which he also garnered a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award and won an NAACP Image Award;
Won Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for Ellington Was Not a Street by Ntozake Shange
Won Coretta Scott King Author Award for We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball
Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor for We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball

Are you sensing a theme here? Whenever he writes something, he gets recognized by someone! And most people will say rightfully so. In his newest book, readers see Kadir Nelson’s signature style of life-like renderings from the cover (which mimics the design of his biographies on Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Jr.) all the way to the end. Most striking I think is the first page, where we see a young Nelson playing with the village boys and the sun shines forth from behind the hill with such warmth your eye is immediately drawn to the contrasting shadowed silhouettes. The sparse, poetically formatted text supplements the pictures, that carry the light and dark themes throughout the book.

My one complaint about this and other picture book biographies is that very few specifics are included. Annual biography assignments for school children often have a checklist of facts that need to be contained in the books or require an inclusion of a time line. While this would be a great asset to children studying biographies, especially during February’s Black History Month, readers would be hard pressed to find specifics. Would it have been so hard to add a timeline in the back of the book along side the author’s note, or include specific dates in the text instead of “in early 1990″? Or am I the only person getting frustrated by this oversight?

Knock Knock My Dad's Dream for MeTitle: Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me
Author: Daniel Beaty
Illustrator: Bryan Collier
ISBN: 9780316209175
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc. c2013.
Publication Date: December 17, 2013

More recently published Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me won the Illustrator award. Bryan Collier is another illustrator who has been recognized time and time again, with three Caldecott Honors and four Coretta Scott King Awards over the years. Collier’s collages and Beaty’s text follows a young boy as he experiences the loss of his father’s influence. The author doesn’t specify in the story that the father has been incarcerated until you read the end notes, which I appreciate because it lends versatility to the story and could be used for divorce situations in addition to incarceration. The illustrations follow the boy as he grows into an educated man and an involved father in his own right, but at the end you still see the influence his own father had on him, regardless of or maybe because of his absence.

The more symbolic structure of the illustrations lend the impression this is meant for older audiences, and I can see where this might be a recommendation for patrons specifically looking for material of this nature. Most poignant is the subtle nods to the father’s absence, such as the main character wearing his father’s tie as he peruses his dreams, and an elephant statue peeking out of his office background mimicking the child’s bedroom wallpaper. The ending picture seems slightly out of context with the rest of the story, but although overall I think the less abstract images make the most impact when reading, that last picture makes a memorable ending to a tale of perseverance.

When the Beat Was BornTitle: When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop
Author: Laban Carrick Hill
Illustrator: Theodore Taylor III
ISBN: 9781596435407
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership, c2013.

According to the ALA website the John Steptoe New Talent Award was “established to affirm new talent and to offer visibility to excellence in writing and/or illustration which otherwise might be formally unacknowledged within a given year within the structure of the two awards given annually by the Coretta Scott King Task Force.” This award is often overlooked because it’s not awarded every year.

I can understand why this book was recognized by the committee, as it sheds light on the start of Hip Hop, something that most people have never considered. The story focuses on DJ Kool Herc rise from Jamican music lover peering over the fence at party set-ups to hooking up his father’s super-sized speakers to street lamps and christening the break dance style that evolved during his days of being a DJ. While Laban Carrick Hill includes a personalized author’s note and a partial time line of hip hop in the 1970s and 1980s, just like Kadir Nelson’s picture book biography he avoids specific dates and details.

The pictures by Theodore Taylor III are well drawn, with clean lines showing children what the different break dancing moves look like. His work showcases the old technology of speakers bigger than people, boomboxes bigger than babies, and turntables plugged into one another instead of through wireless connections. It’s almost a time capsule for readers, where parents can talk about the music they used to listen to, and I wish it had a compilation CD that featured some of the “Hip Hop” beats that are discussed in the book. I especially enjoyed the scene of community where Herc is playing street parties in the park and we see people of all ages, including one gray haired woman and a small child with a jump rope, listening to the music. As someone who grew up in the suburbs and didn’t have that type of environment, I’m surprised to find myself wanting to seek out that community network.

This post is in honor of Nonfiction Mondays. Check out the blog for other reviews of nonfiction books.

Theodor Seuss Geisel Award 2014

The American Library Association Annual Youth Media Awards were announced this month, and I’ve been trying to read through the winners and honorees. The Theodor Seuss Geisel Award is given to books geared for beginning readers. Ironically, I actually featured two of the honorees for the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award earlier this year. You can find Ball by Mary Sullivan reviewed here along with several other ball themed books that I used for a story time. Another runner-up, A Big Guy Took My Ball! by Mo Willems was also featured earlier on this blog. I don’t think anyone was surprised by its inclusion on the list, as books by Mo Willems has quickly become a staple of picture books and early reader libraries.

BallA Big Guy Took My Ball

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The other two I had not reviewed yet, and I’m therefore going to review them together.
Penny and Her MarbleTitle: Penny and Her Marble
Author/Illustrator: Kevin Henkes
ISBN: 9780062082046
Pages: 48 pages
Publisher/Date: Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, c2013.
The third honoree, Penny and Her Marble by Kevin Henkes has been getting an astonishing amount of press since it’s publication in February of 2013. The simple story relates Penny’s neighborhood walk with her doll when she spies a marble in Mrs. Goodwin’s yard. Secretly picking it up and taking it home, Penny is filled with guilt that she took something that didn’t belong to her. After suffering from a hurt stomach and bad dreams, Penny hurries to return the marble, only to get caught by Mrs. Goodwin herself. All ends happily, with Mrs. Goodwin presenting the marble to Penny as a gift.

I couldn’t help being struck by Penny’s outfit, a white, long-sleeved, polka-dotted shirt under a skirt with suspenders and a flowered headband, which she must own in every color combination imaginable if you have been following the series. The bright colors make you happy just looking at them, and even the nightmares maintain that color scheme, proving that they are not menacing but kept age-appropriate distressing for an imaginative girl like Penny. The independence she exhibits will certainly make an impact with readers, as she deals with her issues and comes to her own conclusions of right and wrong without even asking for guidance from her caring parents.

Watermelon SeedTitle: The Watermelon Seed
Author/Illustrator: Greg Pizzoli
ISBN: 9781423171010
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Disney Hyperion Books, c2013.
I was surprised by the winner of the award, given to The Watermelon Seed by first time author and illustrator Greg Pizzoli. The striking pink, green, and black colors lend a monochromatic color scheme to the story of a crocodile who swallows a watermelon seed. After fearing for his life, he thankfully burps out the offending seed. Although swearing off his favorite food, we see that promise doesn’t last long. On the last page an engorged stomach hovers over pieces of rind on the floor as the worried faced crocodile might be in trouble all over again.

Perfect for picnics in the upcoming summer months, I think it’s the simplicity of the drawings that catch readers eyes the most. With no background details, we can focus on the crocodile, who fears vines will grow out of his ears, his skin will turn colors, and he’ll eventually end up in a fruit salad. That last possibility hopefully lends assurance to the readers that his fears are unfounded, as people would never end up in a fruit salad. Although I recognize that I’m biased towards pictures that have more detail than these drawings, I can definitely see the appeal of our poor nameless crocodile’s distressed eyes and the bright pink backgrounds that dominate most of the book.

Bravo to the winners and honorees, and look for more upcoming reviews of books recognized by the various committees.

Friday Feature — Having a Ball!

Friday Features are an irregular occurrence on my blog that include things other than book reviews, something a little extra. This might include author interviews (hint to any authors out there who want to get interviewed), bibliographies, book trailers and program ideas. While I’m not limiting myself to talk about these things just on Fridays, it will be something extra special to finish off the work week.

I noticed a trend recently in picture books where balls played an important role in the story. So I gathered up some for my monthly visit to the local preschool and we had a ball!

Watch Me Throw the BallTitle: Watch Me Throw the Ball!
Author: Mo Willems
Series: Elephant and Piggie

Anyone who hasn’t heard of Elephant and Piggie by now who works with young children should run right out and grab one (or multiple titles). Elephant insists that it takes hard work to throw a ball, but Piggie has other ideas and extravagantly celebrates his success. Or, what he thinks is his success, since really the ball has been unintentionally thrown backwards and Piggie can’t see the result of his wind-up. Gerald does, and out of frustration finally gets Piggie to understand that the ball did not go around the world. Piggie though is unfazed, and he reassures Gerald that although he didn’t throw it far, he still had fun, with the subtle moral coming across loud and clear. Stick around for the surprise ending as Gerald then celebrates his “successful” ball throwing skills. Even the littlest kids understood what was going on and the room was filled with giggles at the realization that they were in on the joke.

BallTitle: Ball
Author/Illustrator: Mary Sullivan

This newly published book is less well-suited for story time in that it only features the single word title throughout all of its pages. However, the expressive illustration carry the story beautifully as a dog wakes a girl and plays with a ball repeatedly until the girl leaves for school, with a purple bag slung over her shoulder as the dog dejectedly looks on, ball hanging from its mouth. After soliciting the mother in a yoga pose and outfit, a baby in a bassinet who bursts into tears, and the cat who wants nothing to do with the dog, the dog finally drifts off to sleep and dreams of different scenarios featuring the well-loved toy. I’ll be honest, I skipped over those because I thought I would lose my younger audience with those scenes. Eventually, the dog pricks up its ears because, yes, thank you, the girl has finally returned and is more than happy to play with her pouch, ending the story with a satisfying “BALL!”

Duck and GooseTitle: Duck and Goose
Author/Illustrator: Tad Hills
Series: Duck and Goose

This is a not so new book that also allows readers to be in on the joke long before the title characters. Duck and Goose discover what they think is an egg, and after each tries to claim it as their own, the find themselves in a face off sitting on the spherical, spotted object. They finally find common ground as they talk about teaching whatever hatches how to fly and swim. A little blue bird disrupts their contemplative stance, but also points out that maybe things aren’t as they seem, especially to these oblivious animals. Friends are made in the end, and it’s quite obvious from the cover that this very obvious case of mistaken identity is improbable but enjoyable all the same.

Stick!Title: Stick!
Author: Andy Pritchett

Throwing kids a “curve ball” (the preschool staff laughed), I ended the story about a dog and his stick. Similar in scope to Ball, this book features only a half-dozen words that are repeated throughout the book. Pritchett’s brightly colored backgrounds and minimal details contrast nicely against Sullivan’s more muted pastel colored palette. The excitable dog (who reminds me of Snoopy with his white body and black floppy ears) offers a stick to a cow, a chicken, and a pig who all refuse his overtures for grass, worms, and mud respectively. Flopping down with a storm cloud over his head and a gray background, he throws the stick in frustration… and it comes back with a “Clunk!”. It’s another dog, this one brown, who joins the original character, and the other three animals soon join them after peering around the pages to see what the excitement is about. A satisfying “Friend?” ends the story with the animals playing a catch type game. The animals initial responses are shown in the book before the word is produced via a page turn, which gives I think offers kids a unique connection opportunity to see that they were right about the animal’s predicted response.

Books I didn’t use:
Peanut and Fifi Have a BallTitle: Peanut and Fifi Have a Ball
Author: Randall de Seve
Illustrator: Paul Schmid

While I love the idea of incorporating imagination into a story time, the color palette was very similar to Mary Sullivan’s Ball with the peach and soft blues making up most of the story. I loved the girls’ responses to each other, mimicking the fleeting nature of ideas as Fifi springs from one thought to the next, and Peanut is ever the realist until the very end. When trying to convince Peanut to share her ball, Fifi imagines it’s identity as a basketball, needing a hat, serving as a crystal ball, becoming dough, and finally balancing on the nose of a seal. Peanut’s responses, on the other hand, include “My ball doesn’t need a hat”, “Check the closet” and “Just a ball.” It would serve it’s purpose well on a rainy afternoon that requires imagination.

Ball for DaisyTitle: A Ball for Daisy
Author/Illustrator: Chris Raschka
This Caldecott winning wordless book was very similar to Ball and Stick in both its plot line (dog finds a friend to play with) and it’s language (it is wordless). Even the pictures of the dog are similar, with both Stick and A Ball for Daisy featuring a white dog with black ears making a new friend in the form of a brown dog. While the pictures are beautiful, I’d had enough of the limited vocabulary dog books, and decided to pass on this one and go for the newer titles that they hopefully hadn’t seen yet. That’s not to discount it, it was just too much of the same for this story time.

What books do you roll over about?

Eleanor & Park

Eleanor & ParkTitle: Eleanor & Park
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Narrators: Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra
ISBN: 9780385368261 (book on cd), 9781250012579 (hardcover)
Pages: 328 pages
Discs/CDs: 9 hours, 7 CDs
Publisher/Date: St. Martin’s Griffin, c2013. (audio from Listening Library)

“You can’t sit there. That’s Mikayla’s seat.” [...]
“I have to sit somewhere,” The girl said to Tina in a firm, calm voice.
“Not my problem,” Tina snapped. The bus lurched, and the girl rocked back to keep from falling. Park tried to turn the volume up on his Walkman, but it was already all the way up. He looked back at the girl; it looked like she was starting to cry.
Before he’d even decided to do it, Park scooted toward the window.
“Sit down,” he said. It cam out angrily. The girl turned to him, like she couldn’t tell whether he was another jerk or what. “Jesus-fuck,” Park said softly, nodding to the space next to him, “just sit down.”
The girl sat down. She didn’t say anything–thank God, she didn’t thank him–and she left six inches of space on the seat between them.
Park turned toward the Plexiglas window and waited for a world of suck to hit the fan. (8-9)

This is how Eleanor and Park meet. Eleanor, described by Park as “big and awkward. With crazy hair, bright red on top of curly. And she was dressed like. . . like she wanted people to look at her.” (8) Eleanor, when comparing Park to the other, meaner classmates on the bus, “couldn’t tell if the Asian kid who finally let her sit down was one of them, or whether he was just really stupid. (But not stupid-stupid- he was in two of Eleanor’s honors classes.)” (11) But then Park notices Eleanor is reading his comics over his shoulder, so he lends her some more. And he realizes that they like some of the same bands and music, so he lends her some cassette tapes. And then batteries. It’s when Park invites Eleanor home with him that they both realize two things: they are becoming more than just two teens who share the same bus seat, and their lives couldn’t be more different. It is those differences that ultimately put their relationship to the test, and Eleanor asks Park to give her something he truly doesn’t want to give up on.

What is it about books lately that are making me see the world so differently? Obviously books are supposed to make you view the world through a window or a light that isn’t your own. But I have never heard Eleanor’s analysis of Romeo and Juliet before, and I loved how contrary she was to the teacher. It’s also a little eye-opening and a little unnerving to have a historical fiction title that takes place during a time (1986) I was alive! Finally, after reading about the censorship scandal last September, I guess I should give fair warning that there are a multitude of swear words and some sexual content, although they don’t make it to home plate.

The relationship between Park and Eleanor I initially thought of as cliché, with two people who originally hate each other slowly falling in love. Really though, they didn’t hate each other in the beginning, they just had to get to know each other better and overcome this huge space between them. The bus seat and their body language while riding to and from school becomes symbolic of their feelings, as they start out avoiding each other, but then slowly migrate closer and closer, first ducking down so no one can see and then not caring what anyone on the bus thinks of them. Park starts off being this stereotypical Asian boy, smart, small, and silent, but then there’s that scene between him and Steve (if you have read the book, you KNOW which one I’m talking about), and it just smashes your entire opinion of Park. It also smashes your entire impression of Eleanor, as her response is just… wow.
Eleanor is getting teased by the kids on the bus. Park gets upset, and Eleanor tells him:

“It’s not worth it.”
“You are,” he said fiercely, looking at her. “You’re worth it.”
“This isn’t for me,” she said. She wanted to pull at him, but she didn’t feel like he was hers to hold back. “I don’t want this.”
“I’m tired of them embarrassing you.” [...]
“Embarrassing me?” she said. “Or embarrassing you?” (130)

You realize how mature she is and it’s sad that her abusive home life is what caused that maturity. Your heart hurts for Park that he gives so much and asks so little, but Eleanor isn’t really in a position to offer any more than she does, and she is forced to keep her guard up around everyone.

Speaking of families, Park’s is the polar opposite of Eleanor’s family. While yes we have the stereotypical absent and/or abusive parents in Eleanor’s case, we also have Park’s involved, loving, and caring parents. Park’s parents can empathize with the spot he finds himself, and while they are not perfect, they play off each other beautifully. They are willing to change when circumstances change, and they are overall some cool parents to have who support and mentor Park with his tough decisions.

Another opinion altering moment comes at the end. That is NOT how I expected this book to end. Not in a million years. But it works, and it makes sense. The book’s ending is so gut-wrenching yet hopeful, all at once, that you may just find yourself smiling even as a tear or two runs down your cheek. Whether you listen to the excellent audio or curl up next to the fire for a cover-to-cover binge reading, be prepared to have your heart stretched.

Two Boys Kissing

Two Boys KissingTitle: Two Boys Kissing
Author: David Levithan
ISBN: 978030793190
Pages: 200 pages
Publisher/Date: Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, c2013.
Publication Date: August 27, 2013

A lot of thought has gone into the location of Craig and Harry’s kiss.
If convenience had been the deciding factor, the obvious choice would have been to do it in Harry’s house, or in his backyard. The Ramirezes would have been more okay with this, and would have made all the arrangements that needed to be made. But Craig and Harry didn’t want to hide it away. The meaning of this kiss would come from sharing it with other people. [...]
Once they start kissing, they will have to keep kissing for at least thirty-two hours, twelve minutes, and ten seconds. That is one second longer than the current world record for the longest-recorded kiss.
The reason they are all here is to break that record.
And the reason they want to break that record started with something that happened to Tariq. (31, 33)

Avery and Ryan are just starting their relationship, after having met at a gay prom. Peter and Neil have been a couple for a year now, and are still trying to navigate their lives together. Harry and Craig used to date and have since broken up. That’s not stopping their public attempt at breaking the world record for longest kiss. They were inspired by Tariq, who suffered a painful event due to his sexuality. Tariq isn’t the only one suffering though, as Connor flees his home out of fear of his family and questions who he can turn to in his time of need. All six of these young men and their stories reflect what a slice of life is like, and the struggles they face. Who will triumph, who will need to reach out for support, and who will be pushed to their limit?

I was struck by the presentation of this book. The stories are tied together not by overlapping characters or plots (although some of them do at the end) but by the observations of what could be called the ghosts of gays gone-by. It’s a unique technique, and their narration provides prospective. I was a little thrown by it at first, but then it started to grow on me. This reflective tone made me stop and think, and I found myself marking passages and pages, which I don’t normally do when reading fiction. So, please forgive my extensive quoting, but these are just three of the passages that made me stop and reflect, and I hope the readers of my blog can do the same.

Avery wonders why Ryan is looking at him out of the corner of his eye, why Ryan would rather watch him than watch the road. Even when friends look at Avery, a small part of him still worries they are looking for flaws, irregularities. In this Avery isn’t all that different from anyone else. We all worry that looking at is really looking for.
Finally, Avery can’t stand it. The look. Then a knowing smile. Then another look.
“What?” he asks.
This only makes Ryan smile more. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I don’t usually like people. So when I do, part of me is really amused and the other part refuses to believe it’s happening.” (150)

It’s one of the secrets of strength: We’re so much more likely to find it in the service of others than we are to find it in service to ourselves. We have no idea why this is. It’s not just the mother who lifts the car to free her child, or the guy who shields his girlfriend when the gunman starts to fire. Those are extremes, brave extremes, which life rarely calls on us to offer. No, it is the less extreme strength-a strength that is not so much situational as it is constitutional-that we will find in order to give. [...] Some supposedly strong people in our lives showed that their strength was actually made of straw. But so many held us up in ways they would not have held themselves. They saw us through, even as their worlds crumbled through their fingers. They kept fighting, even after we were gone. Or especially because we were gone. They kept fighting for us. (153)

For the past year, Neil has assumed that love was like a liquid pouring into a vessel, and that the longer you loved, the more full the vessel became, until it was entirely full. The truth is that over time, the vessel expands as well. You grow. Your life widens. And you can’t expect your partner’s love alone to fill you. There will always be space for other things. And that space isn’t empty as much as it’s filled by another element. Even though the liquid is easier to see, you have to learn to appreciate the air. (181)

Another scene that really made me stop and examine how I viewed the world was when one of the characters was confronting his family about his sexuality. His mother said “I don’t have to tell you that you have black hair, do I? I don’t have to tell you that you’re a boy. Why should I have to tell you this? We know, [name removed]. Is that what you want to hear? We know.” (134) I’ll be honest, I’ve always felt the same way as that mother. What does it matter if someone is gay or straight or bi or asexual, and why is it so important to acknowledge it publicly? I don’t go around announcing to the world my sexuality, so why do you need to?

Regardless of what the author’s intentions were, I’ve come to the conclusion that some people might still be struggling with accepting themselves and are looking for that confirmation and validation that being who they know they are is okay. I found myself expanding on that hair color reference. There is no right or wrong with hair color, and there shouldn’t be a right or wrong sexuality either. Some people still tell blonde jokes and the Nazis still preferred the blonde-haired blue-eyed Aryans over other races. But for the majority of the population, it doesn’t matter if you are brunette, red, blonde, or black, because they know that you have no control over what your natural hair color is. But sexuality is not seen as “natural” but rather a choice by a vocal group of people, and so I think that lends people to assert their sexuality with more vigor and volume, in order to ensure they are recognized as “natural”. Right now, some people see sexual orientations outside of heterosexual as other, similar to a bright pink or neon green hair dye. This character saw his mom reluctance to say his orientation aloud as proof that she didn’t accept him, and the author portrayed it in that manner, with the character responding to her question with “But you don’t mind about the other things–that I have dark hair, that I’m a boy. You mind that I’m gay. Which is why I need you to say it.” (134) I also saw it as confusion that her words could have such an impact on his opinion of his situation. Even though she didn’t say it aloud, I could almost hear her thinking “You don’t need me to tell you that you have black hair, or this color eyes, or that you’re so many feet tall, because you know it just as strongly as you know you are gay. I don’t understand why you think this is any different.” Just because we don’t acknowledge how we are different doesn’t mean we mind it.

It’s because this character needed confirmation that his family saw it that same way. This character thinks people mind, and I think that might be why so many gay pride parades and speeches happen. Until they know that sexual orientation becomes another common place descriptor such as eye color, that doesn’t mean anything, then they have to keep confirming that their sexuality won’t make a difference in how people view them. They feel like they are hiding it, when really, I think a good half of the population just get tired of hearing about it.

It’s these and other thought-provoking passages that really drew me into the story and I realize I’ve barely touched upon the other parts of the book while I mulled introspectively over select scenes. I loved the different characters and the different types of relationships that we witness, many of whom were inspired by true events. An author’s note reveals he talked to one of the participants of the longest continuous kiss, which was gay couple back in 2010, and we get those details that everyone would probably be asking themselves if they thought about it, like musical motivation, exhaustion, dehydration, and bodily functions (I’d be afraid to sneeze!). The observers from generations past take some getting used to, but they provide great perspective to the multitude of emotions that are portrayed with each person. Levithan made a smart choice in presenting the stories over the course of a single weekend, because it kept the pacing and suspense tightly wound and contained. We can cheer on all the characters and hope for happy endings, but even with possibilities in tact, the book came to a satisfying conclusion. With one final quote, I’ll end this post the same way Levithan ended the book.

There is the sudden. There is the eventual.
And in between, there is the living.
We do not start as dust. We do not end as dust. We make more than dust.
That’s all we ask of you. Make more than dust. (196)

Truce

0-545-13049-2Title: Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting
Author: Jim Murphy
ISBN: 9780545130493
Pages: 116 pages
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic, Inc.

In a matter of days, six million soldiers would find themselves facing weapons of unimaginable destructive power. Many of them would be blasted from the face of the earth, while others would be left permanently wounded in horrible ways. None of these young men realized that their leaders had lied to get them to fight in a war that did not have to happen. Nor could they know that on December 25, 1914, they would openly defy their commanding officers and meet on the battlefield in what can only be described as a Christmas miracle. (x)

Since I’ve read Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan I know that World War I started when the Austrian Archduke was assassinated while visiting Bosnia-Herzegovina. I’d also previously heard about the impromptu truce that was called between troops in order to celebrate Christmas, which when the war started was when everyone thought the war would be over. Little did they know at that point it was just starting. But Jim Murphy glosses over the causes of the war and strives to put the focus on the soldiers involved in the conflict. There are copious photos of soldiers in the trenches, close-ups of the no-mans land that they could not cross, and the aftermath of the futile charges when they did attempt an attack. Soldiers from both sides are quoted extensively, with first-hand accounts taken from journals, letters home, and official correspondence. Even if you’d previously heard about the impromptu and imperfect truce, there’s new insight to be gained.

For instance, did you know that the truce was previously coordinated? Mini-truces had been organized between the troops, as they exchanged songs and sometimes supplies over the crumbling walls. Murphy relates that one area even had a shooting competition, where a target was placed in the middle and each sides shot until it was hit. But arranging the truce depended upon the individual platoons, battalions, and soldiers.

The most surprising thing was that it was frowned upon by the superior officers!

Back at headquarters, [English] General Horace Smith-Dorrien had been disturbing reports all day about strange goings-on at the front. [...] The commander of all British troops, Field Marshall John French, was just as angry. “When this [fraternization] was reported to me I issued immediate orders to prevent any recurrence of such conduct, and called the local commanders to strict account, which resulted in a good deal of trouble.
The German High Command took much the same view and issued a terse order: “Commander Second Army directs that informal understandings with enemy are to cease. Officers . . . allowing them are to be brought before a court-martial.” (82-83)

As a result, some of the opposing officers in the field met to warn their enemies that they’d be resuming their hostilities. Some soldiers initially refused to resume firing, and others warned their counterparts each time they were forced to give the impression that they were still fighting, such as when they were being inspected by higher ranking members. While most places continued to fight by the new year, soldiers stationed on both sides at Ploegsteert Wood kept the friendship until March. I laughed at some of the comments, as I’m sure the commanding generals did not, such as when one captain declared that the men waved at each other and made tea and acted “most gentlemanly” and that “this useless and annoying sniping can have no real effect on the progress of the campaign.” (88)

A truly intriguing idea that begs the perpetual and never solved “What if” question that is probably hanging over the heads of every soldier involved. “What if the fighting had stopped there?” How different would history and the world be? Especially how reluctantly some of the parties were to even get involved in the conflict, I wish the practice of listening to the troops and the people would have enacted some change. As the holidays approach and we hear about “Peace on Earth and goodwill towards men,” consider reading this book and learning about how this idea was practiced in the worst of circumstances.

This was posted in conjunction with Nonfiction Mondays, a drive around the internet to encourage reading and reviewing nonfiction titles.

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