Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Newbery Award Challenge - 2010s

Hooray!  Huzzah!  Yippee!  Excellent!  Yay!  I did it!  All the way to the end!  

(Though, it isn't really the end since the American Library Association continues to dole out the Newbery Award to one new book each year.)  
Johnny trying to stowaway as I packed to spend the week up north.
I am so pleased.  It was a significantly more ambitious undertaking than I expected at the start.  There were some books that were challenging to power through...literally from book one.  There were some books I couldn't put down.  Boy, did I sure get sidetracked along the way...but I got here.  I read every single Newbery Award winning book since the award was first dispensed in 1922.  Cool.  It was a solid project and I feel more rounded for the having invested the time and effort.

Matt suggests I not read any more Newbery winners until I've got another couple decades stocked up and then I can go on another bender.  I am more inclined to read the new winner each year and enjoy them one at a time, in moderation.   We shall see how it plays out.
I saw this squirrel sprawled out on the porch railing.  After some observation we figured out that she was cooling herself off.  She'd sprawl for a while and then move to a fresh spot on the rail and do it again.  And again.  She worked her way up and down the railing one afternoon.  Sure was fun to watch.  
2010 - When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
I read When You Reach Me in one go, in the tub.  I guess that is probably a good ratings indicator.  It was really enjoyable and had a very clever and unexpected ending that sealed the deal.  The story itself contains another story, which I think is a cool means of relaying the tale.  The book A Wrinkle in Time (itself a Newbery winner from 1963) plays a rather significant role in the book.  I was glad I was finally familiar with that story, since I am certain it made When You Reach a richer story to have that background.  I wouldn’t say it was essential though.  

The story is set in New York City.  Miranda is a street savvy 12 year old latchkey kid.  Her mom was an aspiring lawyer, but settled as a paralegal since it was more attainable as a single mom.  Miranda has one very deep, lifelong friendship with Sal, the boy in the apartment downstairs.  Then one day everything changes.  Sal gets punched on the street.  Miranda makes a new friend.  Strange notes start to appear, tucked into Miranda’s book, coat pocket, etc.

I liked the mystery part of the story a whole heck of a lot.  I was so eager to figure it out, to find out who was leaving the notes and what they all meant. They contained such specific information, especially dates, that it was hard to imagine who it might be.  It was like there was a spy or something.  At the end I was totally surprised.  I’d have never guessed.

And the ending was really cool.  Tied the whole story together with a beautiful bow.  Though, it was a little sad, too, at least momentarily.  Once all the pieces fell into place the reader realizes it is less sad than it seemed.

The story made me think about what it would be like to grow up in NYC.  That is like a different planet from my upbringing in a teeny town on the plains.  There are so many ways to live and so much of it seems like it would be based on life experiences, like where you grew up.  Case in point: Miranda know that the crazy man on the corner is the harmless kind of crazy, not the creepy or scary kind of crazy.  I don’t think I even knew about mentally ill homeless people when I was 12 years old.  I bet she didn’t know how to bait a hook though.  Takes all kinds, as the saying goes.

Throughout the book Miranda’s mom is practicing for her appearance on the $20,000 Pyramid gameshow.  That’s a pretty fun sidestory, too, with a really happy ending—and I’m not talking about her winning the $20,000…she doesn’t, but the conclusion of this thread is ever better than if she had.  Miranda's mom calls the "overpriced and not very good" strawberries from the neighborhood grocer "SSO's which stands for ‘strawberry-shaped objects."  I couldn't wait to share that one with Matt.  He and I are spoiled now by our home strawberry patch.  The storeboughts really are just SSOs.   So often they're still white in the middle, not melt-in-your-mouth lucious red all the way through.
A Ginger sized stretch.
2011 - Moon over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool
Moon Over Manifest was a solid story.  It was entertaining and lively, and the ending gave me shivers twice.  It is one of the classic finding-yourself/your-place-in-the-world stories that are so common in YA literature.  The storyline bounces back and forth between 1936 when 12-year old Abilene is sent to live with a friend of her father’s in Manifest, Kansas and 1918 when Abilene’s dad, Gideon, was living there.  Abilene has always lived on the road with her father, drifting from town to town and job to job.  She thinks it is a wonderful way to live and has seen and experienced so much of the country and its people in her short life.  She isn’t happy to be separated from her life and her father—who had recently pronounced that the road is no place to raise a young lady.

Almost immediately upon moving in with Gideon’s friend, Shady, Abilene finds a stash of letters and relics from 1918 under the floorboard of her bedroom.  This sets her on a summer-long spy hunt, helped by her two new friends and then unwittingly by other townsfolk including Miss Sadie the “gypsy” fortune teller and the news reporter Hattie Mae.  They are told to “Keep Well Enough Alone,” via a note pinned on their clubhouse…which in a classic style just makes them all the more determined to find out who the spy was and if they’re still around.  All of the 1918 bits are relayed in either the secreted letters or as reminiscent storytelling from Miss Sadie.  

They spy hunters learn about much more than the spy though.  Abilene is looking for clues to her father’s past the whole time, wanting to know him more deeply, and maybe herself as a result.  She comes to know the townspeople as if she’d lived there her whole life as a result of all the spy hunting—their triumphs, joys, losses, dreams, schemes…the way they interconnect to weave the story of Manifest.

Because there is a war on in 1918 and a depression in 1936 the story has its dose of sorrow, but overall it was a happy book—almost nostalgic—that made me smile much more than cry.  

While Abilene is the star of the 1936 story a troubled orphan called Jinx, because of he attracts bad luck, is the protagonist of 1918.  Probably due to the fact he’s largely been on his own he is an expert conman and trickster.  He spent a while helping his uncle scam people with fake healing at tent revival type gatherings.  When a man is killed around their fire they split up, with the local sheriff on their tail.  On the lamb, Jinx stumbles into the life of Manifest.  It is there that he befriends one of the beloved young people, Ned, who helps Jinx imagine a different life for himself.   Though, as with so many lives, it still doesn’t turn out like he hopes it will…  

The ending was bittersweet, but had a satisfying finality to it at the same time. 
Johnny having what we've come to affectionately call a "shoe orgy."  She loves sandals and slip-ons best of all.  I imagine because they have maximum footy smell.
2012 - Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
Dead End in Norvelt was a weird book, I guess.  It was fine, overall, but also just…strange in the details.  The main character is named after the author—Jack Gantos—and it is set in Norvelt, PA which is also the author's real-life hometown.  I am not sure how much of it is autobiographical beyond that.  I hope not the part where the old ladies of town are systematically poisoned.  Or the part where the drive-in movie theater gets bombed by a crazy guy in an airplane.

I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone remotely squeamish about blood.  Jack suffers from sensitive nasal capillaries and he gets a bloody nose if he lies, is scared, gets in trouble, hears loud noises, and well, basically every other page the kid is gushing from the face.  So much blood!

I’d never heard about Norvelt or Eleanor Roosevelt’s involvement in the development of this and similar communities in a program intended to elevate living conditions for the working man during the Great Depression.  That was a cool chapter of history I knew nothing about.  I’m glad to have it on my radar now.  Jack’s mom is a native Norvelter.  His dad is a bitter transplant who thinks the town was founded on and is run by commies.  He calls the Community Center where Jack’s mom is very involved the Communist Center, for example.  They are frequently at odds throughout the book, especially after the dad orchestrates Jack cutting down her community corn plot in order to build a runway for his new second-hand airplane.

Jack gets grounded for the summer which leads to his increasing involvement with the elderly Miss Volker, the medical examiner who is extremely loyal to Mrs. Roosevelt and writes all the town’s obituaries.  There are a lot of obituaries the summer Jack is grounded.  So many, in fact, it starts to raise people’s suspicions.  This turns out to be well founded as one of the town residents is hatching a scheme to sell off the old ladies’ houses.

I was kind of surprised by the ending.  Both parents swear Jack to secrecy (“Don’t tell your mom about this… Don’t tell your dad about this,”) which seems like an odd value for a Newbery winner.  As does their overall relationship, actually.  There is unsafe gun play and glamorization of war which, again, strikes me as an odd theme for such a recent award winner.  I mean, it’s not like we’re talking the Daniel Boone winner era.  Jack’s dad seems like he is having a nervous breakdown or something…but it no big deal.  There is an armed stand-off between Jack’s mom and her own brother.  It was just weird.

I got a chuckle by how the Hells Angels were utilized as rather cliché “bad guys” throughout the tale.  Not that I think they’re good guys, but it just seemed like an all-too-easy scapegoat.  I loved Miss Volker’s robust knowledge of history, both local and international.  She clearly valued history as a guide for us—where we’ve been and where we’re going.  That becomes a very important life lesson for Jack (and the reader, I suppose).

I really enjoyed the way Norvelt was portrayed.  Jack’s mom in particular is nostalgic for the Norvelt of the past.  Neighbors helping neighbors, a widespread barter system, work parties, and so many quaint and simple modes of life that seem to not be so common in modern Norvelt.  (Though they do have a homespun Meals On Wheels program for their elderly and other community programs.)  As more and more people moved away from Norvelt for better jobs or different opportunities it seems like the character of the town changed.  Or, quite possibly, it was never as sunny and helpful as the adults of the book remember.  We have a tendency to do this when we reflect back on times gone past.
Three mallard ducks on the boat ramp at Lake Elmo.  We love kayaking because it is a new way to appreciate the birds.
2013 - The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
The One and Only Ivan was a tragically beautiful and moving story.  It was both heartwarming and heartbreaking.  I expected that going in, based on the book jacket which said the story was based on the real life of Ivan the gorilla who lived in solitary at roadside menagerie in Washington before finally getting a chance at a better life.  I don’t like zoos or places that exhibit animals for money.  I wrote a chapter for a book about it once.  Even when people mean well… captivity is just not what any wild animal was meant for.  Even when people do their best to simulate a wild habitat it is always just that, a simulation.  It is complicated.  I like to think that all the COVID19 quarantines and lockdowns should helps humans realize that no animal wants to be confined, but...

The fictionalized Ivan in the book is one of the featured animal exhibits in a mall just off the freeway.  He can see a lot of the mall and even some of the world beyond from behind the glass walls of his “domain.”  His neighbor is an elephant cast-off from the circus industry named Stella.  She and Bob, the stray dog that likes to sleep on Ivan’s tummy, are both rather critical of human behavior, based on their own experiences with it.  Stella in particular remembers too much… She insists that Ivan doesn’t have a “domain,” he has a “cage.”  She longs for her elephant family, even though she knows they are dead.  

This doesn’t jive with Ivan’s MO which is to try and forget everything from his life in the jungle with his parents and twin sister.  He was raised as a human—eating ice cream cones, wearing clothes, riding a bicycle—by the owner of the mall, Mack, until Ivan got too big to handle at which point he moved into his cage in the mall permanently.  He has been there for 9,855 days.  That is 27 years in confinement, bereft of the companionship of his own kind.

Mack was a terrific villain in that I sorta loathed him the whole book long--when he is “training” Ruby with the cruel bullhook, when he doesn’t call a vet for sick Stella, the way he neglects the animals, in general—but then there was this moment at the end when the author revealed the complexity of Mack’s character.  It made me realize that none of what was happening was really what he wanted either.  His wife left him.  He drinks too much.  His business is failing.  Life didn’t turn out like he expected it would.  It isn’t an excuse for his behavior, but the scene humanized him so that I couldn’t just hate him.  It was complicated.  The story clearly illustrated something that has perplexed me for years--the fact that human beings are capable of such helpful caring and such cruel selfishness.  Humans are the best and the worst.

In an attempt to drive more business to the mall, Mack acquires a baby elephant on the cheap from a bankrupt circus.  Ruby has only been in the human world for a month.  She misses her family—whom she saw killed—and her life in Africa.  She and Stella bond immediately, but Stella is outraged as she envisions Ruby enduring a life at the Mall—tethered to a concrete floor covered in dirty straw, performing tricks three times a day, 365 a year, never free to roam or bask in the fresh air—as she herself has over the decades.  Ruby asks for stories to soothe her.  Stella tells them and, when she isn’t able to, Ivan takes over.  Ivan starts to remember…

He remembers his father, a mighty silverback gorilla, and how he always protected his family…until the day he couldn’t when the humans came.  Ivan remembers playing in the jungle with his sister.  He remembers a better life, a life before Mack and the mall and his concrete and glass domain.  Stella asks Ivan to make a promise to help Ruby get a better life by engineering her deliverance to a zoo they’ve seen advertised on TV.

I was initially mixed about the way the zoo was portrayed as a nice place with nice people to care for animals.  It seemed too idealized for me.  Ivan is pretty blatant by the end though.  The zoo is still just another cage.  The cages are nicer and bigger and look more natural, but they’re still a cage.  Still.  The humans are at least trying.  The book has a very happy, tear-jerking ending.  I was over the moon for Ruby and Ivan, but especially Ivan.  Keeping a social animal in isolation like that is such an atrocity.  My heart melted when he realized he had finally become like his father, that he had finally achieved his destiny as a mighty silverback with a family to protect.  His family was just a little more unconventional that is would have been if he’d stay in the jungle.  It was a lovely ending.  

I knew I was going to like this book when it started with a favorite quote/guiding principle from George Eliot:  "It is never too late to be what you might have been."
I love it when the little weirdos forget their tongue is hanging out.
2014 - Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo
Flora & Ulysses is the second book by Kate DiCamillo to win a Newbery Award, the first being The Tale of Despereaux.  I was quite taken with The Tale of Despereaux.  It was a fantastic story .  So much so that I watched the movie version…which was a disappointment.  Sigh.  I thought I’d learned my lesson on book-to-movie conversions.  Apparently not.  Flora & Ulysses was good, but not great.  I didn't find it to be nearly as entertaining or whimsical as Despereaux.  Perhaps it isn't fair to compare.

Flora is a self-described cynic who loves comic books, especially The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto!  Before her parents got divorced, her dad would read them to her—complete with voices.  He is a comic book fan, too.  Now Flora reads comics to herself and imagines her world in comic book form—words suspended in the air over people’s head which caption the scene, superpowers, the “Criminal Element,” and so on.    Her mother doesn't like comic books and wishes Flora would read something better.  Not that she has much room to talk, if you ask me.

As a cynic, Flora has trouble relating to her mom who writes what I would dub “trashy romance novels” and seems to really love her wealth, success, and possessions—specifically a shepherdess-shaped lamp called Mary Ann. Maybe more than Flora, or so it seems.  Flora has no time for fluffy, pointless things like romance, busy as she is being a cynic on the look out because "Terrible Things Can Happen To You!"

Her life changes—and the story kicks off—when Flora sees a regular ol' squirrel get sucked up by her neighbor’s bizarre, supercharged indoor/outdoor vacuum cleaner.  When Flora rushes to his aid they discover that the accident has miraculously not killed the squirrel.  In fact, he now has super powers!  Some odd powers—like writing/typing poetry—and some more conventional powers—like flying.  Flora takes the squirrel home with her and names him Ulysses.  

Flora’s mom quickly becomes Ulysses’ arch-nemesis.  She plots a scheme to have Ulysses killed.   This sets the stage for a comic book style superhero adventure story.  Some comedy, some fight scenes.  Good versus evil.  (Though in the end, Flora’s mom reveals that she just didn’t want Flora to be an outcast, to be weird.  She wanted her to fit in so her life would be easier.  This was misguided, but she was just trying to do what she thought was best for her daughter.  So…not so evil, exactly.)

As would be the case in any good comic book, the hero gains the upper hand and Ulysses is spared his untimely demise.  Plus, some other good stuff happens--though Mary Ann does lose her head.

This book exists in audiobook format, but I can’t imagine reading it that way because it is an “illuminated” story.  That is, the illustrations are a central component to the tale.  Some of the chapters are a couple pages of comic book panels along, nary a standard text block to be read.  Even the more typical prose chapters are regularly interspersed with related drawings.  I am curious how they narrate all that.  

It was cute and enjoyable.  I do love stories which feature talking animals...not that Ulysses "talks" exactly, but he understands English and can express himself.
Before she cooled herself on the railing, as documented above, she got her much on.  The suet block on the shepherd's hook is her favorite snack and she finally figured out the "easy" way to reach it.  She drapes her whole body across the shepherd's hook and just hangs there like a wet sock as she noshes.
2015 - The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
The Crossover was dramatic and unusual.  It relates a story of brotherhood, manhood, change, loss, and growth told in a hip-hop style poetry format.  I enjoyed how the use of fonts, layout, and repetition could effectively illustrate the movement and intensity of basketball and emotions.  It was a cool effect…even if I don’t really give a hoot about basketball.  Or hip-hop.  I also thought it was a cool technique to incorporate word definitions—crossover, calamity, pulchritudinous, hypertension—into the poems/rhymes.  I, for one, didn’t know what a “crossover” was…  

Josh “Filthy” Bell and Jordan “JB” Bell are the twin sons of international basketball legend Chuck “DaMan” Bell.  Their dad taught them to play ball the second they could walk, basically, and now they are the dual stars of their junior high basketball team.  The team is having a winning season and the boys can already see themselves playing in the championship game.  They dream of being a star like their dad, whom is clearly the star of the family, too.

Mid-season things start to fall apart for Josh.  His precious dreadlocks get cut off following a mishap over a bad bet.  JB strikes up a relationship with a pretty new girl, Alexis, who Filthy dubs Miss Sweet Tea in all of his rhymes.  Josh is incredibly jealous.  Not because he wants to be with her, but because she is taking his brother/best friend away.  Josh is jealous, though I don’t think even he fully understands his emotions.  

As JB starts spending more time with his girlfriend he grows more distant from his brother.  I am inclined to see this as perfectly normal.  They’re teen boys, even if they are twins.  Filthy cannot accept this new reality though, being second in his brother’s playbook.  In an impulsive fit of anger he passes the ball directly into JB’s face, almost breaking his nose and sending the family to the ER.  This causes JB to become even more remote from his brother, remembering the look he’d seen in Josh’s eyes when he threw the ball at him—that the rough pass was intentional.

Meanwhile, DaMan is not doing well.  He suffers from a host of related medical issues that are attributed to genetics and bad diet. His wife—Dr. Crystal Stanley-Bell—is trying to encourage a healthier lifestyle.  She’s trying to keep him off the fried foods and doughnuts that he loves—and sneaks—and away from competitive basketball—because it gets him all worked up.  A knee injury coupled with a fear of doctors brought an early end to his playing days, but he still hopes to be a coach someday.  In the meanwhile, he lives out his basketball obsession out through his sons, who are happy to oblige.

The story has a sad, but hopeful ending.  If that’s a thing.  I think it would be a good book to recommend to reluctant male readers especially.  Or any kid who loves basketball.
The Ginger goober.  She sat with her tongue out for eight minutes straight.  Not that anyone was keeping track...
2016 - Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña
I guess I can't really believe that Last Stop on Market Street is "the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children" in 2016.  That's just me though.  I’m not on the committee nor have I read anything close to all the books published that year.  It was simultaneously a Caldecott honor book.  That seems a more appropriate designation, if you ask me.  The books is lovely, but the story doesn't seem substantial or remarkable enough to have earned the top rank. 

I did like the book though, either way.  It is a real do-gooder, bleeding-heart sorta story.  It has a good message.  That’s probably why the award committee chose it.  The book choices over the decades have certainly reflected the shifting cultural values on race, gender, justice, equality, and other social issues, etc.

The Last Stop on Market Street is the soup kitchen/homeless shelter where CJ and his Nana volunteer every week after church. When CJ questions why they do this while others just get to go play his Nana takes the time to explain.  She points out the beauty and kindness found in even unexpected places, like the "bad" side of town.  
 
It was certainly short and sweet.  ...even if I don’t think it should have reached the level of Newbery winning.
I Spy With My Little Eye--a Ginger kitty sleeping in the flowers.
2017 - The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
I thought that The Girl Who Drank the Moon was an incredible book.  I gave it a five star rating, in fact.  It has magic and mystery, drama that is more misunderstanding than anything else, a glimpse of evil, a loveable monster, an unconventional family…and lots more.

Legend holds that the witch living in the woods demands an infant sacrifice once a year in exchange for leaving the citizens of The Protectorate alone.  No one has seen the witch in living memory, but this is the way it has always been done…and so it continues.  It is always the youngest baby in the city that is left in the specified grove of trees where the witch will find the poor thing and take it, never to be seen again.  The Protectorate is populated with families that never recover from their sorrow and loss.  A literal and metaphorical fog hangs over the city.

Antain is an elder-in-training.  His uncle is the grand elder.  He is a central character for the scenes in The Protectorate.  He is deeply disturbed by what he sees during his participation in his first Day of Sacrifice and for subsequent years finds a way to avoid the duty.  Eventually choosing to follow his heart and leave his prestigious career track.  The mother of the baby on Antain’s first Day of Sacrifice goes mad with the loss of her baby and is locked in the tower where the Sisters of the Star live.   

The baby is taken... by the witch.

The witch is real, even if no one has seen her.   Xan can’t figure out what is wrong with those city folks that they would keep abandoning a helpless baby in the woods year after year.  Never the less she understands her duty.  She rescues the baby, feeds the poor thing on starshine as they travel to the Free Cities on the other side of the forest.  There she finds them an adoptive family and the Star Children, as they are called, are much beloved.

The year of Antain and the mother who goes mad with grief things don’t go according to plan though and Xan “enmagics” the baby by feeding her moonlight by mistake.  Realizing the enmagiced baby is now her responsibility, Xan names her and raises her as her grandchild, trying to keep Luna safe from the magic she doesn’t understand and can’t control.  Luna is just a baby, after all.  For all her efforts, this doesn’t go according to Xan’s plan either.  They’re helped along the way by a poetic Bog Monster and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon, both of whom are truly wonderful characters.  Together they create a splendid, albeit unconventional, family unit.  I loved them.

There is a villain, but it’s not who you think.  Even when the big reveal happens there is more depth to villain than first meets the eye.  Those are my favorite kind of bad guys, as I’ve mentioned.  It also has a clearly resolved ending that is both victorious and mournful.  What can I say?  I like the contrast, the balance.  It seems so real.

I loved all the magic, too, of course.  Whether it seems real or not.
I love this squirrel.  She slays me.  This is the shepherd's hook trick from a closer angle.
2018 - Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly
I liked the characters in Hello, Universe a lot.  Well, except for the bully, but that’s how it is supposed to go, I figure.  It is the story of misfits and oddballs, which I enjoyed a tremendous amount.  It has a lovely motif of friendship, self-confidence, and finding yourself.   This is all pretty common stuff, really, for children’s literature.  It was a good story.

Virgil is “too shy” and lacks confidence in the midst of his more dynamic, gregarious family.  Valencia is deaf and has given up on the unpredictability of friendship in favor of the reliably she finds in science and observations of the natural world.  Kaori is an aspiring fortuneteller and clairvoyant with her younger sister Gen acting as assistant.  Virgil and Kaori are friends.  Valencia and Virgil are in the Resource Room together.  Virgil thinks Valencia is really cool, but hasn’t worked up the courage to say a single word to her all year.  Their stars align one day in a series of unbelievable coincidences that lead them all into the woods--though Gen and Kaori keep insisting there are no such things as coincidences and that everything happens for a reason.  I really like Kaori's earthy, mystical outlook.  I don’t know if it applies to everything, but I certainly have experienced a boatload of meaningful coincidences.  Serendipity.  Synchronicity.

I also love Virgil’s mystical Lola (grandma) from the Philippines.  She tells Virgil wild tales about rocks eating little boys and other magic.  She is the only member of his family who seems to really see him.  It isn’t like his family is mean to him, they’re just all too busy with their own lives and Virgil is such a wallflower they never notice him.  They all call him by the nickname “Turtle” because he won’t “come out of his shell.”  He hates this, but never says anything about it. 

Valencia doesn’t really have any friends ever since her friends all ditched her because of the challenges of being friends with a deaf person.  This has left Valencia pretty jaded.  She is also a little resentful of her mother’s interference in her life.  

Valencia and Virgil both set appointments for a consultation with Kaori.  Virgil never show, causing Kaori and Gen great alarm.  Valencia gets sucked into the search for him, even though they really don’t know each other.  The search leads them to find a lot more than they expected to…about themselves, about others, and about the world.
Playing Ticket to Ride on the patio with Matt and Ginger.
2019 - Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina
Merci Suarez Changes Gears was a beautiful story about family and love and change, about the phases of life.  I absolutely loved Merci’s family.  I love how close they are—even when it sometimes feels too close for Merci.  It was an especially meaningful read for me because Merci’s grandpa—her Lolo—has Alzheimer’s Disease, as did my grandpa Lyle.  

Merci’s family lives in an inter-generational household complex comprised of three small houses side by side.  Merci shares a room with her older brother, Roli, in the house of her parents.  Her grandparents sleep in the middle house.  Her divorced Tia Ines sleeps in the third little house with her rambunctious young twins.  They all live in all of the houses, coming and going and sharing meals and borrowing tools and supplies as one household.  I think it sounds really cool.  I haven’t had a lot of experience with inter-generational households.  The closeness and the security and comfort sounds beyond compare…though the strains and demands of family might also be magnified.  Merci, for one, feels put upon by the demands her family puts upon her.  

Merci is really close with Lolo and she is unsettled as his behavior starts to grow increasingly unpredictable and worrisome.  Her family is trying to keep it hidden, but after an especially scary close-call the progression of his disease makes that impossible.  

Merci is also have trouble finding her place and her tribe at her new school, even if it is her second year there.  She seems a hint ashamed of the fact her family life seems so different than those of her schoolmates.  She starts to worry that Lolo will embarrass her in front of her friends.  She is rubbed wrong by one of the popular girls and they get caught in a feud.  She is forced to be part of the Sunshine Buddies program to welcome new students and this puts her in closer proximity with her least-favorite teacher.   The loss she feels as Lolo drifts away in his mind compounds all of these things because he had always been Merci's confidante.

Life is a roller coaster.  (Boy, isn't it though?!?)  Merci just wants the ups and downs to mellow out.  She doesn't like all the change and wishes for things to stay the same...for all the changes to stop.  For her brother to always be there.  For Lolo to stay with them in mind and body.  Her realizations at the end of the book about how life is nothing but change were magnificent.  "Then again, staying the same means that Tia Ines might not have the chance to love Simon.  It means Roli wouldn't go to college and get even smarter.  It means I wouldn't grow up at all.  Staying the same could be just as sad as Lolo changing."

I cried.  For Lolo and his family and for Grandpa Lyle and all of us who loved him.  I'll take this opportunity to recommend a book I found helpful: Creating Moments of Joy for the Person With Alzheimer's or Dementia by Jolene Brackey.  
This is the picture that Matt sent me when I was traveling without him.  Nothing makes me want to come home faster than these two!
Addendum:
2020 - New Kid by Jerry Craft & Jim Callahan
Technically this one isn't part of the 2010s.  It should be the kick-off for the 2020's list.  Buuuuuutttt...who knows if I'll still have a blog in ten years.  Who knows if I'll write book reivews even if I do.  So... I'm reviewing it here and now.

I think that New Kid came into my life at a tremendously appropriate time, given the state of the world.  I can see why the topics and issues portrayed in the book struck a chord with the Newbery selection committee last year.  Race relations are the major theme of the book.  It also continues the common thread of Finding-Your-Place-in-the-World that has run through the majority of the Newbery Award winners.  I really appreciate the way it challenged stereotypes and expectations that shape our interactions with other people—intentional and unintentional.  I also dug the fact it was a graphic novel.  I really enjoy that visual/textual format.  It tells the story in such a unique way.  

Jordan is a young African-American growing up in a New York apartment under the loving and encouraging eye of his parents.  His mom works for a successful magazine publisher and his dad is the activity director for their neighborhood community center.  Both want him to have the best chance at success in life.  For his mom that means sending Jordan to a posh, predominately white, private school so that he can get a great education and learn the “rules of the game.”  Jordan’s dad, on the other hand, thinks the game is rigged and not worth playing.  That’s why he quit the corporate world in favor of the community center.  He wants to encourage Jordan’s dreams of being an artist, not a businessman.

The story depicts Jordan’s introduction to Riverdale Academy Day School (RAD)—a long bus ride away from his Washington Heights neighborhood.  This is a culture clash/shock for him.  At his old school and on the basketball courts down at the community center Jordan’s friends are largely like him.  They share a more similar home life, social class, and ethnic background, they have more shared experiences and hobbies and traditions.  At RAD Jordan becomes an immediate outsider. The culture there is astonishingly affluent and poor in racial diversity.  There is a lot of the thoughtless insensitivity and outright racism there.  Most of the time there isn’t a malicious intent…just ignorance or obliviousness on the part of the speaker.  There is this cringe-worthy teacher who consistently mixes up the names of the few black students, as if they all look the same to her.  I kid you not—her name is Karen.  I thought that was clever, though I’m not a huge fan of that term, really.  Then there is a trying-too-hard/wannabe uber-sensitive soccer coach who says questionable things, like something about the kids being bundled up like Eskimos or assuming Jordan is a fast runner only to be followed up by  “Oh!  Is that racist?! I apologize if I offended anyone…” 

Despite the fact he doesn't feel like he belongs, Jordan makes friends.  There is Liam, a rich, Caucasian boy who is embarrassed by his familial wealth and how it makes people treat him differently once they find out.  Drew is another “Financial Aid” student at RAD and is increasingly outspoken about the systemic racism he experiences, especially the name mix-ups.  He and Jordan create an inside joke around this, always greeting and saying goodbye to each other using a series of inaccurate names.  

At first he keeps his two new friendships separate but, after a peptalk from his Dad, Jordan, Liam, and Drew start to hang out together and Jordan seems really happy to not have to juggle two separate spheres in at least that arena.  He has to spend so much of his life trying to be “a chameleon” so that he fits in as he straddles such disparity.  His neighborhood friends start calling him “Private School” and it seems like he can’t quite be himself with them either. They razz him about his formal grammar, say, and in the comic book he is depicted as a golfer on the basketball court with them--totally out of place in every way.  It was an excellent illustration.  Also the scenes where he talks about being a chameleon on the bus to and from the school were pretty dang excellent in their illustrative cleverness.

I loved that when the hotshot pseudo-bully finally gets his comeuppance at the end it comes with a little kindness.  He is put in his place and made to recognize the jerk he was being, but then the rest of the group still includes and befriends him.  They give him a chance to grow into a non-jerk.  I liked that a lot more than if they'd just pushed him to the outside.

It was a really good book. 
Ginger sometimes sits on the stool I use for a side table while I am having one of my soaks.  She has zero respect for my privacy...
For ease later, when I refer back to this Newbery project, I am going to round-up all the related decade-specific links here in one place.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

A Jacuzzi Just Screams "Celebration!"

This is a fantastic small town story.  It is also a romantic story.  Matt and I just celebrated six years of marriage on Sunday and Matt really outdid himself this year.
The Rundle building
Matt rented us a jacuzzi suite in a historic hotel—The Rundle—in Glasgow for our anniversary celebration.  Matt knows how I love all things water, but especially long soaks in hot, hot water.  It was the only jacuzzi suite available in the eastern half of the state, so he tells me.  And even then getting it required the hotel owner pulling some strings on our behalf.  
Our room looked out on 2nd Street, overlooking some neat stone and brick buildings in the surrounding historic district.  I also enjoyed a lovely hour reading in that chair, gazing out occasionally from that huge ol' window.
Check this out:  Matt called The Rundle to inquire about renting the suite and they said it was booked for Friday, but Saturday was open.  They had regular rooms for Friday, but Matt said it was really the jacuzzi tub that made it perfect for me.  Because of our travel schedule staying Saturday instead of Friday wasn’t ideal so Matt just scraped the idea and started formulating a Plan B.  A little while later the Rundle folks called back to say they’d worked it out for us and we could rent the fancypants jacuzzi suite Friday after all.  As he explained it to Matt, the room had been booked as part of a charity silent auction package they'd donated.  The date had been chosen essentially at random for the auction prize.  So, the hotel keeper called the winner-–she was a local—and asked if she had her heart set on this date or if another night might work for her.  She didn’t care and agreeable to postponing her stay, so they rented it to us instead.  Talk about small-town good service and going the extra mile!  Nice folks all around.
The suite--with the fabulous bathroom through the sliding barn-style doors to the right.
It was amazing.  I was so surprised and tickled.  It was a perfect way to celebrate us.  The room was vintage and charming…and we had our own hot tub!!!  I kept singing “Heaven…I’m in heaven…and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak…”  That’s my happy-times song.  I was singing it with Lisa during our midnight sauna at Sleeping Buffalo days previous, actually.
A night time view of the room.  That was the schnazziest fake fireplace I've ever seen.  It was basically a light show!  I thoroughly enjoyed the way the ceiling light was reflected on the tin ceiling tiles.  I love those retro tin ceilings.
The suite has a fridge and microwave so we quite easily carried on our Pizza Friday tradition.  There was even a wine fridge for the bottle of lambic, our standard celebration drink.  We drank some on our wedding day, in fact.  Matt made strawberry pie, complete with a strawberry shaped crust topper.  We’re awash in strawberries right now and I have been singing my happy-times song about the parade of strawberry desserts for sure.
Matt was immensely pleased that all his schemes for a fabulous celebration went according to plan.  He kept the private hot tub bit a total surprise until the moment I walked into the room.  All he had told me was that he’d rented us a room at a hotel from 1914 that sounded pretty cool.  He said the owner was great to work with, but only because they’d worked out early check-in for me, too.  (Matt was coming up after work and wasn’t going to be there until 7pm, whereas I was already up north and was going to get dropped off there after lunch.)  My mom and I put Lisa on the train at 12:30, had lunch, and then checked me into the hotel.  It was actually a building I had commented on earlier that week with my sisters.  It has really lovely tile work on the outside.  It is a very eye-catching brick building.  
When I walked into my room and saw that bathroom—man!—was I pleased as punch.  I immediately turned to my mom and said, “Well, I know what I am doing for the rest of the afternoon.”  And pointed at the jacuzzi tub.  Heck yeah.
Actually though, I went for a bike ride first.  The hotel has free cruiser bicycle rentals for guests so I made some laps through the surrounding historic district.  I was trying to find my Grandma Fran’s old house…but it had gotten such a facelift that I didn’t even recognize it.  I had to get the address from my dad.  

And THEN I took a 3+ hour soak.  That bathroom was beautiful.  (For clarity:  the whole room was, but I was in love with that bathroom.)
Looking into the bathroom from the doorway.  There is a fabulous shower around the corner to the left.
I asked Matt when he arrived “Did you know you were renting my dream hotel room?  Or was that just a fantastic coincidence?”  Which is when he told me about calling around about jacuzzi suites and, ultimately, the guy pulling strings for us and all that.  What.a.Gem.  
Morning light on the ceiling.
The rest of the hotel was really neat, starting with the exceptionally long staircase leading up from the lobby.  That’s not the sort of thing you see these days.  The elevator was super old-school, too.  And tiny.  During the renovations to make the hotel nice and pretty, they also left plenty of the historic charm—panels of original brick work, a row of the (incredibly rusty) original tin ceiling tiles down the hallway, say.  The hallways are quite labyrinthine, with great little niches tucked here and there.  One had a chess table.  Several had coffee stations or microwaves.  There was a full kitchen on the third floor available for guest use.  The rooms up there had tiny door bells under the peephole because they used to be apartments.  There was a lounge with a pool table.  We both thought Matt was going to win the whole time and then I came out of nowhere and snagged a victory in the end.
My dad had all sorts of little stories about the businesses and apartments and things that have been housed in the building over the years.  My dad grew up in Glasgow, among other places.  He said there was a pool hall in the basement known to attract some tough characters so as a young boy he was forbidden from going there.
We were treated to a double rainbow following the rainstorm Matt drove through on his way north to meet me.
It was cool.    …and now I want to knock out a wall and expand my bathroom to include a jacuzzi tub.  Ha!  

Friday, June 19, 2020

It's Pizza Friday!


We have pizza every Friday for our evening meal.  
It is "our thing."
Even when we're traveling or going out to a concert we carry on this weekly culinary ritual, with very few exceptions.  
We look forward to it.  It is a harbinger of the weekend ahead.  A celebration of another week concluded.  I credit Matt with kicking off this household tradition, based on a similar dinner pattern from his childhood.
I love spontaneity, but I am truly a creature of habit, too.  Just as with the larger seasonal patterns, I enjoy the daily patterns of life, too.
Summer finds us grilling crusts and re-heating leftovers over the campfire.  
It is just as lovely to warm the oven and fill the whole house with pizza perfume on a snowy Winter Friday though, too.
Every week is different and that keeps it interesting as well as tasty. 
  Stuffed crust,
      white sauce,
           "meat" lovers,
                asparagus and potato,
                      Detroit-style,
                          sauce on top,
                            thin crust
                       grilled,
                    Supreme,
              deep-dish,
        Thai peanut,
     pesto topped,
  Frico-edges,
and on and on to blissful pizza infinity.
Huzzah for pizza-based tradition!

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Feathers and Feet

I recently spent a week in southeastern Montana--a grand finale to birthday month and summer kickoff.  This is the part of Montana occasionally referred to as "the middle of nowhere."  Some of the state "highways" out there are still gravel.  I didn't know that was a thing.  They were in better condition that the paved highway between Alzada and Ekalaka though.  

We rented a forest service cabin for the bulk of it and then went backpacking for a couple days.  I spent four nights by myself in the cabin, since Matt couldn't really take days off yet and the college is now on summer session so its easy for me. 

I actually managed to forget about the pandemic while I was out there.  There was no one to keep my distance from.  I didn't go anywhere except the great wide open.  I didn't read about it or see the news or talk to anyone.  Whew!  

I had plenty of company though, mainly in the form of my avian friends.  I thought I'd round up some photos of them to share.  All photos from Cornell's All About Birds guide.

Lark Sparrow
Black-billed Magpie
Violet-green Swallow
Red Crossbill
White-breasted Nuthatch
Wild Turkey
American Crow
American Robin
Mountain Bluebird
Western Meadowlark
Redhead Woodpecker
Ring-necked Pheasant
American Goldfinch
Black-capped Chickadee
Yellow Warbler
Bullock's Oriole
Mourning Dove
Brewer's Blackbird
Eastern Kingbird
Turkey Vulture
House Wren
Black-headed Grosbeak
European Starling
Gray Catbird
Northern Flicker
American Kestrel
Common Grackle
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Red-tailed Hawk
Hairy Woodpecker
Great Horned Owl
Red-winged Black Bird
Brown-headed Cowbird
Bobolink
Sandhill Crane
Great Blue Heron
Canada Goose
Mallard
Northern Shoveler
Spotted Towhee
Killdeer
Birds are the coolest.  Best.Neighbors.EVER.