Monday, April 27, 2020

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: THINGS SEEN FROM ABOVE by Shelley Pearsall

Things Seen from Above by Shelley Pearsall


by Shelley Pearsall (Knopf, February 4, 2020)

What It's About (from Random House website):April is looking for an escape from the sixth-grade lunch hour, which has become a social-scene nightmare, so she signs up to be a “buddy bench monitor” for the fourth graders’ recess.

Joey Byrd is a boy on the fringes, who wanders the playground alone, dragging his foot through the dirt. But over time, April realizes that Joey isn’t just making random circles. When you look at his designs from above, a story emerges… Joey’s “bird’s eye” drawings reveal what he observes and thinks about every day.

Told in alternating viewpoints–April’s in text and Joey’s mostly in art–the story gives the “whole picture” of what happens as these two outsiders find their rightful places.

Opening Lines:
Joey Byrd looked like he was dead.
I'm not joking.
Pretty much everybody at Marshallville Elementary knew who Joey Byrd was.
You could be walking to lunch or gym class, and suddenly you'd notice this pale-haired boy lying flat on the hallway tiles--arms out, eyes closed--as if he'd just been struck by a bolt of lightning. Usually a teacher would be standing nearby trying to coax him to get up and motioning for everyone else to go around, saying, "Just ignore him. Keep moving."
The Mafioso's Thoughts:
The Don and I have found a new favorite author. Shelley Pearsall hit this dual narrative out of the park. Most of the chapters are in April's first person POV, with interspersed third person chapters from Joey's POV. We get a well-rounded view of both of these central characters.

April is, quite simply, a delight. She's empathetic, intelligent, reflective and also full of that 6th grade worry of "what are others thinking about me?" and "do I fit in?" It is totally believable that she would choose to help out on the "buddy bench" rather than dealing with the stresses and strains of the lunch room. Joey, on the other hand, is a "rare bird," as designated by Mr. Ulysses, the genial janitor. I'm not sure of the type of learning differences he has, but he has an uncanny ability to trace patterns on the ground as if "seen from above." Initially disliked for his differences, he becomes as person of interest as his artwork gains notice from the town, eventually leading to a beautiful scene at the high school homecoming game.

This is a tremendous story about kids who don't quite fit in. I'll quote Mr. Ulysses, who hits the nail on the head:
"...every once in a while, a rare bird shows up. They are kids like Joey with something different, something unique, something unfamiliar about them--kids who land here for a short period of time to see if anybody notices them.... Usually no one does. Anything that is different or unusual makes most people uncomfortable. They stay away as far as they can. And before long, the rare bird gives up and moves on, and nobody knows the possibilities that they just missed." (page 234)
This is made all the more poignant because Shelley Pearsall's nephew, Miles, was the inspiration for the novel. Each one of us, I'm sure, has come across a rare bird in our lives, either as relatives, or friends, or students. When we are young, we often don't know how to proceed ("anything that is different or unusual makes most people uncomfortable"). We are often thoughtless, if not cruel. With maturity, hopefully, we come to appreciate the gifts of the rare birds among us.

The art work, by Xingye Jin, is magnificent. With the Don's blessing, I'm going in search of more Shelley Pearsall!

Remember #StayHomeSaveLives

About the Author (from Random House author page and from Shelley's website):
A former teacher and museum historian, Shelley Pearsall is now a full-time author. Her first novel, Trouble Don’t Last, won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. Her latest book was The Seventh Most Important Thing, which earned three starred reviews and was named an ALA Notable Book. Shelley lives in Ohio's beautiful Cuyahoga Valley National Park with her British husband, Mike, and their shelter cat named Charlie.  When Shelley isn’t writing or visiting schools, Shelley and Mike love to travel the world in search of new stories and adventures. To learn more about the author and her work, visit her WEBSITE

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Monday, April 13, 2020

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: THE ENDLESS STEPPE by Esther Hautzig

The Endless Steppe: Growing Up in Siberia by Esther Hautzig

THE ENDLESS STEPPE by Esther Hautzig (HarperCollins 1968)

What It's About (from Goodreads):
In June 1941, the Rudomin family is arrested by the Russians. They are accused of being capitalists, “enemies of the people.” Forced from their home and friends in Vilna, Poland, they are herded into crowded cattle cars. Their destination: the endless steppe of Siberia.

For five years, Esther and her family live in exile, weeding potato fields, working in the mines, and struggling to stay alive. But in the middle of hardship and oppression, the strength of their small family sustains them and gives them hope for the future.

The first winner of the Sydney Taylor Awards was Esther Hautzig's The Endless Steppe: Growing Up in Siberia, and 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of this powerful classic.

Opening Lines:
"The morning it happened--the end of my lovely world--I did not water the lilac bush outside my father's study. 
The time was June 1941 and the place was Vilna, a city in the northeastern corner of Poland. And I was ten years old and took it quite for granted that all over the globe people tended their gardens on such a morning as this. Wars and bombs stopped at the garden gates, happened on the far side of garden walls."
The Mafioso's Thoughts: 

I'm currently writing an adult novel, loosely based on my grandfather's escape from revolutionary Russia, through Siberia and into China. I've therefore been reading a lot for research, since I've never been to Siberia and doubt I'll get there anytime soon. Esther Hautzig's luminous memoir was one of the books recommended on my library's website, and I was jolly glad I read it.

It is quite amazing what the human body and soul can survive. In this age of a viral pandemic, this is uppermost in my mind, but at least my family and I are not being forced onto cattle cars, or being bombed out of our home. Esther, her father, mother, and grandmother, are separated from grandfather in one of the book's opening and highly emotional scenes. The Russians who have invaded Vilna are capricious, and the grandfather is the only one of the family sent elsewhere (we later learn it is to one of Stalin's labor camps, and that he doesn't survive.)

The journey is a tribulation, and they arrive in Siberia half-starved. They are first put to work in a gypsum mine, and then told they can work in the village--on condition they can find housing. Everyday living is a huge chore: they have only the clothes they arrived in, have to scrabble to find food, and have to walk miles to school and to their jobs. But despite this, they make friends with the Siberians, who seem unconcerned that the family is Jewish. Esther proves herself a good student and shows great initiative, knitting clothes for some of the locals in payment for potatoes and milk.

In the end, Esther doesn't want to leave her new home. She has Russian friends, and a boy who is fond of her. As she says, "I was desperately, terribly afraid of change. Perhaps the thought of going back to a world no longer inhabited by the people I loved had something to do with it."

The Endless Steppe would be an excellent classroom read-aloud, and a great addition to any study of family survival in the second world war (or any war, for that matter!) I found it immensely moving.

About the Author:
Esther R. Hautzig (1930-2009) was an American writer, best known for her award-winning book The Endless Steppe. Esther Rudomin was born in Wilno, Poland, now known as Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Her childhood was gravely interrupted by the beginning of World War II and the conquest in 1941 of eastern Poland by Soviet troops. Her family was uprooted and deported to Rubtsovsk, Siberia, where Esther spent the next five years in harsh exile. Her award-winning novel The Endless Steppe is an autobiographical account of those years in Siberia. After the war, when she was 15, she and her family moved back to Poland, although in her heart, Esther wanted to stay.

Rudomin met Walter Hautzig, a concert pianist, while en route to America on a student visa in 1947. They married in 1950, and had two children, Deborah, a children's author, and David. Hautzig reportedly wrote The Endless Steppe at the prompting of Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, to whom she had written after reading his articles about his visit to Rubtsovsk. She died on November 1, 2009, aged 79, from a combination of congestive heart failure and complications from Alzheimers disease.

Esther Hautzig (Rudomin) (1930 - 2009) - Genealogy