Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Author: Pam Munoz Ryan
Title: Esperanza Rising
Illustrator: Joe Cepeda
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Publication Date: 2000
Esperanza had everything: a loving father and mother, servants, and a vineyard in Mexico. The day before her thirteenth birthday, every changes. Her father dies, leaving the land to his brothers as the law decrees. After Esperanza’s mother turns down a marriage proposal by the eldest of her husband’s brothers, the house and the vineyards are burned to the ground. Forced to accept the proposal or flee, Esperanza and her mother leave in secret with the help of their former servants. Now, Esperanza and her mother face a new life as farm workers in California during the Great Depression. When her mother falls ill, Esperanza must let go of the past and take on her mother’s responsibilities on the farm, working to bring in the meager pay to support herself, to pay her mother’s hospital bills, and to save enough money to bring her grandmother to them.
Esperanza Rising is a story of Cinderella in reverse: the princess becomes a pauper. But in becoming a pauper, Esperanza’s character grows in depth and maturity. She begins to see people as individuals rather than as extensions of their social class. This lesson is made stronger through the setting and time chosen by the author.
Set during the Great Depression in 1930, Esperanza is the daughter of a vineyard plantation owner in Mexico, little affected by the poverty of others or by the Mexican Revolution that has already occurred. She likes the son of a family servant, Miguel, but “between them ran a deep river.” After losing everything, her father, the vineyard, their home, Esperanza and her mother flee in secret to California with the help of their former servants.
Already Esperanza is faced with poverty, depending on others for food and the clothes on her back, yet Esperanza still looks at the people around her through the eyes of the wealthy. Those people are poor and dirty and uneducated, not her. Gradually, through her mother’s example, she begins to see the shame she brings to her mother through her actions. When her mother falls ill, Esperanza must take over the jobs her mother did in order to bring some money in. Esperanza grows into a strong, young woman who comes to care for others, whatever their station in life may be. The river is gone between Esperanza and Miguel.
Details bring the story to life. Each chapter is named after a food that is to be harvested: grapes, papayas, figs, and more. The year passes in this manner. Time is not noted by months but rather by the harvesting seasons on a farm. The importance of the land is also felt through the ritual Esperanza and her father share. They lay with their ear to the ground and listen for the earth’s heartbeat.
Physical descriptions of the people around Esperanza paint a picture of the life she lives. The straw hats of the campesinos in their baggy pants, bandanas, and long-sleeved shirts ready to work in the grape fields as the August sun beats down from above paint a picture of the hard work that is to come. The appearance of her friends after a dust storm where their “faces were so encrusted with dry dirt that they reminded Esperanza of cracked pottery” adds to the sense of grittiness that a dust storm leaves behind.
Other details, such as physical appearances, rituals and celebrations, food, and personal names add to the Mexican setting and culture the story is built around. Mama had long dark hair worn in a braided crown and her fair, creamy skin. Papa’s eyes were shaped like fat, brown almonds. Hortensia was shorter with the features and darker skin of a Zapotec Indian. Some of the celebrations specific to the Hispanic culture and/or the Catholic religion include Quinceaneras and the altar to the Virgin Mary. Some of the food they ate included machaca burritos, tortillas, and flan de almendras. The names of the characters are Hispanic: Esperanza Ortega, Ramona, Sixto, Hortensia, Miguel, Alfonso, and Marisol Rodriguez, to name a few.
The Spanish language is expertly interwoven throughout the story. Every word or phrase written in Spanish is then followed by an English translation, whether it is in the dialogue or in the third person narration. After a while, though, this consistent method of translation gets to be redundant. At times translation is necessary, but there are other times when the context alone would suffice. The addition of a glossary or footnotes may have relieved the writing of its choppiness when a translation was necessary.
All of these factors, the details, the names, the characters’ features, the rituals and celebrations, and the Spanish language, brought with them the sense that the story was written by someone who knew the people of the story and their lives. This is confirmed when reading the author’s note at the end. There you discover that the story is based on her grandmother, Esperanza Ortega, a story that was told to her (the author) when she was a young child.
Book Report (January/February 2001) “Readers will sympathize with Esperanza as she sheds her patrician upbringing and adapts to circumstances to survive.”
Booklist (December 1, 2000) “Ryan writes movingly in clear, poetic language that children will sink into....” (Gr. 5-8)
Horn Book (January/February 2001) “...a poignant look at the realities of immigration.”
Kirkus Review (October 1, 2000) “Her (Ryan’s) style is engaging, her characters appealing, and her story is on that...is little heard in children’s fiction. It bears telling to a wider audience.” (9-15)
Publishers Weekly (July 1, 2002) “With a hint of magical realism, this robust novel set in 1930 captures a Mexican girl’s fall from riches and her immigration to California.” (Ages 8-12)
School Library Journal (October 2000) “Except for the evil uncles, all of the characters are rounded, their motives genuine, with class issues honestly portrayed. Easy to booktalk, useful in classroom discussions, and accessible as pleasure reading, this well-written novel belongs in all collection.” (Gr 6-9)
Pura Belpre Award 2002
ALA Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults 2001
Smithsonian Best Books 2000
Publisher’s Weekly Best Children’s Books 2000
L.A. Times Best Books of 2000
Excellence in a Work of Fiction Award 2001 (Children’s Literature Council of Southern California)
Judy Goddard/Libraries Limited Arizona Young Adult Author Award 2001
Jane Addams Children’s Book Award 2001
Colorado Children’s Book Award Nominee 2003
Americas Award Honor Book 2000
Texas Bluebonnet Award Nominee 2002-2003
South Carolina Junior Book Award Nominee 2002-2003
ALA Notable Children’s Book 2002
Judy Lopez Memorial Award 2001
Young Hoosier Book Award Nominee 2002-2003
IRA Notable Book for a Global Society 2001
NCSS/CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People 2001
Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist 2001
New York Public Library 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing
Add a history lesson on migrant farm workers during the Great Depression after reading Esperanza Rising, and include stories from the perspective of the Oklahoma migrant workers. Children of the Dust Bowl : the true story of the school at Weedpatch Camp by Jerry Stanley (1992) describes the plight of the migrant workers who traveled from the Dust Bowl to California during the Depression.
Add other, more recent, examples of the life of migrant farmworkers. A good nonfiction book is La Causa : the migrant farmworkers' story by Dana Catharine de Ruiz and Richard Larios (1993). This book includes eyewitness accounts of the working conditions experienced by the farmworkers, including Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta in the 1960’s. Voices from the fields : children of migrant farmworkers tell their stories with interviews and photographs by S. Beth Atkin (1993) includes poems and stories from nine children living and working today in California’s Salinas Valley. Would you have joined the strike, or not? Answer this question from the different perspectives.
Sunday, June 27, 2010
Author: Alan Schroeder
Title: Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman
Illustrator: Jerry Pinkney
Publisher: Dial Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: 1996
Eight-year-old Minty (Harriet Tubman) did not want to jump at every command given to her by her owner or the overseer. She would often run and hide when she was called. One day, after spilling a pitcher of cider while serving, the mistress burned her doll, and she was sent to work in the fields. Still she dreamed of freedom, of running away. When the overseer told her to take care of the muskrat traps, Minty began to set the animals free until she was caught and beaten. Her dreams of freedom grew stronger, so her father began to train her in the woods: how to run silently, how to capture food, and how to find her way north. One night, Minty passed up a chance of escape. Crying herself to sleep, she dreamed of "a road through the forest that one day, when she had the courage, would carry her to freedom…."
Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman is a story built around the character development of Minty. Each episode helps to define and build her personality. When her mistress orders her to appear, "Minty giggled, and then stuck out her tongue just as far as it could go." The reader knew that the next event would lead to Minty’s punishment. The Bible story of David and Goliath that she tells her doll confirms her defiant personality. After she is sent to work in the fields, it wasn’t long before Minty was dreaming of freedom. When she released the muskrats from their traps even though she knew she would be punished, Minty is shown to be a character of compassion who values freedom for all. The story then provides background information on how Minty was able to survive during her many trips on the Underground Railroad. After she was beaten, she tells her parents that she wants to escape. Her father secretly teaches her the skills she will need to survive in the woods on her own, but Minty doesn’t escape when an opportunity presents itself. The story ends with her dreaming of freedom.
The dialogue contains just enough dialect and southern phrases to give a sense of the times and the people involved, both White plantation owners and Black slaves, such as the mistress stating, "Next time, you better jump to when I call," and Minty’s mother telling her, "Your head’s in his mouth, Minty, but you sure ain’t doin’ any pattin’. You’re just fixin’ to get your head bit off."
The remainder of the text contains very little physical description of the characters. That is left to the illustrations by Jerry Pinkney. He skillfully employs watercolors to add to Minty’s character and the other characters in the story through their expressions and actions. Minty’s hair is textured in tight curls cut close to the head. Her dark brown skin even appears dusty when she works in the field. The clothing and hairstyles of all of the characters are appropriate for the times. Even the equipment and items in the background of the barn and the big house appear to be from the 1800s. The contrast between the rooms in the big house and the room in the slave’s quarters and between the clothes worn by the master and mistress versus Minty and her family add to the sense of enslavement that Minty fights with all of her heart.
Although a wonderful exploration of character development, if the reader didn’t read the author’s note at the back of the book or know the contributions of Harriet Tubman as an adult, the ending would be unsatisfactory. The author, Alan Schroeder, leads the reader to believe that Minty will escape and survive, yet Minty chooses not to leave when the time comes, and she cries herself to sleep. It is like a book in a series that leaves the reader hanging in dissatisfaction. Because of this ending, the reader must read the author’s note or book would not be able to stand alone. It would be best if paired with other books that explore Harriet’s contribution to the Underground Railroad.
Publishers Weekly (5/20/1996) "With color and feeling he (Pinkney) humanizes a historic figure, coaxing readers to imagine or research the rest of the story." (Ages 5-9)
School Library Journal (5/1/1996) ""This beautifully illustrated and moving fictional story can be used to introduce Harriet Tubman and the injustice of slavery to young audiences." (K-Gr 3)
Booklist (2/15/1996) "The blend of fact and fiction is occasionally problematic..., but kids will be moved by the picture of secret childhood rebellion in someone who grew up to lead hundreds to freedom." (Ages 5-9)
Kirkus Reviews (1996) "This exquisitely crafted book resonates well beyond its few pages." (Picture book, 5-9).
Horn Book Magazine (Sep/Oct 96) "Quick action and dialogue create a taut story, although it is illustration that shapes the characters."
Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration 1997
ALA Notable Book 1997
Christopher Award 1997
American Bookseller "Pick of the Lists"
Time Magazine Best Children’s Book of the Year
IRA/CBC Children’s Choice
Expand your history lesson through the use of historical fiction picture and chapter books and biographies. Several books would provide excellent companions to Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman by Alan Schroeder. Courage To Run: A Story Based on the Life of Harriet Tubman by Wendy Lawton is a story in a chapter book format that starts with Harriet’s life as a young child. Moses: When Harriet Tubman led her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford is a beautifully illustrated picture book centered on Harriet’s undying faith in God. For a nonfiction biography, Harriet Tubman: Riding the Freedom Train by Rose Blue provides a look at her life, or try Harriet Tubman: Secret Agent: How Daring Slaves and Free Blacks Spied for the Union During the Civil War by Thomas B. Allen for a look at other contributions she and other Blacks gave to our country.
For a different perspective on the Underground Railroad, try the picture books Barefoot: Escape on the Underground Railroad by Pamela Duncan Edwards, Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky by Faith Ringgold, or The Patchwork Path: A Quilt Map to Freedom by Bettye Stroud. A fun way of exploring history is through the You Choose Books where the reader makes choices, and each choice leads to a different consequence based on events in history. They offer The Underground Railroad: an Interactive History Adventure by Allison Lassieur.
Saturday, June 26, 2010
Author: Patricia C. McKissack
Title: Goin’ Someplace Special
Illustrator: Jerry Pinkney
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: 2001
Behind the message of racial injustice is a story about a plucky young girl ready and willing to face the world in order to achieve her goal. She steps out from a loving home run by a strong maternal figure (her grandmother) to confront the world with a smile on her face and confidence in her step. The speech pattern brings to the story the flavor of the Black southern dialect but in a way that even young children will be able to understand.
Booklist (August 2001) “Pinkney’s watercolor paintings are lush and sprawling as they evoke southern city streets and sidewalks as well as ‘Tricia Ann’s inner glow.... This book carries a strong message of pride and self-confidence as well as a pointed history lesson.” (Ages 5-8)
Horn Book (November/December 2001) “McKissack and Pinkney strike just the right balance in a picture book for young readers and listeners: informative without being preachy; hopeful without being sentimental.”
Kirkus Review (September 2001) “Every plot element contributes to the theme.... A natural for group sharing; leave plenty of time for the questions and discussions that are sure to follow.” (5-9)
Library Talk (March/April 2002) “This book... would be a wonderful addition to library and school collections. Recommended.”
Publishers Weekly (August 6, 2001) “Pinkney’s... luminescent watercolors evoke the ‘50s, from fashions to finned cars, and he captures every ounce of ‘Tricia Ann’s eagerness, humiliation and quiet triumph at the end.” (Ages 4-8)
School Library Journal (September 1, 2001) “A thought-provoking story for group sharing and independent readers.” (Gr 3-5)
Coretta Scott King Awards Winner 2002 Illustrator
ABC Children’s Booksellers Choices Award Winner 2002 Picture Books
Monarch Award Master List (IL) 2007
ALA Notable Children’s Books 2002
The Best Children’s Books of the Year 2002 Bank Street College of Education
Black-Eyed Susan Book Award Nominee 2003 (Maryland)
Colorado Children’s Book Award List 2003
Delaware Diamonds 2003
Georgia Children’s Literature Awards 2003
Kentucky Bluegrass Award 2003
Louisiana Young Readers’ Choice Award 2003
Pennsylvania Young Readers’ Choice Award 2002-2003
Texas Bluebonnet Award 2004
Sunday, June 20, 2010
Author: Jacqueline Woodson
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Publication Date: 2002
The universal theme of finding oneself is magnified given the intense situation this family finds itself in. Each character evolves in his/her own direction as they face the challenges of a new life. Cameron/Anna who was the popular one, finds a goal in education, a way to escape their depressing home. The mother finds religion. Maybe, if she believes hard enough, her world will turn around. Toswiah/Evie discovers running. “I want to keep running, past these ghosts, past everyone and everything....” The father slowly dies, staring out of the window, until he tries to take his own life. Only then does he face what he almost lost – his family. “I am so glad I’m alive, Evie. So glad we all are.”
Horn Book (January/February 2002) “Her (Woodson’s) poetic, low-key, yet vivid writing style perfectly conveys the story’s atmosphere of quiet intensity.”
National Book Award nominee
2003 ALA Best Book for Young Adults
SLJ Best Book
002 Booklist Editor’s Choice
2003 New York Public Libraries Books for the Teen Age
Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year (“Today” category/ 12 & up)
2003 Riverbank Review Children’s Books of Distinction Short list
2003-2004 Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award Master List
2003-2004 Maine Student Book Award Mater List
2002 Pennsylvania School Librarians Association Young Adult Top 40 Nominees
2004-2005 Maud Hart Lovelace Book Award Nominee (Grades 6-8)
2005 Garden State Teen Book Award Nominee
Saturday, June 12, 2010
Title: Daniel Half Human and the Good Nazi
Translator: Doris Orgel
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, originally published by Carlsen Verlag GmbH (Hamburg, Germany)
Publication Date: 2004, original publication date 2000
Have you ever wondered how anybody could get caught up in Hitler’s vision of the perfect race? In the Germany of 1933 as depicted in Daniel Half Human and the Good Nazi by David Chotjewitz, two friends, Daniel and Armin both admire and respect Hitler. Their hearts’ desires are to be a part of the HJ (Hitler Jugend). Then Daniel discovers that he is half Jewish. In Aryan eyes, he is less than human; he is only half-human. He is so ashamed that he keeps it secret even from his best friend. Armin joins the HJ. Daniel cannot join or his secret would be found out and his family would be in danger. With Daniel's acceptance of his heritage, comes a new perspective on the events in Germany. He begins to question Hitler’s views. Then word gets out about his mother’s ancestry through some of his parents’ associates. Armin swears that this will not make a difference to their friendship, but how can it not? Prior to the night Jews are rounded up to be taken to concentrations camps, Armin warns Daniel and his family. News of Armin’s friendship comes to the attention of his superiors. As Armin advances in the ranks, he is put to the test. He must choose whether to follow orders or to follow his heart. Can Daniel trust him with his life? This story is told from Daniel’s perspective after the war in 1945, flashing back to his youth in 1933 through 1939.
All Nazi’s are bad. That is what we have been taught. At first, it is hard to get caught up in something that is so evil, to become a part of the desires of Daniel and Armin to join the HJ; however, David Chotjewitz and his translator Doris Orgel pull you in slowly, by starting with the year of 1945 after the war as Daniel visits his hometown and memories bombard him. Imagery of the smell of coal, a biting wind, teardrops frozen to cheeks, and the sound of marching as soldiers come down the street draw the reader into the world of two boys painting swastika’s on the side of a communist building at night. You feel their fear and excitement as they fight, only to be arrested and sent to jail.
Already, the main characters are defined: the brashness of Armin and the desire of Daniel to be accepted and just as bold as his friend. Armin, although poor, is the perfect Aryan, blond and blue-eyed. Daniel is only described later as not having the hooked nose seen on most Jews. Accurate historical events take place, but you hear it from Armin’s and Daniel’s points of view. The Nazi philosophy is explained as it is taught to the children in Daniel’s school. Their characters evolve as different events affect each of them. Armin gets accepted into the HJ, gradually losing his sense of self, his values, as he becomes a part of the whole. Daniel learns he is half Jew. The prejudice he encounters once the secret is out shifts his beliefs. He begins to see the degradation and humiliation, the wrongness behind Hitler’s vision that he had previously embraced so wholeheartedly.
The descriptions of the city around them, the people in their neighborhood and in their school, give a sense of the 1930’s Germany, from the smell in the bar of beer, schnapps, sweat, and cigarettes with the yellowed JEWS NOT INVITED sign hanging on the wall to the bearded store owner wearing a yarmulke being beaten by the SA (Sturmabteilung - Hitler's private army). German names of people and places are not translated, but are given in the original German language. A section is included at the end of the book that explains the various German terms and names used throughout. It is all of these details and more that bring the culture of Germany in the 1930’s to life. At the end, it is up to you whether you understand what happened, but from the perspective of a child presented here, it is too easy to see how it could happen again.
Horn Book (November/December 2004) “Chotjewitz convincingly presents not only Hitler’s early allure but also many Germans’ opposition to and revulsion with his rising power.... No book stages Kristallnacht more chillingly, its horrors turning on a single event brilliantly manipulated by the Nazis.”
Kirkus Review starred (September 15, 2004) “There are many Holocaust books for children, but this one stands out in its careful dissection of one family’s experience before the war, and in its nuanced approach to the complexity of emotions and relationships under stress.” (12+)
School Library Journal (December 1, 2004) “Orgel’s translation reads smoothly and movingly. An outstanding addition to the large body of World War II/Holocaust fiction.” (Gr 7 Up)
Notable/Best Books (A.L.A.) 01/01/05
Iowa Teen Award Nominee (2006-2007)
AJL (Association of Jewish Libraries) Sydney Taylor Silver Medal 2004
ALA Mildred L. Batchelder Honor Book 2005
California Young Reader Medal Nominee 2007-2008
Black Eyed Susan Book Award Master List (MD) 2006-2007
IRA Notable Books for a Global Society 2005 list
For students grades 7+, this book can be paired with other historical fiction books like Book Thief by Markus Zusak and Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. A nonfiction book such as Hitler Youth: Growing up in Hitler’s Shadow by Susan Campbell Bartoletti or The Hitler Youth: Marching Toward Madness by Alexa Dvorson can be used to provide further historical background. The Shoah Education Project Web at http://www.shoaheducation.com/aaaa.html is a good resource for teachers to use parts of, depending on the age of the students, providing photos, historical documentation, and slide shows. May we learn to live together and never forget the lessons of the past.
Author: Mem Fox
Title: Possum Magic
Illustrator: Julie Vivas
Publisher: Gulliver Books, Harcourt Brace & Company, first published by Omnibus Books (1983)
Publication Date: 1983
Once upon a time there lived two out-of-the-ordinary possums from Australia named Hush and Grandma Poss. Why are they different than the average possum? Grandma Poss could make bush magic, turning animals into different colors and sizes. What about Hush? Well, Grandma Poss made Hush invisible to protect her from the snakes. After a time, Hush wanted to be visible again. Grandma Poss consulted her magic books, but she couldn’t find the answer. She knew it had to do with human food, so Grandma Poss and Hush hopped on their bicycle and took off on a culinary tour of Australia, seeking the means to make Hush visible once more. (Fox, Mem. 1983. Possum Magic. Ill. By Julie Vivas. New York: Gulliver Books. ISBN: 0152005722)
Created around a simple plot in which Grandma Poss needs to find the right foods to make her granddaughter Hush visible again, Possum Magic is a delight to the ears and to the eyes. The characters, including the background characters, represent a variety of Australian wildlife, including a wombat, a dingo, an emu, a kangaroo, a koala, a spiny ant-eater, and a snake. The characters are simple given that the plot is the focus of the story; however, personalities come through in the determination of Grandma Poss and the willingness of Hush to follow Grandma Poss’s instructions.
Rhyme, repetition, and alliteration are sprinkled throughout the story making it a fun and easy story to read aloud. The inclusion of Australian vocabulary is not so overwhelming as to prevent young children from around the world from following the story line. Instead, the vocabulary used introduces the reader to Australian animals, foods, and places as the plot develops. Grandma Poss and Hush even celebrate dancing to a traditional Australian song, “Here We Go Round the Lamington Plate.”
The illustrations add to the story and the characters. Beautifully illustrated in watercolor washes with some spatter painting, a variety of Australian animals are portrayed, each with its own individual personality. Only Grandma Poss wears clothes: glasses, an apron, slippers, socks, and running shoes. You can see her worry when she can’t find the answer in her books, her determination as she pedals around Australia, her pleasure in Hush’s enjoyment while floating in an umbrella off the beach of Perth. You can see Hush’s fear of snakes, her despair when she thinks she will never be seen again, her enjoyment of the bike ride on Grandma Poss’s back, and her ecstasy in gaining back her visibility.
It is on Grandma Poss's bicycle that the reader travels Australia, visiting cities in states all around the coast as a variety of foods are sampled. Australian children can be seen in the background. In the theater, they are all light-skinned, but on benches outside in the far north of Australia, children of all different skin tones and hair textures can be seen enjoying their lunches. A map is included at the end, showing their travels, the cities, and the foods they explored. This is truly an international book which spreads some of the flavors of Australia to children around the world.
Horn Book (February 1991) “They fuse text and illustrations together so masterfully that it seems like a sleight of hand. Presto change-o: one enchanting book.”
School Library Journal (December 1987) “Although the characters, locales, and vocabulary are thoroughly Australian, Possum Magic has universal appeal.” (Preschool-Grade 2)
1994 COOL Award (Canberra’s Own Outstanding List)
Use this book as a way to introduce Australia, and combine it with a nonfiction book about Australia like Australia in Colors by Nathan Olson or Australia by Allan Fowler or a website such as Aussie-info.com at http://www.aussie-info.com/. Add a virtual tour of the wildlife and of each of the cities included in the story by going to http://www.upfromaustralia.com/virtualtour.html. Explore the flavors of Australia included in the story by serving the same tasty Australian treats. Do you need some help? Go to Mem Fox’s site for Possum Magic at http://www.memfox.com/possum-magic.html. Expand this book into an author study using this site and other books by Mem Fox, such as Wombat Divine and Koala Lou. Have fun, and g’dday, mate!
Friday, June 11, 2010
Author: Jutta Richter
Translator: Anna Brailovsky
Title: The Cat or, How I Lost Eternity, original title of Die Katze
Illustrator: Rotraut Susanne Berner
Publisher: Milkweed Editions, originally published in Munich by Carl Hanser Verlag
Publication Date: 2007, original publication date 2006
Eight-year-old Christine knows that cats can talk. Every day on her way to school she stops to chat with a local alley cat while stroking its soft, white fur. Cats are wise and seem to know a great deal more that she does. She makes her think. Then her teacher asks her why she is late to school. When she tells the truth, she must write 200 lines, “There are no talking cats, and from now on I will arrive at school on time.” Christine couldn’t lie, so she took out the word no. But the cat’s philosophy of life begins to seem wrong to Christine. Should a person really think only of themselves? When the cat shows a lack of sympathy for Father Wittkamp after a trying day at school, Christine awakens to the differences between the cat’s beliefs and her own. Eternity is over now. (Richter, Jutta. 2007. The Cat or, How I Lost Eternity. Ill. by Rotraut Susanne Berner. Canada: Milkweed Editions. ISBN 9781571316769)
The Cat or, How I Lost Eternity by Jutta Richter is a short novel of only 63 pages with two main characters, the cat and Christine. However, the characters are well developed. Personalities are exposed through the conversations between the two and Christine’s choices in her daily life. The cat appears selfish. Everything relates to mice, her food source, and the pleasure she obtains from Christine’s attention and teasing the neighborhood dog. Christine, on the other hand, is confused, looking for help and guidance in her life. She begins to think about the cat’s philosophy and makes her own decisions, thus growing and maturing even within such a short story. There is not much action, but the encounters with school mates, teachers, and neighbors provide more questions to discuss. The descriptive language and poetic analogies scattered throughout the story add to the imagery and emotions. “The penalty assignment in my backpack weighed on me like a brick. It pushed me down into the asphalt, as if I were sinking into a snowdrift” (p. 33). Obviously, Christine was not looking forward to completing her school punishment for ‘lying’ about a talking cat.
Despite the use of descriptive language, the cultural markers were subtle and hard to find. The slant-eyed cat is portrayed in two-color illustrations by Berner with the final drawing of the cat in a tree containing a single apple, referring to the snake in the Garden of Eden. The illustrations were generic. The reader cannot tell from the illustrations where the story took place other than from the view of the tiled rooftops of houses close together and a chain-link fence, implying that the story took place in a city or a village. No humans were included in the illustrations.
Within the text itself, the Catholic references such as fish on Fridays and a catechism class taught by Father Wittkamp let the reader know that this story does not take place in a Protestant, New England town or a Buddhist or Muslim world. The fact that Christine was able to walk to a nearby farm to observe the cows reduces the size of the city to a rural town. Physical appearances of people were sparse: the flat-footed mailman, the short principal, her short classmate Pug with his hands like claws, and Father Wittkamp’s blue eyes. Language patterns and dialect were not used. Many of the names were nicknames, like Pug (Ferdinand) and his brothers Fatso and Shorty, but the neighbor Waldemar Buck with his dog Alf, Christine’s teacher Mr. Hanke, Farmer Nelson, Father Wittkamp, classmates Irene Bockmann and Franklin Wanamaker all have European names, with Hanke, Wittkamp, Bockmann, and Wanamaker being German names. These names are what finally pin the setting down to a German town, or one in America where German names and the Catholic religion are common. The German culture was not the focus of the story; the Catholic and Christian belief in original sin, good and evil, Satan in the Garden of Eden as personified by the cat is the true focus.
I found this book interesting, in a deeply meaningful but strange way. Will this book be well accepted among young American readers? I doubt it, even though it is well-written. This book was in the juvenile section of my public library. The cover is simple, gray and red with a small line drawing of a white cat, green crescent moon, and a yellow sun. It is not very eye-catching so shelf browsers would be unlikely to pick it out. The concept of talking to a cat is appealing, but the philosophical discussions that take place would hardly keep the attention of an American eight-year-old with their entertain me attitude and short attention span developed through watching TV and playing video and computer games. It is more likely to appeal to teens, as they begin to question themselves and their beliefs. Maybe it needs to be shelved with the YA (Young Adult) books, although the age of the main character might stop teens from checking it out. It definitely has a place in a philosophy class, a church, or a private school with a Christian philosophy.
Horn Book (Spring 2008) ...”sophisticated air of a story best suited to budding philosophers.”
Publishers Weekly (November 5, 2007) “It’s not too much to read the book as an allegory of good and evil in the postmodern world.” Ages 8-up
School Library Journal (February 1, 2008) “It is hard to imagine a broad audience for this book.” Gr 5-8
Philadelphia Inquirer “This is one for the bookshelf, a book to be read and saved and rediscovered in adulthood, when it will be remembered as an early lesson in looking for the universe inside every small thing.” (from http://www.milkweed.com/ )
The Catholic Children’s and Youth Book Prize (Germany) “Jutta Richter possesses the enviable gift to capture difficult things, morals, and feelings in pictures that will touch the reader and resonate with him for a long time.” (from http://www.milkweed.com/ )
2008 Mildred L. Batchelder Honor book
Within a philosophy class or a Christian school, this book could be paired with a reading from the Bible of the story of Adam and Eve. Another children’s picture book relating to this topic is Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden by Jane Ray. If these are read to younger students before or after Richter’s book, then the deeper meaning of The Cat... will become clearer and may lead to a discussion of how the original story can be applied to students’ lives. Has anything or anyone ever tempted you to do something you know is wrong?