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Section 5: Fiction (Historical, Fantasy)

When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park

 

Park, Linda Sue. 2002. When My Name Was Keoko. New York: Clarion Books. ISBN: 0-618-13335-6

 

When My Name Was Keoko is the story of a family living during the Japanese occupation of Korea during World War II.  It is told from the alternating narrations of young Sun-hee and her older brother, Tae-yul.  This story illustrates the hardships that were imposed on the Korean people during this period of history as well as shows the individual development of the characters through their experiences.

 

This book appears to be very authentic.  The author’s note at the end provides insight to Linda Sue Park’s own family’s experiences during this period.  Also, the extensive bibliography that is included indicates the amount of research that went into writing this book.  Although, the book is historically accurate, readers are not weighted down with the details.  Information is presented naturally throughout the book so that readers absorb historical facts almost subconsciously through the context of the story.

 

The setting, in Southern Korea, is brought to life, not so much by the descriptions of the landscape but more in the imagery brought about through cultural descriptions.  The importance of family and family roles, the pride of a nation whose culture is being suffocated by the occupation of the Japanese, these things and more provide readers with a vivid image of life in Korea during the World War II era.  One of the most powerful scenes in the book happen when the Japanese order all of the rose of Sharon trees (the national tree of Korea) to be uprooted and burned, and Omoni (mother) saves one and hides it for when they are free again.  This act of secret defiance by a quiet and otherwise obedient woman speaks volumes about the importance of preserving their culture and is a good example of how “setting” is defined in this book.

 

The characters in When My Name Was Keoko are completely believable and the transfer between narrators effectively shows the individuality of the characters.  Both Sun-hee and Tae-yul have a distinctive voice and Park does a marvelous job of providing insight into their thoughts and experiences.  It is truly the voice of the characters that draws the reader into this story and this portion of Korea’s history.  Barbara Scotto of the Michael Driscoll School in Brookline, MA agrees with this sentiment in her review of this book in School Library Journal when she states, “What is outstanding is the insight Park gives into the complex minds of these young people. Each of them reacts to the events in different ways-Sun-hee takes refuge in writing while Tae-yul throws his energies into physical work. Yet in both cases they develop subtle plans to resist the enemy.”

 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it for middle to upper grade readers.  Its insight into a largely unexplored portion of Korean history provides not only a cultural lesson but a look at war from the perspective of children who are on the inside looking out.  Not a viewpoint many American children have had to endure personally thankfully, but an important point of view to understand none the less.

 

 

Skellig by David Almond

 

Almond, David. 1998. Skellig. New York: Delacorte Press. ISBN: 0-385-32653-X

 

Skellig is the story of Michael, a young boy who has moved into a new (fixer-upper) home with his parents and prematurely born baby sister.  While his parents concerns center on the ill baby, Michael discovers an unusual man/creature in the dilapidated garage.  In his quest to save the creature who is very weak and unhealthy he enlists the help of new friend and neighbor Mina.  Mina is a very precocious young girl who possesses a fascination with birds and all living creatures.  Together, Michael and Mina nurse “Skellig” back to health and he in turn helps to ensure the health of Michael’s little sister.

 

The plot of this story begins in the natural world and an otherworldly creature is introduced into that world.  The plot is also tied to the natural world by the declining health of Michael’s baby sister that is corresponding to the rejuvenation of Skellig.  There is internal consistency in the story, but much is left to the reader’s interpretation and imagination. 

 

The characters in this book are very well developed with the exception of the title character that remains in a shroud of mystery.  Michael is a popular student who is athletic but reveals his softer side when his concern for his baby sister and Skellig are revealed.  Mina is a very bright and clever girl who is filled with wonder by the “extraordinary” things she finds in the world.  Even more minor characters like “father” are well developed so that the reader can find meaning in their actions without having to have it spelled out for them. 

 

The setting is fairly vague, time and place are not implicitly stated.  Through the dialog it can be assumed that the setting is in modern times, in Great Brittan somewhere, although this information is incidental to the story.  The more important aspect of setting is how Skellig, this otherworldly creature is inexplicably found in the natural world that we all know.

 

The overall theme in this book is how love changes people/things.  Skellig starts out as a rather nasty fellow, who is disdainful of Michael and his attempts to help him.  However, by the end, a bond has been formed and a mutual love and respect is apparent.  Also implied is through Michael’s loving care of Skellig, Skellig returns the favor and helps heal Michael’s sister.  A review of this book in Publisher’s Weekly illustrates the theme in this way: “Although some foreshadowing suggests that Skellig has been sent to Earth on a grim mission, the dark, almost gothic tone of the story brightens dramatically as Michael's loving, life-affirming spirit begins to work miracles.”  The universal theme here is “love conquers all”. 

 

Although, this is a relatively dark novel, the style of David Almond is very fluid and is accessible to younger and middle grade readers.  Even though the vocabulary may not be terribly challenging to younger readers, they may not have the interpretation skills to draw their own conclusions about major issues in the book.  I would personally recommend this book primarily to more advanced readers in the younger group, however middle graders of all levels would likely enjoy the mystery and fantasy of this ethereal book.

 

 

  

Fair Weather by Richard Peck

 

Peck, Richard. Fair Weather. 2001. New York: Dial Books. ISBN: 0-8037-2516-7

 

Fair Weather is a charming story set in the early 1890’s, and follows young country girl Rosie Beckett as she embarks on an eye opening adventure to the “Columbian Exposition” with her sister, brother, grandpa and estranged Aunt.  While visiting their Aunt Euterpe in Chicago, the Beckett children are amazed by the fascinating things on exhibit at the exposition.  While the visit makes Rosie appreciate life on the farm, it also provides her with a broadened view of the world and opens up a greater realm of possibilities for her future.

 

The setting of this book which begins in rural Illinois and then shifts to the bustling city of Chicago are both vividly described and the reader gets a good feel for both areas.  The details of the setting are seamlessly interwoven into the story so the audience is not burdened by the facts but absorbs information and cues about the time and place very gently and naturally.  Carolyn Phelan agrees with this statement about the authenticity of the setting in this book in her review of it for Booklist.  She states, “Peck's research is so tightly woven into the setting and story that readers will feel that they've actually been to the fair, lost a brother in the Midway, and embarrassed themselves in front of Mrs. Potter Palmer, "the queen of Chicago."

 

The characters in this book are well developed and provide realistic portrayals of the attitudes and values of the time period.  Each character brings something different to the story and present readers with different perspectives of the same situation.  Rosie is the levelheaded if not somewhat awkward main character, and although she does narrate and is very endearing, Granddad and Buster really “steal the show” if you will.  Since each character has such a distinct personality, almost anyone can identify or relate to someone in the book.

 

One aspect of this book that is sure to appeal to readers of all ages is the humor that is interjected throughout.  One scene in particular comes to mind.  At the fair when Rosie and Lottie are looking at an exhibit that shows appliances such as a washing machine, they both look at it with disbelief and a measure of cynicism.  This is especially funny since readers will of course recognize the appliances as being commonplace in the present time. 

 

I personally really enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it, however, in discussing it with another librarian, she mentioned that her students did not react to it as well as she had expected.  Perhaps her audience was a bit too young for this story.  Regardless, Fair Weather is a wonderful piece of historical fiction for children and adults alike.

 

 

 

A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket

  

Snicket, Lemony. A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning. Illustrated by Brett Helquist. 1999. New York: Harper Collins. ISBN: 0-06-023812-2.

 

The Bad Beginning begins the very unfortunate tale of Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire.  These three very bright children are at the center of an unbelievable succession of bad luck.  Starting with the death of their parents in a horrible fire that destroys their home and all of their worldly possessions, the fate of these three children grows increasingly worse, and just when you think it cannot get any worse for these kids, it does.  However, the kids all draw upon their various talents to overcome their obstacles, but it is only temporary, since after all, readers were warned at the beginning, “If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.”

 

The plot of this book is more or less an exercise in seeing a bad situation get worse, and worse, and worse, etc…  While that is the focal point, readers do see the sad orphans utilizing their gifts in an attempt at thwarting their evil guardian Count Olaf.  Also of interest is the establishment of gender roles.  Violet is the inventor which would typically be considered a male role and Klaus is the bookworm which is more often than not a female role.  Of even greater notability is Justice Strauss being a female judge.

 

Style is a particularly important aspect of this book.  It is narrated in very formal language which sets the tone for the entire book.  A review of this book from Publishers Weekly described the style very accurately; they stated that, “The author uses formal, Latinate language and intrusive commentary to hilarious effect, even for readers unfamiliar with the literary conventions he parodies.”  While some readers may find the intrusive commentary funny, others may find it somewhat distracting.  I personally felt that the occasional interjection of the definition of a word used in the text to detract from the story, however others find it hysterical.  It is simply a matter of preference. 

 

Overall, I enjoyed this book and can understand why it is such an enormous success with young readers.  Presenting the disastrous events of the Baudelaire children’s lives at a safe enough distance to make it funny instead of horrifying provides for a very gratifying and entertaining read.  Also, these books read very quickly so they can provide a sense of accomplishment for a child to read a “longer” book so quickly and easily.  This is a book even reluctant readers are sure to enjoy.

 

 

Anna Sunday by Sally M. Keehn

 

Keehn, Sally M. Anna Sunday. 2002. New York: Philomel Books. ISBN: 0-399-23875-1.

 

Anna Sunday is the story of 12 year old Anna and her younger brother Jed as they journey from their home in the north to find their father, a Union soldier, who has been badly wounded.  Disguised as a boy, and with the companionship of a genuine Bible horse “Samson,” Anna (Adam) and Jed encounter many adventures as they travel the more that 100 miles to where their father is recuperating. 

 

Set during the civil war, this story provides an accurate portrayal of the attitudes and gender roles of the time.  Jed is a die hard loyalist to the union which is illustrated by his references to the “dirty rebels”.  Even when he and his family is shown kindness by a southern woman, he is still suspicious of this “rebel she-devil”.  Johnathan, a potential love interest for Anna is Jed’s mirror image on the southern side.  He would sooner walk for miles on an injured foot than sing a Yankee hymn to make Samson go.  This polarizing pride is bridged by Anna’s realization that regardless of which side you are on, people are people, some good, some bad, and it had nothing to do with whether they are a Yankee or a rebel.

 

The issue of gender roles is a main focal point of this book.  Anna disguises herself as a boy, because it is safer to travel this way.  Also, it is considered improper for a girl to go of on such an adventure.  William McLoughlin of Brookside School in Worthington, OH addresses this issue in his review of this book for School Library Journal when he stated that, “Anna's lively, first-person narrative and the novel's girl-in-disguise intrigue create not only an absorbing perspective of the Civil War's impact on the home front but also an understanding of 19th-century gender roles. While Keehn is a bit heavy-handed with Anna's "Look what I can do now that I'm in trousers!" moralizing, she offers a well-paced coming-of-age story in which love and courage transcend war and politics.”  Keehn does provide information in an Author’s Note that addresses this issue and gives the reader a greater appreciation for women’s roles during this period of American history.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and felt that it provided a balanced view of the Civil War.  Both the Union and Confederate perspectives are portrayed in a very humanizing manner.  The voice of the narrator is truly that of a twelve year old girl who is maturing before the reader’s eyes and realizations about humanity that apply today as much as during the Civil War are examined with great clarity.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in this period and also as an accompaniment for units of study on the civil war.