Friday, April 11, 2008

Cynthia Voigt

The Callender Papers
by Cynthia Voigt
Recommended Age: 14+

This “gothic novel for young readers” won the Edgar Allan Poe award and comes from the Newbery-medal-winning author of Dicey’s Song. Set in the late 1800’s, it is the tale of a thirteen-year-old girl, raised by a schoolmistress “Aunt” (who actually isn’t a blood relative) who is hired to spend the summer sorting out the family papers of a cold and forbidding widower named Mr. Thiel at his secluded mansion in the New England countryside.

Jean Wainwright soon learns that there is more going on than a simple matter of straightening out a pile of documents. The housekeeper is a confessed thief and ex-convict. Her employer’s late wife died under mysterious circumstances. Financial irregularities, questionable conduct during the American Civil War, and a child’s disappearance are also part of the mystery. Everyone in the nearby town avoids the family and whispers behind their backs. The only people who will talk to Jean are the local doctor’s half-wild son, Mac, and a handsome and charismatic neighbor named Mr. Callender—who happens to be Mr. Thiel’s brother-in-law.

Of all the mysteries that puzzle Jean, the hatred between Mr. Thiel and Mr. Callender puzzles her the most. Before long, Jean fears that her own life is in danger as she grows closer to the truth of who put Mrs. Thiel out of the way...and why.

I must confess that I had the ending spotted from nearly the start of the book. Perhaps I have just read too many mysteries. Even so, Jean’s journey of discovery was thrilling, moving, and enjoyable page after page. Come for the spooky atmosphere; stay for the vibrant characters, the splendor of nature, the humor, the horror, and the transforming moment when all the pieces shift into place and everything appears in a new light.

by Cynthia Voigt
Recommended Age: 14+

This is the first book in the highly-honored seven-book series about the Tillerman family, which also includes the Newbery Medal winner Dicey’s Song and the Newbery Honor book A Solitary Blue. The author’s other interesting-sounding titles include Jackaroo, The Callendar Papers, Tell Me if the Lovers Are Losers, and The Vandemark Mummy.

This is the story of four siblings, between the ages of six and thirteen, whose mother leaves them sitting in a parked car in a strange town and never comes back. Sammy, the baby of the family, is stubborn and proud, considered a trouble child by many adults. Gentle, soft-spoken Maybeth, on the other hand, is often mistaken for a mentally retarded child. Boy genius James wakes up every day realizing that “It’s still true.” And Dicey, the oldest, is determined to keep her family together and find a place for them to live.

First they march across Connecticut, scraping for money, food, and a place to sleep. But when they reach what they hoped to be the end of their journey—the home of a great aunt in Bridgeport—they find that things have changed. Living with their fussy, would-be-nun Cousin Eunice won’t be easy, especially on Dicey, who somehow can’t feel as grateful as Cousin Eunice wants her to. So they make another arduous trek, headed for the East Shore of Maryland and a grandmother they never knew existed. Along the way they pass through more dangers than ever, and find good friends as well. But will they find the home and family they need, even at the end of this last-chance trip?

This is a rich, honest, searching, and powerful story, depicting the best and worst in human nature, the pains and joys of childhood, and the terrible, wonderful determination of four siblings to stick together. Children should not have to go through so much to find a place to lay their head, a bit of daily bread, and a home where they are loved. For those who do, this book is a stirring tribute. For those fortunate enough never to have to make a journey like the Tillermans’, it is simply a must-read book.

Dicey's Song
by Cynthia Voigt
Recommended Age: 14+

Dicey is the oldest of four siblings who are in the process of being adopted by their grandmother, after being abandoned by their mentally ill mother, and making their way alone from Boston to Eastern Maryland. Now that school has started and a little normalcy has come into their lives, they should live happily ever after, right?

Well, this is the Tillerman family we're talking about: Gram is a sharp-tongued, eccentric woman who is considered mad by the local gossip mill; James, the second-oldest, is a gifted child who hides his intelligence in order to fit in; shy, quiet Maybeth works hard in school but has so much trouble reading and doing math that her teachers think she is retarded; baby of the family, Sammy, keeps getting into fights; and eighth-grader Dicey doesn't even have herself figured out yet.

So they have problems. By working together to stay together, they try to begin to make their problems better. But it isn't easy, especially when they are so poor, so proud, and so far out of the habit of reaching out to other people. They begin, though, with a portly piano teacher... an air-headed lady butcher... Dicey's gifted classmate Mina, whose father and Gram have some kind of grudge between them... and a guitar-picking 10th-grader named Jeff, who wants to break through the wall of unfriendliness Dicey often hides behind.

Meanwhile, they have day-to-day challenges, such as sanding down the old sailboat Dicey wants to use, keeping a schoolyard bully from causing Sammy to lose his marbles, coping with a Home Ec class Dicey doesn't want to be in, and an English teacher who gives her an F because her essay was too good. With these and other little hurdles in their way, Gram and Dicey learn to understand each other and to keep the family together - which comes in handy when the time comes to go to Boston to bring Momma home...

This sequel to the novel Homecoming won the 1983 John Newbery Medal. It is part of a series about the Tillerman family, which also includes the Newbery Honor Book A Solitary Blue. Other books in the series include The Runner, Come a Stranger, Sons from Afar, and Seventeen against the Dealer. If this smart, surprising, moving, and thoughtful novel is typical of Ms. Voigt's work, I look forward to reading more of it.

A Solitary Blue
by Cynthia Voigt
Recommended Age: 14+

This 1984 Newbery Honor Book, from the acclaimed seven-book Tillerman cycle, fills in the backstory of a character introduced in Dicey’s Song. And let me tell you, it’s one moving story.

Jeff Greene is seven years old when his mother, Melody, leaves him and his tight-lipped, emotionless father, the Professor. Jeff spends the next five years driven by a need to stay out of his father’s way, afraid that if he disrupts the Professor’s routine, he will go away too. It’s heartbreaking to see the effect on a boy of never feeling loved. Then one summer, Melody gets in touch and says she wants Jeff to stay with her and her great-grandmother in their mansion in Charleston. After a summer of basking in her love, the memory of that feeling keeps him going through another year—and the hope of another summer in Charleston.

But the second summer in Gambo’s house isn’t the same. Not by a long shot. In fact, it is a summer of such bitter disillusionment, such shattering betrayal, that it profoundly screws up Jeff’s young life. Out of the experience Jeff learns to understand both his parents better... and to judge better between being loved and being used. And as the Professor struggles to be the father Jeff needs, and as Jeff struggles to pick up the pieces of his life, they settle in the little Maryland town of Crisfield. And a certain family named Tillerman becomes instrumental in teaching Jeff about family ties, inner strength, and trust.

This story delves deep into the emotions of growing up, love and hate, friendship and family, agony and terror. The emotional experience of reading it is, suitably, agonizing and terrible, but at the same time lovely. In this story, there is no magic to solve Jeff’s problems. The answers—to the extent that there are any—are as real as the problems themselves. And the compassion and understanding of this novel are a strong index of what to look for in the rest of the series.

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