Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Three Book Reviews

Olive's Ocean
by Kevin Henkes
Recommended Ages: 10+

Martha Boyle's life changes when a strange woman hands her a piece of paper and thanks her for being nice to her daughter. The paper turns out to be a page torn from the diary of another girl, Olive Barstow, a quiet girl from Martha's school who was killed by a car while riding her bike. According to Olive's diary, the dead girl hoped she and Martha would become best friends.

Martha holds onto this diary entry as her family goes down to the seashore for a summer holiday. It affects the way she thinks about herself. How do you show friendship to someone who is already gone? How do you keep it together when your family seems to be pulling itself to pieces?

Martha's beach vacation is a pivot-point of discovery and growth for her. She decides she wants to be a writer, like - or maybe unlike - her father. She suffers the first pangs of love, and the even harsher agony of betrayal and humiliation. She explores her relationship with a grandmother whose mortality is suddenly, bitterly real to her. She finds out whether she and her brother can continue to be friends. And she figures out how to let go of someone whose loss she never expected to feel so deeply.

This 2004 Newbery Honor book comes from the author-illustrator of the Caldecott Medal picture book Kitten's First Full Moon. If you are touched, as I was, by its lean, profound simplicity, you may also be interested in discovering some of Kevin Henkes' other books, such as Two Under Par, The Zebra Wall, Bird Lake Moon, The Birthday Room, and Protecting Marie.

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch
by Jean Lee Latham
Recommended Ages: 10+

The 1956 Newbery Medal went to this piece of biographical fiction about a mathematical genius who lived in the infancy of the American republic. In spite of being taken out of school at the age of ten, first to work in his father's barrel-making shop and then to spend nine years as an indentured servant, Nathaniel Bowditch (rhymes with "cow ditch") went on to make great achievements as a navigator, a businessmen, and a scholar. He figured out how to teach common sailors to navigate by the stars. He wrote a book that, to this day, remains a basic text on the science of navigation, at least for the U.S. Navy. He received an honorary doctorate from Harvard, though his dream of studying there was never fulfilled.

Also, though this book doesn't mention it, Bowditch revolutionized the insurance industry. He amassed a huge fortune for himself and his business partners. He turned down offers to chair the mathematics departments at Harvard, the University of Virginia, and the U.S. Naval Academy. He made important mathematical and astronomical discoveries that saved the lives of countless seamen. This book is a fictionalized account of how a cooper's son from Salem, Massachusetts, managed all this while living through a time of warfare, disease, hardship, and loss.

Nat Bowditch didn't get to study at Harvard. So he studied alone, after his long hours working in the chandlery. He taught himself Latin and French so that he could read Isaac Newton's treatise on physics. He taught himself algebra and calculus. By sheer effort and strength of will, he dragged himself up from a schoolboy whose gift for solving math problems was beyond belief to a merchant ship's navigator, sailing master, and eventually captain. In perilous voyages around the globe, Nat outwitted wily natives, survived harsh weather, maintained the discipline of a scurvy crew while also proving they could learn the principles of navigation. He steered the ship with eerie accuracy, making difficult upwind journeys in record time, and even, in one instance, managing a hazardous passage in heavy fog with nothing but a stopwatch and a chip log to guide him.

"It's a simple matter of mathematics," he said. For him, maybe; until Bowditch came along, "book sailing" was a hazardous business, subject to a textbook that (by Nat's reckoning) had some eight thousand errors in it. In a life of teaching and writing, sailing and trading, Nat became the navigational expert the fledgling American navy needed. And in spite of a seemingly endless series of crushing losses, including the deaths of nearly everyone in his family, Bowditch continued to find love and happiness on land as well as at sea.

This is an inspiring book about a strong character in our nation's history, a brilliant man driven by a very unique vision. As it swiftly unfolds, the reader may feel himself to be on an emotional roller coaster. But the emotion that should come out most strongly is pride. You may never have heard of Nathaniel Bowditch before. Once you read this book, you will be proud of him.

Time at the Top
by Edward Ormondroyd
Recommended Ages: 10+

One Wednesday afternoon in March (1960 or so), a girl named Susan Shaw vanished from the Manhattan apartment building where she lived with her widowed father. After several days' frantic search, during which no trace of her seemed likely to turn up, she reappeared with a bizarre story about a gift of "three" from a gypsy woman on the street, an elevator ride back in time to 1881, and an adventure with two children who wanted to prevent their mother from marrying a fortune-seeking adventurer.

Is it too far-fetched to be believed? You be the judge. Susan seems to be a very sensible girl. She acquits herself very sensibly - yet with a certain imaginative cunning and a flair for dramatics - as she helps her newfound friends. Her time-travel adventure proves to be a fine, spirited, humorous romp with a touch of romance, a grip of suspense, and a mysterious afterglow.

This unusual fantasy comes from the author of children's favorite David and the Phoenix. What makes it so unusual is the fact that it seems to be narrated by a writer named Edward Ormondroyd, who happens to live in Susan's building and who heard her firsthand account of the adventure. Did it actually happen? I suppose you'll just have to wonder!

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