IS 572
Summer 1999

Assignment 3: Book Reviews

Parrot in the Oven, I Am the Cheese, Night, Owl in Love, Selma, Lord, Selma,

Parrot in the Oven: Book Review

Martinez, Victor. 1996. Parrot in the Oven. New York: HarperTrophy.

My first reaction to Parrot in the Oven is that I wonder why it is labeled a novel. It seems more of a memoir or series of short stories. It reminds me of a book I read with my daughter called Blue Skin of the Sea which was set in a relatively unusual environment (Hawaii), and is a series of events in a boy's life as he grows. But regardless of what the author or editor or publishers call it, my second reaction was to the prose. Even during times of little action the prose was interesting and beautiful enough to me to keep reading. The descriptive and figurative language made the scenes vivid enough to touch or see. Examples include

"His black hair swatted smooth with pomade, and his voice sounded like two knife blades rubbing together" (p. 29).

"…my heart felt like it was being squeezed between two hands; joy and grief pressing and unpressing" (p. 100).

"Eddie was so white, when he got agitated, little rosebuds bloomed on his face, then closed again like tiny fists" (p. 206).

It is tempting to say that what makes this book work is the language but I'm going to take a different tack and say that it is the strong theme, that of "coming of age," in combination with the style. We watch Manny during the painful period of growth that all youth experience regardless of the family situation or their physical environment. One of the ways a person demonstrates coming of age or growth is to realize there is more in the world than just them. They become less egocentric. A technique used in this book, and used well and beautifully, was to have Manny realize the beauty of his surrounding physical world. This was done in another coming of age book, The Rule of the Bone, a book in which the protagonist is extremely lost and self centered. In The Rule of the Bone, the reader sees how the protagonist views his physical surroundings and realizes that anyone who can see that must not be completely self-centered. The same was true in Parrot in the Oven. Manny slips in descriptions of his surroundings that belie his age. I don't know if this is due to the author filling in what he knows or realizes now as he writes as an adult, or if it is a deliberate technique to show us Manny's growth. Whatever the reason, it works well. The summer heat doesn't just scorch the grass, it sucks "the grass blond" (p. 24). Watching his dad walk across the parking lot he notices that

"the hoof-mark clouds in the sky had burned away, and already I could see the wind beginning to smooth out the wrinkles of the afternoon heat" (p, 36).

His grandmother died and he imagines what will happen to her.

"She will flake away into dirt, I thought, just as the sun does the bottom of a pond during a drought. Her shadow will be erased, and her soul will drift to heaven like the fluff of a dandelion in the wind. And then it will blossom in another garden, so bright the colors will hurt your eyes" (p. 89).

When he takes his sister to the hospital

"…the wind against my ears sounded like sizzling, it was so cold. I remember tears of ice dripping from the trees and frozen pools clasping the blackened soil near the roots" P. 140).

Working in his grandma's yard he describes her trees.

"One branch sprouted plums, another almonds, and still another, peaches. Most were cherries, though. When in season, they glowed ripe and flashed like Christmas balls" (p. 76).

None of these strike me as events in nature that a totally self-centered youth would notice and with such vivid description.

Figurative language is used to set a mood, surprise the reader, create imagery, and make a passage memorable (Donelson 1997, 68). Theme is what ties a story together and answers the questions: What does it mean? What is it about? (Donelson 1997, 54). Martinez effectively used the two together to create a memorable, almost visible story of one youth's struggle of coming of age.

Works Cited

Donelso, Kenneth L. and Alleen Pace Nilsen. 1997. Literature for Today's Young Adults. New York: Longman.

Martinez, Victor. 1996. Parrot in the Oven. New York: HarperTrophy.

I Am the Cheese: Book Review

Cormier, Robert. 1977. I Am the Cheese. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers.

My first reaction to this book is that it is a skillfully crafted story. The technique of changing tense causes the reader to work with the author in picking up clues in the mystery. It engages the reader. The nursery rhyme used as allusion and as a frame of the story, is clever and serves to braid deeper meaning into the story. The narrative is almost dreamlike and always compelling. It is interesting, too, that the fourteen year-old narrator is just at the age when a kid is normally realizing his emerging identity yet the thrust of this story is that his identity is changed by others before he even has a chance to deal with it himself. This is true not only for his personal identity but that of his family and their history. The secrets, the drugs, and the mental manipulation that the narrator experiences would be hard enough for one who's identity was established but many times worse for this teenager. Because of this, it isn't surprising to see Adam/Paul regress as he did in the last scene. "I rock Pokey in my arms and I'm wearing my father's jacket and I have on his old cap now and I'm not sad anymore…" (Cormier 216). This book won numerous awards according to Amazon.com including ALA Notable Children's Book, New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year, School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, Horn Book Fanfare Honor Book, and the Phoenix Award. This is not surprising considering the clever and skillful writing and crafting of this story.

Described as a "psychological thriller" in the Amazon.com web site, this novel falls into Lukens' categories of "Mysteries and Thrillers." These stories rely upon unexplained events and actions (16). "Many are not only carefully plotted, but also have strong themes, characters we come to know well, and a style that is distinctive of the writer" (Lukens 217).

The plot, or "the sequence of events showing characters in action," (Lukens 63) is carefully constructed by using flashbacks and running three narratives together. The book opens normally enough with a first person present tense description of the boy setting out on a journey. "I am riding my bicycle…" (Cormier 11). The reader is suddenly jarred when the second chapter opens as a typed transcription of a tape. This transcription is woven with past tense narrative and pluperfect tense narrative that somewhat explains or expands on the transcription serving as flashbacks. The conflict of the plot is clearly person-against-society as this boy's troubles are all completely caused by the adult world full of crime and corruption. Plot, according to Lukens, is more than sequence of action and conflict, it also includes the pattern of those actions (Lukens 71). The frame described in Lukens can be applied to this plot in a layered effect. The novel begins and ends with the exact same paragraph, but by the time we come to the second reading of the paragraph we have come to a whole new understanding of this scene. Many shades and layers of story have been built into it to give it deep and emotional meaning.

This novel also contains suspense described by Lukens as a state that makes us read on ( Lukens 73). Between trying to figure out what the tape transcripts mean, what his journey means and what his true identity and family secrets are this novel most definitely has an "emotional pull."

Theme in this book is multi-faceted which makes it such an arresting and compelling read. The overriding theme of this novel is the search for identity and thus serves as the primary theme. It begins with Adam and his father singing the nursery rhyme Farmer in the Dell. Since their last name is supposedly Farmer his father asked him

"'Who says they didn't make up the song for us?' my father would ask. Looking down at me, he'd say, 'What's your name boy?' Pretending to be very serious now.
'Adam,' I'd answer. 'Adam Farmer.' Glad to part of the game, a part of them'" (Cormier 30).

In the end he not only he loses his identity but loses them making this a mature theme. This book, then, would be good for older and mature readers, even adults. As Lukens says, "Mature themes can be explored in children's literature; they contribute to understanding when they meet the requirements of excellence" (Lukens 106). And I would have to rate this work as excellent.

Works Cited

Amazon.com. Accessed 4 July 1999 available from http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0440940605/o/qid=931110174 /sr=2-1/002-2507782-5221217 ; Internet.

Cormier, Robert. 1977. I Am the Cheese. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers.

Lukens, Rebecca J.1995. A Critical Handbook of Children's Literature, Fifth Edition. New York: HarperCollins.

Night: Book Review

Wiesel, Elie.1960. Night. New York: Bantam Books.

Part 1: Personal Response

Night is a slim book that packs a wallop. Tales of the holocaust are hard to hear about or read about, yet the reader is pulled into this one and escorted through this nightmare, not gently, but at least eloquently. I was very curious to read this since my own daughter has loved the book since she was in about fifth grade. After reading it I'm still not sure why - is it the story of survival, the story of truth, or the story of someone close to her age? Every experience in the book is different from her world, as it is different from mine. The only experiences I can relate to are the fierce love of a parent for a child. Maybe that was something she could relate to - the fierce love of a child for a parent. Or is this wishful thinking?

It seems there is a lot of usefulness in this book for young adults, there are the history lessons, the morality lessons, and the excellent craftsmanship and writing.

Part 2: Analysis

It is the last that goes the farthest in making this book work - the style. Lukens said, "Appropriateness and freshness - the sense that these words are the best possible words for this particular story - are not only the style of the story; they are the story" (170).

It could easily be argued that setting, character, conflict, suspense and plot make this book work. But as Lukens said again, "Any good story is words, many words, selected and arranged in a manner that best creates character, draws setting, recounts conflict, builds suspense to a climax, and ties it all together with some significance" (169).

Here is an example of the arresting style of Wiesel:

"Meir. Meir, my boy! Don't you recognize me? I'm your father … you're hurting me … you're killing your father! I've got some bread … for you too … for you too… He collapsed. His fist was still clenched around a small piece. He tried to carry it to his mouth. But the other one threw himself upon him and snatched it. The old man again whispered something, let out a rattle, and died amid the general indifference. His son searched him, took the bread and began to devour it. He was not able to get very far. Two men had seen and hurled themselves upon him. Others joined in. When they withdrew, next to me were two corpses, side by side, the father and the son.

I was fifteen years old" (96).

The scene is horrid and frightening. It is beyond anything civilized readers can probably comprehend. Wiesel brings it great significance with his sudden intrusion of reality, "I was fifteen years old." Now the scene is twice as horrible and twice as significant for us and for the narrator.

Another incident using the device of imagery was noted midway through the book. Lukens said that "imagery is the appeal to any of the senses; it helps create setting, establish a mood, or show a character" (153). In this incident the prisoners, including the narrator, watch a boy and two older prisoners hang. The boy did not die right away, he was so light he stayed alive for more than half an hour while they watched him struggle between life and death, "dying in slow agony under our eyes (62). Wiesel concluded this scene and the chapter with this observation, "That night the soup tasted of corpses" (62). This imagery as Lukens would describe it certainly "stirs the readers imagination" (154).

The title Night is never explained but there are many uses of the word throughout the text and it becomes symbolic for the darkness they enter literally and figuratively. Lukens describes symbol as something that "has significance beyond the literal self" (158). An excellent example follows:

"Night. No one prayed, so that the night would pass quickly. The stars were only sparks of the fire which devoured us. Should that fire die out one day, there would be nothing left in the sky but dead stars, dead eyes" (18).

Wiesel had a gruesome story to tell, fortunately he told it using beautiful, interesting, and arresting words.

Owl in Love: Book Review

Kindl Patrice.1994. Owl in Love. New York: Puffin Books.

Part 1: Personal Response

About fantasy, Lukens says that no other genre generates such a sharp division of readers into those who love it and those who don't care for it (22). I was glad to know this since I don't particularly care for fantasy, I wouldn't go out of my way to read it. Yet, whenever I do read it I always seem to find something about it to enjoy. That was true with Owl in Love. Once I finally (perhaps somewhat reluctantly) suspended my belief I found the story fascinating on several levels. I enjoyed the thoughts and struggles of the teens in this book, I enjoyed the insight into owl life and nature, and the portrayal of parents struggling to understand their teens and their anguish over their struggles. The writing was good and the story had excellent pacing. And, as always with a good book I admire, I enjoyed the technique and skill of the author in telling such an outlandish and exciting tale.

Part 2: Analysis

Lukens would probably classify Owl in Love as a fantastic story which she describes as stories that are realistic in most details but still require us to willingly suspend our disbelief. She used the Borrowers books as an example. In these stories tiny people face everyday problems like our own and make discoveries…" She also discusses another kind of fantastic story that is about characters that are not people but are represented as people because they talk or live in houses like ours, have feelings like our own, or lead lives like those of human beings. She says, further, that our being able to willingly suspend belief is due to character and theme (19). The strong characterization in Owl in Love is certainly what makes this book work and what allows the reader the suspension of belief necessary to enjoy this book.

Because Owl is half human and half owl she has characteristics of both. When she is an owl she acts like an owl which makes this "animal realism" aspect of the book work. Lukens says that is when animal realism is at its best. The fact that the reader is involved in Owl's struggle holds the reader's interests (Lukens 55). The fact that the reader cares about Owl's struggles is testament to the strong character portrayal. When she is a human teenager she has many characterizations typical of a teenaged girl, and when she is an owl she has the characteristics of that animal. In order to believe she is an owl the reader must enter the world of an owl (Lukens 145). There are many scenes of Owl as an owl that lend credibility to her as an owl and allow us to enter her world. For example:

Owls do not normally spend time commuting to their hunting grounds; they live in their territory and rarely leave it. Flying back and forth from Mr. Lindstom's neighborhood was already a strain on me (140).

And,

Earthbound structures can never look as impressive to a sky creature as they do to those who must crawl over the ground always looking up and never down.
While acres of housing developments that have sprung up around our town are depressing and threatening enough from the air, I had never before felt so surrounded by the results of purposeful human activity. The houses…oppressed me (48).

This, by the way, is a unique opportunity to learn about owls, although I think it would be an interesting task to see if the facts about owls presented in this book are accurate.

The action in this story grows out of the characterization (Lukens 57) and this is what leads to the necessary suspension of belief. Owl, Dawn, David, Mr. Lindstrom are all round characters who experience remarkable change and growth throughout this story. The fact that they verify truth about human nature makes them interesting, believable, and compelling. Owl's teenaged experiences about fitting in at school, a crush on her science teacher, and feelings of betrayal by her best friend are universal experiences. Seeing her experience them in action that is part of her nature (either one - teen or owl) helps the reader to know her (Lukens 58). The same is true of David. His task is to come to terms with who he is. Seeing him in the action of transforming in front of his father and owl gives this task and the character truthfulness necessary for the reader's engagement. His further realization that he will not hide from his identity is something that most anyone will identify with and is solidified by his comment about his condition. "Owl will teach me to enjoy is, rather than flee from it (201).

Selma, Lord, Selma: Book Review

Webb, Sheyann and Rachel West Nelson. 1980. Selma, Lord, Selma. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press.

Part 1: Personal Response

Amazement and admiration come to mind while reading this work. The portrayal of the eight and nine year old girls and their conviction and courage during this frightening time in history is remarkable and uplifting. This work seems a valuable tool in teaching history. It chronicles an important time in civil rights history and it clearly shows what happened, why it happened, and most importantly, how it affected some of the players. All of this makes this work a remarkable, engaging, and compelling read. Not only for the history, but also for the human involvement. This time and this place, Selma, Alabama 1965, are known for their history. It is difficult to read any account of it without being amazed, but this account through the eyes of children who were closely involved gives it a unique angle making it engaging for both adult and young readers.

Part 2: Analysis

Lukens describes theme in literature as the idea that holds the story together (93). In the forward to Selma, Lord, Selma, the author of this chronicle, Frank Sikora, explains that he wanted to identify at least some of the legions of anonymous children who had displayed such incredible courage in many places of the south. In talking to a Reverend about the 1965 marches he was able to identify Rachel West and Sheyann Webb, two of the many children (xii). This author felt that he could strike a more responsive chord from the struggles of these people to achieve freedom if it were seen through the eyes of children (xiii).

This, then, was his theme -- the civil rights marches through the eyes of two young girls. This was the central meaning to his piece of literature, or the unifying idea that held the elements of the story together, as described by Lukens (96). Lukens also said that without theme a story is left without meaning and it leaves the reader wondering "so what?" (107). In this case, without this remarkable human element - Rachel and Sheyann-- the reader would not have been left with "so what?" but would have probably been left with a drier account of a time in history.

In many nonfiction books illustrations help clarify (Lukens 281). In Selma, Lord, Selma numerous black and white photos accompany the text lending weight to the innocence and youth of these protagonists. One sits and looks at these pictures and wonders how in the world children so young could be so committed and courageous.

It was the children involved in this conflict that encouraged many adults to join. Sheyann's parents originally were not involved. Sheyann's involvement began with her own convictions, but it was her involvement that created her parent's. As she pointed out, "in later years, Momma would say that it was my courage and persistence that made her actively join the movement in Selma" (47). Her mother told her that she seemed to know more about what was going on than she did (62). And, "In later years…Momma would say that it was my part in the drive that inspired her and Daddy to join in" (72).

It was the involvement of the children that gave great weight to the movement for all adults.
I think what the people of Selma, the white people feared more than anything was the time when a large number of children would begin marching. I think they feared that Jim Clark would react with anger and we'd really bring about national interest in Selma and give the city a worse image that it already had. On February the third, that time arrived. After school that day, about three hundred students-most of them junior-high kids…. gathered at the church, began singing songs, and then started to march to the city hall (61-62).

A photograph on page 78 shows demonstrators in a street meeting with hands joined. There are white people, black people, and two very small and fragile looking girls, hands and arms linked with the other demonstrators. One has to ask how and why such small children could throw themselves into this movement with such energy and abandon. The children answer it well: "We knew what we were doing in 1965 wasn't just for us, but for the children still to be born. We wanted them to be born free " (142).

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