Friday, April 11, 2014

A respite from my blog: "Medicine and Health in Children's and YA Lit."

Dear readers,

It's spring ( 2014!) and three years since I began this blog.  I've been inspired by the change of season, as I always am, and have begun to shake up my writing life. I've been spending most of my time reading short stories and delving into the craft of writing them. Most of the new stories I've written are about various aspects of what may be called the health care adventure involving doctors, nurses, hospitals, and the surprising ways our experience with illness changes people on both sides of the fence. I'm also want to write a new play.

I enjoy reading books for young people. Many provide endless material for teachers and parents to begin discussions with kids about family life, relationships, physical and psychological health. Why do the characters on the page do what they do? What would you do?

I have enjoyed posting here, but need to focus on my own creative work. In the meantime, thank all of you who have kindly read what I've written.

Best wishes,

Janice Scully

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Oh My Gods: A Modern Retelling of Greek and Roman Myths

I discovered Oh My Gods, written by classics professor Phillip Freeman, in the bookstore at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It would appeal to young adult readers who enjoy reading a good story. It is also for readers like myself who want to learn more about the ancient myths in an entertaining and readable form. According to his introduction, as a child, Freeman loved stories of ancient gods and heroes, but found as an adult little written on classical mythology for readers past childhood. In Oh My Gods, he tries, ". . . to present the major Greek and Roman myths with all the sublime beauty and disturbing twists of the original stories so that the readers can enjoy and appreciate the ancient tales as they were written long ago."

Oh My Gods is written in accessible language and includes all the over the top sex, battle and shape-shifting that has been passed down from the ancient world and more. Creation myths explain where humans, male and female forms, came from, but from an ancient perspective. And all those who think rape, murder is somehow worse today will see that passions of an evil nature are nothing new and just as scary.

For instance, Zeus, the king of the gods, was also the king of seduction who always got what he wanted with or without permission. As he said to a young virgin princess named Io, "Most blessed maiden, why stay a virgin so long when you can have me, Zeus, in your bed? I am enflamed with love for you and would give anything to enjoy your pleasures." Indeed! However, he was hardly polite if the answer was no. If he got angry there was always thunderbolt annihilation at his immediate disposal. 

If this book appeals to them, perhaps a curious young adult, a young warrior or curious maiden, might crack open Homer's Iliad.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Abina and The Important Men: A Graphic History

I would not have known about the graphic novel Abina and The Important Men, by Trevor R. Getz and Liz Clarke if it hadn't been for Monica Edinger's excellent Horn Book article entitled "Books About Africa." The article is a must read for all educators of children and I hope the books mentioned in Edinger's article end up on reading lists.

Any young person who is fortunate enough to read Abina will not only enjoy a riveting story full of action and suspense. She will also learn something about the true meaning of social justice and how to understand history.  In the novel which is written for a YA audience, we are told that what stories are recorded in history books are determined by those choosing the stories. For instance:

Only some of the perspectives on the past are ever recorded as documents. Others--the perspectives of the poor, the powerless, the illiterate--are never heard. 


 . . . only some histories are chosen by the powerful to be in the cannon, the list of great books and important topics that are widely read. 

This, of course, explains why the majority of stories by and about black people have never been told.

In Abina and The Important Men we find the story of an African girl in a nineteenth century British colony on the Gold Coast of Africa, a place where slavery is supposed to be against the law as it is in Great Britain. However, Women and Children are still  enslaved on the Gold Coast because they were the most powerless and slavery was lucrative.

Abina is a young enslaved girl. She is forced to work and she is also about to be forced to marry against her will. So Abina flees and seeks The Important Men who she is told might be able to grant her freedom encountering one disappointment after another.

What does it feel like to have no freedom and no voice in a corrupt society? What does one risk to speak out against injustice? Anyone reading this book who has never had their freedom completely taken away will have some idea.

Friday, February 21, 2014

A Thousand Splendid Suns

A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini has been sitting in my office unread since around 2007 when it was published. Now, with the U.S war in Afghanistan winding down, I wanted to read it. It takes place in late twentieth century Afghanistan, through to the bombing of the World Trade Center. On the cover is an image of the back of a woman in a burka standing on a hill overlooking what is most likely Kabul, Afghanistan. The two women narrators in the book are in their early teens when the story begins. 

Most Americans, young or old, have patchy knowledge of what daily life might be for a woman in a war torn country like Afghanistan. Keeping track of who is killing who among warlords and other factions is difficult. In A Thousand Splendid Suns, dead or injured relatives abound, usually well before the age of twenty in the lives of most kids. But there is also a love story that feels very much like Romeo and Juliet. 

The novel is written from the alternating perspective of two Afghani women, Miriam and Laila, both children when the book begins. 

Through their stories, a teen reader can glimpse what it might really be like to be forced into loveless marriage as a young teen, to stay at home everyday and never attend school. What does the world look like through the mesh of a burka, to feel the safety of being invisible?

The book was very positively reviewed in the New York Times, though the writing, in the reviewer's opinion, had flaws. For instance the book, "features some embarrassingly hokey scenes . . .  and some genuinely heart-wrenching scenes that help redeem the overall story."

I felt the book was honest and evocative and well worth reading. I grew to love these two girl/women characters and admire their will to survive in such a bleak setting.

If Hosseini intended to educate through fiction, he succeeded. The story would be of great interest to teen readers. 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Binny for Short

Binny for Short, a new middle grade novel by author Hilary McKay, is a high-stakes read that takes place on a craggy British seashore, full of seals and fowl, threatening cliffs and frigid ocean tides. Here, kids ride bikes, ride boats and experience nature and it's relationship to human beings first hand; any child can safely experience seaside adventures, feel the sand and taste the salt water. It won a starred review in the Horn Book.

Binny for Short is an entertaining and funny novel that also carefully and appropriately evokes through sympathetic characters feelings of loss, including the loss of parents (through death and divorce) in a story full of suspense. I didn't set this book down for long.

With every page and plot point, I was convinced disaster would befall lovable Binny and every lovable friend, family member and pet in the book. The book promises and delivers a great ending.

for any writer who is concerned with language and how to craft sentences full of imagination and emotion, it is a useful read. For instance, the following takes us into the heart of a ten year old's nightmare:

Blackness, Smothering. Heavy and dark. The bedclothes twisted into shrouds. Noise all around. Whisper. Shuffle. A hard, repeated rap,rap.

Clawing, like nails against plaster or wood . . . 



Another Aunty Violet nightmare.

Dead Aunty Violet keeps returning, but Binny isn't actually responsible for her mean, hated Aunt's death. McKay seems to understand that the guilty feelings of children are often not founded in reality, but imagination.

McKay is a master of the middle grade genre and Binny for Short is a must read.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Eleanor and Park

To read the YA novel Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell is to be pulled into a story of teen love that feels as impossible as Romeo and Juliet, though with a different ending. Around three quarters of the way through, after many references to Shakespeare's play, and a scene where Park shows up at Eleanor's window, I developed a sense of dread and wondered, Oh no! Will they die? I was afraid to continue, though I had to. Rowell's storytelling is great. I thought the ending was just right.

There is so much color and interest in this book. Eleanor is a freckled redhead, Park is half Korean, Eleanor's girlfriends are two black girls and the loyal friends Eleanor needs, engagingly honest. No character seems stereotypical. No character seemed to be placed in this book gratuitously.

Omaha is an unusual setting and the use of the school bus, repetitively, over time, as a place where Park and Eleanor meet and their love story develops, seemed a clever use of setting.

I am always curious to see how an author deals with sexuality in a teen love story. Rowell strikes a perfect tone.  She conveys page turning passion between Park and Eleanor, and there is lovemaking,  but it falls short of intercourse between the two 16 year olds. The time, after all, is not right even if protection were available, which it was not. Park displays a sense of responsibility that comes from loving Eleanor and a desire to not complicate her life more than it already is.

Would that all modern Romeos were as responsible.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Women Explorers: Perils, Pistols, and Petticoats

Between the covers of Women Explorers: Perils, Pistols, and Petticoats, by author Julie Cummins and illustrator Cheryl Harness, are ten short biographies of astounding women explorers born in the nineteenth century, none of them I'd ever heard of. That is because women explorers of that time didn't make it to the history books. Each had done what few women, or men, ever even dream of doing.

The exploits of Louise Arner Boyd, a wealthy San Francisco woman, at least made it to local newsprint: "San Francisco Woman in Arctic . . . to hunt polar bears, seals and other Arctic animals."

It was a good thing Boyd was so handy with a gun because " . . .when she was photographing for the National Geographic, Louise had to be on constant guard for attacks by rogue musk ox." Her maps of the Arctic played a role in the military during World War ll.

Nellie Cashman was as poor as Boyd was wealthy. Cashman was born in Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century and emigrated with her family to America to avoid starvation and became a gold prospector. She once lived sixty miles south of the Arctic Circle, surviving blizzards "without food or blankets and relied on homemade rafts to traverse raging rivers. She was successful in supporting herself but never forgot what it was like to be hungry. She always shared her wealth, giving to charities, churches and to the poor.

But as some explorers were drawn to frigid climates, others made names for themselves traveling the Amazon, climbing the Matterhorn, searching for the source of the Nile river and much more. I came away sure that not all human beings are created equally in terms of physical stamina, though most people today could tax their physical capabilities more than they do.

The women explorers in this book would never be happy just reading about extraordinary adventure. I hope this will be true for some of the middle grade dreamers who discover Cummins' biographies.