Saturday, May 10, 2008

Bella at Midnight by Diane Stanley

I recommend this book for: grade 4-7

In this reworked Cinderella tale, infant Bella is sent to live with peasants by her cruel father, a knight who can't deal with the death of his wife. Prince Julian is the insignificant fourth son, who was nursed by Bella's new foster mother and frequently comes to visit "Princess Bella." The wicked stepmother thinks only of herself and her daughters, but she has suffered hard times of her own and does what she must to make a life for them. The fairy godmother is Bella's maternal aunt, who isn't magical in the slightest but does possess some beautiful clothes and some very interesting glass shoes.

There is more at work in this story than the traditional rags to riches love story. Julian's kingdom has been at war with a neighboring realm for 100 years, and stories of the brutality exhibited by the other nation run rampant - and are wonderfully proved to be false when circumstances force Bella to make a journey there. There is also a great deal of faith exhibited by the characters, who frequently speak of God and hope for better times, then act on their faith. And there is magic. I found it refreshing to read a book where religion and magic went hand in hand explicitly. Bella is a wonderful heroine, who exhibits doubts but ultimately does what she knows to be right and saves the day. Older readers will probably realize the big twist at the end, but it shouldn't keep them from enjoying it. Despite the somewhat scary cover, this is a worthwhile read for fans of fairy tales and strong girls.


The Entertainer and the Dybbuk by Sid Fleischman

I recommend this book for: ?

Freddie is a struggling American ventriloquist working his way through Europe post-WWII. His act isn't fantastic until a dybbuk (a possessing spirit from Jewish folklore) shows up in his closet and makes him an offer he can't refuse - fame and fortune in return for the use of his body. Suddenly Freddie is one of the most sought-after entertainers in the trade, because not only is the dybbuk funny, but he can speak while Freddie drinks a glass of water and performs other 'impossible' stunts. Audiences everywhere are amazed. But the dybbuk doesn't just want to make people laugh - he wants to tell them some ugly truths about the Holocaust, and he wants help in tracking down the SS officer who killed him just before his 13th birthday.

I wasn't exactly sure what to make of this book. It certainly showed a familiar topic in a different light, and the relationship between the two main characters was interesting. However, I'm not sure where it should fit as far as age group is concerned. Freddie is in his early 20s, the dybbuk was nearly 13 when he was killed, and that would normally indicate YA to me, as would some of the grisly descriptions. However, much of the language and explanation seems targeted to a younger crowd, and the resolution is somewhat tidy and reassuring. An interesting read, but not a favorite.

The pros.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Your Own, Sylvia: a verse portrait of Sylvia Plath by Stephanie Hemphill

I recommend this book for: high school and adults (particularly poetic types)

Novels in verse are becoming more common, and this one marries the form to the subject beautifully. Hemphill applies extensive research and a clear love for Sylvia Plath's poetry to a fictionalized account of the poet's stormy life. The collection begins with a poem by "A Reader" in Spring 2007, then moves back to Sylvia's mother on the day of the poet's birth. Using the voices of Plath's family, friends, and others who came into contact with her, an idea of her life comes into focus. There are also poems with the heading "Imagining Sylvia Plath" - each of these takes the form of one of Plath's famous works and expresses what may have been her thoughts and emotions as she moves through school and boyfriends, marriage, motherhood, and her various episodes with depression and suicide attempts.

Beautifully written, this is really an engrossing read. At the bottom of each poem is a short blurb with information about Plath's real life, and most of them are related to the topic of the poem. I found myself torn between reading the poem first or reading the information - both were informative and interesting. A definite winner.


*Plath lived a rocky life, struggling with depression. This book doesn't flinch away from the ugly feelings and events, including sexual abuse, her husband's infidelity, and Sylvia's suicide attempts - the last of which succeeded.