March 29, 2012


My Heart Will Not Sit Down. By Mara Rockliff. Illustrated by Ann Tanksley. Knopf. $17.99.

George Washington’s Birthday: A Mostly True Tale. By Margaret McNamara. Illustrated by Barry Blitt. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

Crow. By Barbara Wright. Random House. $16.99.

The Winter Pony. By Iain Lawrence. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

The Dead Gentleman. By Matthew Cody. Knopf. $15.99.

     In picture books for younger readers and novels for older ones, some authors try to recapture the past and show what lessons it has, or could or should have, for the children of today. My Heart Will Not Sit Down is a tale of the Depression, but not a typical story of people out of work and suffering deeply through an economic collapse that still informs economic and political rhetoric in the United States. Instead, it is a story of the African nation of Cameroon, where a teacher from New York City is telling the class about his “very, very big village” of New York City and all the hardships there. One girl in the class, Kedi, cannot get the story out of her mind, and “her heart stood up…in sympathy” for the hungry children so far away. Kedi is determined to help by sending money to New York, and “her heart would not sit down” until she does something. She roams the village, asking everyone – even, shyly, the headman – for money to help those less fortunate far away across the “great salt river.” She eventually raises $3.77 – a paltry sum to New Yorkers, even in the Depression, but a huge amount to the people of Cameroon – and makes a gift of it. This really happened – not the Kedi part, not the personalization given the tale by Mara Rockliff, but the $3.77 of charity sent from Cameroon to New York in 1931. Told in straightforward words and illustrated with lovely African-inspired art by Ann Tanksley, the story makes no attempt to moralize – although the book becomes somewhat preachy in the four-page Author’s Note at the end, which talks in more detail about hunger and economic pain, in the past and today, in nations everywhere. The main portion of My Heart Will Not Sit Down is timeless in its insistence that helping each other is what makes people fully human.

     There is much truth as well in George Washington’s Birthday, but a good deal that is invented, too, making Margaret McNamara’s book the “mostly true tale” that it says it is. Set on young George’s seventh birthday, the story pretends that George would have had a modern young boy’s hope for a special day and a party. This is untrue, but it provides the link through which McNamara explains about things that seven-year-old George probably did (check the February weather, do arithmetic lessons) and others that he definitely did not do (throw a stone across the Rappahannock River, chop down a cherry tree and admit that he did so). Each element of George’s make-believe birthday gets pleasantly cartoonish illustrations by Barry Blitt, climaxing in “a grand feast in honor of the birthday boy,” with McNamara noting that there would have been no party for George, but might have been a large family dinner. McNamara affirms or debunks each event of the day on the page where it happens, and ends the book with a page called “George Washington Tells the Truth” in which George himself supposedly writes to the reader, explaining how some myths about him got started. The book does a nice enough job of separating fact and fantasy, although younger readers may find elements of it, especially the final page, a touch confusing.

     Crow is for older readers, preteens and teenagers, and is a fictionalized account of a little-remembered but highly traumatic event: the race riots of 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina. Barbara Wright bases minor characters on real figures of the time, and also includes fictionalized stories of some more-important real ones, such as newspaper editor Alex Manly and black Siamese twins Millie-Christine. Her major characters, though, are fictional, and are used to craft a dramatic story of a post-Civil-War time when the increasingly successful black community of Wilmington was destroyed in what came to be called the Wilmington Massacre – an event that led to deaths, exile of black leaders and sympathetic whites from town, and a decades-long resurrection of white supremacism and the Jim Crow laws it spawned. Staying reasonably close to historical accuracy in her storytelling, including referring to blacks as being Negro or colored, Wright tells the story largely through the eyes of young Moses Thomas, whose grandmother, Boo Nanny, sees signs of the coming cataclysm in a crow’s flight and elsewhere. Wright tries a little too hard with Moses, who speaks significantly better and more modern English than his elders: “I didn’t hear anything more” vs. “We gots adult talk going on here.” But by creating a character in the same age range as the book’s likely readers, Wright tries to pull young people of the 21st century into the buildup to a frightening event of the 19th. There are few admirable characters here who are not black, so Crow is clearly intended as a “lest we forget” novel; and indeed, it was not until 2006 that the Wilmington Race Riot Commission produced a report on what happened in 1898. For those who, after reading Wright’s book, want further to connect past fact with the present time, she provides a way to do so online.

     The events of The Winter Pony occurred not many years after those of Crow, but nearly an entire world away. And if the primary color of Crow is black, that of The Winter Pony is white – bleak, threatening, empty white. For this is a story of Robert Scott’s disastrous 1910 expedition to the South Pole, which he attempted unsuccessfully to reach before Roald Amundsen could get there. Scott’s failure and his death, along with that of his team members and animals, became the stuff of legend almost immediately, inspiring articles, books, remembrances of all sorts, films and even music (Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 7, completed in 1952 and based on the music he wrote for the 1947 film Scott of the Antarctic). Scott’s tremendous heroism in the face of odds that proved insurmountable, his bold attempts to salvage something from the failed expedition, and the journal he painstakingly kept almost until his last moments, created a story more touching than that of Amundsen’s triumph. The Winter Pony tells the tale from the perspective of one of Scott’s ponies, which was given the name James Pigg. The book opens with a map showing Scott’s and Amundsen’s routes, and a factual description of the background of the two explorers’ polar attempts. Then Iain Lawrence tells a story that sticks remarkably close to the facts of what happened to Scott, letting James Pigg (the real name of a real horse accompanying Scott) imagine things that no equine member of the party would have seen, much less been able to tell to anyone. Once readers accept the notion that a pony is narrating the tale, this becomes a story of tremendous hardship, valiant but desperate attempts to survive, and ultimate heartbreaking failure – for the narrator as well as the humans. The events are difficult to read about, even a century later, and Lawrence’s success at creating a personality for James Pigg makes the horse’s eventual fate all the harder to bear – indeed, harder in some ways than the fate of the humans. The book will be too intense for younger readers, but teenagers and older preteens with an interest in history and exploration will find a certain amount of uplift here despite the pervasive sense of tragedy.

     The Dead Gentleman is as fictional as The Winter Pony is factual, but Matthew Cody’s novel is also an attempt to connect events of the past with readers of the present – in this case, quite directly, since the book opens at the start of the 20th century and soon jumps 100 years ahead. In fact, the book zips ahead, back and every which way in time and space, to the point of being a dizzying ride for readers as well as for the characters. The Dead Gentleman is written in the “steampunk” genre, in which futuristic elements exist side by side with old-fashioned ones – potent weapons powered by clockwork, for example, or (as in this book) a gear-powered mechanical canary named Merlin. The canary belongs, or belonged, to the “gentleman” of the title, an elegantly dressed walking corpse whose pocket street urchin Tommy Learner picks. This gets Tommy involved with a group called the Explorers’ Society, which moves about not only geographically but also temporally, thanks to a time-travel device and portals to other worlds. This is rather a lot for even imaginative preteens (the book’s target audience) to swallow, yet it is only part of what Cody throws out. The Dead Gentleman also includes interplanetary travel, dinosaurs (even zombie dinosaurs), a vampire (nearly toothless), and much more. There is also Jezebel Lemon, a 12-year-old girl from today’s world with whom Tommy and Merlin join forces to prevent the title character from, err, conquering Earth. And the universe. This book is even more far-fetched than most steampunk and most science fantasy (it can scarcely be called science fiction, which tends to have at least some foundational believability ). Its very complexity may be somewhat off-putting, although reluctant readers who are gripped by its exciting first chapter may well find themselves eagerly devouring the rest. And they may have more to look forward to: although the book wraps up many threads satisfactorily, it reads like the first volume of a series. Its past and present are certainly not the real-world past and present, but for that very reason, some preteens may enjoy this book more than novels with their roots in things that really happened.

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