December 10, 2009


The Book of the Maidservant. By Rebecca Barnhouse. Random House. $16.99.

War Games. By Audrey Couloumbis & Akila Couloumbis. Random House. $16.99.

Horse Diaries #3: Koda. By Patricia Hermes. Illustrated by Ruth Sanderson. Random House. $5.99.

Powerless. By Matthew Cody. Knopf. $15.99.

Today I Will: A Year of Quotes, Notes, and Letters to Myself. By Eileen and Jerry Spinelli. Illustrated by Julia Rothman. Knopf. $15.99.

     Books given and received at this time of year can give young readers gateways to yesterday, to alternative versions of today, or even to tomorrow. The Book of the Maidservant, the first novel by medieval historian Rebecca Barnhouse, is a fictionalized retelling of the autobiographical 15th-century Book of Margery Kempe. Barnhouse’s novel is the tale of a serving girl on an unwanted and difficult pilgrimage. The central character is not Dame Margery but her servant, Johanna, who must accompany Margery and other pilgrims on a long journey to Rome – and, at the end of each day’s forced march, cook and clean and fetch for everyone in the group. This was the way of the world in medieval times: a single-minded focus by the avowedly pious on Jesus and his sufferings, but little if any attention to the sufferings of the lower classes in the everyday world. Barnhouse tells Johanna’s story in modern language, keeping it simple, in accord with what would be expected from a pious but uneducated serving girl: “I miss Cook and Cicilly. I miss my sister.” But there is pathos here beneath the matter-of-fact narrative, as Johanna both accepts and bemoans her fate – and proves to have the inner strength, when she turns out to need it, to find her own way to Rome after her mistress abandons her and the other pilgrims in their group. Eventually Johanna escapes from the overbearing Dame Margery and starts to make a life of her own, although still (of course) within her own class and within the strictures set upon all women of her time. Modern readers ages 10-13 will likely find the historically accurate all-pervasive religious references in The Book of the Maidservant somewhat tedious, but they are true to the age in which the book is set. Johanna’s name, though, is invented: Dame Margery never mentions it in her autobiography – which she did not write but dictated, since she herself was illiterate.

     Also set in the past, but a more recent one, War Games is the story of 12-year-old Petros during World War II. The book is based on coauthor Akila Couloumbis’ boyhood; his wife, Audrey, has written several books that, like this one, are intended for ages 8-12. The tale is of Nazi-occupied Greece – not a venue often found in books about this war – and about the transformation of neighbors to enemies and family games to matters of deadly earnest. The events in the book and the attitudes expressed by the Nazis are not really anything new: “It felt as if the man didn’t see Petros and his family as people but as male goats, not useful for very long.” The setting is unusual, though, and the contrast between the extremely serious business of war and resistance and the lighthearted one of games – which turn out to have their own serious uses – is well done. The language is effective, too: “Papa made several more stops, where the vegetables and eggs were greeted like bread with honey.” But for all its heartfelt emotion, War Games tends a bit too much toward the obvious, even including a symbolic kite that eventually “flew proudly for several days, irritating only those who wore a German uniform.” The book is well-meaning in the extreme but perhaps, in the final analysis, a little too earnest.

     The Horse Diaries books are also intended for ages 8-12, and they are set at various times. The third of these books – each told from a different horse’s point of view – takes place in 1846 and is a story of the pioneers’ journey along the Oregon Trail. Koda, a bay quarter horse, is used to running free with his human friend, Jasmine – until Jasmine and her family become part of a wagon train heading west from Independence, Missouri. These books rely entirely on horses having human feelings and human ways of expressing themselves: “The first thing [Jasmine] showed me was the place where she lived – her house, she called it… And then she showed me a barn and creatures called cows and another creature called a dog.” Later, as the wagon train moves toward the west, “I have to say, I didn’t like it one little bit. Every day was the same. …One night, after many, many days of flat plains, with nothing but waving grass and scorching sun, we crossed into Nebraska…” Koda’s eventual heroism brings the book to its climax in a story that mixes snippets of history with a story that will be of interest mostly to young horse lovers.

     History of a different sort – comic-book style – is the foundation of Matthew Cody’s debut novel, Powerless. Set more or less in the present – let’s say an alternative present – it has an intriguing premise: Noble’s Green, Pennsylvania, is “the safest town on Earth” because it is inhabited by a secret group of six super-powered preteen kids. “There was definitely something a little strange about the kids of Noble’s Green.” Well, yes – sounds like a perfect setup for a book intended, as this one is, for ages 10 and up (but not too far up). In fact, though, the real hero is “powerless” Daniel, who turns out to have abilities that pass the test of time in a way that the superkids’ do not. For as soon as the super-powered young people become teenagers – when they turn 13 – their powers vanish, along with their memory of them. Why? Finding that out turns out to be Daniel’s own special power – one he developed before moving to Noble’s Green and one that does not disappear. Much of the underlying meaning of the book is obvious – true power comes from within, and all that – and some of the writing is cliché-ridden: “Getting beaten up he could handle, but the whole girl thing, it was just too gruesome.” But Cody has a number of intriguing ideas going for him here – maybe even a few too many, with competing super-strong kids, a mysterious comet, an old comic-book series, a hidden cave holding secrets, even something called Witch Fire. And then there is Daniel’s fascination with Sherlock Holmes – whence his detective skill and his connection with elderly Holmes aficionado Herman Plunkett, who drew the comics that hold a clue that points to the Shroud that is part of the mystery…well, you see where this goes. Not exactly where it goes – Cody keeps the twists twisting and the turns turning – but the general direction is pretty clear pretty early on. Cody clearly enjoys comic-book language as well as comic-book setups: “Imagine the following scenario, Daniel. One day, for whatever reason, some of the children of this town start doing incredible things, magical things. Some can fly, some are strong, some are fast. Now imagine that another child realizes that he has a power, too. Only this isn’t a nice, shiny power like his friends’. He can’t fly, he can’t run super-fast; all he can do – is steal other powers. He’s like a leech, this one.” But who is the leech? That is the ultimate mystery, eventually solved through teamwork activated by Daniel’s deductive powers, thus showing that the apparently powerless is not powerless after all. Fans of classic comic-book stories will especially enjoy this alternative-present tale – and will enjoy rather than be bothered by its familiar elements.

     All these journeys to the past and sort-of-present, though, do little to prepare young readers for next year and the years beyond. Those are the times on which prolific authors Eileen and Jerry Spinelli – a wife-and-husband team, like Audrey and Akila Couloumbis – set their sights in Today I Will. The book, with its bound-in ribbon placeholder, looks at first like a diary or journal, but in fact it is the Spinellis who supply A Year of Quotes, Notes, and Letters to Myself. There are quotations and brief comments by the authors for every day of every year – yes, even February 29 for leap years, which of course gets remarks devoted to its unique position in the calendar. Some other days, and not always the expected ones, also get comments devoted specifically to their uniqueness. February 4, for example, is Rosa Parks’ birthday, so the authors include a comment from a Parks biography and some thoughts inspired by her example (“Doing the wrong thing is often easier than doing the right thing”). Most days, though, get quotations and comments that could fit any day. June 16, for instance: “At one time or another everyone is afraid. What counts is how we handle our fear…” Each page opens with a quotation, continues with a discussion, and ends with a promise for a reader to make to himself or herself – August 2: “I am a firefly. There is a light within me. Today I will turn it on and brighten a darkness.” Intended for ages 10 and up, Today I Will has enough sweetness for somewhat younger readers and perhaps too much for young teenagers. The self-promises are often good ones: “Today I will set aside a half hour to extinguish my ego and experience the world without myself at the center” (October 8). But only readers who are already predisposed to this sort of self-awareness (and, to an extent, self-abnegation) will likely want to follow the Spinellis’ ideas throughout the new year.

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