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Jul/Aug 2006 Book Reviews

That Fernhill Summer, Shooting Stars Everywhere, The Fruit Bowl Project, and The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano

Reviewed by Colleen Mondor


Colby Rodowsky.
That Fernhill Summer.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 2006. 176 pp.
ISBN 0-374-37442-2

Buy now from Amazon!The premise for That Fernhill Summer sounded a little too familiar to me: 13-year-old Kiara finds out about her mother's family when her grandmother becomes deathly ill. The grandparents had cut all ties with her mother years before, when she dropped out of college and got married to Kiara's father, who's black (and they're white).

Sounds like a typical story of racism, right?

I read it because it hooked me in the very beginning, because I really liked Kiara and her mother, Joyce, and because once they traveled from New York to Baltimore and met the rest of the family, I really liked all of them as well. I kept waiting for the n-word to be dropped or some other equally loathsome racial moment to rear its ugly head when Grandma (known by her first name, Zenobia) realized who had come to visit. But then I got a surprise--the long-ago fight really had nothing to do with skin color at all; it was a much more universal disappointment that drove Kiara's family apart and kept them polarized for all these years. That's when I realized Fernhill was not going to be a cliché and settled in to let the story carry me along as Kiara learned just where her mother came from and who her family was.

So what kind of book is That Fernhill Summer? It's a classic family drama in a lot of ways--lots of stuff going on here about who did what and why and when. It's also a delightful look at three cousins meeting each other for the first time as they help take care of their very cantankerous grandmother. It's about a bunch of cool parents and kids who appreciate them, and specifically, it is about Kiara, who really loves her parents a lot and learns all over again just why she feels so deeply for them. Mostly it's a great big feel-good book that manages to accomplish a lovely story with no cloying sweetness (thank heavens). There's lots of humanity in this story, lots of moments where adults and children fumble along trying to find their way. I suppose it is just a very human story and because of that, Fernhill is a very universal tale as well. I'm so glad that I got past my foolish preconceived notions and gave this book a chance. It was certainly a wonderful read.

 

Martina Wildner.
Shooting Stars Everywhere.
Delacorte Press. 2006. 179 pp.
ISBN 0-385-90272-7

Buy now from Amazon!Victor is trying to survive his thirteenth summer without sweating to death or dying of boredom. He also accepted a dare from his best (?) friend, who is away on vacation, to jump off the ten-meter platform at the local pool. As Victor has never been past the five-meter platform, the odds for success are not all that good. He's determined to give it a try though, eventually. Basically he is looking at one long uneventful holiday until school begins again. Then he starts getting anonymous notes and meets D, the most mysterious girl in the world. And just like that, Victor's summer becomes everything he never expected--and I haven't even mentioned the parts about the man-eating plants yet.

Let's just say Victor has some pretty weird neighbors and leave it at that.

The notes are definitely the stuff of classic teenager mysteries and things get even stranger when Victor goes on the hunt for their sender. D seems to be almost heaven sent, and she is a huge help when it comes to diving, but nothing in Shooting Stars Everywhere is designed to be obvious. Wildner is very good at being deceptive and she steers Victor and the reader along several different pathways in her novel. In the middle of all sorts of chaos she dares to drop his absent mother into the picture and then the poor kid has to deal with parents who don't seem to know if they are on-again or off-again and then try their relationship both ways, as he is forced to sit back and wait them out.

It's kind of a cross between a Hardy Boys adventure and an After School Special-- but I mean that in a good way, I swear.

There's a lot of trying to decode the messages and figure out D and figure out the neighbors and figure out his mother going on in Victor's summer. He records everything he sees and thinks in the journal his father gave him for his birthday, so the reader can figure things out as he does. Ultimately it all does make sense, but not in a million years the way you think it will at the beginning. After reading Shooting Stars I decided it is a puzzle book on so many levels that it is very nearly perfect young adult reading. It's the quirkiest novel I've come across in ages, that's for sure. And I thought Victor was a class act all the way, and a 13-year-old-boy that all of us will love to root for.

 

Sarah Durkee.
The Fruit Bowl Project.
Delacorte. 2006. 153 pp.
ISBN 0-385-73289-9

Buy now from Amazon!A lot of the books I read for the middle grades range would easily appeal to teen readers as well. The Fruit Bowl Project is a perfect example of this, especially for aspiring writers. It has a great story hook; an eighth grade writing class meets a rock superstar (who's related to their teacher) and he challenges them to write a story using the same boring seven elements. As all of the students have the identical assignment they think it will be impossible to write something that is original, but author Sarah Durkee easily proves them wrong. She crafts 49 unique ways of looking at the elements and manages to offer up stories, poems, puzzles and essays that show not only how different all the students are, but also how many ways there are to observe the same events.

Durkee split Fruit Bowl into two parts; the first half is about the students and their visit from Nick Thompson when they receive their assignment. The second half is the assignments themselves. I wish the first half could have been longer; I enjoyed several of the characters and would have liked to see more of them. Also as there are so many kids in the class it gets confusing to keep them all straight at first and some more personal information would have helped. But don't let that small critique keep you away from Durkee's book--it really is a very smart way to teach a valuable writing lesson and there are plenty of moments with the teens to give the story weight that extends far beyond the assignment. The hook is the creative challenge though, and it is what really makes the book a kick to read.

 

Margarita Engle, Illustrations by Sean Qualls.
The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano.
Henry Holt. 2006. 192 pp.
ISBN 0805077065

Buy now from Amazon!Even though we all should read more poetry, I have been woefully lacking in this form for quite some time. I approached The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano with a certain amount of trepidation because of this; the book is a biography written in verse and I was afraid it would be too challenging--that the poetry would detract from the story. I could not possibly have been more wrong. In fact, I cannot imagine Magarita Engle writing this book in any different way. She has so effectively captured the horror and wonder of Manzano's life that I cannot forget him. She has also made me want to read Manzano's poetry now, which is probably the highest praise I could give any biographer--Engle has sent me back to her source through the power of her words.

Juan Francisco Manzano was born in Cuba in 1797. His parents were both slaves and Manzano worked as a houseboy and "pet" for a wealthy woman, Dona Beatriz de Justiz. His life with her was wrought with small humiliations ("So I bark, on command, I learn to whine and howl, in verse") but it was after she died and he was supposed to be set free as promised, that Manzano dropped into a dark version of hell. Freedom did not arrive. Instead, the boy was sent to a relative of his owner, La Marquesa de Prado Ameno, and she was a first class psychotic bitch. Ameno had Manzano tortured for the slightest offense and Engle documents this torture with a poignant directness that makes it all the more horrible to read:

Each time I fall into dreams
while holding the lantern
she sends me once again
to the stocks
that trap of splintered, bloodstained wood
where ankles, neck and wrists
are locked into place.

Manzano's worst crimes are those of reading and writing, and over time he becomes a poet of certain renown. His owner never relents, however she insists on breaking him, controlling him, owning his heart, his mind, his soul. It is almost as if his poetry is proof that he is not property, that there is some piece of him that knows a freedom she cannot destroy. She does everything she can to hurt him until he finally runs away, hearing words of support from all the other slaves as he escapes. Although Engle's book ends with that night, she includes a historical note that explains what happened to Manzano in the years that followed and a sample of his poetry.

One of the things that really impressed me about Poet Slave was how Engle managed to make a man born more than 200 years ago in a foreign country and unfamiliar circumstances become completely and utterly alive to me as the reader. I felt for Juan when I read this book; I felt horribly for him. I also liked how the author wrote several of the poems from different perspectives, so the reader is able to see things through his parents, friends and even his owners. It's a chance to climb inside so many different heads and view the same events or people from multiple sides. All in all, these poems in varied voices make for an amazing story and one that, because of Engle's reliance on Manzano's published autobiography, certainly carries the weight of truth. A gorgeous thing has been created with The Poet Slave of Cuba and anyone with any interest in poetry or slavery or the human capacity to endure and excel under the harshest of conditions would do well to read this book.

 

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