Book Review of The War Outside

Book review: The War Outside

Author: Monica Hesse

Publisher Little, Brown 2018

Page count: 336

I have written an unpublished middle grade about a Japanese internment camp and read at least 6 middle grade or young adult novels in similar settings. The War Outside is the newest, published in 2018.  This book is the second young adult historical novel about the internment I’ve read, and the first that is set in a camp at Crystal City, Texas, for Germans as well as the Japanese. I didn’t know such a camp existed. It turned out that German prisoners came to build the camp and stayed on afterwards.

Hesse recounts the unusual friendship between Haruko and Margot who go to the same camp  school. It is a friendship that is secret at first and frowned on by both communities. Despite suspicions and reservation about each other, the friendship offers solace to each’s fears, about Haruko’s concerns of her brother in war and Margot’s realization her father is influenced by Nazis. Hesse’s characterization of the teenagers are heart felt and nuanced. The book keeps me reading. Her research is deep and detailed. I find the story believable except the ending, which is a little disappointing. The friendship is irreparably destroyed when Haruko thinks Margot has betrayed her and Margot knows what she did is to save Haruko’s family. It’s the way Hesse sets up and resolves the crisis that is not entirely believable . Overall, this book contributes to the knowledge of this shameful period in American history for middle graders and young adults.

I don’t know whether the author has approval rights of the cover.  All the covers of the previous books I’ve read reflect the setting of the camp. Except for the barbed wires and watch towers in the distance, one would not know what this book is about. Two stylishly dressed young women, one in a vibrant red, the other wheeling a bicycle are in the forefront. The Asian girl seems to be looking at the reader, as if she were in a fashion photo shoot. I do wish the cover does more justice to such a fine book.

Book Review of Grandmother’s Visit

Title: Grandmother’s Vsit

Author: Betty Quan

Publisher: Groundwood Books, House of Anansi Press 2018

Word count :518

This is a warm story of a grandmother who teaches a young girl how to measure water for rice with a finger.  Grandmother tells stories from her childhood and walks the granddaughter to and fro from school. They have a special relationship.

Grandmother’s key ring hangs on a hook  so she won’t forget to take it when she leaves the house. Grandmother dies and after she is buried, the girl’s mother tell her that the spirit of a dead person can find the way home to say the final goodbye on the third day.

The girl waits and listens. She hears the jangle of a key against a jade key ring. She finds the missing key is no longer on its hook. It’s in a photo album, like a bookmark. The photo marked is a picture of the grandmother holding a little baby on her lap. The baby is the girl.

While I love the story, I question the part about the dead grandmother coming back to say good bye. I’m Chinese and have heard that the dead can come back on the third night. My grandparents died in Hong kong when I was a young woman in the U.S. I did not have the experience of feeling scared and waiting for their  return.

This book is a picture book, for children 6-9. Would a child be scared when they come to the end of the book.? The girl in the story is not scared. But I imagine a lot of children may be.

Book review of Her Right Foot

Book Review #2

 

Title:  Her Right Foot

Publisher: Chronicle Books 2017

Author: Dave Eggers

Illustrator: Shawn Harris

Word count: 1538

Grades 4-6

Picture Book

At 1538 words, Her Right Foot has a very high word count. Publishers are amendable to high word count for biographies. For a non-fiction picture book, not so much. But the book doesn’t seem that long, because the words are spread out in 108 pages. Picture books usually are  between 30 and 48 pages.

 

This book is about the Statue of Liberty, particularly her right foot which is not in a static position. It seems to be about to take a step, to move forward. What an unusual take in writing about the iconic landmark.

The author addresses the reader in a breezy style, as if he were having a conversation with the reader. I can imagine the reader answering his questions on whether he or she knows this fact and that fact. He gives a good history of the making of the statue that you find in other books. But I didn’t know some interesting tidbits, such as Thomas Edison once proposed to have a giant record player inside the statue. He wanted the statue to speak.  I am glad this idea was not pursued.

The author finally gets to the right foot on page 45! You don’t notice because of the writer’s breezy style. He calls the statue “a woman on the go”, with broken chains around her feet. Frankly, I was not aware of the chains.

The author’s theory is that Liberty and Freedom, represented by the statue cannot stand still. It cannot rest, it continues to welcome refugees, from Poland, for Cambodia, from Estonians, Syrians etc. She must meet them at the sea.

I enjoy the book and find the flat, simple style of the illustrator meets the spirit of the text.

I recommend it highly.

 

 

Book review of Temple Grandin

 

 

 

 

Book Review #1

Title: Temple Grandin

How The Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism And Changed The World

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012

Author: Sy Montgomery

Word count: 23907

Grades 4-8

 

 

Sy Montgomery is a natural first and foremost. She’s an author of adult and children non-fiction that teaches and entertains.  She has written about the octopus, the great apes, and the dolphin among other animals. The only book she has written about a human is the biography of autistic Temple Grandin. Probably Montgomery was compelled to write this book because Temple loves cows. I’m sure Montgomery loves cows too.

I had watched an award-winning documentary about Temple Grandin. It spiked an interest in her extraordinary story. Now that I’m writing biographies (picture books and middle grade), I need a mentor text and this book is the perfect one.

 

There are many B/W and color personal photos of her childhood, contraptions Grandin designed to calm herself, and her chute systems to calm the cattle. Her detailed blueprints of cattle pens are reproduced in the book.

 

Sy Montgomery captures what is in Grandin’s autistic mind as she is bullied in school as a child and teenager.  Her heightened senses of sounds and details bring her information that she cannot process. She fears she would go mad.

What rescues her is a visit to her aunt’s Arizona ranch. She loves riding the horses and watching the cattle. She observes that the calves are calmer in the cattle chute that is closed as it squeezes their bodies snuggly for vaccination. Later, she designs a squeeze machine to calm herself.

 

After Grandin graduates from college, she goes on to graduate school to study animal science. She becomes a premier designer of buildings and equipment that handle livestock in a humane way. She is a professor of Animal Sciences at Colorado State University. She and her students work to improve the lives of animals raised for food.

 

Grandin wrote her autobiography, which I haven’t read yet. This book takes us into Grandin’s extraordinary mind of an autistic person. The way Montgomery writes about this mind, I can hear the voice of Grandin, how she can’t relate a person’s expression to feelings. Or how she speaks bluntly and hurts people’s feeling.

 

There are other middle grade books about Grandin. A more recent one is by Annette Wood, published in 2017.

 

I highly recommend this one by Montgomery. The print is large and it’s an easy read. It’s well researched and written. I only hope I can do as well with the biographies I will be writing.

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Critique groups

I belong to a writing critique group at the local library. I’m the only children’s writer. It’s helpful for my middle grade writing, but not for picture books. Now I’m concentrating on the craft of writing picture books. I’m very happy that through the 12×12 picture books writing forum (write 12 books drafts in 12 months), I have found a picture book critique group. My group consists of non-published writers. The writing is still not at a publishable level. But we’re learning from each other. I have paid for professional critiques. Their comments were helpful, but they are expensive and I can’t afford to get nine paid critiques. Getting nine critiques from my group of ten bring out nuances that even professional editors have missed. Of course, I have to decide which comments can help and which don’t. By commenting on the others’ manuscripts is also a learning experience for me. I’m looking for a year of hard work. It takes five years to get a picture book published.  Learning, writing, getting an agent, getting a publisher, time for the illustrator and production. 5 years! I started writing late in life. It’s a incentive to stay healthy and live a long life!

 

Beautiful writing

Since I read an advice to write down a beautiful turn of phrase of sentence in books I read, I’ve been doing that since. Sometimes, I don’t have pen and paper with me, then I have to look them later on. A pain. I’ve accumulated pages of such sentences or phrases. Sometimes, I don’t like the book’s story so much, but I keep reading because of the writing.

When I revise a long piece, for example chapters in  novel, I’d look through the pages and see if i can insert  or replace with better, more beautiful words.

Here are some samples:

Her heart was dancing double time.

There was a whirlwind in her chest.

Loitering on the outskirts of life.

Seemed smaller, like a pricked balloon.

Wear and tear of anxiety.

Shashi Kapoor

A recent obituary of the Indian actor Shashi Kapoor brought back memories of my first exposure to two plays in the late 1950s.  A traveling repertory company from India  performed two plays in my school, Sacred hear School in Hong Kong. It was founded by English expatriates in India. Now I know that the founder was the father of the English actress Felicity Kendal. If I remember correctly, one play was a Shakespeare play and the other was by Oscar Wilde. I can’t remember which. I was enthralled by the performances.  I already enjoyed Cantonese operas. It was at those performances that my love for the performance arts took a firmer hold.

A movie, Shakespeare Wallah from Merchant Ivory Productions told the story of a repertory company like the one that came to Hong Kong. It starred Shahi Kapoor and Felicity Kendall. I saw it in the U.S. in the 1960s and enjoyed it very much.

Nowadays, I go to musicals more than plays. I’ve been trying to instill a love of the performing arts, dance, musicals, concerts(not rock) to my now 15 year-old twins grandchildren.

It’s too bad that in general, tickets are astronomically expensive.  Live performances are not available to most children.

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