Friday, June 30, 2017

A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, by E. L. Konigsburg

A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver by E.L. Konigsburg

A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver by E. L. Konigsburg tells the reader the life of Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, as well as Queen of England and former Queen of France. (Yes, she was both, in real life!)

Eleanor is waiting in Heaven (after spending two centuries in Hell) for her second husband, Henry II of England. Why Hell?
"After she had died, and before she had arrived in Heaven, it had been necessary for Eleanor to learn some patience. Heaven wouldn't allow her Up until she had" (p. 3).
Her life story is told by three people in Heaven, whom in life Eleanor had been very close to: Abbot Suger (a priest), Eleanor’s mother-in-law Matilda (an empress, King Henry's mother), and William the Marshal (a knight). The last part of the book, the 15 years after Henry's death, is told by Eleanor herself.

They are all waiting together to see if Henry will be joining them up in Heaven. They have been waiting for about eight centuries (Eleanor, for six), because Henry is still awaiting judgment in Hell. While Eleanor and the others are waiting, they retell Eleanor’s life story, starting from when she married King Louis of France.

Eleanor of Aquitaine is a phenomenal woman, but she has very little patience. I mean, anybody who was waiting for eight centuries would have very little patience indeed! I know for a fact that if my mom were waiting for my dad to get home from work for too long, she would be calling him, texting him, and when he finally did get home she would present him with a list of everything that she needed to get done.

This book is appropriate for readers ages 12 and up, because many younger readers will not understand the the way it is written. The vocabulary isn't too hard, but the dialogue is formal, proper, and old-fashioned. It is written to be funny, but I didn't get many of the jokes (and I am 11). I think that if I understood some of the humor, I would enjoy it a lot more. There are also a lot of historical people, places, and events to remember. Their dialogue has a lot of religious content (talking about Heaven, God, Hell, etc.) that some people may find offensive. They also talk a lot about politics and war. It's not exactly your everyday dinnertime conversation, and this is not a conversation between school-aged friends.

I will definitely try reading the book again when I am a little older, though!


Daddy's (long) afterthoughts:  Julia struggled a bit with this book, but I think I know why. First of all, let me get this out of the way: Parents, this is a phenomenal book. And it is pretty darn funny. For the right audience. However, the style in which it is written is a touch on the "yesteryear" side. The discourse is much more Downton Abbey than Real Housewives. The wit is erudite, and to a certain extent presupposes some awareness of historical context. And the topics of discussion are rather mature. A couple of examples:
        Henry dismounted from his horse to sleep, to eat, and to pray, but for little else.
       "Henry," Eleanor said, "the children think their father is a centaur." 
        Henry got down on all fours and chased his sons [...] "A centaur is a pagan invention," Henry said to them. "Half man, half horse. I am all Christian and all king," he said.
       "Only the king part is divided," added Eleanor. "It is half English, half French."

       William of Aquitaine wanted his daughter Eleanor wed to the king's son, Prince Louis. With Eleanor would come her lands. With Louis would come a title. A good marriage. A marriage of pomp and pocketbook. William of Aquitaine knew that King Louis could not pass up a bargain.
My kids grew up reading Magic Tree House books (nothing wrong with those - both of my kids loved them) and other books written to accommodate the language as it is used today. Julia read the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, and really enjoyed the Whatever After series. She loves Roald Dahl, loves Rick Riordan, and loves the poetry of Shel Silverstein. She is and has been what I would describe as a voracious reader, but she has scarcely taken the time (and I have not pushed the issue, which I regret a bit) to read some of yesteryear's modern classics, with their more leisurely pace, wandering dialogue, and elevated vocabulary that stubbornly declines to speak down to children as if the author assumes they can't handle it.

In Julia's case, she has (slightly abridged versions of) the so-called children's classics (Little Women, Heidi, Black Beauty, Treasure Island, etc...) but she rarely wanted to read them, occasionally starting them but putting them down due to lack of interest. And when we tried to read the Chronicles of Narnia together, she was put off by C.S. Lewis's style, wordiness, and constant digressions and asides. Following the Stephen Krashen-inspired notion that any reading is good reading, and more reading is better than less reading
(see "Junk Food is Bad for You But Junk Reading Is Good for You"), she read a lot, with my wife's and my blessing: 10, 15 hours a week, by choice, and we bought her pretty much what she wanted, book-wise, as long as its "lexile" was not below where we thought was too low. And so she read Judy Blume, read Jacqueline Davies, read Raina Telgmeier's graphic novels. She read Calvin and HobbesDiary of a Wimpy Kid, the Who Was? biographies and What Was? histories, and Lauren Tarshis's I Survived historical dramatizations

But in retrospect, I can see why she (indeed many young readers these days) has some difficulty with denser narration, elevated vocabulary, baroque and florid style. So much of children's and YA fiction these days loves story so much more than it loves language that I suspect this is a widespread, generational phenomenon. In theory, a 6th or 7th grade reader should be able to enjoy and appreciate this book (even if they don't get everything), but I suspect that, for many modern kids, it might have to be an 8th, 9th or 10th grader.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Serafina and the Black Cloak, by Robert Beatty

The story takes place in 1899 in a mansion called Biltmore Estate in North Carolina. Serafina is a 12-year-old girl who lives with her pa in the basement of Biltmore Estate. Serafina is an unusual little girl; she is “different” – she has only four toes on each foot, and amber-colored eyes like a cat. One night, she hears what sounds like a child being dragged around. She has excellent senses so she is easily able to find the room where this is happening, and watches, horror stricken, as the child is literally absorbed by the folds of a man’s black cloak.

Serafina tells her pa about the Man in the Black Cloak and how the cloak consumed a little girl. Sadly, her pa does not seem to believe her. She feels that her pa doesn’t care about her after he just goes back to work as if the conversation has never happened. Serafina is upset. She walks away, and as she passes the stairs, she feels an urge to climb them. She knows that she’s not supposed to be seen (no one knows that she and her pa are secretly living in the basement), but she has snuck around before without being caught.

Serafina walks up the stairs and into a large room with a piano where several people are gathered, doing her best to remain hidden. But soon she hears someone ask “Are you lost?” She whips around, hissing, and stops when she sees who it is. It is the young master, Braeden Vanderbilt, teenage nephew to Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt, the owners of the estate. He is her age, so she trusts him. They develop a friendship, and Serafina tells him about what she saw. Braeden tells her that this isn’t the first time a child has disappeared.

Serafina and Braeden embark on a series of thrilling adventures full of danger in which they try to unravel the mystery of the Man in the Black Cloak, who returns to the estate again and again in search of children to snatch. This becomes more complicated when it appears that the man in the cloak particularly wants Braeden!

This book is for people who love mysteries, ages 9 and up. It is not a difficult read, but at almost 300 pages, it is probably not for really young readers. It has an intriguing plot and a clever pair of young heroes. Also, it has a setting that actually exists in the real world: Biltmore Estate in North Carolina is a real place, built by the real Vanderbilts in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Some of the characters are made up (like Serafina) while others are real people (like Mr. Vanderbilt). And at the end of the story, readers realize why it is that Serafina is so “different.”

I sincerely hope anyone who reads this book will love it, and definitely check out the book’s sequel, Serafina and the Twisted Staff.


Daddy's afterthoughts: This is a mystery-thriller, and while I love stories that interweave shards of reality with fiction, I should point out what Common Sense Media says about the book: "This scary story is not for the faint of heart; the abduction scenes are graphic as children scream out in terror and seemingly vanish into the foul-smelling cloak. Serafina and Braeden are often under attack from the man in the cloak and other supernatural beings." So there you go. However, in the same breath that they give the story a 5/5 for "violence and scariness," they also give it full marks for "positive role models" and "positive messages." FWIW, Julia is a touch on the squeamish side, but she was not only fine with the book, but loved it. It is, I suppose, no darker than much of what happens in the Harry Potter stories.


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