Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Tale of the Shining Princess, traditional (adapted by Sally Fisher)

Life was dull for the old bamboo cutter and his wife. They were poor, lonely, the old man was overworked, and their life was very dull. Dull that is, until one day when the bamboo cutter noticed that one bamboo stalk was glowing. The old man, bending over for a better look, saw that a 3-inch tall girl was inside the stalk of bamboo!

The old man and his wife had never had any kids, so of course they were pleased. They named the girl Nayotake no Kaguya-hime, the Shining Princess of the Young Bamboo. As the child grew into a young woman (this taking only 3 months), it became clear that she was one of the most beautiful women in the world, so beautiful that she seemed otherworldly.

After a while, the old bamboo cutter decided that it was time for Kaguya-hime to marry. Word of her beauty had spread quickly, and year after year men came to her home if only to catch a glimpse of her. Finally, after many years, all except for 5 of the most determined men had left. These men were Prince Ishizukuri, Prince Kuramochi, the Minister of the Right Abe no Mimuraji, the Grand Counselor Otomo no Miyuki, and the Middle Counselor Isonokami no Marotari. These 5 men each were given a task to prove their devotion to Kaguya-hime. Prince Ishizukuri was sent to find the begging-bowl of the Buddha, Prince Kuramochi was sent to find a jeweled branch of Paradise, the Minister of the Right Abe no Mimuraji needed the robe of Chinese fire-rat fur, the Grand Counselor Otomo no Miyuki was to get a 5-colored jewel from a dragon's head, and the Middle Counselor Isonokami no Marotari was asked to retrieve the easy-birth charm of the swallows

You can probably guess that Kaguya-hime did not want to marry, as the items that she sent the men out to get do not exist. The next 5 chapters describe the journeys of the 5 men; all of the journeys were rough, and most lasted several years. In the end, Kaguya-hime marries none of the men, as a surprising truth about her real identity is revealed.

The Tale of the Shining Princess is an old Japanese legend of this otherworldly woman who comes down to Earth. In this story, there are several poems written by Kaguya-hime and the 5 men mixed in with the storytelling, as well as several beautiful paintings describing the story. The original album of the paintings in the story is in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The original author is unknown, and this version is based off of a translation.

While The Tale of the Shining Princess is not a long story, young people and anyone who has trouble reading foreign languages may stumble over some of the names. But other than that, this legend is great for lovers of mythology (like me)! 

Daddy's afterthoughts: I first found this volume on a shelf of cast away books at a take-a-book-leave-a-book station at a local college. What a treasure. The color plates alone make the book worth owning, Edo-era Japan illustrations of scenes from this thousand-year-old tale, thought to be one of Japan's oldest legends.

This version, published by the Met, contains a text by Sally Fisher, an adaptation of a translation from the Japanese by Donald Keane. The story itself, believed to date back to the 10th century (circa 909, according to Haruo Shirane's Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology), but even that telling was itself an embellished iteration of an earlier oral folk narrative, its origins likely lost to antiquity. Curiously, its original (10th century) title was 竹取物語Taketori Monogatari, or "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter," the emphasis on the male bamboo cutter, and it is perhaps worthy of note that later iterations of the tale bore titles such as "The Tale of Kaguyahime" or this, "the Tale of the Shining Princess," with the focus (more appropriately, perhaps) on Kaguya-hime herself.

On a broader note, I love mythology, and recommend its reading for all age levels, but especially children. No other form of storytelling conveys as much wonder, as much of a sense of what C. S. Lewis called "the numinous" as myth. This particular volume clocks in a 70 paginated pages, making it somewhat longer than your normal short-story-length myth, but much shorter than a novel. Its simplicity makes it a great read for children, but its style and the beauty of the language held me rapt when I first read it as a man of 40 or so years. It's a tough book to find, but thanks to the internet, this volume may be had (secondhand) from a variety of sources.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Flygirl, by Sherri L. Smith

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Ida Mae Jones's biggest dream is to fly. Being happiest in an airplane, she has wanted to fly since she was a child. And there wouldn't be a problem, if she weren't living in the segregated South. No one would give her a license for two reasons: She's Black, and she's a woman. 

When the USA enters WWII, Ida's brother heads off to serve in the Army, leaving his family behind. An Air Force group is formed, known as the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP for short. Ida wants to sign up, but would they hire a Black woman? Probably not, except Ida has skin fair enough so she might be able to "pass" as white. So she decides to sign up to be a WASP, and do what she's always wanted to do: fly.

She's accepted, but from the moment she leaves home, Ida is scared that someone will see that she is Black. 

When Ida and the rest of the women arrive at Avenger Field, they are told that the 5-month training course won't be easy, and that about two-thirds of them will wash out by the end of the course. Ida immediately makes two new friends, Pasty Kake and Lily Lowenstein. Throughout their training, these girls help each other out the best they can.

Two days after their arrival, there is the first sign that this course would be hard: two candidates wash out. One or two days later, after a flight test, another woman washes out. The trainees are dropping like flies.

Ida, still worried that someone would notice that her skin tone is a bit darker than everyone else's, has had the good fortune to do well and pass, but how long will her luck last? Will she become a full fledged WASP? Or will she be discovered? She doesn't like pretending to be someone she's not. She doesn't like to lie, even if lying helps her pursue her dream. Deep inside, she feels like she is denying that she is related to the rest of her family by denying her race. Not even the WASP friends she makes know her secret.

WASP was a real program put into place during WWII, a time when most men didn't like to see women in the Army, Navy, or Air Force. It was also a time when women were finally beginning to prove those men wrong. Not all women back then wanted to live a life in the kitchen. Some of them wanted to get out of the house, to see the world. And some of them did.

This historical fiction novel is great for any age able to read a 275-page book, but parents out there should know that there is some discussion in the book of female development (menstruation, pregnancy). 

Ida Mae Jones teaches us that neither race nor gender should keep you from doing what you dream about. But she also teaches us that feeling forced to be something we're not, denying our identity, can be painful.

Daddy's afterthoughtsMulanYentlTootsie, and Terri Griffith (a nod to Just One of the Guys, the cult-classic 80s teen romp directed by my cousin, Lisa Gottlieb). All stories where the stars swap gender to achieve some purpose denied them by some stereotype. But switching races? That's a far sight tougher to pull off: Exhibit #1, 1986's vomit-inducing Soul Man.

Flygirl was published in 2008, seven years before the Rachel Dolezal controversy, ten years before Bruno Mars'. In today's identity-politics driven tweet-first-think-later society, I wonder, if it had been released in 2018 instead of 2008, would Sherri Smith's book would have been hailed as "inspiring" or "beautifully written and resonant?"  I have to imagine that many people nowadays might think that holding this protagonist up to be a hero(ine) after the choices she makes would be... difficult, at least, even despite the time period. (Compare this, perhaps, to the recent film Hidden Figures, where the heroines did not hide their identity, but fought for their right to exist and work and achieve alongside others just the same.)

But I am in no position to judge. I don't know that I could ever appreciate the soul-sucking calculus that goes into the decision of having to decide to "pass," to deny everything that you are just to get by. Ida Mae's decision is on the surface a pragmatic, utilitarian one, and too quick a read of this book will make it seem like the story is all about her achieving her dream of flying, when that storyline is really a vehicle for the novel's heavier load: complex and overlapping themes of identity and family.

Case in point: The scene where Ida Mae's (darker-skinned) mother shows up at the base, and Ida Mae keeps from blowing her cover by pretending that her mother is the maid may seem like a minor plot point if the reader's main focus is Ida Mae's flight aspirations, but a second read of the book, with the reader's attention focused on the novel's deeper themes, reveals this moment to be one of the most heart-rending in the book.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Power of Poppy Pendle, by Natasha Lowe

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Poppy Pendle is different really different. Poppy Pendle is magic. She is a witch who doesn't want to be a witch: She doesn't want to brew potions, or cast spells, or ride a broomstick. Flying on a broomstick makes her sick, in fact. Poppy wants to bake instead. Baking is her passion. It is her life, and she is devoted to it, and absolutely extraordinary at it. She was literally born into it... You see, Poppy was born on the floor of Patisserie Marie Claire, a small French bakery.

But her parents have other ideas. For some reason, in Poppy's world, magic is exclusively female, and runs in certain families. The gift of magic occurs to a girl in Poppy's family only every four generations, so Mr. and Mrs. Pendle are very excited.  They want her to pursue a life of magic. They want her to use her gift.

So, rather than sending her to a regular elementary school, they send her to Ruthersfield Academy, a school for witches like Poppy. But Poppy hates Ruthersfield, where everything revolves around magic. Besides, the inside of the building is hot and stuffy. And the other students tease her like there's no tomorrow because she would rather bake cupcakes than cast spells. 

After three years like this, Poppy can't stand it anymore. She runs away to Patisserie Marie Claire (she doesn't realize that she was born there; her parents never told her). Marie Claire Gentille, the woman who runs the patisserie, lets her in, and Poppy stays there for a week before her parents find her and bring her back home. Now Poppy is angry, and rightly so. The patisserie is the only place she has ever felt truly happy, and it has been taken away from her.

The next day, at Ruthersfield, the girls are taught a very special spell, a spell that, when used with enough emotion, could turn something into a solid stone statue. That night Poppy gets into a serious fight with her parents, and she turns them to stone. And her parents aren't the only things to turn to stone: Animals, fish, and other people get changed too, as well as Poppy's own heart.

This is a good book for younger readers, 8 or 9 and up (even though Poppy curses her parents and turns them to stone, the book does have a happy ending). I read this book for the first time in second or third grade, and I thought it was a lot of fun to read. But I hadn't read it in at least 2 years, until this week. I still liked it, but it definitely seemed a bit more childish than the books I like reading nowadays. So maybe kids over age 10 or 11 might feel the same.

However, I still love one of the best parts of this book: the 12 recipes of Poppy's at the end of the novel! 

Daddy's Afterthoughts: Julia takes a step back from YA titles into a younger read this go-around. This book may be a little much for kids who are just into chapter books, but if your children are already reading longer, substantial YA fare (Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Golden Compass, The Giver, A Wind in the Door, The Outsiders) then they have probably missed their Poppy Pendle window. Perhaps not coincidentally, Poppy herself is only 10. Lovers of the movie Frozen will recognize touches of Elsa in her magical-power-run-amok-and-throwing-a-hissy-fit-and-shutting-herself-away-from-the-world phase. If Hogwarts had an elementary school, and Elsa attended it, and dressed in all black, she might be Poppy Pendle. Actually, that's not a bad way to think of the book. For readers 8, 9, 10, 11, who are not ready for 500+ page fantasy tomes, this book will do the trick. And some of the recipes do look really yummy.


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