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Module 2 - Book Reviews

International Children's Literature

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Saving Francesca - Melina Marchetta
Ghost Abbey - Robert Westall
A Celebration of Customs & Rituals of the World - Robert Ingpen & Philip Wilkinson
Under the Spell of the Moon - Patricia Aldana (Ed.)

Marchetta, Melina.  2003.  SAVING FRANCESCA.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf.  ISBN: 0375829822. 
     Francesca has to transfer to a new school because the one she had attended only has classes through grade ten.  She has a choice:  she can go to Pius Senior College, where all her friends from her old school are going, or go to St. Sebastian's, which had been an all boys' school and is now allowing girls.  Francesca wants to go to Pius with all of her friends and her mother insists she attend St. Sebastion's where she is one of thirty some girls among approximately seven hundred boys.
     Life becomes complicated for Francesca when one day her mother slips into a severe depression and cannot get out of bed.  Francesca doesn't feel that she fits in with anyone at her new school because what few girls attend Pius with her from her old school were considered "uncool," while Francesca is used to hanging out with the popular girls.  She also develops a crush on Will Trombal and even though it looks like he returns her affection, she's not sure it is going to go anywhere.  Francesca feels her world is out of control with her mother in a depression and she cannot talk to her as she used to, the situation with Will, fitting in with a new crowd, and to top it off, a huge fight with her father. 
     Marchetta tells her realistic fiction story through the thoughts and actions of the main character; Francesca.  The reader experiences the pain Francesca goes through learning to deal with her mother's depression, going to a new school and learning to fit in again, and interactions with other family members.  Common themes in the story involve fitting in, romance, and friendship.  Marchetta makes the character of Francesca very believable because we feel her pain as she learns to cope with these new experiences and how the character grows by learning more about who she is and what she believes.  At one point Francesca is overwhelmed by it all and briefly runs away just to escape.  This seems to be a reaction that would be consistent with the character's age.
     Even though the story takes place in a suburb of Sydney, Australia, the themes of fitting in, romance, and friendship make it possible for it to have taken place in any city in the world.  The story could have taken place in New York City or London as well as in Sydney, Australia.
     Marchetta's clear style of writing also helps make the characters real and believable.  The dialog between characters sounds like teenagers talking with each other and the same holds true for the teenagers conversations with adults.  These conversations between characters as well as Francesca's thoughts and feelings set the mood of the story.  There is is Francesca's confusion about her mother's depression and with fitting into a new school and friends.  The reader experiences Francesca's emotions as she tries to keep her family together and in finding some success at school, friends, and romance.  "Readers will applaud the realistic complexity in the relationships here, the genuine love between the characters, as well as Francesca's ultimate decision to save herself."  (Publisher's Weekly, 2004).
    The author, Melina Marchetta, is a teacher that lives in Sydney, Australia.  The book does contain some cultural markers that the reader should be able to figure out the meaning of.  Some examples of this are when Marchetta discusses grade levels in school.  Grade levels are referred to as Year 10 and Year 11, where here in the U. S. we are used to the terms of Freshman and Sophomore, etc.  Another example would be the term Discman where we would use the term Walkman, or CD player, or MP3 player.  The term Mummy is used instead of Mom or Mommy.  In reference to Francesca's Italian heritage her grandfather is called "nonno".  Marchetta also has the character using a "school diary"  which I am assuming would be what our school calls an assignment book.  The book also mentions several of Sydney's suburbs in conversations between characters. 
     I enjoyed reading the book and found Francesca's experiences very believable.  At one point in the book Francesca is feeling rather depressed herself because of her home life and fitting into a new school.  "For the rest of the day, I feel out of it.  Not that I've ever felt into it around here.  It's like I lose track of time.  One minute I'm in English and when I next open my eyes I'm in legal studies, but I don't remember how I got there.  On the page in front of me I've written stuff down, but I can't remember holding the pen.  I want to rest my head on the desk and just sleep, and for most of the day I kind of do.  I can tell the teachers don't like me.  I remember the way they used to look at the apathetic girls at St. Stella's.  I think teachers can even handle the troublemakers, but they hate the slackers and that's how they see me. 
     "Just ask me how I'm feeling,"  I want to say.  "Just ask and I may tell you."
     But no one does." (Marchetta 2003, p. 46).  I think this not only demonstrates the pain the character is feeling, but I also think it captures a realistic look into the day in the life of a teenager at school.
     What makes this book so interesting is the interaction between the characters.  The author has captured the realistic way teens talk and their spirit in this book.  The story could also take place anywhere, even though it is set in a suburb of Sydney Australia.  Many families around the world have to deal with the same issues of depression, family relationships, and teenage rebellion.
Westall, Robert.  1988.  GHOST ABBEY.  New York:  Scholastic, Inc.  ISBN:  0590416936.
     Since her mother died, Maggi has run the household for her father, a self-employed carpenter/handyman.  What makes life difficult for Maggi is that her father hasn't been the same since her mother died and is not bringing home the income he once did.  She also cares for her two twin brothers who are unruly and destructive.  She's afraid her dad may "settle" for the lady who comes in and does the cleaning for them when a job offer arrives in the mail for him to restore an old abbey in Cheshire, England.  Maggi thinks this will be just the thing to help her dad get back to normal.  At first, Maggi enjoys exploring the 99 room house until mysterious events begin occurring.  She sees a Cavalier from Oliver Cromwell's time and hears mysterious singing in the house.  A series of "accidents"  makes Maggi believe that the house will protect itself, no matter what.  Maggi tries to convince her father that the "accidents" are not what they seem and that they need to leave.  She is afraid that her unruly, destructive brothers may bring down the wrath of the house through some antic or accident that always seems to happen around them.  Meanwhile, her father has begun falling for the owner of the house, Ms. MacFarlane and starts to be more like his old self.
     The story is told in first person through the character of Maggi.  Her thoughts and feelings are the only ones that are revealed in the story.  The only way the reader knows what the other characters are thinking or feeling is what is revealed through conversations with other characters.  Westall reveals the strengths and weaknesses of a few of his characters, such as Maggi and her father, but the twins Baz and Gaz, are not well developed and are glossed over in the middle of the book.  We know that Maggi is a strong character because she is the one who is keeping the family together, running the household, and taking care of her father and the twins.  Maggi's weaknesses are revealed after they arrive at the Abbey.  When her father and Ms. MacFarlane begin to become interested in each other, Maggi at first thinks it will be a good idea and then later has mixed feelings about the situation.  She is happy to see her father more like his old self, but yet isn't sure she wants him to become too interested in Ms. MacFarlane. 
     "And what shall I call you, Mzz MacFarlane?"
     "I thought you'd never ask...Catriona, if you please, sir!" 
     "They just stood, staring at each other.  For so long that now Maggi found herself not breathing.  Something awful was going to happen.  Something that might change the whole world.  She couldn't bear it."  (Westall 1988, p. 111).
     The plot has two stories being told.  The story about Maggi and her efforts to bring her father back to normal and the ghost story.  The relationship between Maggi and her father are much more believable.  The ghost story is a little weak.  There really isn't much to the hauntings except that the house exhibits a self-awareness and tries to protect itself.  The reader never finds out why it does this.  "Nothing is resolved, and the plot elements that facilitate the ghost story don't hold up under close inspection."  (School Library Journal, 1989).
     The story is set in England and some of the cultural markers in the book include the father's Tyneside dialect.  When her father becomes excited, the dialect is more pronounced.  While I thought this added dimension to the character because I could "hear" him speaking, this might make it difficult for some readers to understand what he is saying.  Other markers include typical slang words and foods.  Westall mentions many of the foods that Maggi prepares for her family such as sausages and mash, fish and chips, oven chips, and steak-and-kidney pie.  Most of the foods the reader can figure out what they are, but are not typical American fare or the terms that are used by Americans. 
     When the family is driving to the Abbey, Westall describes the English countryside and names several towns they go through.  The family vehicle is a QE2, an old gray Ford Transit van, which is a model not found in the United States.  I noticed that Westall also used English spelling for some words such as the word "grey" which in the U. S. we typically spell "gray".  Westall also has Maggi run into the ghost of a Cavalier from the period of English history when Oliver Cromwell ruled England.  Most U. S. children probably would not be familiar with English history.
     My overall opinion of the book is that is all right.  It's not outstanding, but it's not horrible either.  The ghost story angle is weak and the ending has no clear resolution.  The characterization has been done well, but I prefer to have a book end with a clear resolution whether I like the ending or not.  To have it just trail away leaves the reader feeling like there should be something more.
School Library Journal.  1 March, 1989.  Books in Print.  [database online].  From:
Aldana, Patricia, Ed.  2004.  UNDER THE SPELL OF THE MOON.  Toronto, Ontario:  Groundwood Books.  ISBN:  0888995598.
     UNDER THE SPELL OF THE MOON is an illustrated picture book featuring the artwork of artists from around the world.  Some of the world's greatest illustrators have donated a work of art based on the text of their choice drawn from their own childhood and culture.  It is a unique collection of artwork and traditional writing from other cultures.  The picture book celebrates not only art but also a variety of writing styles including poetry, riddles and rhymes, games, and songs.  The original languages are used with English translations provided by Stan Dragland.  The artists featured include many Hans Christian Andersen award winners and nominees and are published in many countries.  The book is sponsored by the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) a world-wide organization that promotes bringing books and children together all over the world.
     The book contains artwork from thirty-three artists and represents twenty-eight countries.  The book contains a section at the end called "About the Artists" giving the reader a brief biography about each of the contributing artists.  The Forward and Introduction also provide information about the inspiration for the book and contributions to the book.
     There is a variety of styles and mediums of artwork in the illustrations which is a great introduction to children to the world of art.  Illustrations vary from the use of bright colors to those that are muted.  Most illustrations are those of either animals or people from all over the world.  My daughter loves cats and so her favorite illustration was the one by Dusan Kallay of Slovakia of the cats picking pears.  The cats are all done in various colors of gray with muted pastel colors of purple and blue for their clothing.  The pears are done in warm tones of gold, green and yellow.  My daughter found it funny that one of the cats was wearing heels and the mice were riding on the cats.  My son, on the other hand, liked the artwork of Ange Zhang from China.  One illustration shows what looks like an ancient warrior with two women and the illustration on the next page shows children playing in a band.  The characters are made to look like stencils or cut out work.  The characters of the warrior and women are representing the opera night that is mentioned in the accompanying text.  My favorite was the artwork of Boris Diodorov of Russia.  The bright colors used for the ravens' clothing stand out and draw attention compared to the black of the raven.  The horn is a bright gold color, as well as the watch he is wearing.  I think this shows a wonderful sense of humor since ravens are often drawn to bright, shiny objects. 
     The cultural markers in the book include the original languages for the text that accompanies each illustration as well as including an English translation.  One of the weaknesses of the book which I would never have noticed but is mentioned in a review from Horn Book Magazine is that the original language is not specified as to what it is.  "Two editorial missteps detract from the whole" the original language of the translated texts isn't included (is the poem from India in Hindi or Bengali?  Is the Iranian poem in Farsi?), nor is any information provided on the illustrators' media and techniques."  (Horn Book Magazine, 2005).  I did notice the lack of information about the artists' techniques and mediums used.  Since I do not know much about art, this is one thing I wish had been included in the book.  I would like to know if the artist used watercolors, oil paints, or other mediums and techniques.  Another item that I wish had been included in the book would be a description of how or why the piece that appeared was chosen.  What is the cultural or historical significance of the piece?  Is it a traditional poem or modern?
     My overall opinion of the book is very positive.  The illustrations are fantastic, even if I don't know what medium or technique was used by the artist.  The accompanying text with English translation exposes the reader to a wide variety of styles from other countries as well as letting the reader see what the text looks like in the original native language. 
Horn Book Magazine.  1 January 2005.  Books in Print.  [database online].  From:
Ingpen, Robert and Philip Wilkinson.  1994.  A CELEBRATION OF CUSTOMS & RITUALS OF THE WORLD.  New York:  Facts on File.  ISBN:  0816034796.
    This is a good source of information of customs and rituals gathered from all over the world.  The book contains a forward and introduction and is then divided into five parts:  Calendar of Customs, Development, Surviving, Socializing, and Spirituality.  A Calendar of Customs begins with a general description of celebrations and customs.  It also describes a variety of celebrations, seasonal festivities, religious festivals, agricultural festivities, national days, and a world of calendars.  Major international festivals are listed separately in boxed insets and they contain information for Buddhist, Chinese, Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, and Japanese celebrations.  The remainder of this section is divided into the twelve months of the year and describes customs from around the world for each month.
     Development describes the customs from around the world related to birth, coming of age, marriage, and death.  Surviving describes activities from hunting to healing and supplying the basic needs of life.  The chapter on socializing describes a variety of activities from joining groups, settling disputes, and making and maintaining socialties.  Spirituality describes religion and spiritual beliefs and customs as well as art from around the world.
     The book includes a section called Further Reading which contains a short list of other materials that will provide further information for the reader and an index. 
     I found it interesting that the authors drew extensively on data gathered by many anthropologists in the field and used photographs and accounts of those working under the auspices of the National Geographic Society for inspiration.
     I enjoyed reading about the coming of age or initiation rituals of various cultures around the world.  The ones I liked reading about the best were the rituals of the Native Americans of North America and Natives of Australia.  A young Australian Aborigine has his face painted and often includes body painting.  The designs refer to ancestor spirits and motifs found on ancient rock paintings.  I also liked reading about the marriage customs or different cultures.  I discovered that in Japan the bride may wear a traditional kimono and a western-style dress at different points in the ceremony.  "In Morocco a royal bride in Marrkech is bedecked in layers of robes and headdresses in a ritual that lasts several hours.  Her costume makes movement difficult, and she must sit on a cushion for the entire three-hour marriage ceremony."  (Ingpen, 1994 p. 83).
     The information provided in this book will lead the reader to a greater understanding of other cultures and their customs and rituals.  Many cultures have customs in common and may bring the reader to the realization that we have much more in common with other cultures than we have differences.  "Author and illustrator consistently attempt to stand outside their own culture, eschewing ethnocentrism, to convey the meaning of the ceremonial and spiritual ties that bind all people.  In a world where religious, racial, and cultural differences often lead to conflict, this book may convince readers that what cultures share, through ritual and custom, is much more important than what divides them.  (Kirkus Reviews, 1996).
     I found the book to be a fascinating look at a wide variety of customs and rituals around the world.  I found it was interesting that many customs and rituals from around the world have so much in common.  Many marriage customs, although not exactly alike, have many of the same components such as the ceremony and feast afterwards.
Kirkus Reviews.  1 March 1996.  Books in Print.  [database online].  From:

International Children's Literature
Sylvia M. Vardell, Ph. D. - Instructor
Renee Schneider - Student

This site was created as an assignment for a Texas Woman's University course.  The course is a graduate level course in Library Science LS 5903.24 Special Topics - International Children's Literature.