Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains is one of those books written for young people that I hope lots of grown ups will read too. Fine writing is fine writing, plain and simple, and you’d be hard-pressed to find better writing than this. Chains is for anyone with an interest in the Revolutionary War, who wants a story with guts and heart and an unforgettable central character. I adored this book. It’s about as perfect an example of historical fiction as you’ll find anywhere. Go get it.
After the death of their former owner, Isabel and her sister Ruth are sold to a nasty Loyalist family who take the girls to New York. Once there, Isabel becomes secretly involved with the rebels, offering information about her owners in exchange for the promise of freedom. Of course this bargain does not lead Isabel in the direction she had imagined, and she gets swept into the frenzy of conflict around her. This is a portrait of courage, loss, change and resilience – for a girl, and for a young nation.
I can only imagine the amount of research Anderson must have completed to create a story that feels completely true and is so rich in period detail. I began reading Chains with only a basic understanding of these events, and finished the novel inspired to read more of this historical period. Yet at no point do you feel like you’re reading a history textbook. The opposite of dry fact, here is an unflinching look at a cruel time. Expect Isabel’s story to grab onto you and hold tight till the end. The tone of the story, the strength of the characterization and richness of the setting and history reminded me in style of Geraldine Brooks’s novels, especially of Year of Wonders and March – two of my favourite reads ever.
Chains deserves all the praise it’s getting. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it walks away with The National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. This is why we read people.
Let me just say, how will I ever top the pair of books I just finished reading?
What a time to be reading these remarkable books, all about power and politics, courage and change, going after dreams and thinking beyond the limits of your own life. It was a treat reading them at the same time. I bet Isabel and Meg would be kindred spirits. Read their stories, straight away.
When I’m not trapped in the land o’ report cards, I’ll have my own reviews to present. In the meantime, read the words of my fellow bloggers:
Today I am very happy to present a double-feature type interview with two Tilbury House debut authors: Katia Novet Saint-Lot, author of Amadi’s Snowman, and Amy Lundebrek, author of Under the Night Sky. (It’s a little like listening in to a pair of writing pals chatting at the local coffee shop). Take it away, Katia and Amy!
Lots of people have this idea that the writing life is pretty romantic. What’s one thing that’s completely unromantic about being a writer?
Katia: Well, it is 2:45pm and I’m sitting at the computer, still wearing my pajamas, feeling thoroughly frustrated because my children will arrive in 15 minutes and I have not showered, have not done all I wanted to do because I wasted far too much time answering my emails, doing research, and what not, and because anyway, I’m not creative in the mornings, and, oh, did I mention that I forgot to have lunch? So, now, I only have a few minutes to shower, get dressed, and if I’m lucky, grab a piece of cheese in the fridge, and…dring! the door bell rings, and that’s basically it for the day, at least until late in the evening when both ladies [Katia’s daughters] are asleep.
Amy: At first glance, your unromantic scenario looks like my romantic scenario…I literally can’t remember the last time I was able to remain in my PJ’s until 2:45! My alarm goes off at 5:30am. I let the dogs out, pack a breakfast and lunch for myself and my husband, take a quick shower, make some coffee, and try to get myself out the door by 6:45. I get home from work between 4:30 and 5:00, make dinner, read a little bit and email/facebook/websurf… and then by 9:30 I’m winding down. We do have a strong similarity in our lives, though… and that is that at our most creative times of day, we have other responsibilities. My most creative time is from about 8am to lunch time, but I’m at work then, and it’s not the kind of job where I could sneak in a little writing. I accept though, that this is the way it is for me in my journey at this time, and that it will not always be this way. I am also happy for anybody who has created space and time in their lives to focus on being a writer, which it seems that you have done.
Katia: Well, I’m a translator by profession, which means I work from home. In February of this year, I found myself not only alone to look after my 3 year-old in the afternoons, but also trying to tutor my other daughter in French—we were hoping to move to a Francophone country, and so I wanted her to be at the right level for school. So, all of a sudden, I was left with only about three to four hours of free time a day. I thought about it long and hard and then decided to take a break from translating for a few months. But then we didn’t leave India, and now the little one goes to school until 3pm…but I haven’t yet gone back to a full-time translating schedule. So, being able to write until 2:45 is totally new. Funny how we get into a routine and forget about the old ones!
What’s one thing about the writing life that measures up in every way to people’s fantasies?
Katia: I’m not sure what people’s fantasies about the writing life are, but one real high for me is to feel that a story is taking shape. I could be frustrated, worry about the emotional arc not working, spend hours changing one word, and then, suddenly, something shifts, or I have an idea, and things seem to fall into place. Wow, that’s totally worth all the frustrations before, and all those still to come.
Amy: The romantic part for me is actually strongly connected to the difficult part. Being so busy, and still driven to write, I often have to shelve my ideas in the back of my mind for long periods of time, only taking them out and looking them over once in awhile. The secret is, even if I haven’t thought about a story idea for a long time, when I pull it back out from wherever it was hiding… it’s different. It has grown and changed and developed more or less without me, often becoming more relevant. This has happened to me so frequently that now I trust the process, and something about the way that works makes me feel connected to the universe. Is what I’m describing similar to what you mean when you talk about how “something shifts” and “things seem to fall into place?”
Katia: Yes, absolutely. I hadn’t articulated it that way, though. For me, it feels as if ideas, thoughts, concepts, need a time of incubation. When they’re ready to come out, they do. I think it has to do with one’s personality, at least in my case. I process things very slowly. Pretty much everything. And I’ve learned to accept it – I’m not sure I do it as graciously as you seem to – and try to trust the process more, and not fret so much about getting things done right now. It helps that I usually work on several projects at once. When I reach a plateau with one story, I just put it away and get another one out.
This poem captures to perfection the sort of week I’ve had…
I Left My Head – By Lilian Moore
(Read more of Lilian Moore’s poetry at Poetry Foundation).
As a teacher, I’m ever on the look out for quality picture books that will support my aim to infuse social justice and equity issues into our work across the curriculum. Sometimes it can be tricky to find stories that suggest the complexity and reality of a difficult issue without becoming scary, overwhelming or didactic. Amadi’s Snowman, by Katia Novet Saint-Lot, illustrated by Dimitrea Tokunbo, is a story I’m eager to take into the classroom because it gets the balance of teaching and strong story-tellying just right.
In Nigeria, Amadi plans to grow up to be a successful Igbo businessman, earning as much money as he needs cleaning cars, delivering items in the market, or being a merchant. His mother (like mother’s everywhere), wants Amadi to stop complaining about having to go to free reading lessons with Mrs. Chikodili. He can’t see the use in them, he doesn’t like them and (like children everywhere), he does his best just to ignore his mother’s nagging.
As with so many kids, and adults too, all it takes to turn Amadi into a reader is one special book, in this case, a picture book about a snowman. He is captivated by this book that tells him about something he has never seen before, let alone imagined. He discovers the magic of books and becomes inspired to learn the secrets of reading.
You’re sure to love this touching book. It’s made for the classroom and for gift-giving. There is real lightness in Katia Novet Saint-Lot’s writing that will draw children into Amadi’s world and make his experiences seem all the more real. She tells the simple story of a boy’s journey through his day, and readers are left to infer the challenges that a person might face in a life without reading. This is subtle work that leaves room for conversations to happen before, during and after reading. Rural life in Africa is gorgeously depicted throughout by Dimitrea Tokunbo. Her illustrations – bold and intensely coloured – make you feel transported to Amadi’s community and add vitality to the story.
Teachers will find some excellent resources for using this text in the classroom at Tilbury House. I plan to incorporate Amadi’s Snowman into my unit of study on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Here are a few other reviews, as well as the link to the author’s wonderful blog (check out her awesome Global Virtual Tour for Amadi’s Snowman while you’re there):
Katia Novet Saint-Lot will be here at Shelf Elf for an interview this Saturday. So be sure to pop by!
A few goodies around the kidlitosphere:
As if we needed further proof that the divas at readergirlz are an unstoppable force. Now they’ve launched a readergirlz blog. Awesome. Also – there’s a new diva in town… Melissa Walker, author of the Violet on the Runway series.
I almost feel like just linking to Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast and saying, “Go look around.” There’s so much juicy goodness over there on Jules and Eisha’s site. I must say though, that I particularly enjoyed their Seven Questions Over Breakfast with David Ezra Stein. He’s seems like a cool fella.
Be sure to keep a close eye on the Cybils blog for lots of great reviews of some of the nominated books, interviews with authors and roundtables introducing the fab first-round panelists. It just keeps getting better and better!
Jen R’s recent review of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains should inspire just about anyone to grab a copy. Sounds like just the right book to mark this historic day.
That’s it for now!