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So many books I read end up getting lost in the recesses of my mind, and if you asked me sixth months later what I had read, I wouldn't be able to tell you much about the book. Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy will, I think, stay with me for a very long time. This is the story of a friendship between a preacher's son and a pauper black girl from a small island off the coast of Maine.

My wife found the book at Goodwill, and bought it because it takes place in our home state, and because it is a Newbery Honor book. 

I started reading it and was hooked from the very first page. The main characters (Lizzie Bright and Hunter Buckminster III) are such believable characters, and I had a sense - which I seldom get from fictional books - that these were real, honest-to-goodness people. My perceptions were shaped, perhaps, by the fact that I'm from Maine, and know the places described in the book.

But it wasn't until I was several chapters in that I suddenly realized that this book was only partly fictional. It is the story of one of Maine's most shameful historic events. It is the story of Malaga Island, and the state's decision to remove the island's slave-descended and mixed-race residents and place them in a home for the feeble-minded, where they lived out the remainder of their tragic lives.

Here are some of the things that I loved about this book:

  1. The descriptions of the Maine coast, community, and church life.
  2. Believable character interactions and ever changing relationships.
  3. In keeping with #2, a recurring theme of forgiveness (not explicitly mentioned, but clearly evident).
  4. Characters who don't always do exactly what you expected them to.
  5. The depictions of human selfishness, along with selflessness and courage.
  6. The sprinkling of humorous moments and funny dialogue in the midst of a difficult story.

When I see "Newbery Honor," I automatically think, "book for kids," but this is a book for older kids. It has also won "young adult" awards. The story, being based around tragic historic events, is very dark at times, and as you can probably deduce from what I've said so far, does not have a happy ending.

But it is a powerful book, and it deserves a place in your reading list. There is much more I could say about the book, but I don't want to spoil too much of it for you, so I'll stop here.

I have a feeling this will be one of those rare books that I'll come back to some day and read for a second - maybe even a third time.

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt

This is a great picture book for children that encourages them to see the value in failure. It's not very long, but it manages to express a lot, plus the illustrations are cute. It's the story of a girl who wants to build something magnificent. She thinks she knows how she wants it to turn out, but none of her attempts are quite right. She gets frustrated, and her dog (who is also her best friend) suggests going for a walk. When she gets back, the girl is more focused, and manages to see that all of her failures had some redeeming qualities in them, which helps her to make her truly magnificent thing. This can be an especially helpful perspective for those who are perfectionists, but there is probably something here for all of us.

 

During my later elementary years, I really enjoyed reading the historical book series of The American Girls Collection, produced by Pleasant Company. As an adult, there are some I like more than others now, but Addy is still my favorite. These series give girls (and boys too!) the opportunity to learn about history through characters close to their own age. The original series all follow the same six-book formula, and though the main characters are all growing up in different time periods, they all display courage and hope in various ways.

Each book contains many realistic illustrations, and a "Looking Back" section after the story that includes photographs and drawings, to give some more historical context to the setting and events described. 

Meet Addy:

In the first Addy book, we are introduced to Addy, a nine-year-old girl who is a slave on a plantation near the end of the Civil War. But in the very first chapter, Addy lies awake at night and listens to her parents talk about freedom -- they plan to run away. But before they get the chance, Addy's father and brother are sold. Addy's mother makes the difficult decision to run away anyway, and leave her one-year-old baby behind with Addy's Aunt and Uncle, hoping that the family will all make it to Philadelphia someday.

Reading this as an adult/parent has a whole different dimension to it. While this series obviously does not even begin to touch on all the horrors of slavery, reading about the punishments and family separations still had an effect on me as a child, and this story made it seem much more real than a history textbook could have.

Looking Back: This section gives a brief history of slavery in the US, as well as the underground railroad and Harriet Tubman, and the beginnings of the Civil War.

Addy Learns a Lesson:

This story is about Addy's introduction to school, and we get to see her navigate the difficulties of getting an education, and of friendship. Addy and her mother arrive safely in Philadelphia, but have almost nothing. They find help and hospitality at a church, and are soon able to earn a living, though making ends meet is difficult. But Addy is determined to learn how to read, and her determination begins to pay off. In addition to learning to read, she learns about what is most important in her friends.

Looking Back: This covers the difficulties that African Americans had in obtaining an education during this time (and previously), and the formation of some of the earlier schools.

Addy's Surprise:

Addy and her mother are working very hard, but they are still having a hard time affording basic necessities. Still, as Christmas arrives, they both want to find ways to surprise each other. Even in the midst of their difficulties, Addy is faced with the realization that there are still so many others that are worse off than her and her mother, and both she and her mother do their best to help with what little they have. At the end, Addy recieves a wonderful Christmas surprise as one of her family members reunites with her and her mother again.

Looking Back: Holidays were much simpler in this era anyway, but during the Civil War, most families could not afford "extras." Still, many found ways to make their Christmas celebrations meaningful and festive. This section also touches on the celebration of Juneteenth, as well as the later introduction of Kwanzaa. 

Happy Birthday, Addy!:

In this story, Addy meets an elderly woman named M'dear, who is blind. Despite the fact that she can't see, M'dear is able to perceive more than she appears to. Since Addy was born into slavery, she doesn't know what day she was born on -- only that she was born in the spring. M'dear encourages her to "claim" a birth date -- when she finds a day that feels right to her. 

Addy continues to learn and hope and obtain an education, but the streets of Philadelphia sometimes teach her some ugly things -- that she and others like her can be freely discriminated against just because of the color of their skin. Still, the story ends on a positive note, with hope that someday things will get better.

Looking Back: This section covers certain lifestyle issues of the time period: birth, children's games, education, jobs, and the way the Civil War affected families.

Addy Saves the Day:

Addy and her family are working hard to earn extra money, still holding out hope that their remaining family members will be found soon. Meanwhile, their church puts on a fair to raise money to help wounded soldiers, widows, and separated families. Addy and her friends choose to make spool puppets and put on a puppet show. But not all of her friends are easy to work with. The fair goes well, but when something goes wrong, Addy chooses to take action. At the end, she gets a wonderful surprise.

Looking Back: This section talks about city parks and other public recreation during this era, and about things families did during their leisure time.

Changes for Addy:

The Walker family has been steadfastly searching for the rest of their remaining family members. Addy has been writing letters and not hearing anything back, which can get discouraging. But she never gives up hope. Then one day, she receives an answer, and is sure that very soon, their family will be whole again. She is mostly right, but also has to suffer the pain of loss, as so many other families do.

Addy's experience is also contrasted with her friend Sarah's, which was unfortunately common. While Addy makes good progress with her education and hopes to be a teacher someday, she is saddened when her friend Sarah has to drop out of school in order to earn enough money for her family to pay their rent. In the midst of the hope and determination, it is important to see this side of things too, that some people, as Sarah's mother puts it, "got to eat today and pay for this here room tomorrow. We can't be dreaming about someday."

The story ends with Addy reading the Emancipation Proclamation at her church. 

Looking Back: After the Civil War, Reconstruction brought many advancements for African Americans, but not all of it lasted -- the South soon instituted "black codes," and made segregation worse. This section concludes with an overview of the Civil Rights movement, up through the life of Martin Luther King Jr. 

 

As much as I like this series, it is still worth pointing out to children that Addy is fortunate in many ways: she is able to stay in school and obtain an education, and she is able to at least discover the fate of all of her missing family members, which was not the case for many children who were in a similar situation.

 

The Story of Ruby Bridges is a children's book which tells the story of the desegregation of William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. The story focuses primarily on Ruby's bravery, her faith, and her desire to find forgiveness for the mobs of angry people who wanted to stop her from attending the school.

Speaking of the mobs, author Robert Coles does an excellent job of describing the troubles that Ruby faced, at an age-appropriate level for a children's book. He speaks of angry mobs, and shouting, and protest signs, and of people wanting to hurt Ruby, but avoids discussing any of the specifics of the threats she faced. I liked this choice on the author's part, as it gives parents the freedom to discuss the more vicious aspects of the story when they feel it is most appropriate for their own children.

Robert Coles was probably best suited of anyone to write this book, as he was the child psychiatrist who met weekly with Ruby during her first year at Frantz Elementary. His work with Ruby led him, eventually, to write a book titled Children of Crisis: A Study of Courage and Fear, which he eventually developed into a series of books that won for him the Pulitzer Prize in 1973.

Of course, any children's book is dependent not just on the author, but also on the illustrator; an illustrator can make or break a book. In this case, George Ford is an integral part of making this book a success. The illustrations are beautiful, with great use of light, shadow and coloration to draw attention to the focus of the book - Ruby herself. Whether she is sitting alone in a classroom, with her family at church, or dwarfed by an angry mob and the marshals protecting her, it is always Ruby that captures your eye. 

This book has been a very enjoyable and informative read for us. Our four-year-old has asked to read it many times now, after we read it for pre-K.

This book is actually three "books" combined. The first section is the Almanac, which introduces children to the concept of a "year," and all the different changes that take place over the course of it, from major holidays such as New Year's, Independence Day, and Thanksgiving, to seasons and the way the weather changes in each one, and explanations of major weather events like thunderstorms, wind, and snow.

The second section is the Nature Guide. This gives an overview of all the different kinds of life on our planet, as well as non-living things like rocks and other geographical features. From fish to mammals to plants and insects, the bears (with Papa as tour guide) experience a little bit of just about everything!

The last section is the Science Fair, which I found to be a bit more detailed than the others, but still just as fun. We learn about simple machines, matter (including the three states of solid, liquid, and gas), and energy. Included are a few easy science experiments that children and adults can do at home to help demonstrate some of these ideas.

Even though it's instructive, the book manages to rhyme throughout most of it, which adds to the fun of reading.

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