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THE MIDWIFE’S APPRENTICE

by Karen Cushman

Author’s Website: http://www.karencushmanbooks.com/

 

Newbery Medal-winning books are always a good place to look when in search of fabulous historical fiction, and The Midwife’s Apprentice is certainly no disappointment in this respect. Actually, Karen Cushman has written a number of YA historical novels set in Medieval England, but I think this one is probably her finest. A slim volume that weighs in at around 128 pages, this book might easily be written off due to its size; there is, however, no law that a book must be more than 150 pages in order to be funny, thought-provoking, educational, and enjoyable. Which, as it happens, is precisely what The Midwife’s Apprentice is.

Summary:

A nameless girl who knows nothing of the world except hunger, cold, and mistreatment finds herself taking advantage of the heat generated by a dung-heap one cold night, and it is there that she is discovered the next morning by the village midwife, Jane. Called “Beetle” and put to work by the sharp-tempered Jane in exchange for food and shelter, she begins to learn about the art of midwifery (although Jane refuses to teach her anything directly for fear of competition). Little by little, the meek (but intelligent) Beetle carves a place for herself in the world, making friends, learning a trade, and even giving herself a real name—Alyce. But life in Medieval England is full of challenges, and when Alyce encounters one she cannot face, she runs away. Can she muster the courage to face her fears and find what she has finally realized she wants: “a full belly, a contented heart, and a place in this world”?

I first read this book in middle school and was absolutely fascinated by the vivid picture that Ms. Cushman paints. Her Medieval village is dirty, smelly, and completely realistic, flying in the face of the romanticized image of castles and princesses. Even more impressive is the fact that her characters (in spite of the book’s shortness) are fully-fleshed and believable: Brat/Beetle/Alyce is a plucky, gawky, and endearing heroine, and her story is utterly compelling.

This book could easily be read by someone as young as 10, but the intended audience is probably more in the 12-14 age range. Of course, as with all books I recommend, this certainly does not mean readership should be limited to kids and young teens. And, once again, don’t be put off by the book’s length—128 pages is plenty of time for a fascinating story. I highly recommend this book!

Whew, my first November review! With any luck, I’ll find time for another one before the month is out, now that NaNoWriMo is winding down. In the meantime, keep reading, and if you have any suggestions for books you’d like me to review, just leave a comment. Thanks!

Best wishes, and as always, happy reading,

-Madeline

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Hello!

Well, I’ve fallen a bit behind in my planned updates due to a wonderful little thing called National Novel Writing Month (affectionately nicknamed “NaNoWriMo” or just “NaNo”), which has cut into my reading and writing time pretty dramatically. Not that I’m complaining—NaNo is quite possibly one of the most fun writing projects I have ever been a part of! It just means that I haven’t been reviewing books much of late, since I’ve been prepping fro my novel-writing marathon and then writing the actual novel. But hopefully, one of these days, I will get a bit ahead in my wordcount and have some time to write another review. In the meantime, keep reading books, and feel free to leave a comment and a suggestion for a book you think I should take a look at. Thanks for reading!

Best wishes, as always,

-Madeline

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Banned Books Week review of:

BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA

by Katherine Patterson

Author’s Website: http://www.terabithia.com/

Once again, today’s review comes from the ranks of the Newbery Award-winners. Katherine Paterson’s wonderfully-crafted Bridge to Terabithia was (like so many YA books of late) recently made into a film version, which, rather surprisingly, was quite a faithful adaptation of the book. Nevertheless, I stand by my firm belief that, 99.9% of the time, the book is better than the movie, and this is no exception. Paterson’s story is thoughtfully and poignantly told, and the digital fantasy animation of the film just doesn’t do justice to the nuance of Leslie and Jess’s imaginations….

Summary:

Growing up in rural Virginia, Jess Aarons’ greatest ambition is to be the fastest kid in the 5th grade. Jess’s life is not a happy one—he is mostly ignored at home, is bullied regularly at school, has few friends, and carefully conceals the fact that he loves art because of his reputation as “that crazy little kid that draws all the time”. All of this changes, however, when Leslie Burke comes to town. Leslie is unlike anybody else who has ever attended Lark Creek Elementary; she is tomboyish, talented, creative, and wise beyond her years. She is also faster than Jess, and beats him and every other boy in a playground foot-race on the first day of school. In spite of this inauspicious beginning to their relationship, the Leslie and Jess gradually become close friends, creating (with the aid of Leslie’s powerful imagination) the magical kingdom of Terabithia in the woods, where they reign as king and queen. One day, however, a terrible tragedy strikes out of the blue, and Jess must use everything he has learned from Leslie and Terabithia to come to terms with it.

I’m going to say it: this is the kind of book that can easily make you cry. This is not simply due to the aforementioned tragedy, but also because the entire story rings so true, and the ending of the book leaves you with a beautiful ringing that lingers long after you’ve closed it. I love this kind of resonance—it’s the feeling you get when you finish a book and know for sure that the author has done her job extremely well. The characters are wonderful, finely-wrought, and oh-so believable; trust me when I say that it is worth your time to read this book.

The main reasons this book has been banned so frequently are the use of “coarse language” by some characters and the devastating event that shapes the book’s ending so perfectly. Author Katherine Paterson explains the former thus:

“Jess and his father talk like the people I knew who lived in that area. I believe it is my responsibility to create characters who are real, not models of good behavior. If Jess and his dad are to be real, they must speak and act like real people. I have a lot of respect for my readers. I do not expect them to imitate my characters, [but] simply to care about them and understand them.”

Parents argued that the topic of death was inappropriate for middle-grade readers because it was not a topic kids should have to deal with. I could not disagree more—Jess’s experience, while hopefully one we would never wish on ourselves or our families, is as real as it is heart-achingly painful, and Jess’s reaction is utterly convincing (the story is actually based on the childhood of the author’s son, who, not coincidentally, wrote the screenplay). For kids who have experienced the tragedy of loss, this book is a confirmation that they are not alone in their feelings; for kids who have not, it is a window into that world. Finally, I have to emphasize that the book does have a positive ending, as the characters struggle and eventually come to terms with the event that has shaken their lives so deeply. Although Bridge to Terabithia is without doubt a sad book, it also offers the reader the gifts of courage, friendship, love, and hope.

I would recommend this book for ages 10 and up (but older readers and adults shouldn’t be put-off by the recommended age range or the age of the protagonists).

That’s it for Banned Books Week! I’ll be back soon to review some more great novels…in the meantime, happy reading!

Best wishes,

-Madeline

“If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”

-Noam Chomsky

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Hello all!

My name is Madeline. For the past four years, I have been volunteering as an “expert” on the free help website AllExperts.com, recommending young adult (YA) books to people based on genres, books, and authors that they have enjoyed in the past. After so many years of doing this, I thought perhaps these same people who write to me could benefit from a more detailed book review than I normally give in my recommendations—hence, the creation of this blog. I’ll be reviewing a wide variety of books here from a number of different genres, and I’ll do my best to group and categorize them in a logical way. Although I may discuss books that have been published recently, I am not planning to¬†discriminate¬†by release date; rest assured that my reviews will not be weighted either in favor of classics or of the bleeding edge of fiction. I’m aiming for a healthy mix of good books, and there’s not much more to it than that. Enjoy!

Best wishes, as always,

-Madeline

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