GATHERING BLUE, by Lois Lowry (Houghton Mifflin, $15; grades 5 and up.) With this tale, Lowry returns to science fiction, the genre that won her the Newbery Award for her 1993 novel, The Giver. While that book describes the terrors at the core of a “perfect” yet soulless community, the society of Gathering Blue illustrates the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ famous description of the human condition prior to civilization: “continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Set in the aftermath of the Ruin, a period of devastating wars that destroyed civilization, Gathering Blue tells the story of Kira, an adolescent girl whose very existence is threatened because she was born with a badly twisted leg. The women of the village tried to take her from her mother at birth, intending to leave Kira in the Field, the place where all imperfect babies and the terminally ill are left to die. But her mother, inspired by the strength and beauty of her daughter’s hands, found the power to turn the women away.
Years later, Kira’s mother suddenly dies of a mysterious illness, and Kira returns from a traditional four-day vigil over her mother’s body in the Field to find their hut burned and a mob of women threatening to stone her if she tries to rebuild it. They want Kira to vacate her land so they can use it to pen up their chickens and their toddlers, an act of cruelty typical of the people of the village.
Kira is rescued when the Guardians, the village’s 12 patriarchal rulers, intervene. Aware of Kira’s gift for “threading” (sewing and embroidery), they install her in the Guardian’s Edifice, the remnant of an old cathedral, where she is to live and practice her art.
She is told to restore the Robe of the Singer, the garment worn by the person who sings the Song at the village’s annual ritual, the Gathering. The Song recounts the history of mankind—from the beginning, through civilization’s rise and the horrors of the Ruin, to man’s struggle to survive since then.
At first, Kira feels fortunate to have found a place where she is valued for her skills. But little by little, she becomes aware of the deceptions behind the Guardians’ benign façade. And as she learns the truth, she becomes determined to find a way to use her gifts to replace cruelty and despair with kindness and hope.
Gathering Blue is a harrowing yet optimistic meditation on the often awkward relationship between a society’s authorities and its artists.
—Stephen Del Vecchio
BASHO AND THE FOX,by Tim Myers, with illustrations by Oki S. Han. (Marshall Cavendish, $15.95; grades 1-3.) Beauty, as all adults but probably few kids know, is in the eye of the beholder. The things we find lovely and graceful are a function of who we are and what we’ve experienced. This is particularly true of art and literature, as Myers cleverly shows in this entertaining fable about the 17th-century Japanese writer Basho.
A renowned essayist and memoirist, Basho was best known for his haiku—poetry rendered in English as three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables—and his work in this genre helped transform haiku into a respected literary form. Indeed, one of Basho’s poems Myers includes in this story—about a frog jumping into a pond—is among the most famous haiku ever written.
The story begins with Basho living as a hermit along a river not far from a magnificent cherry tree, which in late summer produces the sweetest cherries the poet has ever tasted. One day, he catches a fox eating the fruit and tries to chase him away. The fox asks why Basho thinks the cherries are for him alone. In short, Basho explains that he deserves the fruit because he is an extraordinary poet. The bemused animal insists that foxes are far better poets than humans. He then makes a deal with the somewhat bewildered Basho: He and his fellow foxes will give the poet three chances to write a single good haiku— “It needn’t be great, only good,” the fox says—and if he can, the foxes will relinquish all rights to the cherries.
The proud poet thinks he has it made: One good haiku—that will be easy. But when he hands over his first attempt, the fox scoffs at it, and the second is only slightly better. “Our pups can do as well as that,” the fox tells him. Humbled and confused, Basho gets a bad case of writer’s block and arrives at his last meeting with the fox empty-handed. Desperate, he makes up a haiku on the spot, something about the moon being as white as a fox’s tail. The fox gasps and declares it “a perfect haiku.”
So why does this poem succeed and the other two fail? The obvious answer, which eludes the wise poet (he has to ask), is that this poem has a fox in it.
In clean, concise prose, Myers has written a charming and clever story about the nature of beauty and the importance of staying true to yourself even in the face of criticism. It’s also a wonderful introduction to haiku. As an art form, haiku has traditionally explored themes related to nature, and Han, a Korean painter, does a fine job of bringing this aspect of haiku to the story. Like Basho’s poems, her earthy watercolors of the natural world-rendered in browns, greens, and blues-manage to be both simple and expansive.
—Blake Hume Rodman
THE BRAVE LITTLE TAILOR,by Olga and Andrej Dugin. (Abrams, $15.95; K- 2.) Each generation of children, it seems, requires its own version of beloved fairy tales, and publishers are happy to oblige. In recent months, a slew of retellings have found their ways into print. While the retellings themselves are infrequently remarkable, the illustrations often are. This is the case with the Dugins’ version of the popular Grimm Brothers’ story about a tailor who kills seven flies in a single blow and then uses the banal feat—and everyone else’s stupidity—to catapult himself to power. A Russian husband-and-wife team now living in Germany, the Dugins say they spent six years creating the illustrations for this book. And it shows. Working in the style of the Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch—best known for his disturbing Garden of Earthly Delights—they have created a wild, fanciful world for the tailor, filled with bizarre plants, giant bugs and animals, and an assortment of other amusing and rather monstrous figures. While Bosch’s painting tends toward the diabolic and macabre, the Dugins’ work is just plain fun. Kids will pore over every wacky, intricately detailed page.
THE SIGN PAINTER,by Allen Say. (Houghton Mifflin, $17; grades 1-4.) Another visually stunning picture book from master storyteller and craftsman Say, The Sign Painter spins a curious tale about a teenage boy who dreams of being an artist but takes a job painting billboards instead. Those familiar with Say’s other books—Tree of Cranes, Allison, and Caldecott Medal-winner Grandfather’s Journey, to name a few—know that autobiographical themes feature prominently in his work. The Sign Painter is no exception: Say himself was once a commercial illustrator. But here he draws less on personal events than on his own inner landscape. The illustrations, in particular, are punctuated with symbolism and include references to the work of other artists, most specifically painter Edward Hopper and photographer Ansel Adams. Although they have no idea why, the boy and his boss have been hired to paint a single word and a glamorous woman on isolated billboards across the Southwest, and Say places one of these billboards in the foreground of a familiar Adams landscape, which he reproduces in paint. The original photograph was shot near Manzanar, California, where the American government interned thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II. Given that Say himself is Japanese American, this can hardly be coincidental. Kids, of course, won’t have a clue about any of this-many adults won’t either—but that will hardly interfere with their enjoyment. Readers of all ages will be mesmerized by the mysterious illustrations and original narrative about the allure and risks of following one’s dreams.
MANY STONES, by Carolyn Coman. (Front Street Press, $15.95; grades 8 and up.) When it comes to writing for young adults, Carolyn Coman is the genre’s Vermeer. In her beautifully crafted works, she conveys layers of meaning behind the simplest word or act. Many Stones is the story of Berry, a teenage girl struggling to cope with the loss of her older sister, Laura, who was brutally murdered by robbers while volunteering at a school in South Africa. Berry’s feelings are complicated by her relationship with her father, who left his family several years earlier. After the two travel to South Africa to participate in a memorial service, Berry struggles to connect with her father. She also must deal with the anger and the pain that every reminder of Laura’s death brings. Eventually, she discovers that even the most painful connections can be helpful in learning how to live with loss and in restoring a sense of self.
HURRY FREEDOM: African Americans in Gold Rush California, by Jerry Stanley. (Crown, $18.95; grades 3-6.) A retired professor of history and a prolific author of books about California and the American West, Stanley gives us an eloquent account of a little-known aspect of the 1849 California Gold Rush. African Americans saw the same opportunities as others—as well as a chance to buy family members out of slavery—and set out to make their fortunes. But they soon discovered that, even in the “free” state of California, prejudice and inequality were prevalent. In fact, in 1858, the state legislature threatened to pass a law that would bar African Americans from entering California and require black residents to apply for legal status as “registered Negroes.” As a result, one-fifth of California’s African Americans emigrated to Victoria, British Columbia, where they were guaranteed equal protection under the law. Told primarily through the stories of Mifflin Gibbs and Peter Lester, who arrived in California penniless and rose to become prominent businessmen and respected public figures, Hurry Freedom recounts a fascinating if oft- forgotten moment in African American history.
MATILDA BONE,by Karen Cushman. (Clarion, $15; grades 4-8.) Cushman, who many readers will recognize as the award-winning author of Catherine Called Birdy and The Midwife’s Apprentice, has written another engaging story of a young girl finding her way in medieval England. The girl’s name is Matilda, and her mother left her and her father, a clerk at Randall Manor, shortly after her birth. Six years later, Matilda’s father died, so she has been raised by the well-meaning yet harsh manor priest, Father Leufredus. Because Matilda is neither a noble nor a servant, at the age of 14 she is sent to the village of Chipping Bagthorpe to serve as an assistant to Peg, a bonesetter or sort of medieval orthopedist. But Matilda knows nothing of life outside the manor; she’s been taught to read and write, to “pray unceasingly,” to fear “sin and Hell, and the evils of joy and pleasure.” Thanks to Peg and her work, however, Matilda’s life takes a turn. Through bonesetting, she’s introduced to all kinds of people who have many stories to tell. Matilda soon discovers her own strengths and talents and, finally, her place in the world.
—Blake Hume Rodman and Stephen Del Vecchio