Fever 1793 (Laurie Halse Anderson)

Mattie Cook is a teenager who has to grow up in a real hurry. We first meet Mattie as a girl exasperated by her mother, flirting (1700's style) with a boy, whining because she doesn't want to help out in the family's coffeehouse, and whose biggest concern is how to finagle a piece of candy from her grandfather. By the end of the next few months in her story, she has buried that grandfather, survived the fever herself, seen enough sickness and death to last a hundred lifetimes, and transformed into a young woman who realizes that she has what it takes to run the family coffeehouse.

Thanks to this book, I learned that:
-There was a yellow fever epidemic in 1793 that killed around 5,000 Philadelphians.
 -Yellow fever was (and still is, in some parts of the world) contracted through bites of certain mosquitoes.
-There were conflicting viewpoints on how to treat the fever. Some doctors thought the pestilence must be bled from the victims. Others believed that clean water, fresh air, and liquids were the best treatment.
-The Free African Society of Philadephia was to thank for caring for so many sick people, turning away any attempts at compensation.
-Thousands of children were orphaned as a result of this illness.
-There were so many deaths that men rolled wheelbarrows throughout the city every morning calling for families to throw out their dead.
-Homes where yellow fever had been contracted were marked with a yellow strip of cloth tied to the porch railing, doorpost, etc.
-There was such fear of catching the disease that people fled to various surrounding smaller cities, which were guarded by armed men ready to send away or shoot any sick individuals who attempted to enter. 
These are only a few interesting facts that Fever 1793 teaches about this very dark period in American history. It is a magnificent piece of historical fiction.  

Additional links:
1. Museum of Philadelphia- http://www.philadelphiahistory.org/akm/lessons/yellowFever
2. Eyewitness to History-
3. The Role of African Americans-
4.The author's website, containing Teacher's Guide, Playlist, etc.-

The Cat who Went to Heaven (Elizabeth Coatsworth)

First published in 1930, this book is about a very poor Japanese artist whose housekeeper brings home a cat to keep them company. He is reluctant about this cat at first, but as she comes to distinguish herself as an extraordinary sort of cat, he gives her the name Good Fortune and grows to accept her as a member of the household. The cat watches as the artist designs a great picture of Buddha for his town's largest temple, which is a great honor to him. The artist goes through several meditative-sort of states in order to encompass an accurate depiction of Prince Siddhartha, the man who came to be known as the Buddha, and all the animals who supposedly came to pay homage to him.

A few things I learned from this book included some background information about Buddhism. I don't practice Buddhism, but it is always good to be educated about other religions.

I have a few questions about this one that were never answered in the story...namely, how does a poort artist still have enough money to keep a housekeeper? What was it about the animals (and their place in this culture) that made the artist focus so intently on them?

Cross Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins

Another audio encounter, and one I thought would NEVER release me from its evil clutches!

Criss Cross is about 4 teenagers, and how they are going about their daily life trying to figure out who they are and what they think about things. There weren't really any major events or development in character. There weren't any major conflicts. It was just these kids, doing normal things. It reminded me of that movie Crash in a way, as occasionally each of the characters would cross paths with another and only the reader is aware of the full impact of each event...only Crash was interesting. I know, sounds harsh.

I do have one good thing to say about this book. The author's style is very sophisticated. She used lots of metaphors in the book, which made for beautiful text. The only problem was, no true picture of these characters was really painted.

I will be honest, I have no idea why this was a Newbery winner. Did I skip a CD or something?

The Midwife's Apprentice, by Karen Cushman

Having recently renewed my committment to conquer more Newbery winners, one of my selections from the library last week was 1996 medal winner The Midwife's Apprentice. What a unique book, and one that is chock full of ammunition for discussion and study of character development! It is the tale (set in the Middle Ages) of an orphan girl who has nothing, no one, no knowledge of anything, and keeps warm in the winter by sleeping on huge mounds of poo. As you read her story, you will watch her go from Beetle (a name given by the village bullies) to Brat (the midwife's name for her) to Alyce (a name she finally chooses for herself). By the end of the book, she is a beautiful and confident young woman who is courageous enough to finally figure out her dreams, and then to boldly pursue them.

The vocabulary and topic of midwifery in Cushman's book obviously warrant its 6th grade reading level. While it has more to do with how Beetle/Brat/Alyce grows as a person than birthing babies, questions on that subject are likely to arise. My favorite aspect of TMA is the precision with which the story is told. Cushman uses 5 words to say what most authors need 15 to say. Another interesting and noteworthy trait is the unusual adaptability of the plot. I could easily see Cushman beefing up the details and marketing this to adults, or slimming down some of the events in order to create a picture book for children. Instead she chose a more straightforward approach, which (for me) was "just right!"