American author of juvenile novels, juvenile fiction and nonfiction, and picture books.
The following entry presents an overview of Lasky's career through 2007. For further information on her life and career, see CLR, Volume 11.
The author of over one hundred books, Lasky is a versatile writer as equally capable of crossing literary genres as catering to diverse sets of audiences. Demonstrating continued adaptability, her canon includes works in such varied genres as historical fiction, science fiction, nonfiction, fantasy, and picture books—among many other fields—meant to appeal to a broad cross-section of readers from pre-schoolers to adults. From her historical re-imaginings of the American Gold Rush, the Salem witch trials, and the life of Marie Antoinette to her contemporary stories of children dealing with censorship and anti-Semitism to the fantasy-driven events of her ongoing "Guardians of Ga'Hoole" series, Lasky regularly reinvents herself and defies critical expectations. Her nonfiction books likewise illustrate a wealth of interests; as with her historical stories, Lasky's nonfiction consists of exhaustively researched works covering a breadth of topics from biography to environmental explorations. Often working in collaboration with her photographer husband, Christopher Knight, Lasky has established herself as a prolific author in the children's literature genre.
Lasky was born on June 24, 1944, in Indianapolis, Indiana, the youngest daughter of Marven and Hortense Lasky. Her mother and father, a social worker and wine bottler, respectively, encouraged both of their daughters' love of books, and the Lasky girls both proved to be avid readers. Disappointed with the literary offerings at her school—she considered them to be too juvenile—Lasky instead listened with rapt attention to the stories her mother regularly read to her, books such as L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz and J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan. While her mother first suggested that Lasky become a writer because of her spirited imagination, it wasn't until after graduation from a private all-girls' school in Indianapolis in 1962 that she began to believe in her writing talent. During her studies at the University of Michigan, where she graduated in 1966, Lasky began to receive positive feedback about her writing from several of her professors. After graduation, she became a teacher, though, as with her own childhood schoolbooks, she found herself disappointed with the available workbooks and decided to instead draft her own materials for her students. In 1971 she married Christopher G. Knight, a documentarian and photographer, who further encouraged her writing ambitions. However, it wasn't until 1975 that she published her first book for children, Agatha's Alphabet. Buoyed by its release, her second book, I Have Four Names for My Grandfather, was issued the following year. I Have Four Names for My Grandfather featured accompanying photographs by her husband, a literary partnership that has resulted in over a dozen books, spanned the length of their marriage, and taken them around the world. From the formation of a new island near Iceland (in 1992's Surtsey: The Newest Place on Earth), the rainforests of Belize (recorded in 1997's The Most Beautiful Roof in the World: The Rainforest Canopy), dinosaur excavations (1990's Dinosaur Dig), and family vacations/research trips (1993's Searching for Laura Ingalls: A Reader's Journey, which was co-written with their daughter, Meribah), Lasky and her husband have traveled and documented their shared passion for the natural world. In addition to Meribah, the couple has a son, Max—whose driving wish for a sibling is detailed in A Baby for Max (1984).
Lasky's canon encompasses a breadth of topics, incorporating aspects of almost every genre of literature. She is perhaps best known critically for her historical fiction, which Lasky has described as obeying a "keyhole" historical approach, wherein the main protagonists are "ordinary people during ex- traordinary times." The process is meant to be akin to peering through a keyhole in the door of time, where the mundane aspects of life are captured with as much faithfulness and accuracy as a period's well-known historical highpoints. To this end, Lasky's books are the result of thorough research into even the most humble details of a featured era. Minor daily events are incorporated so as to offer a realistic three-dimensional portrait of the past, a consideration that extends even to the creation of the emotional and cultural underpinnings of a character. For instance, Lasky has noted that, as much as her personal opinions push her to attach a greater spirit of feminist solidarity upon her youthful female protagonists, such details would be unfaithful and inappropriate for books centered in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. As a result, Lasky has argued, it would be "inaccurate from my point of view to impose such an understanding on a character. It is kind of a moral shellacking that gives a twenty-first-century veneer to a work of fiction." This fascination with documenting the past extends to that of her familial past; several of Lasky's novels emotionally trace aspects of her ancestral history, from her grandparents' emigration from Russia to her more contemporaneous family vacations. Among these accounts of personalized history are retellings of her father's childhood experiences at a logger camp in the Minnesota backwoods in 1997's Marven of the Great North Woods and the story of her great aunt's escape to America from tsarist Russia in 1981's The Night Journey. Even aspects of Lasky's own childhood are cause for reexamination; 1986's Pageant, a bittersweet recounting of a Jewish girl's role in a Christmas pageant at her Christian school, not only recalls Lasky's own experience as a Jew in a Christian school, but also further reverberates with personal aspects of Lasky herself—from her embrace of President John F. Kennedy to the inclusion of a supportive older sister away at college.
Though Lasky's books vary dramatically in content, audience, setting, character, and emotional impact, several recurring themes do appear throughout her canon, including the importance of intergenerational relationships for emotional growth, the need for strong familial support systems, and the allowance for children to choose—with some independence—their own course. Young adult books like The Bone Wars (1988), Memoirs of a Bookbat (1994), and True North (1996) take different routes in examining the adolescent processes of growing up, gathering strength, and discovering who and what you are, as well as the responsibilities inherent therein. In The Bone Wars, orphaned scout Thad Longworth forms a friendship with Julian DeMott, the English son of a paleontologist Thad is leading to Native American lands in the 1870 badlands of Montana, where dinosaur bones have recently been found. Together, the boys hatch a plan to excavate their own dig and give the bones to a public museum rather than selfishly take them without compensation for the native tribes as the paleontologists intend, where they will ultimately be hidden away in private collections. Memoirs of a Bookbat's Harper Jessups, the daughter of fundamentalist Christians campaigning to rid schools of books they consider controversial and sacrilegious, faces similar worries about parental decisions. Rather than sharing her parents' revulsion, she harbors a private love of these selfsame books and secretly reads them when the opportunities arise. In contrast, fourteen-year-old Lucy Bradford of True North learns to embrace her familial legacy when she finds escaped slave Afrika hiding in her recently deceased abolitionist grandfather's home. Deciding to take an active role in continuing Afrika's travels north, Lucy discovers firsthand the dangers involved with the Underground Railroad. Ultimately, Lasky's canon can be seen as imparting aspects of life experience upon her readers; whether offering capsules of Jewish history, sea turtle rehabilitation, or even just relating the insecurities children have about the first day of school through picture book therapy, her diverse works offer a variety of lives for young readers to explore.
Despite the wide scope of literary arenas in which Lasky has experimented, she has remained a critical favorite, earning the recommendations of reviewers for books targeting nearly every age group. The diversity of honors bestowed upon her is testament to her versatility, with Lasky having been awarded such disparate prizes as a Newbery Honor Book for 1983's Sugaring Time, a Western Heritage Award from the Cowboy Hall of Fame for 1998's Alice Rose and Sam, a John Burroughs Award for Outstanding Nature Book for The Most Beautiful Roof in the World, multiple honors from several Jewish organizations, and various child-selected state awards. While she won a Washington Post/Children's Book Guild Nonfiction Award for her body of work in 1986, her works of historical fiction have endured as her highest profile efforts, for which she has received regular critical support. Reviewing Beyond the Divide (1983), Jean Greenlaw has called Lasky "an author who polishes her phrasing until it gleams with the beauty of gold that many of the people moving West sought." Similarly, William McLoughlin has written of True North that Lasky "personalizes the network with unforgettable human faces, and celebrates the charity and hope that thrived during an ignominious period of history." The rich textual phrasing found in her non-fiction has been prone to equally high praise, with Joan Glazer suggesting that 1981's Dollmaker "meets the standards of non-fiction by presenting its information with accuracy and with clarity, but in addition does so with literary finesse most often associated with fiction." Still, with regards to her historical fiction, the delicate balance of mixing historical fact with appealing fiction has led to contentions that Lasky sometimes inserts herself too much into the text, a point of view typified by Kirkus Reviews' belief that Lasky "chooses to impose her own feelings and voice upon this women whose voice she purports to celebrate" in A Voice of Her Own: The Story of Phillis Wheatley, Slave Poet (2003). Ultimately, however, Lasky's ability to transcend the limitations of individual genres has earned her the approval of critics, among them, Barbara G. Samuels, who has commented, "In all her writing—whether it is contemporary realistic fiction, historical fiction, mysteries, information books, or picture books—Lasky takes time to immerse herself in the subjects so that they come alive for her readers."
Juvenile Fiction and Nonfiction
Agatha's Alphabet [with Lucy Floyd] (juvenile fiction) 1975
I Have Four Names for My Grandfather [photographs by Christopher G. Knight] (juvenile fiction) 1976
Tugboats Never Sleep [photographs by Christopher G. Knight] (juvenile fiction) 1977
Tall Ships [photographs by Christopher G. Knight] (juvenile fiction) 1978
My Island Grandma [illustrations by Emily McCully] (picture book) 1979; new edition, illustrations by Amy Schwartz, 1993
Dollmaker: The Eyelight and the Shadow [photographs by Christopher G. Knight] (juvenile novel) 1981
The Night Journey [illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman] (juvenile novel) 1981
The Weaver's Gift [photographs by Christopher G. Knight] (juvenile novel) 1981
Jem's Island [illustrations by Ronald Himler] (juvenile novel) 1982
Beyond the Divide (juvenile novel) 1983
Sugaring Time [photographs by Christopher G. Knight] (juvenile nonfiction) 1983
A Baby for Max [with Maxwell B. Knight; photographs by Christopher G. Knight] (juvenile nonfiction) 1984
Prank (juvenile novel) 1984
Home Free (juvenile novel) 1985
Puppeteer [photographs by Christopher G. Knight] (juvenile novel) 1985
Pageant (juvenile novel) 1986
Sea Swan [illustrations by Catherine Stock] (picture book) 1988
The Bone Wars (juvenile novel) 1989
Traces of Life: The Origins of Humankind [illustrations by Whitney Powell] (juvenile nonfiction) 1989
Dinosaur Dig [photographs by Christopher G. Knight] (juvenile nonfiction) 1990
Fourth of July Bear [illustrations by Helen Cogancherry] (juvenile novel) 1991
I Have an Aunt on Marlborough Street [illustrations by Susan Guevara] (picture book) 1992
Surtsey: The Newest Place on Earth [photographs by Christopher G. Knight and Sigurdur Thoraisson] (juvenile nonfiction) 1992
Think like an Eagle: At Work with a Wildlife Photographer [photographs by Christopher G. Knight and Jack Swedberg] (juvenile nonfiction) 1992
Lunch Bunnies [illustrations by Marylin Hafner] (picture book) 1993
Monarchs [photographs by Christopher G. Knight] (juvenile nonfiction) 1993
Searching for Laura Ingalls: A Reader's Journey [with Meribah Knight; photographs by Christopher G. Knight] (juvenile nonfiction) 1993
The Solo [illustrations by Bobette McCarthy] (juvenile novel) 1993
The Tantrum [illustrations by Bobette McCarthy] (juvenile novel) 1993
Beyond the Burning Time (juvenile novel) 1994
Cloud Eyes [illustrations by Barry Moser] (picture book) 1994
Days of the Dead [photographs by Christopher G. Knight] (juvenile nonfiction) 1994
The Librarian Who Measured the Earth [illustrations by Kevin Hawkes] (juvenile nonfiction) 1994
Memoirs of a Bookbat (juvenile novel) 1994
The Gates of the Wind [illustrations by Janet Stevens] (picture book) 1995
Pond Year [illustrations by Mike Bostock] (picture book) 1995
She's Wearing a Dead Bird on Her Head! [illustrations by David Catrow] (juvenile nonfiction) 1995
A Brilliant Streak: The Making of Mark Twain [illustrations by Barry Moser] (juvenile nonfiction) 1996
True North: A Novel of the Underground Railroad (juvenile novel) 1996
Hercules: The Man, the Myth, the Hero [illustrations by Mark Hess] (picture book) 1997
Grace the Pirate [illustrations by Karen Lee Schmidt] (juvenile novel) 1997
Marven of the Great North Woods [illustrations by Kevin Hawkes] (picture book) 1997
The Most Beautiful Roof in the World: Exploring the Rainforest Canopy [photographs by Christopher G. Knight] (juvenile nonfiction) 1997
Alice Rose and Sam (juvenile novel) 1998
The Emperor's Old Clothes [illustrations by David Catrow] (picture book) 1998
Shadows in the Dawn: The Lemurs of Madagascar [photographs by Christopher G. Knight] (juvenile nonfiction) 1998
Show and Tell Bunnies [illustrations by Marylin Hafner] (picture book) 1998
Sophie and Rose [illustrations by Wendy Anderson Halperin] (picture book) 1998
Star Split (juvenile novel) 1999
First Painter [illustrations by Rocco Baviera] (picture book) 2000
The Journal of Augustus Pelletier: The Lewis and Clark Expedition (juvenile novel) 2000
Lucille's Snowsuit [illustrations by Marylin Hafner] (picture book) 2000
Science Fair Bunnies [illustrations by Marylin Hafner] (picture book) 2000
Vision of Beauty: The Story of Sarah Breedlove Walker [illustrations by Nneka Bennett] (juvenile nonfiction) 2000
Born in the Breezes: The Seafaring Life of Joshua Slocum [illustrations by Walter Lyon Krudop] (juvenile nonfiction) 2001
Interrupted Journey: Saving Endangered Sea Turtles [photographs by Christopher G. Knight] (juvenile nonfiction) 2001
Starring Lucille [illustrations by Marylin Hafner] (picture book) 2001
Mommy's Hands [with Jane Kamine; illustrations by Darcia LaBrosse] (picture book) 2002
Porkenstein [illustrations by David Jarvis] (picture book) 2002
Before I Was Your Mother [illustrations by Leuyen Pham] (picture book) 2003
Home at Last (juvenile novel) 2003
Hope in My Heart (juvenile novel) 2003
Lucille Camps In [illustrations by Marilyn Hafner] (picture book) 2003
The Man Who Made Time Travel [illustrations by Kevin Hawkes] (juvenile nonfiction) 2003
A Voice of Her Own: The Story of Phillis Wheatley, Slave Poet [illustrations by Paul Lee] (juvenile nonfiction) 2003
An American Spring (juvenile novel) 2004
Blood Secret (juvenile novel) 2004
Humphrey, Albert, and the Flying Machine [illustrations by John Manders] (picture book) 2004
Love That Baby!: A Book about Babies for New Brothers, Sisters, Cousins, and Friends [illustrations by Jennifer Plecas] (picture book) 2004
Broken Song (juvenile novel) 2005
Dancing through Fire (juvenile novel) 2005
Tumble Bunnies [illustrations by Marylin Hafner] (picture book) 2005
John Muir: America's First Environmentalist [illustrations by Stan Fellows] (juvenile nonfiction) 2006
Pirate Bob [illustrations by David Clark] (picture book) 2006
The Last Girls of Pompeii (juvenile novel) 2007
"Camp Princess" Series
Born to Rule (juvenile novel) 2006
Unicorns? Get Real! (juvenile novel) 2007
"Dear America" Series
A Journey to the New World: The Diary of Remember Patience Whipple, Mayflower, 1620 (juvenile novel) 1996
Dreams in the Golden Country: The Diary of Zipporah Feldman, a Jewish Immigrant Girl (juvenile novel) 1998
Christmas after All: The Great Depression Diary of Minnie Swift (juvenile novel) 2001
A Time for Courage: The Suffragette Diary of Kathleen Bowen (juvenile novel) 2002
"Guardians of Ga'Hoole" Series
The Capture (juvenile novel) 2003
The Journey (juvenile novel) 2003
The Rescue (juvenile novel) 2004
The Siege (juvenile novel) 2004
The Shattering (juvenile novel) 2004
Burning (juvenile novel) 2004
The Hatchling (juvenile novel) 2005
The Outcast (juvenile novel) 2005
The First Collier (juvenile novel) 2006
The Coming of Hoole (juvenile novel) 2006
To Be a King (juvenile novel) 2006
The Golden Tree (juvenile novel) 2007
The River of Wind (juvenile novel) 2007
Exile (juvenile novel) 2008
The War of the Ember (juvenile novel) 2008
"Royal Diaries" Historical Fiction Series
Elizabeth I, Red Rose of the House of Tudor, England 1544 (juvenile novel) 1999
Marie Antoinette, Princess of Versailles, Austria-France 1769 (juvenile novel) 2000
Mary, Queen of Scots, Queen without a Country, France 1553 (juvenile novel) 2002
Jahanara: Princess of Princesses, India 1627 (juvenile novel) 2002
Kazunomiya: Prisoner of Heaven, Japan, 1858 (juvenile novel) 2004
"Starbuck Family" Series
Double Trouble Squared (juvenile novel) 1991
Shadows in the Water (juvenile novel) 1992
A Voice in the Wind (juvenile novel) 1993
Kathryn Lasky and Teri S. Lesesne (interview date November-December 1996)
SOURCE: Lasky, Kathryn, and Teri S. Lesesne. "Kathryn Lasky." Emergency Librarian 24, no. 2 (November-December 1996): 65-8.
[In the following interview, Lasky discusses her writing career, authoring works across a broad range of genres, and her creative process.]
At a recent conference in Houston, I arranged to meet Coy Batson, a friend of mine from Harcourt Brace publishers. Coy had just one week in Houston and was hankering for some good Tex-Mex food, something not available in his new city of residence, San Diego. While we were catching up in the hotel lobby, a vivacious woman strode up to Coy; the two exchanged hugs and Coy turned to introduce me. The introduction was not necessary. I immediately recognized Kathryn Lasky from her appearances at other conferences I have attended over the years. Over dinner that evening, Kathryn and I hatched a plan: we would conduct an interview over the Internet. Her schedule during the Houston conference precluded our meeting in a more conventional manner. E-mail, however, would allow us to continue to discuss Kathryn's books and writing. While neither of us purport to be technological wizards, we do believe we may have made history with this interview.
Fans of Lasky's work should not be surprised that, once again, she has broken new ground. From her picture books on monarch butterflies and pond life to her historical novels to her writings about contemporary adolescents, Lasky's work explores new territory. Her books are waiting on your shelves. Take some time during this season of changes to share the work of this multi-talented author with others.* * *
[Teri S. Lesesne]: Your books cover such a wide array of topics from sugaring to butterflies to witchcraft trials. How do you select a topic? Or does a topic "select" you?
[Kathryn Lasky]: I think you're on to something when you say that the subject more or less selects me. I read widely, so often times a story or some little fact will catch my eye and I will say, "hey, there could be a tale therein". Monarchs is a good example. I've seen Monarchs all my life and loved their beauty. But it was not until I read an article in the New York Times science section that I learned how these little critters, that weigh barely a gram, make this unbelievable flight of thousands of miles for the winter. I was stunned. I thought, this is a great story.
You make a seemingly effortless transition from writing books for young audiences to books for young adults. Is that a tough transition? Do some subjects and/or topics seem to suggest a particular audience in terms of age?
The transition you ask about is not really that hard for precisely the reasons you suspect. Some books just seem perfect for one age group while others are perfect for another age group. The books find a kind of comfortable niche and the voice-appropriate for that niche or audience and subject matter—just comes.
Several of your books (Surtsey andMonarchs to name two) contain beautiful photographs taken by your husband, Christopher Knight. How do you and Chris collaborate on a project?
Chris and I work well together. I guess after 25 years of marriage you kind of know each other and all the steps. Usually I am the one who gets the idea and then I have to convince Chris that this is something that we should do and will be worth his time. He runs a documentary film company and whenever we do a book it takes him away from his full-time job. Then I set about doing research and making up a proposal for the publisher. This proposal becomes our guideline for when we go into the field.
It's very loose, however. Chris shoots and I kind of stand there quietly and take notes—copious notes. Sometime I might recommend a shot for Chris, but rarely. After all the shooting is done, we sit down and look at all the pictures. There are scads because he probably shoots ten times more than he needs. Then I start to write. He might yell in something like—"oh, be sure and say something about a butterfly's nose (proboscis) because I have a great picture of a butterfly's nose. If I can fit in something about a butterfly's nose, I do, but if it doesn't work in terms of the narrative I say, "forget it". When I get the text as close to perfect as I can, I give it to Chris and he does a layout. When we get it just the way we want it, we send the whole kit'n'caboodle off to the publisher.
What process or research strategy do you use when you begin working on a picture book which covers a subject/topic that is relatively new to you?
I usually begin my research in the children's room of the local public library. If I can't understand it on this level, I never will. Then I proceed to more sophisticated texts, and start generating a bibliography with the help of my librarian friends. Later, I usually contact some experts in the field; I ask them a bunch of questions to guide me further.
When it comes to writing, kids across the country seem to have two persistent questions: "How long does it have to be?" and "When is it due?" As teachers, we tend to hate those questions, and yet, as an author, these are realistic queries. Do you ever feel constrained by page/text limitations and/or deadlines?
Well, deadlines in publishing are rather generous, so I never have any trouble meeting them. Constraints on text can be problematic. I tend to blather on—especially in novels and this isn't good. So I have to go back and cut, cut, cut. With picture books, I remind myself that I don't have to tell certain things—the illustrator can show them.
You have tackled some serious subjects in your novels for adolescent readers from the Salem witch trials to anti-Semitism. Have any of your books been the target of censorship challenges?
The only encounter I have had with censorship is over my book Traces of Life: Origins of Humankind. Religious Fundamentalists do not like the concept of "evolution" and they tried to get the book removed from certain school libraries.
Non-fiction does not seem to receive as much attention as fiction in terms of classroom use and even review space. How can we encourage more teachers, readers and reviewers to explore the genre?
I'm not sure. Perhaps if teachers read more widely in the areas of nonfiction, they would use it more. I always think Seymour Simon's books are great for teachers. They should also be reading the science section of the New York Times and magazines like Smithsonian and Natural History, and there should be more cross-curricular activities between the science and the language arts departments. My book Pond Year is really a science book about the life cycle within a pond but everyone thinks it is a plain old story book. I was really pleased when the science teacher in my daughter's school started using it. We need more of this kind of "cross fertilization", if you will.
Memoirs of a Bookbat evoked such a strong response from me and from many other readers. I use it in my classroom as a springboard to a discussion on censorship. On more than one occasion I have heard you remark that you do not view this book as being about censorship. How would you describe this remarkable book?
Thanks for your good thoughts on Bookbat. Not everyone liked it. I never did think of it as a book about censorship. I always felt it was very similar to a lot of other YA books I have written—it's a book about growing up, gathering strength and discovering who and what you are, and the responsibilities inherent in that process. I have explored these questions in a number of different venues—both in historical fiction (Beyond the Divide ) and autobiographical fiction (Pageant and The Night Journey ). So, every kid has a problem; adolescence sucks! How do you cope if you are born into a family that is paranoid and you are a kid who loves to read? It is another book about growing up, becoming strong, becoming your true self.
You have written historical fiction, contemporary fiction, non-fiction, picture books, biography and even a three book series about the Starbuck family. Is there a literary genre that you feel would not suit you?
I don't think I would be very good at short stories.
When did you discover that you wanted to be a writer?
I can't remember really. I always loved to read and I think I thought that the next best thing to being a reader is being a writer. My mother really encour- aged me a lot. I wasn't good at math and drama; I was sort of socially klutzy. I think it was a process of elimination that brought me to the place where I was most comfortable—books and words. I also lived a lot in my imagination—still do.
Which writers (children, YA, adult) do you most admire?
Well, of course, Lois Lowry. And there are so many adult writers I love; Jane Austen has always been a favorite, and George Eliot and Hardy. In this century, I'm just crazy for Ann Lamott—she is so funny. I have recently discovered D. William Trevor, an Irish writer who might just be about the best writer of our time—says I! Also, I have loved many of the books by Larry McMurtry and Alice Hoffman. Oh the list can go on and on.
Do you have any new books that are soon to be released?
Forthcoming books include True North (a YA novel about the underground railroad from Blue Sky/Scholastic), A Journey to the New World: The Diary of Remember Patience Whipple (a middle grade novel from Scholastic) and Lunch Bunnies (a picture book from Little Brown).
Your characters live in different times and places, yet they all seem to share some particular characteristics. Are there certain qualifies which are inherent in each of your characters?
They all have a certain toughness, but that sounds so trite. Actually, there is one thing all my characters have in common, which I am sure goes unnoticed most of the time: they don't suffer fools gladly.
I am reading your "Dear America" book in galley and am enjoying it immensely. The story is told entirely through Remember's diary entries. Is there something about this particular format which appeals to you?
I have not really written anything in diary form before this. I have had sections in other books that might on occasion include a diary entry, but never have I written an entire book in diary form. This format was mandated from the publisher in the case of the "Dear America" series. I found it interesting and challenging; you cannot wander far within this form; you have a very narrow scope of vision. This is not necessarily bad. I remember reading that Picasso once said, "if an artist limits his medium to the minimum, that is when he or she really begins to uncover the raw form of something." That was why he enjoyed doing collages—a scrap of newspaper and a piece of string and a marker—that might be all he had or decreed as his palette. I found his collages very evocative. I think it's similar with the diary form.
I know "Dear America" is part of a mini-series by Scholastic—each one written by a different author. Did Scholastic approach you? If so, how does the writing of a book in response to a publisher's or editor's request differ from a book which you propose?
It is definitely different being asked by the publisher to write something, rather than coming up with your own idea—especially when it is a series. There is a set format and you have to be a team player. The "Dear America" series is such an extraordinary piece of publishing—the whole theoretical underpinnings of it, Jean Feiwel's vision, the nitty gritty authenticity of it. It's not like working on a series in the usual sense. I feel like I am just working on one part of a really fabulous tapestry—a tapestry that tells a very authentic story about America. What, of course, appeals to me most is that the point of view is not a heroic one; it is not America as experienced by great leaders, military guys and the like. It is the perspective of ordinary people during extraordinary times. This is what I have come to think of as keyhole history—you press your eye or your ear to the keyhole and listen in. History—American History—is not just the great battles. It has as much to do with writing grocery lists, dealing with stomach aches, feeling grumpy, being scared to death and mad as hell—a lot of ordinary things that Big History misses.
Kathryn Lasky (essay date November-December 2002)
SOURCE: Lasky, Kathryn. "Ghost Questions (Open Questions)." Horn Book Magazine 78, no. 6 (November-December 2002): 811.
[In the following essay, Lasky discusses how she approaches writing young adult works set in different historical eras.]
There are well-worn paths from my front door to some of the greatest libraries in the world. I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, within walking distance of Harvard's Widener Library; the Yenching Library of Asian studies; Tozzer, the library of ethnography and anthropology; and, really most important, the good old Cambridge Public Library. I should by all rights be able to get the answer to any question un- der the sun. But there is one recurring question that for me has gone unanswerable for years. In my mind it has acquired an almost spectral dimension. I call it the "ghost question," and it is, What did young girls of times long ago really feel about the inferior status accorded to them by society and the mores of the times? And as a corollary to that question, How might I as a writer have a prayer of deducing, let alone communicating, this with any authenticity?
It is of course rotten when a seventeenth-century girl is locked up in a tower until she agrees to marry the thuggish local lord. But what does she feel? Does she feel abused? Although we, with our twenty-first-century sensibilities, know it is grossly unfair and unjust, would our seventeenth- (or eighteenth- or nineteenth-) century protagonist have had such notions of unfairness or injustice? I don't think so. In all my research I have never come across any statements or evidence that girls ever questioned the moral basis of their predicaments. It is therefore inaccurate from my point of view to impose such an understanding on a character. It is a kind of moral shellacking that gives a twenty-first-century veneer to a work of historical fiction.
How I am tempted sometimes to diverge from the path, to veer off sharply into my century! But in good conscience I cannot. So I have to settle with the ghost. At least the ghost does not require a Faustian bargain, a non-negotiable demand in which inaccuracy is traded for political correctness and shrill emotional outrage. Here's the deal: What did young women and girls feel when faced with inequity and cruelty? I have come to call it "a quiet astonishment of the heart." Independent of any notions or concepts of democracy or civil rights, these girls and young women must yet have been horrified. But it is the very quietness of their horror that speaks volumes. This is what an author can capture if he or she remains faithful to the rhetoric, the language, and the fabric of the historical context in which he or she writes.
Barbara G. Samuels (essay date 1997)
SOURCE: Samuels, Barbara G. "Kathryn Lasky." In Writers for Young Adults, Volume 3, edited by Ted Hipple, pp. 207-16. New York, N.Y.: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1997.
[In the following essay, Samuels offers an introduction to Lasky's canon of juvenile literature, noting her versatility as a writer and her ability to write books of quality in a variety of genres.]
"I like to get up every morning and recreate myself," Kathryn Lasky said in a May 1995 interview. "It's easy for an author to get seduced into writing the same kind of book again and again, but that's not the kind of person I am." As a result, she has written in a variety of genres for all ages: stories for very young children, fiction and nonfiction for middle-grade children and young adults, and novels for adults. She wants her books to answer questions, raise questions, and encourage imaginative thinking. On a promotional flyer for Scribners she says, "For me, the most important thing is if a story is real. Real stories can either be fiction or nonfiction." No story is just a listing of facts about a subject. "For me in writing I am searching for the story among the truths, the facts, the lies, and the realities," she says in the September/ October 1985 Horn Book (p. 530).
Lasky is curious. Her curiosity about the past, about unusual and unique people and occupations, and about the reasons for human actions have led her to write a number of books that in various forms explore the questions on her mind. In all her writing—whether it is contemporary realistic fiction, historical fiction, mysteries, information books, or picture books—Lasky takes time to immerse herself in the subjects so that they come alive for her readers. Since 1975, when she wrote the picture book Agatha's Alphabet, she has written over forty books.
Growing Up With Books
Books were central in the Indianapolis household of readers in which Kathryn Lasky grew up. She says her parents, Marven and Hortense, were both avid readers who read to her constantly. Her sister, five years older than she, was a voracious reader. "I lived in a world of books at home," she says. Such an environment encouraged her writing, as well. On a Harcourt Brace "Author at a Glance" publicity flyer, she tells of returning home from a family outing to an A&W root beer stand in northern Indiana on a summer night. "There were no stars that night, but there were clouds, thick and wooly. Suddenly an image struck me. ‘It's a sheepback sky,’ I said to no one in particular. Hearing me my mother turned around and said, ‘Kathy, you should be a writer.’" Her parents' support and faith in her gave her the self-confidence to overcome the grim atmosphere of an all-girls' school in Indianapolis, where, she says, "It pained them to praise you. At most a teacher might say to my mother ‘She has a way with words,’ but they would never tell me I could write well." It was not until she arrived at the University of Michigan that her instructors were supportive of her writing.
Trained as a teacher herself, Lasky started to write stories for children when she hated the workbooks that were part of the curriculum. She recognized that she could write appealing materials to help children learn to read. As a child, she had always invented stories. While pursuing a master's degree at Wheelock College with encouragement from her parents and her husband, she started writing for publication.
Family Ties And Jewish Roots
Lasky's novels for young adult readers reflect both her own experiences and an immersion in the subjects and issues central to the stories. For example, in Lasky's novel The Night Journey (1986), Nana Sachie's story about her escape from tsarist Russia is based on the experiences of Lasky's great-aunt. After a visit to see her great-aunt in Minnesota, Lasky asked her to write about her escape. Eventually, Lasky wove her great-aunt's letter into a novel in which thirteen-year-old Rachel hears the story of her Jewish family's journey out of Russia on the night of the Jewish holiday Purim. Events in the novel shift from the contemporary United States to Russia in the late nineteenth century at the time of Tsar Nicholas II. Just as Haman had schemed to kill the Jews in ancient Persia, an adviser of Tsar Nicholas blamed Jews for the economic and social hardships of the country. The contrast between the security of Rachel's multigenerational contemporary home and the fears of a family in hiding under a pile of chicken coops in a wagon driven by a foreboding character named Wolf provides the tension for the novel. It is Sachie's story that gives the book suspense, but both stories, the contemporary one and the historical one, convey the importance of freedom and of a close and supportive family life—themes that run through many of Lasky's books.
Both Prank (1986) and Pageant (1986), novels with contemporary American settings, reflect the significance of family ties and Lasky's Jewish roots. Like Night Journey, Pageant clearly draws from events and remembered emotions in Lasky's life. Set in the early 1960s, Sarah Benjamin, a Jew in a Christian all-girls' school in Indianapolis, is cast each year since seventh grade as a shepherd in the Christmas pageant. When Sarah's older sister Marla (who, like Lasky's older sister, helped her with school assignments) leaves home for Wellesley College, Sarah runs up her telephone bill getting help with her homework and moral support for dealing with her problems. Her misery increases when Aunt Hattie moves in and tries to make Sarah over in her image. Sarah's John F. Kennedy button and her liberal politics make her feel like an outsider, but her parents encouragement helps her through difficult days. Growing up in this setting and time is a struggle for Sarah, as it probably was for Lasky herself.
Prank is set in blue-collar East Boston, near where Lasky lived for some of her adult life and not far from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she lives now. In this novel, a synagogue is vandalized by a group of teens, including Tim Flynn, the brother of Birdie Flynn, the protagonist. Birdie reads some of Elie Wiesel's book Night to learn about the Nazi atrocities. Readers of this book learn along with Birdie about the horrible events of Adolf Hitler's Germany. As she realizes what her brother has done, Birdie struggles to understand the nature of her brother's anti-Semitic act in light of her growing knowledge about the Holocaust. She also struggles with her own decisions to escape the poverty-stricken and bleak environment of East Boston and become a writer. She begins to recognize the failings of her family, an angry, abusive group of individuals. Lasky uses the symbolism of a broken Madonna on the Flynns' front lawn to dramatize the dysfunctional Flynn family. Birdie's support for her brother despite his failings eventually helps him to seek training that will get him out of East Boston.
Characters And Imagery
Lasky's novels introduce strong-willed protagonists who face ethical dilemmas. One of the most memorable of those characters is Meribah, the main character in Beyond the Divide (1983). When her father is shunned by the Amish community in which they live, Meribah makes the decision to join him in a wagon train to the West during the Gold Rush. As we view the journey through Meribah's eyes, we feel every mile of the hardships the pioneers endured, faced with hunger, thirst, disagreements, dangers from animals, Indian attacks, rape, and suicide. Lasky introduces and develops a variety of characters, including Meribah's friend Serena, a young society woman from Philadelphia, whose interest in fancy clothing and poetry is different from anything Meribah has ever known. Just as Meribah had to decide whether to join her father or stay in Pennsylvania with her mother and the rest of her family, so too she has to decide how to respond when her best friend is raped on the trail. When she asks her father why, he responds: "There are no answers. There are only questions. ‘Can one be angry with God?’ Meribah whispers" (p. 132).
Asked in a phone interview about the fact that her daughter is named Meribah like the main character in Beyond the Divide, Lasky said that she used the name Meribah in the book because it was an old family name and one of her favorite names. "The day after I finished the book I found out that I was pregnant." At first she was disappointed that she had already used the name in the book, but her husband, Christopher Knight, convinced her that there was no reason she could not use the name again for their daughter.
The details of the journey Meribah and her father take across the country in a wagon train are evidence of the thorough research that is the trademark of Lasky's historical novels. Meribah's problems seem real because the reader can feel and smell the vastness of the prairie, the dryness of the desert, and the steepness of the rocky cliffs. Early in the trip, "the land suddenly flattened, and the sky seemed everywhere. There was an occasional tree, perhaps a single house on an otherwise unmarked horizon, but there was immensity and aloneness" (p. 44). Later, as they continue their journey, "the country began to grind on them like a giant millstone. But instead of granite, Meribah thought, this millstone is made of bad water, foul air, and leached earth that gives way under foot and wheel" (p. 84). The book is a wonderful addition to a study of this period in American history. In a review in Language Arts, Jean Greenlaw says, "A more important use is in the reading and rereading of an author who polishes her phrasing until it gleams with the beauty of gold that many of the people moving West sought" (pp. 70-71). This richness of the descriptions was both praised and attacked by reviewers, some of whom thought too much description interrupted the flow of the story for teens.
In general, reviewers commend Lasky for her well developed characters and her lyrical, vivid imagery. She created images in all her books that evoke moods, describe places, and make characters come alive. At one point in Beyond the Divide, Serena joins Meribah who is walking with the cow through the prairie grass.
She spoke out from under the layers of gauze swathed around her straw bonnet. Around her shoulders was wrapped a thin cream-colored pelerine that fell in two points near her knees. Her hands were gloved, and she carried a white parasol.
"Serena, I thought you were an old dandelion tumbling down the road."
"How charming! An old dandelion blow! You are a funny dear, Meribah. I thought I resembled at least a meringue glacée!"
Lasky's dual images of dandelions and meringue glacée quickly capture the differences in the two girls: Meribah, a simple Amish farm girl whose religion forbids decoration, and Serena, a social butterfly whose Philadelphia life has centered on debutante balls and fancy gowns.
In The Bone Wars (1988), another of Lasky's historical novels, she introduces a group of carefully developed fictional and historical characters. With a few carefully chosen words, for example, Lasky introduces Buffalo Bill Cody: "First came a man in buckskin britches and dirty undershirt. His blond hair flowed down to his shoulders, and his handlebar mustache dipped into a small pointed beard. He looked at Thad quickly as he swept by. ‘Never get married, boy! Never!’" (pp. 56-57).
General George Custer is another historical figure who plays a role in the book. Lasky's description of him is characteristically vivid. "But there was a yellow blaze brighter than the lamps or the gleam of the scabbards…. It was fire unto itself…. A fringe of gold epaulets, stars and braid, then a thick cascade of curls…. The blue of the dress uniform and the figure of the man seemed to dissolve into the shadows, leaving the curls and the golden fringe to hang in a kind of mysterious suspension" (p. 92). With this description, Custer's vanity and the emptiness of his leadership are foreshadowed early in the novel.
Themes And Issues
Lasky explores significant themes and issues in her novels. The Bone Wars is about the conflict between scientific progress (in the form of paleontologists who seek fossils of ancient species) and the cultural traditions of Native American tribes. The scientists involved in seeking bones in the Great Plains of the United States in the 1870s were invading territory that was the home of Cheyenne and Sioux Indian tribes. At the same time, the region was being claimed by gold seekers, farmers and ranchers, and the U.S. Cavalry. Lasky questions the costs of progress and the values of those who promote it. In particular she questions the scientific honesty of the academics from Harvard, Yale, and Oxford who competed for the collection of bones and sought to limit public access to information. Stereotypes of cowboys, Native Americans, soldiers, and scientists are for the most part avoided in this story of the West, which has the action of a lively Western movie.
Memoirs of a Bookbat (1994) also addresses a substantive issue—the censorship of books by religious fundamentalists. Harper Jessups, a voracious reader and creative thinker, is the daughter of parents who become missionaries for F.A.C.E., or Family Action for Christian Education. Growing up in the Jessup household and maintaining her love of books and reading is a challenge for Harper. With the help of her best friend Gray (a teen whose humor and love of Ann Rice novels Lasky admits is loosely based on her son Max), Harper finally recognizes the "little person, deep down in my chest, or was it in my brain, hopping around, beating its fists, and stomping its feet…. And she wanted her freedom" (p. 196).
Lasky believes in writing from experience. "I have always tried hard to listen, smell, and touch the place that I write about—especially if I am lucky enough to be there," she says in the September/October 1985 Horn Book (p. 530). The immediacy in The Bone Wars is the result of a trip she took to Montana. In an interview she said, "I was two-thirds through writing the book and I got stuck. I had to see the battlefield for the battle of Little Big Horn so I could get on with that chapter. At the same time I wanted the experience of actually digging for fossils." Lasky and her son Max, who was nine years old at the time, went on a digging expedition in Montana. The imagery and immediacy of the scenes describing paleontological work are the result of that trip. The next year, she went back to the site as part of a paleontological team and from that experience she wrote Dinosaur Dig (1990), a nonfiction book.
In her other novels, Lasky tackles serious and diverse issues with imagination and information. These books include Home Free (1988), which covers environmental concerns; Beyond the Burning Time (1994), an exploration of civic hysteria and justice during the Salem witch trials; and the Starbuck Family Adventures—Shadows in the Water (1992) and Voice in the Wind (1993)—a series of books about two sets of precocious telepathic twins who solve mysteries. Although most of her books for young adults are fiction, teens might also be interested in her information books, which reflect the same attention to story, detail, experience, and research. In addition, her books aim to convey the mystery and miracle of the subjects she explores. To write each one, she visited the person whose work she is describing or participated in the experience itself. "I try to do as little explaining as possible…. I seem to seek a nonfactual kind of truth that focuses on certain aesthetic and psychological realities," she says (Horn Book, 1985, p. 532).
She looks for the special moment—the sneeze of the puppeteer (Puppeteer ), the late night musings of the man preparing maple syrup (Sugaring Time ), the imaginings of a fourteen year old crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a tall ship of the nineteenth century (Tall Ships ), and the connection between a nature photographer and his subject (Think Like an Eagle ). Each of these books is illustrated with photographs taken by Lasky's husband, Christopher Knight, a documentary photographer and filmmaker, and each grows out of the experiences they have shared. "I am still, even in my nonfiction books, more fascinated with the story within the facts, the beauty in the process, the mystery within the known, Lasky says in a Scribner's flyer. Whether she is writing fiction or nonfiction, her books challenge the imagination, stimulate questions, and promote critical thinking.
Footnotes: Quotations from Kathryn Lasky that are not attributed to a published source are from a personal interview conducted by the author of this article on 9 May 1995 and are published here by permission of Kathryn Lasky.
Books And Articles
Greenlaw, Jean M. Review of Beyond the Divide. Language Arts, January 1984, pp. 70-71.
Lasky, Kathryn. "Reflections on Nonfiction." In Horn Book, September/October 1985, pp. 527-532.
———. "Creativity in a Boom Industry." Horn Book, November/December 1991, pp. 705-711.
Metzger, Linda, ed. Contemporary Authors: New Revision Series. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984, vol. 11, p. 320.
Senick, Gerald K., ed. Children's Literature Review. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986, vol. 11, pp. 112-122.
"Author at a Glance: Kathryn Lasky" available from Harcourt Brace Children's Books.
"Kathryn Lasky" flyer available from Charles Scribner's Sons, 1985.
Joanne Brown (essay date 1998)
SOURCE: Brown, Joanne. "Toads in the Garden: Kathryn Lasky's Approach to Historical Fiction." In Presenting Kathryn Lasky, pp. 47-67. New York, N.Y.: Twayne Publishers, 1998.
[In the following essay, Brown—in studying Lasky's canon of historical fiction for children—praises the author's dedi-cation to creating accurate presentations of period details, including voice, setting, and social attitudes.]
When Lasky began to write for young adults, she found much of her material in the pages of history. "I love the past," she says. "The research is neat, sort of like trying on clothes. Some of my contemporary novels also require research, but it's not the same. It doesn't have the exotica." Historical fiction, she says, is her favorite genre in which to write.
Lasky describes her approach to historical fiction as "keyhole history," which she defines as history rendered from the perspective of ordinary people during extraordinary times. "You press your eye or your ear to the keyhole," she explains, "and listen in. It is not just the great battles. It has as much to do with writing grocery lists, dealing with stomachaches, feeling grumpy and scared to death and mad as hell" ("Keyhole," 6).
Although Lasky makes the "listening in" sound nearly effortless, what she sees and hears through the keyhole evolves from weeks and months, sometimes years, of meticulous research. There is no margin for errors or anachronisms in historical fiction, and Lasky immerses herself in painstaking inquiry before beginning a historical novel, sifting through archives, reading stacks of books about the period, and visiting the site of each setting to envision it as vividly and precisely as possible. The very scope of her research poses a problem of balance: how does an author keep a narrative moving but also communicate the information necessary to bring the period alive? Lasky admits that it is sometimes difficult to control the burgeoning body of information that her research produces. "There's this great temptation," she says. "I've done all this research, and I really want to use it. It's like nine-tenths of an iceberg that's underwater. It supports that tip that shimmers on top, so one way or the other it's there, but it doesn't all need to be there. That's a lesson I've learned over the years." Indeed, her more recent historical fiction is tighter, more focused than her earlier novels.
However, even when submerged beneath the flow of narrative, Lasky's research is hardly wasted. Nor would most writers of historical fiction dispute the necessity of painstaking preparation and scrupulous attention to historical detail. In an article titled "Writing Historical Fiction," literary critic and novelist Thomas Mallon says, "Only through tiny, literal accuracies can the historical novelist achieve the larger truth to which he aspires—namely, an overall feeling of authenticity. It is just like Marianne Moore's famous prescription for the ideal poet: He must stock his imaginary garden with real toads."1
Lasky's imaginary gardens abound with metaphorical toads. Reading her historical fiction, readers are not only swept into the lives of her characters but also are introduced to a range of knowledge about each novel's respective period that sometimes borders on the encyclopedic: details about such matters as food, dress, social customs, politics, transportation, and domestic customs.
Accuracy In Historical Fiction
Contradictions in these details with known historical facts can reduce a novel's usefulness or interest, and no serious author of historical fiction takes lightly the matter of accuracy. Writers who work in the genre tell stories on themselves of inadvertent lapses. Author Geoffrey Trease opened his Mist over Athelney, set in ninth-century England, with a scene in which the characters sit down for a dinner of rabbit stew. Only after the novel was published did an 11-year-old reader spot a problem: there were no rabbits in England at that time.2
Usually a copy editor catches and corrects these kinds of errors, but not always. Lasky herself was tripped up when she allowed a character in Beyond the Burning Time, her seventeenth-century novel about the Salem witchcraft trials, to carry a kerosene lantern, which wasn't used until the nineteenth century. She accounts for this anachronistic slip with an interesting autobiographical detail. "I was writing Beyond the Burning Time up in our summer place in Maine, where we have kerosene lamps," she said, "and I'm always worried that the kids could set the house on fire. So even though my characters used candles in other scenes, I had kerosene on the brain while I wrote."
The dynamic nature of language poses another problem of accuracy. Vocabularies change from one historical period to another as new words slip into common usage and others become archaic. These transformations impose certain restrictions on dialogue, and writers of historical fiction cannot give their imagination entirely free reign in creating it. The language, of course, must ring true to the character who speaks it, but it must also correspond to the vocabulary of the period.
Several of Lasky's historical novels weave actual historical figures into their cast of characters, an approach that complicates the issue of dialogue. Critic Arthea Reed differentiates between such novels of Lasky's as The Bone Wars, which includes not only historic events but historic characters, and Beyond the Divide, which includes only the former. She terms works containing historical events "historic fiction" whose purpose is to "reveal history and the true character of historic figures"; works that also contain historic characters she terms "historical fiction" whose purpose is to "bring history to life."3
Reed's distinction is useful in suggesting not only the inclusion of actual personages as characters but the extra responsibility that the historical characters place on the author. In developing characters for Beyond the Divide, for example, Lasky was constrained only by the necessity to represent the period accurately. In writing The Bone Wars, however, she also had to research many of the characters of the period, and the novel offers fascinating glimpses into their lives. The reader learns, for instance, that Custer kept a pet mouse in his inkwell but abused his horse and that "Gary Owen" was his favorite song.
Lasky says that creating dialogue for historic figures poses no problem for her. She has researched them so thoroughly that she feels entirely comfortable putting words in their mouths. In Alice Rose and Sam, she even created dialogue for Mark Twain, whose voice is hardly unknown to many readers. Although much of what he says in this novel is drawn from his own work, Lasky's invented speeches weld seamlessly to the famous writer's actual words, perhaps because she identifies so completely with him. In an afterword to the novel that offers a glimpse into the impulse that inspired it, Lasky describes her long relationship with Twain:
I first encountered Mark Twain many years ago as a young and voracious reader. In our backyard in Indiana there was a pond at the bottom of a hill. I built countless rafts with my best friend and in my imagination I turned that pond into the Mississippi River. What most appealed to me about Mark Twain was that he was a person who had learned all the really important things about life and people in spite of school and in spite of church or organized religion…. I loved Mark Twain so much I wanted to be Mark Twain, or, more accurately, I wanted to be Sam Clemens…. I had no real desire to be the famous author, but rather the wild boy. There are, however, limitations that have to do with gender and biology. So I thought I would try the next best thing: to become his friend, his dear friend. To accomplish this, I created Alice Rose. She is, I guess, in some sense an alter ego.
(ARS [Alice Rose and Sam ], 249)
When Lasky's research fails to uncover sufficient information about a historic character to allow her complete confidence in creating his speech and actions, she substitutes a fictional character for the actual one, as she did with some characters in The Bone Wars. She then documents the substitution in an appended author's note that explains the historical basis for the character.
When a writer chooses a first-person narrator, the issue of language becomes even more critical. A narrator whose voice relies too heavily on outdated language, however historically correct, is sure to lose readers. On the other hand, a narrator's vocabulary, like the dialogue for all characters in historical fiction, must be restricted to language in use at the time of the story. Authors John and Patricia Beatty tell of finishing their novel Campion Towers, set in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1651. They began to suspect that their young first-person narrator was using some language that did not exist in the 1600s. Although they had carefully researched the period, they now edited their manuscript to trace the history of any questionable words. Their work validated their suspicions: they had to find substitutes for such terms as mob, aisle, amazing, bewildering, chunk, clunk, carefree, and complete (Glazer and Williams, 363).
Closely related to language accuracy is the issue of narrative voice, shaped not only by word choice but by the narrator's opinions and attitudes. Although Lasky's historical novels for young adults use a third-person narrative viewpoint, they often include first-person mimetic passages such as diary entries or letters that are subject to the same constraints as the voice of a first-person narrator. In addition, her middle-school historical novels for Scholastic's Dear America series are written as diaries and thus require a first-person narrator. Lasky works carefully to create a narrative voice that is authentic, true to the narrator's historical period. "You have to put aside your prejudices," she says. "You have to step back and let your characters speak." She takes care to exclude views that are clearly contemporary, however sympathetic her own viewpoint may be toward them: "I try to be very disciplined, very vigilant, but after I've written 50 or so pages, the voice becomes natural."
Author Joan Blos writes of her decision to cast her historical novel A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl's Journal in diary form. This choice allowed her to be "faithful to nineteenth-century New England sensibilities, sensibilities often suppressed by understatement, without boring, alienating, and probably disappointing twentieth-century readers accustomed to books whose protagonists announce their feelings clearly."4 Having read several authentic diaries to prepare to write the fictional one, she recognized the limitations imposed not only by the first-person viewpoint but by the diary form as well: "For example, dialogue must be used sparingly as diarists tend to report the fact of a conversation, not its word-for-word content. Description would have to be limited to situations, objects, and persons of particular interest to the protagonist herself" (Blos, 279). Blos also notes that the "right" voice not only narrates a given story but "helps to find the story; it leads the story out…. Although the voice is invented by the author, it has its own vitality and is formative as a result" (279-80).
Blos' observations might have been articulated by Lasky herself. The young protagonists of Journey to the New World: The Diary of Remember Patience Whipple and Dreams in the Golden Country: The Diary of Zipporah Feldman, a Jewish Immigrant Girl disclose thoughts to their diaries that might otherwise remain unarticulated. At one point, for example, Remember makes a list of her "unsettled feelings and worries," reflecting that she does not like the "shadows of fear lurking about." But her list exposes criticism of some adults on the Mayflower, which, of course, she would never voice. Instead she writes, "I shall bring them into the light" and confides her feelings to her diary. After writing them, she concludes matter-of-factly, "There be my list of worries."5
Zipporah, too, confides her most privates hopes and fears to her diary. She comes to the United States speaking only Yiddish, and the reader is given to understand that the early passages are expressed in her native tongue. However, in her first entry she writes, "I swear on the blessed memory of my grandmother that a year from now I shall be writing in English,"6 a promise to herself that she fulfills. Italicized text signals the transition into her new language.
Zipporah's voice is distinct from Remember's; it is less restrained and has occasional syntactic deviations that simulate Yiddish. For example, when she learns that her papa, formerly a musician in Russia who has been forced into menial labor to earn a living, has a chance to work again at the profession he loves, she responds: "Oy, I am so excited that I must write in Yiddish. It would be like stuffing the world into a thimble to have to say in English all this excitement" (Dreams, 55). These variant constructions sometimes carry over into her English sentences: "There has begun in Russia a little over a week ago a big revolution" (142).
Conforming to Blos' observations about the diary form, the girls' descriptions of events both momentous and inconsequential are limited to circumstances "of particular interest to the protagonist herself," as when Remember describes the moment when she sighted the New World: "We [she and her friend] held each other's hands so tightly and almost dared not breathe, but minute by minute the line [of the horizon] became firmer and began to thicken…. This be the New World and it doth fill my eyes for the first time" (Journey, 39). And when Zipporah learns that her friend Mamie has died in a sweatshop fire, she writes, "Death can be over in a matter of seconds for the victim but for the living it is like one long forever streaming with images" (Dreams, 146-47).
Blos notes that diaries in general use little dialogue, as do those of Lasky's characters, but Remember's and Zipporah's voices are so strong and convincing that the reader is hardly aware that other voices are missing. And each girl serves, much as Blos describes, to "lead the story out," to determine its direction and shape. Remember is exactly the spunky character, sometimes defiant and sometimes subdued, needed to infuse the old Pilgrim story with fresh interest. Zipporah, the cultural outsider, has much in common with her. Like Remember, she makes new friends, contends with loss, and struggles successfully to make a place for herself in a strange new world. Her story, much of it set in a neighborhood teeming with tenements, touches on issues common to the process of acculturation: generational conflicts, language difficulties, tensions between ethnic groups.
Dreams in the Golden Country was not available for review at the time of this writing, but Journey to the New World has been favorably received. Reviewers warmed particularly to Remember. Susan Pine, writing for School Library Journal, noted the "observant, spirited" narrator and the effectiveness of her "child's-eye view of the people and events around her."7 Lynne B. Hawkins praised the "fascinating little tidbits of information which fill out the fiction" and the diary's "appealing heroine."8
The Relevance Of The Past
Lasky is especially drawn to historical events that demonstrate the intolerance and injustice that have marked (and marred) the chronicles of the United States. Her fiction invariably demonstrates the insis- tent intrusion of the past on the present, and she is able not only to create vivid accounts of historical events but to address such current issues as racial and religious bigotry, sexual exploitation, gender discrimination, and maneuvers by the powerful to maintain the status quo. Much as fantasy writers create imaginary worlds as a way of commenting upon their audience's actual world, so Lasky's historical fiction works obliquely to disarm readers' resistance to her novels' implications about their own culture.
The young protagonists of Lasky's historical fiction, victims of greed, hatred, and persecution, manage to triumph over their adversaries in the face of incredible odds. Most historical novels for young adults culminate in similar victories. Author Ann Schlee, discussing her own historical fiction, accounts for the prevalence of this pattern:
In a way, almost all children's books are legends of power and weakness. One has to develop a child character who is, in a sense, a hero with power over the action of the story. Yet, in reality children don't have power in their situations. In the past children were far more exploited, but they also were much more caught up in the web of adult existence. In writing about the past, the writer has the chance to depict [children's] extraordinary adventures and seizures of power.9
"Seizures of power" aptly characterizes the central action of Lasky's historical fiction. Her protagonists begin in a position of extreme vulnerability created not only by their youth but also, variously, by race, creed, class, or gender. By confronting their respective circumstances, they assume more control of their lives and gain unanticipated strength and status. This story line, a classic quest archetype, is also popular in contemporary YA novels but, as Schlee notes, lends itself particularly well to historical fiction.
Lasky has pondered the issue of truth in historical fiction, the fine line between historicizing fiction and fictionalizing history. Other writers of historical fiction have also grappled with this problem, for they are necessarily writing about a time and a people from which they are far removed. Does historical fiction reveal more, then, as some critics insist, about its author than about its historical subject? Is it, as Henry Seidel Canby has said, "more likely to register an exact truth about the writer's present than the exact truth of the past"?10
Any answer usually stresses the interpretative nature of both history and fiction. Along this line, Jill Paton Walsh contends that more than careful research binds the two. She suggests that history is as much fict (Latin for "something made") as fact (something done), that while evidence of history exists, it is itself "a construct of the mind."11 Lasky points to historians' myriad interpretations of "plain history," arguing that they rarely "do it plain" and that no history, whether within a novel or a history text, can be without bias. She distinguishes between writing with a bias and writing with an agenda. "I might write with a bias," she explains, "a bias for telling history from the ordinary point of view, often the female point of view, the nonheroic point of view" ("Keyhole," 8). On the other hand, she says, a writer with an agenda seeks to indoctrinate, and inevitably, agendas distort. She has no tolerance for distortion, even in the name of social benefit and good cause. For example, although her work demonstrates strong feminist leanings, she has expressed concern about frequent portrayals of women so heroic and accomplished that the average reader has little hope of emulating them. "We should not write to set examples," she says.12 The point of historical fiction is "to educate, to enlighten and never to indoctrinate" ("Keyhole," 9). She admits that as a novelist, she is probably more "passionate" than some historians, but she shares with them the goal of "truth."
Lasky's truths often counter material that has been sanitized for popular consumption, such as the magnolia-scented romance of plantation life. To this end, she creates characters who challenge the prevailing assumptions of their time, repudiating the moral legitimacy of such precepts as Manifest Destiny or slavery. The protagonists of most YA historical fiction position themselves similarly in relation to the popular thinking of their times, but there is risk in such a pattern. It can result in cardboard characters who function as little more than the writer's mouthpiece. Lasky uses her keyhole approach to avoid this trap. "Literature wherein nobody cries real tears but instead copes with a capital C is literature in which the real fabric of history begins to unravel and become meaningless," she says ("Kitty," 154).
Lasky has been criticized for including some unsavory characters in her historical fiction but insists that "there is room for all of these kinds of women and men in books because they are the stuff of which history is made" ("Kitty," 157). She also defends including actions that may be viewed unfavorably from a contemporary perspective. One reader, after finishing Beyond the Divide, wrote to Lasky objecting to the response of some characters to a young woman's rape: they shunned the victim rather than blaming the rapist for the attack. The reader felt that Lasky had not "set a good example" for her young audience (164). Lasky's reply reflects the responsibility she feels to her subject: "Unfortunately, we have a long history of shunning and ostracizing rape victims. As a writer of historical fiction, I have an obligation to remain faithful, to remain accountable in my story telling, to the manners and morals and the practices of a period" (165). On a less formal note, she adds wryly, "They didn't have rape crisis centers back then."
When she spoke to a college class in adolescent literature, several students complained about a scene in Beyond the Burning Time in which a hired man hides to watch a woman through a window as she undresses for bed. The students felt that Lasky should provide her young adult readers with examples of "healthy sex" instead of such scenes of "perverted sex." Lasky has little patience with such objections. "Hey," she says, "I didn't invent window peeping."
When an editor at Scholastic Press asked her to write a novel for its Dear America series that would "delve into those moments of quiet dignity" in the life of an ordinary girl growing up in trying times, Lasky wanted to include some "undignified" moments, too. Remembering her own Atlantic crossing, she chose the Pilgrims as her subject and created a protagonist, Remember (or Mem) Patience Whipple, as a fully dimensional child, one with "fits and rages, jealousies, and heartache, good cheer and grumpiness," who knows moments of spontaneous selflessness as well as selfishness ("Keyhole," 6).
Lasky had another goal, too, in writing Mem's story. She wanted to tell of the Pilgrims' crossing and settlement as an immigrant story, to show that they were not necessarily more pure or patriotic than the immigrants who followed in subsequent centuries. Herself the grandchild of immigrants, she chafed at the mythic portrait of morally upright souls who came over on the Mayflower. "They were called pilgrims and anyone [who came] after, immigrants. They were considered brave, resourceful, and enchanting. Immigrants were rarely considered any of the above" ("Keyhole," 7). To her delight, her research uncovered the Billington family, a seventeenth-century equivalent of the totally dysfunctional family. The parents were loud and abusive; the children stole. Their presence enlivens Mem's diary and adds to the often-told story of the Mayflower crossing a humorous and human dimension. Lasky wants her readers to understand that history has not been made only by heroes and patriots and to see "that ordinary people, people who throw up and get ticked off, played a part, too. And that, most importantly, there is distinction in living an ordinary life with dignity, with hope and with courage" (10).
When Lasky first began to write keyhole history for young adults, she took as her setting the American West of the nineteenth century, a time and place that had long intrigued her. This undertaking later evolved into Beyond the Divide, but after a frustrating year of working on the novel, she put the manuscript aside and turned her efforts to another young adult novel whose central action also unfolds in an earlier time but in a very different place.
The Night Journey
This novel was The Night Journey, which she published in 1981. Her shortest work of historical fiction, illustrated in black-and-white ink drawings, it provides a bridge between her children's books and her later YA fiction for older adolescents.
The Night Journey actually encompasses many journeys. For this reason, Lasky originally proposed as a title Night Journeys, but in 1981 Avi published a book by that same title. Meredith Charpentier, Lasky's editor at Frederick Warne, suggested as alternatives Time Out of Line, Night Borders, The Adventurers in Time, and The Bright Sentries. None seemed satisfactory. "Oh, damn," Charpentier concluded in a letter to Lasky, "Night Journeys was perfection."13 Finally, Lasky settled on The Night Journey.
The title refers most obviously to Nana Sashie's childhood escape from czarist Russia when she and her family fled the pogroms that threatened all Russian Jews early in the century. Lasky based the character of Nana Sashie on an aunt who made a similar journey, and she dedicated the book to her: "For Ann Lasky Smith, who remembers."14 Nana Sashie relates her story to her great-granddaughter Rachel. Rachel's parents have asked Rachel to spend time conversing with Nana Sashie, who lives with the family. However, they have cautioned their daughter against talking about what they call "the old country," mistakenly fearing that memories from Nana Sashie's past will upset the old woman. Dutifully, Rachel stops by Nana Sashie's room each day and makes desultory conversation with her about the weather and school, topics they both find tedious. Only after Nana Sashie speaks of her own grandparents who were murdered by the soldiers of Czar Nicholas do the two find ground for meaningful communication.15
To keep their conversations secret, Rachel sometimes creeps to Nana Sashie's room in the middle of the night, and her surreptitious visits constitute another night journey, this one back through time and space to the Russian spring of 1900. She hears the story in installments, an episode at a time, and her increasingly mature response signals still a third journey, her own toward adulthood. When she first hears of the horrors inflicted on the Russian Jews, her reaction is sympathetic but self-focused and immature, expressed in the vocabulary of a sheltered 13-year-old whose report card describes her as "unmotivated" and "an underachiever": "She could hardly believe that she was the great-great-great-granddaughter of ‘murdered’ people. It was sickening. Weird" (NJ [The Night Journey ], 3).
But as Nana Sashie's story unfolds and Rachel comes to know her Russian ancestors, she begins to understand her family better and to value the connections between its generations. In the novel's epilogue, Rachel, now 19 and in college, reflects on the significance of Nana Sashie's story, remembering it as "time out of line, but time laced with the bright filaments of memory that linked two people at the opposite ends of life for a vital moment in each one's existence" (NJ, 150). The contrast between Rachel's two responses provides a measure of how far she has traveled from her childhood self.
Nana Sashie's story of poverty and persecution is framed by scenes from Rachel's comfortable life: she has a fight with her best friend, loses a coveted part in the school play, helps celebrate her mother's birthday. Rachel's strand is secondary to Nana Sashie's story, but the juxtaposition of the two lives magnifies the gift of freedom that Rachel's courageous ancestors have bequeathed her. At the same time, it underscores the difficulties of growing up where such freedom is only a far-off dream.
The transitions between the alternating scenes are handled smoothly, often through the repetition of a word or idea that closes one strand of the story and opens another. For example, one chapter in Nana Sashie's story ends with the family's concealing gold pieces in the Purim cookies, or hamantaschen, that they will take on their journey. When Sashie's mother compliments Sashie on how neat, how "perfect" her cookies are, Sashie feels queasy, as if perfection might constitute a threat to the family, calling attention to what they wish to conceal. She then pinches some edges so that they are tight enough to hold the gold but deliberately messy, not "perfect." The next chapter begins with Rachel and her mother planning a costume for Rachel's friend who has been cast in the school play. Rachel chides, "Well, it doesn't have to be so perfect, Mom" (NJ, 59).
Reviewers praised the skill with which Lasky moves between Nana Sashie's past and Rachel's present. Peter Kennerley, writing in School Librarian, recognized that "the structure of the narrative underlines [a] sense of continuity, and the book is full of images which echo across time and back into Jewish history."16Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books noted, "The two parts of the story are deftly woven together, with the contemporary scenes having enough humor and characterization to give them substance but not so much that they detract from the drama of Nana Sashie's exciting tale."17 And a review in Booklist by Ilene Cooper commended the way in which the novel's structure helps to sustain its tension: "Just as Rachel must wait to hear the whole adventure, the reader too is tantalized, eager to hear more."18
The Night Journey shares much with Lasky's other fiction, both her children's books and her young adult novels that followed. Most notable are the commonalities of characterization and theme. Lasky often creates strong families, and this one is no exception. The adults provide moral guidance to their young, and the occasional friction between generations is eventually resolved in an atmosphere of love and understanding. Family members enjoy each other; they share jokes as well as heartaches, engage in affectionate teasing, and are sensitive to each other's emotional needs. Lasky has genuine empathy for her aging and aged characters: Nana Sashie and Zayde Sol, the two elderly grandparents of this story, are drawn with a warmth and respect that nonetheless make clear the infirmities of age.
The young Sashie of the escape story and the contemporary Rachel typify Lasky's adolescent protagonists in many ways. They are both spunky and creative, ingenious problem solvers undaunted by life's difficulties. Although they are loving daughters, they sometimes grow impatient with their parents; this is especially true of Rachel, who is not above lapsing into the sulky or sassy discourse of American adolescence. Ultimately, however, both Sashie and Rachel rely upon and appreciate their parents' wisdom.
Along with affectionate respect for their parents, both Sashie and Rachel value a growing sense of self and independence from their families. Near the end of Sashie's journey to the Russian border, she wanders off from the family to savor the twilight by herself and finds enormous pleasure in the uncustomary solitude: "This was all so new to Sashie, being outside, watching the sky, feeling the texture of the earth—being apart! It came to her suddenly like a tiny explosion in her brain—being apart, not alone, just apart" (NJ, 128). All of Lasky's young protagonists move in this direction, making a place for themselves "apart" but recognizing the need for community. Rachel tells of a similar moment in the novel's epilogue; she has come to her father's office some months after Nana Sashie's death and grieves openly for the first time. When she finally stops, her father says, "Now you can begin, can't you?" (147). The closing pages of the story affirm that indeed she does begin, "apart" from her family at college but lovingly tied to them.
This novel dramatizes two of Lasky's recurring themes: the persecution of those groups whose "differences" arouse suspicion, hatred, and violence, and the seamless continuum of time that carries the past into the present. Rachel's father expresses the first theme when he tries to help his daughter comprehend the Russian pogroms: "People—those in power, the so-called leaders—take a group of people who, because of their looks or practices or beliefs, appear slightly different from the majority…. Gradually they dehumanize these people, make them into abstractions. It's very easy to kill an abstraction" (NJ, 10).
However didactic the speech, it serves well to articulate Lasky's concerns about marginalized groups vulnerable to oppression. Here, as elsewhere in Lasky's young adult fiction, language plays a key role in the dehumanizing and abstracting process. The Russians refer to the Jews as Zhidi, a term both derogatory and abstract; like all hate language, it allows the user to demean an entire group without having to identify anyone by name or face. Lasky describes such language as "racist tags that make it easier for non-thinking people to categorize other human beings" (AC, 32). Although such language says more about the person using it than about the targeted group, it can serve as a powerful stimulant to violence. In this case, it reinforces the soldiers' view of Jews as subhuman and blunts any sense of remorse, even as they systematically destroy entire Jewish villages.
Lasky enlists the reader's sympathy for Nana Sashie's family without making them so heroic as to defy credibility, creating a cast of Russian Jews—Sashie's family and those who help them escape—who are recognizably human in their shortcomings: keyhole history at its best. They are appropriately courageous and protective of each other, intent on the survival of their people as well as their personal safety, but like most families they sometimes bicker among themselves, their tongues growing sharper as their impatience mounts. Sashie's mother, Ida, expresses her impatience regularly, using rhyming, nonsensical words that capture both her contempt and a Yiddish flavor. When Ghisa says that she can solve the problem of the Purim costumes and adds a suspenseful "But—" Ida retorts, "But schmut! Get to the point" (NJ, 28). Her irritation is understandable, for like characters from a Chekhov drama, the adults in Sashie's family often talk at length about changing their lives, but their plans are little more than ineffectual dreams until Sashie suggests a solution that prompts the others to act.
Lasky softens her characters' sharpness with flashes of irreverent humor, expressed mostly in the dialogue. When Sashie's grandfather Zayde Sol urges his family to postpone their escape until after his death, which he believes is imminent, Sashie's Aunt Ghisa retorts, "Why should I believe that you will die imminently—you've never been on time for anything in your life" (NJ, 16). Sashie's father, admonishing his family that they must travel light and leave behind their cherished household items, puts his case succinctly: "The idea is to get across the border, not set up housekeeping on it" (32).
Lasky gives her story added dimension by including characters outside of Sashie's family. The most significant of these is Wolf, whose eyes are like "pinpricks of terror" (NJ, 35). As his story unfolds, we learn that his family was annihilated when the tsar ordered the destruction of his entire village and that, to his undying shame, he ran away to save his own life, abandoning his wife and child. His haunted appearance terrifies Sashie's mother, who sees him as a devil. So demeaned has he grown that he even appropriates the term Zhidi to refer to himself and his people when addressing some Russian soldiers. His tragic circumstances demonstrate the human cost of bigotry while sparing the young Sashie from its extremities. A desperate man with little to lose, he plays a key role in helping Sashie and her family escape, and his efforts restore to him a measure of humanity.
The family intends to flee during Purim, disguised as traveling festival players. As they plan their escape, they recount the biblical story in which Jews were saved from annihilation in ancient Persia through the brave actions of Esther, a Jewish woman, and her cousin Mordecai. Although somewhat digressive, this tale of persecution and survival parallels the experiences of Sashie's family. Together, the two stories emphasize the need to defend one's freedom with unflinching courage. A poem by Simeon Samuel Frug prefacing the book makes clear that survival depends on an indomitable spirit:
No savior from without can come
To those that live and are enslaved.
Their own messiah they must be,
And play the savior and the saved.
Yet the differences between the religious practices of Sashie's and Rachel's families raise questions about the consequences of religious freedom too easily achieved. The Russian Jews live intimately with their religion, celebrating Jewish holidays, preparing Jewish foods, and regularly reciting Hebrew prayers. Isolated from non-Jewish Russians, they speak Yiddish among themselves, reserving Russian for their interactions outside the Jewish community. In contrast, Rachel's family celebrates birthdays; her father decorates his wife's birthday cake with an Eiffel Tower, and he speaks to Rachel in French phrases. Rachel has grown up with little sense of her family's history. Her family seems Jewish more in a gastronomic sense (they enjoy good corned beef) than in a spiritual one. Seen in this light, The Night Journey can be read as implying that assimilation poses as grave a threat—if a less violent one—to marginalized cultures as does persecution.
Both Lasky's fiction and nonfiction reveal her great respect for the past, and several incidents in The Night Journey illustrate her view of it as a living part of the present. Sometimes the past is transmitted genetically; the three generations of Sashie's family—her mother, her grandmother, and her greatgrandmother—look so much alike that Rachel is "caught" by the strong resemblance of the three faces. The story demonstrates, too, that our childhood selves remain with us into old age. As Nana Sashie begins to narrate her story, Rachel observes that she is almost transformed into the young Sashie, the little girl whose tintype sits on the mantel downstairs. Rachel has seen this picture for as long as she can remember, but until now she never thought of the child in the photograph as someone who actually existed. Now, watching her great-grandmother tell about hiding the gold pieces in the hamantaschen, Rachel notices the combination of past and present in Nana Sashie's old memories and youthful gestures, "the slidings back and forth between two realities" (NJ, 50).
In a larger sense, the structure of the story itself represents the past and present as a single, unbroken continuum, with the incidents from 1900 injected into Rachel's life late in the twentieth century and the characters from the past looking ahead toward Rachel's present. Nana Sashie tells how her Aunt Ghisa had imagined a future when she showed Sashie a blurry photograph of herself posed between Ghisa and a friend. The photograph, Ghisa prophetically explained, would preserve the memory of the day it was taken and would allow Sashie, growing old in another country, to point to the photograph and say to her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, "I was born in Nikolayev!" (NJ, 132). It is this picture, we can assume, that sits on the mantel in Rachel's home.19
Lasky creates vivid settings, particularly landscapes, and she laughingly claims to have a "landscape gene." The descriptive passages in The Night Journey, precise and often lyrical, support her claim. When the young Sashie observes the scene around her family's campsite during their flight, the details are painted in graphic language: "For a few brief seconds the sun on its downwards slip sprayed its light through the island archipelago and drenched the dark mountains in the most glorious rose color. Then the rose seeped out and a cold purple stole over the mountains" (NJ, 128). Contributing to the vividly portrayed scenes is Lasky's imagery, often drawn from nature. Rachel observes her great-grandmother holding the initialed tool box that her family took from Russia: "Nana Sashie's fingers, light and quick as hummingbird wings, ran over [her father's] initials, then darted for a sliver of a screwdriver in one of the compartments" (22). As a young girl, Sashie is awed by the sound of a violin played by one of the rescuers, the man she would later marry: "Sashie thought that if butterflies sang, this is the music they would make" (120).
The Night Journey received many favorable reviews for its strong characterizations, its attention to a period of history about which little had been written for young readers, and the skill with which Lasky knit together Sashie's and Rachel's stories to create a seamless narrative. Its excellence earned it an ALA Notable Book designation and the National Jewish Book Award. The smooth narrative flow is interrupted, however, in the epilogue when the novel un- expectedly changes its point of view, shifting from the third person of Rachel's strand to first person, with Rachel herself narrating her experiences following Nana Sashie's death. Lasky says that she used the shift to communicate a movement both in time and in Rachel's development and to create an immediacy not otherwise gained. However, the effect is at first jarring.
A review in the Horn Book criticizes the novel's "excessive emotion," and the criticism seems warranted.20 Occasionally the characters, especially Rachel's architect father, overreact. At one point, for example, Rachel "excitedly" remarks that McDonald's golden arches are copyrighted. That is the extent of her comment, but her father appears to think that his daughter is slipping into a materialistic quagmire: "Rache, does that really impress you—that some guy got his design for these golden arches copyrighted and made a bundle? I mean, is that what you consider achievement? Quality?" (NJ, 84). After continuing in this vein, he concludes, "If you think that the greatest thing going in terms of human achievement is some guy who got his design for a hamburger stand copyrighted, I am going to be concerned!" (85).
However, the virtues of the book outweigh these problems. As its critical acclaim has demonstrated, the writerly deftness that Lasky developed in her earlier books for a younger audience is very much in evidence here. Readers fortunate enough to discover the "keyhole" of The Night Journey and follow Nana Sashie's escape from the old country will also discover a truth about the value of freedom: that it is a basic human need denied only at great cost to oppressed and oppressor alike.
1. Thomas Mallon, "Writing Historical Fiction," The American Scholar (Autumn 1992): 604.
2. Joan I. Glazer and Burney Williams III, Introduction to Children's Literature (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979), 360; hereafter cited in text as Glazer and Williams.
3. Arthea J. S. Reed, Reaching Adolescents: The Young Adult Book and the School (New York: Macmillan, 1994), 121.
4. Joan Blos, "‘I Catherine Cabot Hall’: The Journal as Historical Fiction," in The Voice of the Narrator in Children's Literature: Insights from Writers and Critics, ed. Charlotte F. Otten and Gary D. Schmidt (New York: Greenwood Press, 1989), 278; hereafter cited in text as Blos.
5. Kathryn Lasky, A Journey to the New World: The Diary of Remember Patience Whipple (New York: Scholastic, 1996), 28; hereafter cited in text as Journey.
6. Kathryn Lasky, Dreams in the Golden Country: The Diary of Ziporrah Feldman, a Jewish Immigrant Girl (New York: Scholastic, 1998), 4; hereafter cited in text as Dreams.
7. Susan Pine, School Library Journal (August 1996): 144.
8. Lynne B. Hawkins, Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA) (October 1996): 210.
9. Ann Schlee, "Only a Lampholder: On Writing Historical Fiction," in Innocence and Experience, ed. Barbara Harrison and Gregory Maguire (New York: Lothrop, Lee, & Shepard, 1987), 265.
10. Henry Seidel Canby, as quoted by Kenneth I. Donelson and Alleen Pace Nilsen, Literature for Today's Young Adult, 3d ed. (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1989), 169; book hereafter cited in text as Donelson and Nilsen.
11. Jill Paton Walsh, "History Is Fiction," Horn Book (February 1972): 23.
12. Kathryn Lasky, "The Fiction of History: Or, What Did Miss Kitty Nearly Do?" New Advocate (Summer 1990): 165; hereafter cited in text as "Kitty."
13. Meredith Charpentier to Kathryn Lasky, 9 December 1980.
14. Kathryn Lasky, The Night Journey (New York: Puffin Books, 1986), unpaged; hereafter cited in text as NJ. Ann Lasky Smith was musically talented. A contemporary of Irving Berlin, she wrote and published songs for Tin Pan Alley.
15. Lasky recounts a similar anecdote about her own ancestors in Atlantic Circle, 28.
16. Peter Kennerley, School Librarian (June 1983): 144.
17.Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (December 1981): 72.
18. Ilene Cooper, Booklist (15 November 1981): 439.
19. Some of Lasky's ancestors actually immigrated from Nikolayev.
20. Ethel L. Heins, Horn Book (April 1982): 166.
DOLLMAKER: THE EYELIGHT AND THE SHADOW (1981)
Joan Glazer (essay date winter 1987)
SOURCE: Glazer, Joan. "Dollmaker: An Example of Literary Nonfiction." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 12, no. 4 (winter 1987): 176-77.
[In the following essay, Glazer studies the combination of "scholarship with creativity" in the nonfiction of Lasky's Dollmaker: The Eyelight and the Shadow.]
In the Winter, 1986, issue of the ChLA Quarterly, Perry Nodelman wrote of the need for more serious analysis of non-fiction for children. He stated his belief that such analysis need not be limited to matters of accuracy and clarity, noting that "if novels can be judged on their factuality, then surely non-fiction can be judged for its artistry" (162). This is consonant with the writing of such critics as Margery Fisher and Jo Carr, both of whom expect that the writer of non-fiction do more than simply present facts. Carr describes her expectations by saying that good non-fiction "combines scholarship with the imagination of the creative artist" (5).
The non-fiction of Kathryn Lasky does indeed combine scholarship with creativity. Her book Dollmaker: The Eyelight and the Shadow is representative of an approach she has used effectively several times. She selects a person or family involved in the activity to be presented, describes their specific endeavors, and relates how this activity has been done in other times or places. The emphasis is on the specific rather than the general, the concrete rather than the abstract. Using this approach allows her to write in a mode appropriate to fiction without doing disservice to the fact.
Dollmaker describes the work of Carole Bowling, a maker of dolls that are collector's items and museum pieces. It concentrates on the creation of her limited edition "Matty" dolls, for which she used her son Matthew as the model. The book opens with a detailed description of Bowling's workshop:
It is an odd place. The materials and tools of painters and sculptors and carpenters are there, but most of them are in miniature sizes and minute quantities. There are needles and awls and drills no thicker than slivers. There are paintbrushes one or two eyelashes thick and thimble-size pots of paint. There are slender wooden tools for modeling in clay. There are inches rather than yards of exquisite tiny print fabrics, a small basket of rosettes that are one-quarter inch in diameter. There are handwrought buttons and buckles in scaled-down proportions.
This setting establishes the tone of the entire book. It is detailed, sensory, and relies heavily on the personal reactions of the writer. Throughout the book, precise measurements are given, showing just how exacting the work is, putting the dolls in a size perspective, imparting a sense of factual description. At other times, the writing is sensory, as when the setting outside the workroom is contrasted with that inside. Outside is where buses travel and the sound of the high school band "booms through the neighborhood"; inside is the place where "action has been suspended" (11). Measured accuracy is interwoven with sensory imagery. The feeling that Lasky is a writer who has come to know and appreciate her subject is pervasive. Yet this does not intrude on the presentation of the process being described, nor on one's recognition of the nature of the book.
Setting in Dollmaker serves several additional functions. It builds interest, particularly the initial judgment about the place being "odd." It allows background information about other dollmakers to be introduced through a flashback to Bowling's first visit to the home of a doll collector, and to some of the dolls she saw there. It presents the main characters of the story when Matthew and Carole Bowling walk into the room. Setting also functions to introduce one of the central themes of the book—the feeling that these dolls are almost human in their replication of real children.
This theme appears in the subtitle of the book, "The Eyelight and the Shadow," referring to the special light in a child's eye which Bowling tries to capture as she paints the eyes on her dolls. It appears in chapter titles such as "A Face Awakens." It appears in the choice of words as dolls are described. There is "a merry twosome" (11), a doll that gets soiled "as if playing in a mud puddle" (23), dolls that almost seem to blush (22) or have a "perky stoicism" (15). Even the doll which must be washed before being sent to a museum is a reminder that "children will be children" (23).
This personification of the dolls is reinforced by a series of analogies in which the creation of a doll is like the birth of a child. When Bowling unmolds the head of a doll, she handles it as "gently as a doctor delivering a baby to a new world" (25). She talks about dolls "born" of a particular century. In a science book one would label this anthropomorphism, and consider it highly detrimental. It works well in this text, possibly because it is so clearly identified as the author's point of view, and because the goal of this dollmaker is to create dolls which are as life-like as possible.
Other stylistic techniques more common in fiction than in non-fiction appear with regularity. One is the use of repetition, as illustrated in the first paragraph in which the sentence pattern is repeated. The sound of the sentences, and the sounds of phrases and words, are pleasing to the ear. Doll dresses must be made so that they will "pouf and not pucker and flounce rather than bunch" (22). The Lenci and Kruse dolls were "wary yet brave, innocent but knowing, tough and still vulnerable" (27). Parallel construction, precise vocabulary, use of alliteration and repetition, all contribute to the aesthetic quality of the language.
So too does the use of fresh and appropriate figurative language, appropriate in the sense that the comparisons are related to the subject under discussion. In the first paragraph, for example, the paintbrushes which are used on the faces of the dolls are but "one or two eyelashes thick." As the dollmaker carefully feels and measures her son and model's scalp and face, the comparison of the face to a landscape is made. "A doll's face might measure only three inches across from ear to ear and three and one-half inches from hairline to chin, but within this tiny patch of space there was for Carole a landscape, a reality as intriguing and challenging as the Grand Canyon is to a geologist" (20). The bumps and depressions, the distances between features, all work together to create for Carole a "facescape" (29).
The painting of a doll's face is slow work, and not exciting to watch. When Lasky says that watching is "like trying to watch a rosebud bloom or a chrysalis change into a butterfly" (52), she is not only describing the imperceptibility of each individual change, but also likening the creation of this doll to metamorphosis in nature.
Much of the figurative language contains within it a high level of abstract thought. In describing the home of the doll collector, a "place where time had frozen," Lasky writes that "A migration of a thousand dolls has come to a halt here on their trip through centuries" (11). This has what reading specialists would call a high information load. So too does the statement, "Reality was Matthew, Carole's son, growing so fast that the years between his infancy and first grade were like a fast-running river flowing through the family's life" (24). It is expected that the reader will understand and remember. Later in the book, a new chapter begins, "The river runs. Another three years has streamed by. Matthew is six" (29).
Just as the language helps develop the central ideas, so too does the characterization. Because the work is Dollmaker and not How a Doll Is Made, the person who does the work assumes a pivotal role. The character of Carole Bowling is delineated just as any fictional character might be. She is, however, seen only in her relationship to her work, or in areas which impinge upon her work. Her actions, her thoughts, direct quotations from her, her son's reaction to her, all are used to develop a knowledge of this artist as well as of her art. She is presented as a person with great curiosity, with a willingness to experiment, with the ability and desire to teach herself what she needed to know, and as a perfectionist. Lasky shows her from her first encounter with museum dolls when she worked as a switchboard operator in the home of a doll collector to her standing as one of the top dollmakers in the country. One sees her experimenting with her first rag doll for her niece, learning to knit more expressive faces, trying to paint the faces, learning about costuming, preparing to cast the molds herself, stitching together the body of the doll.
She is shown noticing that the face on a doll is not right, retaking measurements, calling Matthew over to talk with her so she can feel his skull while they talk, destroying the clay head which is imperfect. She is seen working all night when inspired to complete a sculpture. She checks the mold by herself—not just because she needs to concentrate, but also because if it is not right, she wants to be alone. She describes the conflict felt by many artists, who want and need time to experiment, but must produce work for economic reasons.
Carole is a real person, interacting with her medium, and even the outcome of various projects provides suspense. Can the stains be removed from the doll? What is it that makes this model of Matthew seem not quite right? Will the mold be perfect, or will there be some errant bubble or crack to flaw it?
All of the characterization is worked into a structure which demonstrates the process of dollmaking in logical sequence, but does not follow only a step by step analysis. The opening description of the workroom builds interest and curiosity. Into this setting come Carole and Matthew, the protagonists. Then it is back to describing the workroom, with flashbacks to other workrooms and other factories, other dolls which are of high artistic quality. Then comes Carole's curiosity about the process, her use of her own background in drawing and sculpting to make a rag doll. The reader learns with Carole the problems inherent in such a project, and what the creation of such a doll involves. As Carole works to refine her skill, the reader sees just what skills are needed.
From rag doll to sculpted head dolls, portrait dolls, is a major step for Bowling. Another flashback tells more history of such dolls, and then once again the reader learns with Carole the secrets of this new type of dollmaking. New skills are learned and old ones refined. It is now the work of the sculptor in creating a clay head, of moldmaking and casting, of adding fabric to the face before painting, of wigging, of making the skeleton, of creating the costumes. The reader learns the order in which Carole does these steps, the time she spends, the accuracy she demands, the standards she sets for herself.
The book is a unified whole, in which all of the elements combine to present a clear illustration of one artist's approach to dollmaking. It meets the standards of non-fiction by presenting its information with accuracy and with clarity, but in addition does so with literary finesse most often associated with fiction.
Carr, Jo. Beyond Fact: Nonfiction for Children and Young People. Chicago: American Library Association, 1982.
Fisher, Margery. Matters of Fact: Aspects of Non-Fiction for Children. New York: Crowell, 1972.
Lasky, Kathryn. Dollmaker: The Eyelight and the Shadow. New York: Scribner's, 1981.
Nodelman, Perry. "Facts as Art." ChLA Quarterly, Winter, 1986.
Christine Behrmann (review date December 1986)
SOURCE: Behrmann, Christine. Review of Pageant, by Kathryn Lasky. School Library Journal 33, no. 4 (December 1986): 119-20.
Gr. 7 Up—Between 1960 and 1963, when Sarah Benjamin is in eighth to tenth grade at a conservative Christian school, the Jewish girl grows from an eager innocent to a slightly disillusioned young woman, prepared to use her outrage to initiate change—in her own life and in the world around her [in Pageant ]. Readers familiar with the Kennedy era may see some reflections of Sarah's transformation in the national consciousness of the time, which is a major focus of the book. Structured in four parts, each introduced by Sarah's participation in the school's annual Christmas pageant (always as a shepherd), the story takes Sarah from her initial excitement at the prospect of Kennedy's election and its promise of new possibilities to the traumatic events in her life during the weekend of his assassination. Along the way, she deals with a prickly relationship with her aunt; disappointing introductions to romantic love; and a growing inability to accommodate herself to the narrowness of her surroundings, most specifically her stuffy school. All of this is managed with wit, a fine attention to the concrete detail of the times (although Person to Person is confused with You Are There), and some good characterizations. The teachers at her school, however, rarely emerge as anything other than cardboard dictators. The structure and writing of the book is smooth to the point of slickness, and, although the story is autobiographical, events seem to be stage-managed to coincide with national attitudes. Older children might enjoy it, but it's hard to believe that anyone's life could end up as an extended metaphor for the New Frontier.
THE BONE WARS (1989)
Yvonne A. Frey (review date November 1988)
SOURCE: Frey, Yvonne A. Review of The Bone Wars, by Kathryn Lasky. School Library Journal 35, no. 3 (November 1988): 126-27.
Gr. 8 Up—This sweeping historical adventure [The Bone Wars ] deals with an action-packed period of American history—the late 1800s in the Badlands of Montana. It's a period which includes legendary historical figures, a period of Indian heroes, and a period of discoveries of gold and of scientific treasures. All three aspects of the age are woven together with the story of two lonely teenagers from totally different cultures and social backgrounds who are caught up in the turmoil of the times and whose ideas of fairness bring them together. The novel begins with the violent murder of Thad Longsworth's mother in the Hole in the Hat Saloon. When the cattle rancher who then raised him dies, Thad hires out as a scout for a scientific team from Harvard. Early individual chapters about Thad form a counterpoint with those about Julian DeMott, the son of an ambitious British paleontologist. After a series of adventures with white men and Indians, both Thad and Julian reject the selfishness and treachery that they see around them and conduct their own scientific dig so that the fossils that they uncover will be given to a museum for all to view. This lesson of community ownership is one consistent with the ideas of the Indians, who are victims of the greed of the government that wishes to buy their sacred lands. Lasky's characters are memorable, from the vacuous and ruthless Custer to the sad and bumbling Bill Cody. There are mysteries to solve, personal and moral problems to deal with, villains to outwit, and Indians to protect and to learn from. A rather too abrupt epilogue shows both Thad and Julian as old famous legends of science. This is poetically written historical fiction that will give young adult readers a real sense of a complex period of our history.
TRACES OF LIFE: THE ORIGINS OF HUMANKIND (1989)
Cathryn A. Camper (review date June 1990)
SOURCE: Camper, Cathryn A. Review of Traces of Life: The Origins of Humankind, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Whitney Powell. School Library Journal 36, no. 6 (June 1990): 132.
Gr. 5-8—One of the innate difficulties in writing a history of human evolution is that most of what we know is based on the existing fossil record. Paleoanthropologists must try to hypothesize from fragmentary findings of bones and artifacts the overall history of human development as well as the importance these found objects have to one another. Lasky tackles human evolution, the science of paleoanthropology, along with biographical information about some of the scientists, all in one book [Traces of Life: The Origins of Humankind ]. It's a lot of material to cover, and she is only partially successful at clarifying an already complex topic. A comparison with Sattler's Hominids (Lothrop, 1988) makes obvious the disorganization of Lasky's text. For example, Sattler's chapter headings, named for the species of hominid, immediately clue readers into both the subject matter and the time period covered. Lasky's text demands that it be read through, cover to cover, and even then readers may be left without a clear picture of who or what came first. For example, biographical sketches of the Leakeys are presented at least two chapters after they've been mentioned in the text. This convoluted presentation and the intermingling of fiction and nonfiction only add to readers' confusion. There are also some very disturbing problems with the illustrations. Charts and inanimate objects are clear and well-drawn; hominids and humans appear awkward and ungraceful. Most of the hominids are drawn without body hair, a peculiarity unexplained in the text. Even more ironic in a scientific book on human evolution is the lack of any hint of genitalia on any, even forward-facing hominids. Skip this one, and stick with Sattler's book, which is both current and more accessible.
DINOSAUR DIG (1990)
Diane Roback (review date 12 January 1990)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane. Review of Dinosaur Dig, by Kathryn Lasky, photographs by Christopher G. Knight. Publishers Weekly 237, no. 2 (12 January 1990): 63.
What child hasn't dreamed of discovering a dinosaur fossil? Lasky and Knight, the Newbery Honor-winning creators of Sugaring Time, have collaborated on an engrossing photo-essay about the family vacation of a lifetime—a dinosaur dig [in Dinosaur Dig ]. Lasky has twice before mined the subjects of paleontology/anthropology in The Bone Wars (a YA historical novel) and Traces of Life: The Originals of Humankind (a survey of hominid research) but neither of those earlier works can match this perfect marriage of text and photos for intensity and excitement. Lasky deftly weaves a myriad of scientific facts about the earth's geologic life and the Mesozoic Era into a fascinating trip's diary (with six other families) to the bone-rich buttes of the Montana Badlands. Kids will connect with the immediacy of the experience and be mesmerized by the text's vivid, almost poetic, descriptions of the hot, dry dig coupled with Knight's stunning color photos. Featuring the children as equal partners with the adults, the photos both enlarge and reinforce the information in the text. They dramatically convey the complete absorption of the dig participants as they labor in the 100+ degree heat under the dome of Montana's big sky. The excitement is palpable when the bones found are tentatively identified as those of a Triceratops by paleontologist Keith Rigby. This is an irresistible behind-the-scenes look at field paleontologists at work. Ages 8-up.
FOURTH OF JULY BEAR (1991)
Diane Roback and Richard Donahue (review date 8 February 1991)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, and Richard Donahue. Review of Fourth of July Bear, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Helen Cogancherry. Publishers Weekly 238, no. 8 (8 February 1991): 56-7.
Lasky's (Dinosaur Dig ; Sugaring Time ) storytelling flows as quickly and as smoothly as the waters that swirl around this warm tale's setting—a dolphin-shaped island off the Maine coast [in Fourth of July Bear ]. Becca, a city girl, is apprehensive about spending the summer by the sea. She is sure that playing with her new neighbor, Amanda, won't be as much fun as rollerskating on the city sidewalks with her best friend, Emily. But when Amanda and Becca dress up in bears' costumes and ride on a fire engine in the town's Fourth of July parade, the two become fast friends. Cogancherry's (Rebecca's Nap; The Real Tooth Fairy) homey, realistic illustrations superbly convey the story's many moods—from Becca's initial shyness to the elation she and Amanda experience when they jump into the icy ocean. Ages 5-up.
LUNCH BUNNIES (1993)
Publishers Weekly (review date 5 August 1996)
SOURCE: Review of Lunch Bunnies, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Marylin Hafner. Publishers Weekly 243, no. 32 (5 August 1996): 441-42.
What if he spills soup all over his tray? What if no one wants to sit with him? On his first day of first grade [in Lunch Bunnies ], Clyde is terrified of lunchtime, and his merciless older brother, Jefferson, who tells him that the school cooks will make him eat "mystery goosh," doesn't help. Even worse, says Jefferson, are file scolding, scratchy-voiced "lunch ladies." After a morning of dread, Clyde finally has to face the ordeal of the cafeteria which—no surprise—is far less intimidating than he'd feared. But his classmate Rosemary fares less well: she skids on spilled juice, sending her Jell-O cubes bouncing across the floor. The sympathetic Clyde not only helps her clean up the mess, but joins his new friend at a table. Lasky makes her reassuring tale all the more realistic by adding this minor mishap, showing kids who share Clyde's apprehensions that such incidents can turn out okay. Hafner's bustling illustrations imbue the characters with a great deal of personality, especially the incessantly wide-eyed Clyde; lunch lady Gloria, whose rabbit ears poke out of a hairnet as she chews out snickering fourth-graders; and perky Rosemary. Readers will line up for seconds. Ages 4-8.
Margaret A. Bush (review date November-December 1993)
SOURCE: Bush, Margaret A. Review of Monarchs, by Kathryn Lasky, photographs by Christopher G. Knight. Horn Book Magazine 69, no. 6 (November-December 1993): 755.
Meadows of milkweed plants in the northern United States and Canada and the oyamel forests of Mexico—sometimes more than two thousand miles apart—are the polar points in the complex migratory cycle of monarch butterflies. In a thorough examination of the migration and metamorphosis of these boldly beautiful butterflies, Kathryn Lasky and Christopher Knight also introduce people whose lives are touched by them [in Monarchs ]. With clarity and elegance in prose and pictures, the book follows the stages of growth from egg to the emergence of the butterfly from its chrysalis. Later chapters follow the butterflies as they hibernate in enormous colonies, completely covering the trees in those few forests that now make up their winter habitat. Early in the book an elderly shopkeeper in Maine shares with neighborhood children her lifelong enjoyment of watching the butterflies. Later, these same children and their families visit a remote mountain site to view a monarch colony. Two other wintering locations are visited: one in El Rosario, Mexico, where the butterflies have become a tourist attraction; the other in Pacific Grove, California, where schoolchildren celebrate the fall arrival of the monarchs. Lasky and Knight show clearly the delicate balance in the monarch's unique cycle; they also suggest some developing problems. There is much to learn, enjoy, and ponder in this beautiful book. A map is the only missing ingredient.
SEARCHING FOR LAURA INGALLS: A READER'S JOURNEY (1993)
Kay Weisman (review date 15 October 1993)
SOURCE: Weisman, Kay. Review of Searching for Laura Ingalls: A Reader's Journey, by Kathryn Lasky, photographs by Christopher G. Knight. Booklist 90, no. 4 (15 October 1993): 436.
Gr. 2-5—As she did in her earlier Dinosaur Dig (1990), Lasky recounts a personal family vacation—this time to see the childhood homes and haunts of Laura Ingalls Wilder [in Searching for Laura Ingalls: A Reader's Journey ]. The author and her husband (photographer Knight), together with their son and daughter, visited the settings for most of the Little House books—Pepin, Wisconsin: Walnut Grove, Minnesota; and DeSmet, South Dakota. Lasky and daughter Meribah share the narrating duties, each providing her own personal insights into the trip. Meribah is disappointed, for example, that the replica of Little House in the Big Woods doesn't have pumpkins in the attic, but a swim in Plum Creek (complete with leeches) provides all the authenticity she can handle. What emerges is a wonderful glimpse of the sights that Wilder described, as well as a picture of this contemporary family. (Max, clearly not as enthusiastic about Wilder as his younger sister, entertains the family with excerpts from a book on road kill.) Knight's crisp color photos accurately portray the sites and local color of these areas, making this a sure hit with Wilder fans.
THE SOLO (1993)
Hazel Rochman (review date 1 June 1994)
SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. Review of The Solo, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Bobette McCarthy. Booklist 90, nos. 19-20 (1 June 1994): 1840.
Ages 4-8—Mary Hoffman's Amazing Grace (1991) is a beautiful, upbeat story about a girl who believes in herself, practices hard, and gets the main role in the school play. But for the rest of us who dream and rehearse and just aren't good enough to be the star we deserve to be, Lasky's funny story [The Solo ] will be company, if not comfort. When the leader of the playground circle kicks Grace out of the dance group ("I was too bossy, she said"), Grace decides to dance alone; it's called solo, Mom says. Grace dances and dances at home; she dresses up herself and her dog and twirls around and picks herself up when she falls down. The watercolor illustrations extend what the words say: "This is hard. The music goes too fast and I go too slow." She keeps trying. She imagines herself doing hippety-hops before a grand audience. Her parents tell her she has guts and gumption, but her brother is frank that she's going to embarrass him. The wry comedy is refreshing, and, in fact, it's not all failure. Grace stands up to peer pressure, and readers will appreciate the candid view of jungle-gym power games.
THE TANTRUM (1993)
Publishers Weekly (review date 15 March 1993)
SOURCE: Review of The Tantrum, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Bobette McCarthy. Publishers Weekly 240, no. 11 (15 March 1993): 84.
In [The Tantrum, ] this rather slight story that may disappoint readers of Lasky's more memorable books, including Sugaring Time and I Have an Aunt on Marlborough Street, Grace is having a tantrum. As she slams her head against the bed and bangs her feet against the wall, her parents try in vain to calm her down, and her older brother torments her with glib remarks ("Gracie's having a little tantrum, a fit, a fitsky"). Still the red-head stomps and fumes ("I felt my face turn monster green and tight as a wet knot in a shoelace"), even though she has forgotten what set her off to begin with. Recalling her brother's past tantrums, Grace is comforted by the thought that her mother is there to make her children feel safe at such times. And, Grace concludes, she too will grow up someday and leave tantrums behind, "because scuff marks from big shoes look real silly on a wall." Though lacking the vitality and whimsy of her illustrations for Buffalo Girls and Ten Little Hippos: A Counting Book, McCarthy's cartoon-like watercolors convey just the right balance of amusement and commiseration.
A VOICE IN THE WIND: A STARBUCK FAMILY ADVENTURE(1993)
Julie Halverstadt (review date December 1993)
SOURCE: Halverstadt, Julie. Review of A Voice in the Wind: A Starbuck Family Adventure, by Kathryn Lasky. School Library Journal 39, no. 12 (December 1993): 114.
Gr. 4-8—The Starbucks are back in a new adventure [in A Voice in the Wind: A Starbuck Family Adventure ]. Communicating through telepathic channels, the two sets of twins journey to the Southwest with their father on an EPA mission to divert water to a Native American tribe. A group of radical environmentalists is using any means necessary to divert the Starbucks from the project. Their mother's twin sister plans for them to stay at her local health spa, and it becomes apparent to the astute children that her evil partner is involved with a ring of artifacts' thieves, who are actually the environmentalists in thin disguise. The shards that she covets are the remains of a 600-year-old piece of pottery made by a young Anasazi girl whose spirit cannot be set free until her last pot is whole once again. The older Starbuck twins, Liberty and July, accompanied by their younger sisters, Charly and Molly, and their babysitter stumble upon the mystery in an ancient kiva with the help of a psychic hamster. Sound farfetched? Well it is, but young readers will soon be drawn into the mystery and the well-researched history of the area. Lasky skillfully weaves together Native American lore and the beauty of the Southwest.
BEYOND THE BURNING TIME (1994)
Hazel Rochman (review date 15 October 1994)
SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. Review of Beyond the Burning Time, by Kathryn Lasky. Booklist 91, no. 4 (15 October 1994): 420.
Gr. 7-12—Lasky's docu-novel about the Salem witch trials [Beyond the Burning Time ] captures the mass hysteria, the ignorance, the violence, the power struggle, and the calculated self-interest that drove the New England community to execute 24 people as agents of the devil. The focus is on 12-year-old Mary Chase as she tries desperately to rescue her mother, Virginia, who has been accused of witch-craft and sentenced to hang. Mary's struggle is dramatic, especially near the end when she grows fierce and strong in her determination to set her mother free. Unfortunately, the individual story is swamped by the wealth of background information. The huge cast of characters is almost impossible to keep straight, especially since there are abrupt switches in point of view from that of Mary to that of other people and back again; there are also general observations about the politics of the time and the evils of theocracy. Lasky's research is meticulous: she draws on court records and contemporary accounts to show the community madness. The history overwhelms the fiction, but both are compelling.
Mary M. Burns (review date March-April 1995)
SOURCE: Burns, Mary M. Review of Beyond the Burning Time, by Kathryn Lasky. Horn Book Magazine 71, no. 2 (March-April 1995): 200.
For decades, the Salem witch trials have been a durable historical attraction for writers and readers. Often forgotten, or overlooked, are the underlying political, economic, and social factors which led to the madness. As Lasky notes in her afterword [for Beyond the Burning Time ], "old grudges, jealousy, and money had as much to do with the tragedy of Salem as superstitions." Written with passionate intensity, Lasky's fictional re-creation clarifies those tensions and gives the events of 1692 a frightening immediacy. Twelve-year-old Mary Chase, whose widowed mother, Virginia, senses the danger lurking in the dark minds of her less enlightened neighbors, is able to avoid the fortune-telling sessions which precipitated the "visions" of the several adolescent girls who functioned as primary accusers in the trials; however, neither she nor her mother are able to stop the escalation of events, which culminate in Virginia's trial, conviction, and subsequent rescue. Without sensationalizing, Lasky suggests the ambience of seventeenth-century New England, where seeming piety could conceal repressed sexuality, as in the voyeurism of the Chases' mentally challenged hired man; or the secret yearnings of Mary Warren, one of the "afflicted" girls, for her master, John Proctor; or the relationship between Captain Coatsworth and tavern keeper Lucy Pelham. In the epilogue, Mary, now in her ninety-ninth year, begins an account of the events which forever changed her life. Thus, the sentence which concludes the book echoes the beginning—an interesting device that allows the use of a more omniscient perspective than would be permitted in a first-person narrative.
CLOUD EYES (1994)
Publishers Weekly (review date 7 November 1994)
SOURCE: Review of Cloud Eyes, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Barry Moser. Publishers Weekly 241, no. 45 (7 November 1994): 78.
In language as clear as "the honeybee's sweet gold" and with black-and-white drawings that seem etched with "moon silver." Lasky and Moser spin an imaginative tale about a youth who dances with bears [in Cloud Eyes ]. Cloud Eyes is a dreamer: because he can "find stories in the clouds," he can "see and understand what other people could not." When the bear destroy the honeybees' trees and the honey pots of the people stand empty, Great-grandmother Bee sends Cloud Eyes a vision to teach him the dances of the bears. The resolution of the plot is hazy, as Cloud Eyes ritualistically kills a bear and wears its skin to dance with the bears at night. Later on, the bears become "as calm and gentle as the bees" because they remember Cloud Eyes's dance "as if it were a dance from a dream." Lasky's (Sugaring Time ) lyrical story and Moser's (Appalachia) masterful art seem perfectly in tune. The stillness of Moser's compositions, framed in plain tan borders, emphasizes the formal tone of the prose. Ages 5-10.
DAYS OF THE DEAD (1994)
Stephanie Zvirin (review date 15 October 1994)
SOURCE: Zvirin, Stephanie. Review of Days of the Dead, by Kathryn Lasky, photographs by Christopher G. Knight. Booklist 91, no. 4 (15 October 1994): 421.
Gr. 3-6—By focusing on one poor, close-knit family's observance of Los Dias de Muertos [in Days of the Dead ], Lasky and Knight contribute a sense of immediacy and intimacy to their description of how and why the Days of the Dead are celebrated in a Mexican village. Knight's photographs capture the revelry, reverence, and sense of community inspired by the holiday, which Lasky relates in very general terms to such autumnal celebrations as Halloween and All Saints' Day. This is not as smoothly accomplished as some of Lasky and Knight's previous collaborations—the initial transition from background information to the family close-up is somewhat awkward, and Knight takes some intriguing chances with light and exposure that aren't entirely successful. Yet, pictures and text coalesce into a memorable portrait of both the people and the celebrations that will provide a springboard for report writers. A glossary is appended, as is a section that expands on aspects of the holiday broached in the main text.
THE LIBRARIAN WHO MEASURED THE EARTH (1994)
Carolyn Phelan (review date 1 November 1994)
SOURCE: Phelan, Carolyn. Review of The Librarian Who Measured the Earth, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. Booklist 91, no. 5 (1 November 1994): 494.
Introducing a person and a period largely unknown to children, this picture-book biography [The Librarian Who Measured the Earth ] depicts the life of Eratosthenes, an ancient Greek who eventually became the head of the famous library in Alexandria. His most notable achievement was a remarkably ingenious method for measuring the earth's girth. After determining the angles of shadows in two cities and the distance between them, he used geometry to calculate the circumference of the earth.
Illustrating the text with warmth and humor, Hawkes' acrylic paintings capture the period details of the setting and clarify the geometric concepts used in the measurement. The often dramatic compositions vary from page to page, while the sunlit reds, oranges, and yellows glow brightly against the cooler blues and greens. Even unnamed characters look like individuals, with their own concerns and personalities. Hawke's attention to detail and his occasional visual humor will reward any child who studies the illustrations.
Entertaining as well as instructional, the text presents the man, the story, the geometry, the geography, and the ancient world itself in simple prose. Lasky can be commended for making history so readable. And yet … is it history? Is it biography? or is it fiction?
In the introductory "Author's Note," Lasky explains that there are gaps in our knowledge of Eratosthenes and that "we cannot fill them in by making up facts, but we can try to responsibly image based on what we already know, which is what I've tried to do in this book." Unfortunately, the reader has no way of knowing what parts of the book are factual and what parts spring from Lasky's imagination. As a baby, was Eratosthenes really "curious and full of wonder"? Well, probably; most babies fit that description. Did he "crawl across the kitchen floor to follow the path of ants"? Maybe. Did he wonder "why there were beads of water on the cistern in the morning" and "why the stars stayed in the sky"? Or did the author "responsibly imagine" that part? How about the details of school life at the gymnasium in Cyrene? Was Eratosthenes "a real whiz in math" as a schoolboy? Or does Lasky imagine that he must have been a whiz as a child because of his later achievements in the field as an adult?
A more careful wording of the text would separate knowledge from supposition, a fundamental principle of scholarship. When she speaks of Eratosthenes measuring the earth's circumference, Lasky says, "Perhaps he imagined the earth as a grapefruit." The word perhaps makes all the difference. If she had taken that approach from the beginning, this book would be outstanding. As fragmentary as the record may be, there's something special about real history, and readers can sense it.
The old juvenile biographies with invented conversations fell out of favor for good reason. Readers count on nonfiction to deliver the truth: maybe not the whole truth, but nothing but the truth, within the limits of the author's knowledge. Eratosthenes sounds like a fascinating man, but it's difficult to sort out which parts of this book are historically accurate and which are not. The author's and illustrator's bibliographies of 25 books and articles reassure us that they know what is history and what is invention. But in calling the book a biography, the author has a responsibility to let readers know, as well. Otherwise, the book should be placed in the equally respectable category of historical fiction, which also requires enormous research but gives greater range for an author's imagination.
Although flawed in its presentation of the main character, The Librarian Who Measured the Earth belongs in many libraries because it contains an entertaining introduction to the ancient world, a clear explanation of Eratosthenes' measurement of the earth, and remarkably vibrant illustrations.
MEMOIRS OF A BOOKBAT (1994)
Hazel Rochman (review date 15 April 1994)
SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. Review of Memoirs of a Bookbat, by Kathryn Lasky. Booklist 90, no. 16 (15 April 1994): 1526.
Gr. 5-9—Thinly disguised as a novel, [Memoirs of a Bookbat ] is an essay about the danger of the religious Right. Characterization is minimal: the fundamentalists are all caricatures of fools and villains. The free-thinking teenage narrator looks back at her life with her weird, religious parents and sees that reading books has made her wise and humane and broad-minded: even as a young child, she learned from Brer Rabbit to be cunning and to hide the books her parents crusaded against. The plot is manipulated to suit the argument: in the library she happens to meet the perfect wise, humane, liberal boy, who takes her home to his model nonsexist family and helps her to escape the prison of her life. Here, there's none of the complexity about religion and family found in books like Tolan's Save Halloween! (1993). Of course, the issues are crucial, and anyone concerned with intellectual freedom will find Lasky's arguments convincing and disturbing. She shows clearly that book censorship may be part of a general culture of repression and bigotry. She glories in scientific inquiry, in the pleasures of the best books, from Huck Finn to horror fiction. She makes an excellent case, but it remains a sermon, not a story about people.
Diane Roback and Elizabeth Devereaux (review date 23 May 1994)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, and Elizabeth Devereaux. Review of Memoirs of a Bookbat, by Kathryn Lasky. Publishers Weekly 241, no. 21 (23 May 1994): 90.
"Honey," Harper's mother says to her sweetly, "You're no longer just a migrant for God. You're on his rescue squad." Harper, a highly intelligent teenager given to irony, tells how she ended up leaving her Christian fundamentalist family in this first-person narrative [Memoirs of a Bookbat ]. Ever since her parents have been "reborn," the family has been traveling all over the country in their Roadmaster, speaking out against blasphemy, especially the kind found in C. S. Lewis's Narnia tales, Judy Blume's books and textbooks that teach evolution. But while giving off the outward impression that she is a believer too, Harper is actually a secret devotee of all the books her parents despise ("Are you there Judy? It's me, Harper," she says at one point). Harper's eventual escape is partially inspired by her correspondence with an author of fantasy stories. In this very smart (and somewhat acerbic) book, Newbery honoree Lasky (Double Trouble Squared ; The Night Journey ) combines fictional characters with real-life authors and religious groups (such as Operation Rescue) to create a credible and entertaining story of an emerging independent thinker. Ages 12-up.
THE GATES OF THE WIND (1995)
Hanna B. Zeiger (review date April-May 1996)
SOURCE: Zeiger, Hanna B. Review of The Gates of the Wind, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Janet Stevens. Horn Book Magazine 72, no. 2 (April-May 1996): 189.
[In The Gates of the Wind, p]lucky, tough Gamma Lee decides to leave her comfortable village and safe home in the valley to go exploring at the top of the mountains and find "the place her great-grandmother had told her about years earlier"—the Gates of the Wind. In the ensuing tug of war between the old woman and the contrary, powerful wind that whips around the mountain top, Gamma Lee learns to survive and flourish by adapting to her new surroundings. When the wind turns the wooden house she has built to matchsticks, Gamma Lee looks closely at the things that grow successfully on the mountain and builds herself a home of supple reeds that permits the wind to sing "a thin song through the walls." Learning to plant root vegetables and mountain wildflowers, she chuckles as the wind blows gently through the blossoms and says, "You're back…. I missed you." Meanwhile, in the village, the stories told about Gamma Lee inspire a young girl to want to go exploring someday beyond the Gates of the Wind. Stevens's windblown illustrations capture the humor and excitement of this story about a most unusual heroine.
POND YEAR (1995)
Carolyn Phelan (review date 15 May 1995)
SOURCE: Phelan, Carolyn. Review of Pond Year, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Mike Bostock. Booklist 91, no. 18 (15 May 1995): 1652.
Ages 5-8—A little girl tells how she and her best friend explore the pond behind her house [in Pond Year ]. Beginning in April, she explains how they get to know the pond throughout the year: wading in it, playing with salamanders, watching eggs hatch into tadpoles that grow into frogs, scooping up mud and scum, observing wild flowers and insects, waiting for muskrats to appear, and skating on its winter ice. Sunlit water-color illustrations record the natural processes of pond life as well as the warm friendship of the two young girls who are "pond buddies, scum chums—forever." An unusually appealing introduction to pond life, this book will be particularly welcome in the many primary-grade classrooms where frog hatching is a spring feature.
SHE'S WEARING A DEAD BIRD ON HER HEAD!(1995)
Carolyn Phelan (review date 15 October 1995)
SOURCE: Phelan, Carolyn. Review of She's Wearing a Dead Bird on Her Head!, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by David Catrow. Booklist 92, no. 4 (15 October 1995): 404.
Gr. 3-5—Though the founding of the Massachusetts Audubon Society seems an unlikely subject for a picture book, this story [She's Wearing a Dead Bird on Her Head! ] has a personal slant that broadens its appeal. Two proper Boston ladies of the 1890s are appalled when the fashion for feathers on ladies' hats gets even more extreme, with whole birds perched on top. Partly because they favor women's suffrage (who would give the vote to women with birds on their heads?) and partly because they oppose killing birds for fashion, Minna and Harriet begin a conservation movement that starts with society ladies, expands to include sportsmen and schoolchildren, and ultimately succeeds in passing laws protecting many birds. Reflecting humorous touches in the text, the colorful ink-and-watercolor art-work pokes fun at the extremes of fashion and the haughty pretensions of society. Based on exaggeration and caricature, the broad humor is carried off in a good-natured way. This is an unusual picture book showing some of the difficulties women faced 100 years ago, as well as their determination to work for a good cause.
A BRILLIANT STREAK: THE MAKING OF MARK TWAIN (1996)
Publishers Weekly (review date 16 March 1998)
SOURCE: Review of A Brilliant Streak: The Making of Mark Twain, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Barry Moser. Publishers Weekly 245, no. 11 (16 March 1998): 66.
Poor pacing and ambiguous assertions bog down Lasky's (Alice Rose and Sam ) biography of the man who had as colorful and boisterous a boyhood as his own Huckleberry Finn [A Brilliant Streak: The Making of Mark Twain ]. Delectable examples of Samuel Langhorne Clemens's childhood forays (escaping from the classroom to swim in Bear Creek, stealing a skiff to explore a cave), many of which became fodder for his novels, mingle with muddy discussions of broader, more abstract ideas like truth and freedom. For example, to illustrate Clemens's famous truth-stretching talents, Lasky asserts, "He might tell lies, but they were honest lies and had a certain unvarnished truth about them"—points that are likely too fine for the target audience. One of the other issues that would plague Clemens in his lifetime was slavery. Lasky tells of a moving incident in childhood which purportedly made him "seriously question the ownership of one human being by another," yet he later fights in the Civil War for the South. Lasky argues that "a group of old friends persuaded him to join the war on the Confederate side" but doesn't describe any complications that might have arisen for Clemens. Such blithe statements leave readers hanging. While some of Moser's (When Birds Could Talk and Bats Could Sing) portraits transmit Sam's joie de vivre, others (like a static view of a supine body with feet looming large and a Bible on its chest, meant to illustrate a "tortuous image" of a dying man struggling to breathe) almost detract from the events. Readers may walk away from this biogra- phy with plenty of unanswered questions, but the rugged spirit of its subject permeates the volume and will likely whet readers' appetites for more of Mark Twain and his novels. Ages 6-12.
Mary M. Burns (review date May-June 1998)
SOURCE: Burns, Mary M. Review of A Brilliant Streak: The Making of Mark Twain, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Barry Moser. Horn Book Magazine 74, no. 3 (May-June 1998): 361.
An obvious delight in her subject makes [A Brilliant Streak: The Making of Mark Twain, ] Lasky's biography of the man who created Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer an appealing choice for middle-school readers. A similar enthusiasm invests Barry Moser's illustrations, focusing primarily on people. By restricting the scope to the years that transformed Samuel Clemens into Mark Twain (after a short experiment with the pseudonym Josh), Lasky has neatly solved the problem of too much information and not enough story without sacrificing essential facts. (In the final chapter, however, this economy does lead to a minor omission by implying that Twain had only three children, all daughters, when, in reality, his first child was a son who died in infancy.) Interpretations are skillfully qualified, as in Lasky's speculations on Twain's mother's reaction to the sight of Halley's comet streaking across the sky shortly after Sam's birth: "Looking out the window, Jane Clemens might have felt that the comet was a sign…. " Indeed, the use of the comet as a link between Twain's birth and death emphasizes the thematic structure suggested by the title and the subject's stellar place in American literary history. Each of the chapters is preceded by an appropriate excerpt from Twain's writings; shorter quotations are incorporated into the main text. An appended, selective bibliography of books by and about Mark Twain indicates what are probably the principal sources used for crafting this handsome and inviting book.
A JOURNEY TO THE NEW WORLD: THE DIARY OF REMEMBER PATIENCE WHIPPLE, MAYFLOWER, 1620 (1996)
Publishers Weekly (review date 2 September 1996)
SOURCE: Review of A Journey to the New World: The Diary of Remember Patience Whipple, Mayflower, 1620, by Kathryn Lasky. Publishers Weekly 243, no. 36 (2 September 1996): 131.
In the impressive inaugural installments of the Dear America series, three accomplished authors give readers illuminating glimpses of the nation's past. Presented as a girl's diary, each book features real-life historical figures and the diarists' subjective descriptions of significant occurrences (respectively, the Pilgrims' journey on the Mayflower and founding of Plymouth colony in 1620, Washington's army's arduous winter of 1778 at Valley Forge, and the Union occupation of a Virginia town in 1864). The greatest emphasis, however, is on the girls' daily lives and their relationships with family, friends and sometimes annoying acquaintances. All three authors include an abundance of hard-hitting incidents and images: the mothers of two of the narrators die; Remember watches as bodies of the dead are thrown overboard from the Mayflower; near an army surgeon's hut, Abby spies a trough filled with hands and feet. Journal entries in Denenberg's book are decidedly more formal and ponderous than those penned by Lasky [A Journey to the New World: The Diary of Remember Patience Whipple ] and Gregory, but his heroine's personality and way of life emerge almost as convincingly as those of her counterparts. Epilogues provide a follow-up to the fictional characters' lives, while historical notes objectively summarize key events of the periods. Rough-edged pages and sewn-in ribbon placemarkers give these attractively priced, paper-over-board volumes the look of genuine diaries. More than a supplement to classroom textbooks, the series is an imaginative, solid entree into American history. Ages 8-13.
TRUE NORTH: A NOVEL OF THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD (1996)
Publishers Weekly (review date 15 July 1996)
SOURCE: Review of True North, by Kathryn Lasky. Publishers Weekly 243, no. 29 (15 July 1996): 75.
Lasky (The Night Journey ) again combines suspenseful fiction with history as she intersects the lives of two 19th-century adolescent girls: Afrika, a runaway slave from a Virginia plantation, and Lucy, a restless young socialite from Boston [in True North ]. While Afrika travels the Underground Railroad, dodging slave catchers and their hounds, Lucy prepares for her sister's upcoming wedding to a prominent New Yorker even though she would rather be helping her grandfather with his abolitionist efforts. The paths of the two girls converge when Lucy discovers Afrika hiding in her grandfather's house after "Pap" has died from a stroke. Together, the two girls embark on a dangerous journey to the Canadian border. Both Afrika and Lucy are, from the beginning, admirable, likable heroines, but the true colors of other characters are not revealed until long after the girls' daring trip. Lasky clearly illustrates the tyranny of slave masters, the support of slave labor in the North, the restrictions placed on 19th-century women and the philosophies of such revolutionaries as Robert Gould Shaw, Abigail Adams and Ralph Waldo Emerson (each of whom plays a minor role in this riveting drama). Telling her story with sensitivity and flair, the author amply fulfills the goal she states in an afterword: to write "within the structures of logic and judicious imagination." Ages 12-up.
William McLoughlin (review date March-April 1997)
SOURCE: McLoughlin, William. Review of True North, by Kathryn Lasky. Book Report 15, no. 5 (March-April 1997): 37.
The Underground Railroad is the backdrop for this historical novel [True North ] that opens in 1858. The nation's citizens arc polarized by the rhetoric from abolitionists and slave owners, and the country is poised for civil war. Lucy Bradford, 14, is far removed from the crisis in the comfortable world of Boston's upper class, where teenage girls are preoccupied with dresses and dances, and where her doting grandfather, Dr. Levi Bradford, cultivates her interest in books. Hundreds of miles away in a Virginia swamp, 14-year-old Afrika is about to flee a different world where, as a slave, she has been repeatedly sold, beaten, and raped. She has just given birth to a premature baby who dies in her arms. Her dangerous journey to the North unfolds in striking contrast to Lucy's secure life in Boston. But Lucy will experience her own journey; she has discovered that her grandfather's nightly outings to go owling are covert forays to transport fugitive slaves to safety. Moved by her grandfather's compassion, Lucy too becomes involved. Eventually, Afrika's and Lucy's paths converge, and Lucy acts boldly to help Afrika find refuge in Canada Lasky skillfully captures the mood of 19th-century Boston: readers can almost see the glow of the gaslights and hear the sound of horse-drawn carriages on cobblestone streets shrouded by a fog that permeates the story with mystery and intrigue. Likewise, she shows the rigid social anti political climate of the city, where dinner conversation tiptoes around the slavery issue. The novel's most lasting impression is of the sheer terror that grips Afrika as she crisscrosses the "stations" of the Underground Railroad like a hunted animal. In constant fear of death, Afrika endures one painful indignity after another. She is transported up Chesapeake Bay inside a reeking bait barrel, her body covered by live crabs, and later chased into a raging creek at night by armed slave-catchers and howling dogs. She is hidden atop a corpse inside the suffocating darkness of a pine coffin. Afrika, Lucy, and Dr. Bradford are well-drawn characters who will inspire young readers and help them understand that the Underground Railroad was not a physical entity but a constantly changing, fragile network of Americans who engaged in courageous acts of civil disobedience at enormous personal risk. In True North, Lasky personalizes the network with unforgettable human faces, and celebrates the charity and hope that thrived during an ignominious period of history. Bibliography. Highly Recommended.
HERCULES: THE MAN, THE MYTH, THE HERO (1997)
Publishers Weekly (review date 26 May 1997)
SOURCE: Review of Hercules: The Man, the Myth, the Hero, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Mark Hess. Publishers Weekly 244, no. 21 (26 May 1997): 85.
The pumped-up mythical figure cursed by his superhuman strength narrates his glorious story in this rock 'em, sock 'em picture book [Hercules: The Man, the Myth, the Hero ]. The son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Hercules suffers the wrath of Zeus's jealous wife, Hera. From wrestling serpents in his crib to slaying a lion with his sword, Hercules bravely fends off any evil challenges that Hera sends his way. But victory does not come without tragedy, and Hercules also faces a number of emotional battles as he struggles with his god-mortal identity. Lasky (The Librarian Who Measured the Earth ; She's Wearing a Dead Bird on Her Head! ) rises to the formidable task of presenting the intricate twists and turns of Greek mythology in a manner accommodating to children. Her first-person text imagines Hercules's feelings and, although she does not avoid the tale's violence and death, she paints him as a more accessible character than in many other adaptations. In his picture book debut, Hess's kinetic acrylics have an aggressive, you-are-there perspective that draws readers into the classical period action. His toga-clad, muscle-bound human figures and graphic attacking beasts—fangs bared and claws drawn—infuse the proceedings with the scent of high adventure. This title will also serve as one of many alternatives to the anticipated rush of tie-ins to the Disney animated film Hercules, set for summer release. Ages 5-9.
MARVEN OF THE GREAT NORTH WOODS (1997)
Publishers Weekly (review date 6 October 1997)
SOURCE: Review of Marven of the Great North Woods, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. Publishers Weekly 244, no. 41 (6 October 1997): 83.
During the 1918 winter flu epidemic in Duluth, Minn., 10-year-old Marven is dispatched from home to a north country logging camp where he will be safe [in Marven of the Great North Woods ]. Five hours after leaving his family on the train platform, the boy steps into a vast, white landscape and points his skis toward the great forest—where he soon meets French Canadian lumberjacks who nearly match the size of the trees. After settling into his own room (complete with woodstove and "a bed with a bearskin on it") and into his bookkeeping duties, Marven develops a friendship with the brawniest jack in camp, Jean Louis. Thanks to Lasky's (The Night Journey ) considerable command of language and narrative detail, readers will linger over descriptions of Marven's solo journey, his humorous attempts at French, his delight at the jacks' masculine quarters and their robust dancing, his first meeting with Jean Louis and their tender farewell. Hawkes's (The Librarian Who Measured the Earth ) warm, glowing, acrylic illustrations skillfully capture Marven's changing emotions and the distinct contrast between the mood of the boy's home and the lumber camp. Based on the true experience of Lasky's father, this is a story of courage inspired by familial affection and the unexpected kindness of strangers. Ages 6-10.
GraceAnne A. DeCandido (review date 15 December 1997)
SOURCE: DeCandido, GraceAnne A. Review of Marven of the Great North Woods, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. Booklist 94, no. 8 (15 December 1997): 702.
Ages 5-9—Inspired by her father's childhood, Lasky's handsomely crafted picture book [Marven of the Great North Woods ] is also a captivating survival story. During the influenza epidemic of 1918, 10-year-old Marven is sent by his parents from urban Duluth to a logging camp in the great north woods of Minnesota. In addition to his responsibilities as the camp's bookkeeper, Marven is given the daunting task of rousing the French Canadian lumberjacks who refuse to get out of bed. This frightening job leads to a tender friendship with lean Louis, an enormous, hairy (and enormously hairy!), but kindhearted jack. Contributing to the books vivid sense of time and place are Hawkes' graphically accomplished paintings. He conveys Marven's feelings of isolation when he arrives at the desolate train station through a sweeping canvas that combines a seemingly endless panorama of snow and sky. In contrast, he uses warm, glowing hues and soft, rounded figures to capture Marven's joy when he dances in his stocking feet on the shoulders of his huge friend. Because the narrative never descends into the sentimental, it is all the more powerful when Marven is reunited with his family. Here the lad's pent-up feelings come flowing out "You're not dead!" In addition to its potential as a read-aloud, this marvelous book can cut across the curriculum for units combining math, science, history, geography, religion, literature, and language.
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL ROOF IN THE WORLD: EXPLORING THE RAINFOREST CANOPY (1997)
Carolyn Phelan (review date 1 April 1997)
SOURCE: Phelan, Carolyn. Review of The Most Beautiful Roof in the World: Exploring the Rainforest Canopy, by Kathryn Lasky, photographs by Christopher G. Knight. Booklist 93, no. 15 (1 April 1997): 1330.
Gr. 3-5—Lasky's unusually vivid introduction to the rainforest follows biologist Meg Lowman into the canopy to look at plants and animals [in The Most Beautiful Roof in the World: Exploring the Rainforest Canopy ]. The director of research and conservation at a center in Florida, Lowman travels with her two young sons to a rain forest site in Belize. There she and her assistant climb into the canopy and perform their experiments. They inspect leaves eaten by insects, look at "ant gardens" in the treetops, and observe the activities of various insects and animals and their effects on plant life. Later, the scientist takes her sons on their first trip to the canopy and then for an evening nature walk on the forest floor. The narrative approach to nature study can be tedious, but Lasky's writing creates scenes and relates facts in ways that are vivid and memorable. Every page of this large-format book features colorful photographs that reflect the you-are-there quality of the text: long-range views of the forest, close-ups of individual species, and many pictures of Lowman and her sons, which have a natural, unstudied look. Fresh in outlook and intriguing in details, this book will strengthen any library collection on the rainforest.
ALICE ROSE AND SAM (1998)
Publishers Weekly (review date 16 February 1998)
SOURCE: Review of Alice Rose and Sam, by Kathryn Lasky. Publishers Weekly 245, no. 7 (16 February 1998): 212.
Unlike most other residents of Virginia City, Nev., in the 1860s, feisty 12-year-old Alice Rose does not give a hoot about silver mining or striking it rich [in Alice Rose and Sam ]. "This is no place for a child!" she protests, and the grittiness of the opening scenes proves her point: while her father works late at the newspaper, Alice Rose sneaks off to the cemetery to protect her mother's and infant sister's fresh graves from coyotes. She sets about earning enough money to return to Boston and join her cousins at a proper ladies' seminary, but in the meantime she consorts with ail eclectic collection of friends: the hurdy-gurdy girls, for whom she sews dresses; kindly Hop Sing, who lays track for the railroad; rich Miss Eilley; and the not-yet-famous Samuel Clemens, who helps Alice Rose expose the nefarious deeds of a band of Confederate vigilantes called the Society of Seven. Alice Rose's frustrations with the West contrast with Sam's recognition of its beauty ("You look down into the throat of that cactus blossom, Alice Rose, and you tell me if you have ever seen anything prettier"), but both enjoy a good yarn and are suspicious of the town's hypocritical Christians. Lasky's (True North ) picturesque dialogue and precise, energetic characterizations more than make Lip for the book's choppy flow. A view of American history teeming with adventure and local color. Ages 8-12.
SOPHIE ROSE (1998)
Publishers Weekly (review date 24 August 1998)
SOURCE: Review of Sophie and Rose, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin. Publishers Weekly 245, no. 34 (24 August 1998): 56.
[In Sophie and Rose, ] Sophie is overjoyed to discover Rose, a doll who has been in the family for two generations and is "so old-fashioned that she seemed like a visitor from another time." Sophie soon learns that Rose is fragile: when Sophie combs the doll's hair, a chunk falls out; a fall from a precarious perch chips Rose's nose; and when Sophie leaves her in the garden overnight, she loses an eye. Poor Rose is quite a sight by the book's end, but the doll's vulnerability endears her to Sophie all the more, and the two become inseparable: "[Sophie] knows she will always love her Rose, who listens with her seashell ears … and who was so brave through the long garden night." Moving but never sentimental, Lasky's (Marven of the Great North Woods ) text proves the poetic power of simple, straightforward language, while Halperin's (Once Upon a Company) watercolors possess an old-fashioned quality with a muted palette and classic fabric and wallpaper patterns. The artist frequently breaks up the action into a series of freeze-frames that expand the action beyond the text (showing, for example, how Sophie inadvertently leaves Rose behind in the garden). An uplifting affirmation that beloved toys and imaginative play stand the test of time. Ages 4-8.
ELIZABETH I, RED ROSE OF THE HOUSE OF TUDOR (1999)
Ann W. Moore (review date October 1999)
SOURCE: Moore, Ann W. Review of Elizabeth I, Red Rose of the House of Tudor, by Kathryn Lasky. School Library Journal 45, no. 10 (October 1999): 154.
Gr. 4-8—This book [Elizabeth I, Red Rose of the House of Tudor ], one of a new series of fictional diaries focusing on royalty, tells the story of Elizabeth I of England. Lasky's account starts when Elizabeth is 10 and ends almost 3 years later after her father, King Henry VIII, dies. The author provides a clear portrait of upper-class life in 16th-century England-the filthy living conditions, games and recreations, holidays, food, and education. Oddly, there is little mention of clothing. Her study of the young princess focuses on Elizabeth's frequent loneliness and her desperate desire for her father's attention. Readers will enjoy the family intrigues but also will identify with Elizabeth's surprisingly modern doubts and concerns. The book concludes with a family tree, black-and-white portraits, and a historical note; this, however, never mentions what happened to Lady Jane Grey and Robin Dudley, key characters in the story. Unfortunately, the history in the novel itself is not always accurate, and Elizabeth's voice veers inconsistently from contemporary to old-fashioned. Still, it's enjoyable light reading.
AnnMarie Hamar (review date September-October 2000)
SOURCE: Hamar, AnnMarie. Review of Elizabeth I, Red Rose of the House of Tudor, by Kathryn Lasky. Children's Book and Play Review 21, no. 1 (September-October 2000): 25-6.
"I am a forgotten princess," eleven-year-old Elizabeth writes in her diary [in Elizabeth I, Red Rose of the House of Tudor, ] "At times my father, King Henry VIII, needs to forget me." Elizabeth, a princess of England, lives a life surrounded by court intrigue. Daughter of the fallen queen Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth is aware of her precarious situation at court and knows that her father may exile her at any time. She loves her younger brother Edward, the heir to the English throne, and her governess Kat, but she despises her older sister, Mary, who enjoys tormenting her. Elizabeth is afraid of her father's temper, yet longs to be noticed by him, even if he does nothing more than wink at her. She confides to her diary how badly she wants to be queen and writes that she will never marry. Her great fear, she says, is that her diary will be found and she will be accused of treason.
This book is one in a series entitled The Royal Diaries. It is an interesting, fictionalized account of the life of the princess who would eventually become Queen Elizabeth I. Readers of historical fiction will enjoy the detail of sixteenth-century court life. Lasky also incorporates into the story some fairly accurate historical facts about the House of Tudor and England. The book has an appendix which contains the Tudor family tree and black-and-white photographs of historical sites.
THE EMPEROR'S OLD CLOTHES (1999)
Susan Dove Lempke (review date 1 March 1999)
SOURCE: Lempke, Susan Dove. Review of The Emperor's Old Clothes, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by David Catrow. Booklist 95, no. 13 (1 March 1999): 1221.
Ages 4-8—Henry lives a bucolic, happy life on his farm with his beloved animals [in The Emperor's Old Clothes ]. While making his way home from the crowded marketplace on the emperor's birthday, he finds a fine silk stocking by the side of the road. He can't resist trying it on. Nor can he resist the curling, feathered shoes or the peach pantaloons he finds. Soon he is arrayed in finery fit for an emperor. After returning to town and seeing the emperor's "new clothes," he goes home in disgust, only to discover that his own new clothes look just as silly to the farm animals. Lasky's use of language adds richness and detail to the funny story, and Catrow's exuberant, bright watercolors are filled with sparkling comedic touches. Henry's proud expression and the faces of the laughing animals are particularly delightful. Of course, a book based on a traditional story is always the most fun when children know the original, so pair this with the classic version and use it with older story hour groups or with primary grades.
STAR SPLIT (1999)
Publishers Weekly (review date 6 December 1999)
SOURCE: Review of Star Split, by Kathryn Lasky. Publishers Weekly 246, no. 49 (6 December 1999): 78.
Lasky (Alice Rose and Sam ) provocatively explores the ethics of genetic engineering in this well-plotted novel [Star Split ] set in the year 3038. Like everyone she knows, 13-year-old Darci Murlowe is a Genhant, or Genetically Enhanced Human, implanted with a 48th chromosome. But Darci is fascinated by "Originals," people whose ancestors could not afford to get extra genetic material, and she unhappily wonders if her DNA, so carefully chosen by her parents, has compromised her ability to determine her own future. These concerns shrink in the face of a shocker—Darci runs into a clone of herself, living evidence that her parents must have committed the capital crime of "duplication." The author maintains taut suspense even as she outlines the technological underpinnings of Darci's futuristic society. There are some weak spots (a hasty resolution, an implausible similarity between the social structure of the fourth millennium and that of today), but on the whole this is gripping fare. An afterword explains that every one of the genetic engineering strategies mentioned in the novel is based on techniques currently available or in developmental stages; thus tipping the balance in her science fiction toward science, Lasky leaves readers with plenty of food for thought. Ages 10-14.
FIRST PAINTER (2000)
Publishers Weekly (review date 18 September 2000)
SOURCE: Review of First Painter, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Rocco Baviera. Publishers Weekly 247, no. 38 (18 September 2000): 112.
Lasky (Sophie and Rose ) lyrically and plausibly imagines what might have prompted the creativity of a young cave painter [in First Painter ]. When her mother, a Dream Catcher, dies while attempting to relieve their people of drought and famine, Mishoo, as the eldest daughter, inherits the position. In a nar- rative that evokes the rhythms of an ancient chant ("I have lived for ten moons of the Singing Grass, and now I am beginning to forget the rain—its sound, its shape, and how the water clouds gather like herds of wooly mammoths in the east"), Lasky paints the desperation of Mishoo's plight. A recurring dream with a nightly call—uttered by generations of Dream Catchers before her—urges the heroine to "go to the cave of the she-tiger." Baviera (A Boy Called Slow) deftly navigates a palette of earth tones to visually connect Mishoo's dream visions of her mother and female forebears with the paintings she draws in the she-tiger's cave. The design of the book and photographs of the art work together to make her animal subjects seem alive. Readers will come away from this tale believing in the unmistakable connection between creativity and survival, a message echoed in the artwork: as Mishoo emerges from the cave, the sky turns from dusty gray to ocean blue. Ages 7-up.
THE JOURNAL OF AUGUSTUS PELLETIER: THE LEWIS AND CLARK EXPEDITION (2000)
Nancy Collins-Warner (review date October 2000)
SOURCE: Collins-Warner, Nancy. Review of The Journal of Augustus Pelletier: The Lewis and Clark Expedition, by Kathryn Lasky. School Library Journal 46, no. 10 (October 2000): 162.
Gr. 5-8—Gus Pelletier, half French, half Omaha Indian, is determined to go with the Corps of Discovery. With all the bravado of a young man on his own for the first time, the scrawny 14-year-old travels parallel to the expedition, not revealing himself until he's confident he will be accepted as a member. His literacy is attributed to education by Catholic priests, but his perspective and voice are not consistently in character. For example, he proudly enthuses about the "naming of America" by the Corps, but with his Native American heritage he would have been aware that there were Indian names for the many places the expedition "discovered." In other instances, he is given greater awareness than is credible for a mixed-heritage frontier lad. Lasky's ample talent is constricted here by the dictum of the series. She uses the inherent drama and well-documented account of Lewis and Clark's journey as the backbone for the story. While Gus brings an engaging young person's perspective to history, it can be jarring when he is inserted into well-known occurrences of the expedition, e.g., having him rescue Sacajawea's baby in the flash flood at the Great Falls of the Missouri. The story is followed by a historical note sketching the outline of the Corps of Discovery journey, complemented by period illustrations and photographs of expedition paraphernalia. It has been noted that this series is historical fiction, not history; this caution seems particularly relevant with The Journal of Augustus Pelletier.
LUCILLE'S SNOWSUIT (2000)
Publishers Weekly (review date 21 August 2000)
SOURCE: Review of Lucille's Snowsuit, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Marylin Hafner. Publishers Weekly 247, no. 34 (21 August 2000): 73.
In [Lucille's Snowsuit, ] this disappointingly plodding and predictable tale by the creators of the lively Lunch Bunnies, piglet Lucille struggles to get into her one-piece snowsuit after her older siblings, Franklin and Frances, dash outdoors in their parkas, ski pants and hats to play in the snow. As Lucille waits and waits for her mother's help, her boot becomes stuck in her pant leg, her zipper sticks halfway up and—the greatest indignity—she begins to sweat. "Snowsuits are for babies," Lucille says, twice. Her grumbling ceases once Franklin and Frances cajole her into joining them outside. A rousing snowball fight ensues, during which Lucille finds their hats on the ground and fills them with snow—a move that feels inserted to demonstrate to the reader the superiority of the hooded snowsuit. Franklin and Frances grow cold and go inside to warm up, but Lucille, still cozy in her snowsuit, stays outdoors until the others return and they "all went triple on the sled." The story ends abruptly as readers turn the page to find the trio suddenly indoors again, with Lucille announcing that her snowsuit "kept me snuggly warm and I didn't even sweat." Hafner's spirited pictures of the porcine frolickers fortify the narrative, but they don't address another flaw, namely, that the target audience is past the snowsuit age and may not be especially interested in Lucille's complaints. Ages 5-8.
MARIE ANTOINETTE, PRINCESS OF VERSAILLES (2000)
Shelle Rosenfeld (review date 15 April 2000)
SOURCE: Rosenfeld, Shelle. Review of Marie Antoinette, Princess of Versailles, by Kathryn Lasky. Booklist 96, no. 16 (15 April 2000): 1542.
Gr. 5-8—Few young readers know about Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, archduchess of Vienna, though they may have heard of Marie Antoinette. It was a politically advantageous, arranged marriage that brought Maria Antonia fame and notoriety as Marie Antoinette, queen of France. This Royal Diaries title [Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles ] spans a two-year period, beginning in 1769 as 13-year-old Marie prepares for and navigates the complex rituals, responsibilities, and superficiality of French courtly life. Lasky's Marie is delightfully dimensional, independent yet insecure, spoiled and fashion crazy. She's bewildered by parental conflict and the manners of society, and her experiences are colored by the hopes, dreams, and disappointments of life and love. Best known for her extravagance—and her beheading during the French Revolution—Marie here discovers that privilege and political status has a price as well as rewards. Endnotes provide historical background and context, and as in others in the series, there's a selection of well-chosen visuals of people and places of the times. Unlike the epilogue in some of the other diary-entry series books, the epilogue here works well, helping to make this well-researched series entry informative as well as entertaining. Quality writing, lively characterizations, and abundant historical detail.
SCIENCE FAIR BUNNIES (2000)
Publishers Weekly (review date 1 May 2000)
SOURCE: Review of Science Fair Bunnies, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Marylin Hafner. Publishers Weekly 247, no. 18 (1 May 2000): 70.
Bringing back the likable lapins from Lunch Bunnies and Show and Tell Bunnies, Lasky and Hafner again convey the trials and triumphs of elementary school with plenty of humor and unmistakable empathy [in Science Fair Bunnies ]. Clyde and Rosemary, his best friend and science-fair partner, are left high and dry for the science fair when the plants they have been growing for it suffer an untimely demise (as Clyde's big brother puts it, "They croaked. Dead, dead, dead"). But as Clyde wiggles a very loose tooth, he gets an idea, and he and Rosemary decide to test how different substances affect the color of teeth. Clyde asks his father to yank the loose tooth and then convinces Rosemary to make the supreme sacrifice: forgoing the Tooth Fairy and donating her first-ever loose tooth to the cause. Lasky and Hafner have a knack for taking kids' concerns seriously and then persuading kids to laugh anyway. In one of the caper's funnier scenarios, a tutu-clad, winged rabbit Tooth Fairy appears to Clyde in a dream, surrounded by jars of teeth in different liquids, and announces, "I just don't understand…. How could you do this to me?" His equally droll response: "Science. We did it for science." The dialogue is on target at every turn, and the watercolor and ink pictures, best for their range of facial expressions, likewise hit the mark. Ages 4-7.
VISION OF BEAUTY: THE STORY OF SARAH BREEDLOVE WALKER (2000)
Barbara Buckley (review date May 2000)
SOURCE: Buckley, Barbara. Review of Vision of Beauty: The Story of Sarah Breedlove Walker, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Nneka Bennett. School Library Journal 46, no. 5 (May 2000): 162.
Gr. 2-4—Through a readable text and wonderful illustrations, Lasky brings to life one of the most successful women entrepreneurs in the United States [in Vision of Beauty: The Story of Sarah Breedlove Walker ]. The author's research is extremely thorough, including interviews with her subject's great-great granddaughter. The narrative traces Breedlove's girlhood as the first free-born child of former slaves in Louisiana to her hard life as a laundress and single mother in St. Louis. The text explains that her interest in natural plants and oils to treat the hair of "colored" women stemmed from her own experience with damaged hair. Working with formulas in her own small laboratory, Breedlove began producing hair products. After her marriage to Charles Walker, she was able to open a factory in Pittsburgh. To sell her products, she enlisted black women of all ages to market them door to door. By 1912, the Mme. C. J. Walker Company was one of the largest companies in America. Lasky emphasizes the contributions of Walker and the company to the well being of black women and the community. Bennett's full-page watercolors give faces to the characters without overwhelming the text. Their pacing and placement help move the story along. This impressive picture book will delight young readers as it gives a sense of this remarkable woman and the times in which she lived.
BORN IN THE BREEZES: THE SEAFARING LIFE OF JOSHUA SLOCUM (2001)
Ann Bryan Nelson (review date January-February 2002)
SOURCE: Nelson, Ann Bryan. Review of Born in the Breezes: The Seafaring Life of Joshua Slocum, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Walter Lyon Krudop. Library Talk 15, no. 1 (January-February 2002): 48.
Born in 1854 in Nova Scotia as the son of a boot maker, Joshua Slocum [of The Seafaring Life of Joshua Slocum ] first ran away at age 14 to exchange a career of pegging boots for a life at sea. The glamour of climbing the rigging or navigating by stars wasn't available at this time—he gave up cooking on a fishing schooner to return home. When he was 16 he left home again, this time for good. He sailed from Ireland to China to Australia, reading all he could about celestial navigation and practicing the use of the sextant. His love of learning propelled him from the position of common sailor to that of second mate by the time he was 18, and of captain at 25. He married, and he and his wife traveled the seas with their four children. By 1892, however, other power sources were replacing wind, and Joshua couldn't find a sailing ship to command. After rebuilding an old sloop, plank by plank, in 1895 he became the first person to sail alone around the world. The quality of Lasky's writing is well complemented by Krudop's artful rendition of sea life. Students and teachers should find this slim biography approachable and fascinating. Highly Recommended.
CHRISTMAS AFTER ALL: THE GREAT DEPRESSION DIARY OF MINNIE SWIFT: INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA, 1932 (2001)
Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 November 2001)
SOURCE: Review of Christmas After All: The Great Depression Diary of Minnie Swift: Indianapolis, Indiana, 1932, by Kathryn Lasky. Kirkus Reviews 69, no. 22 (15 November 2001): 1612-13.
Minnie Swift is 11 years old in 1932 and the Great Depression has hit Indianapolis very hard [in Christmas After All: The Great Depression Diary of Minnie Swift: Indianapolis, Indiana, 1932 ]. In the diary format that characterizes this series, Minnie records the daily life of her family, with all the anxieties over money and work, the makeshifts and the make-dos, the food made to go further by stretching it out with flour and cheese, and the curtains made from old dresses. All is not sadness, though, since Minnie, her siblings, and their orphaned cousin manage to find comic moments and fun despite their worries. There is an African-American maid whose ingenuity is important to the family's well-being, and who comes to work every day for no pay except for food and old clothes—surely, many readers will find this, if not disturbing, at least unlikely. Also unlikely is the implausible (and very sudden) happy ending that could have come right out of a 1930s "picture-show," when the absent father reappears, successful and prosperous, just in time to end the book with a very happy Christmas for all. As in some others of the "Dear America" series, it seems as if every historical phenomenon, every fashion, every fad, every happening that could possibly be associated with the period has been crammed into this one book. But the historical detail is both accurate and interesting, as is the historical appendix containing information and photographs of the period. (Fiction. 9-11)
INTERRUPTED JOURNEY: SAVING ENDANGERED SEA TURTLES (2001)
Ellen Heath (review date April 2001)
SOURCE: Heath, Ellen. Review of Interrupted Journey: Saving Endangered Sea Turtles, by Kathryn Lasky, photographs by Christopher G. Knight. School Library Journal 47, no. 4 (April 2001): 163.
Gr. 3-6—Large, clear, informative photos draw readers into this look at attempts to save the endangered Kemp's ridley turtle. Beginning with a 10-year-old boy who finds a nearly dead turtle during his patrol on a Cape Cod beach on a cold November day, Lasky details the efforts of a team of veterinarians, marine biologists, and volunteers to save the life of this turtle and others [in Interrupted Journey: Saving Endangered Sea Turtles ]. The action moves from the New England Aquarium to the Florida Keys to the beaches of Rancho Nuevo, Mexico (with a map to show the way). The writing is so clear and the story so compelling that one almost passes over the beautiful imagery: "the sand is hard and sleek," "the salt water combs over them." This is also beautiful bookmaking, with a crisp layout and interesting font on oversized pages. Although researchers will learn a lot about the Kemp's ridley turtle, this is primarily an ecological adventure book to be read cover to cover. Pair it with one of many fine books on the sea turtle, including Gail Gibbons's Sea Turtles (Holiday, 1995) or Brenda Guiberson's Into the Sea (Holt, 1996). To look at rescue efforts for other sea animals, try Peggy Thomas's inspiring Marine Mammal Preservation (21st Century, 2000).
Vivienne Greig (review date 28 July 2001)
SOURCE: Greig, Vivienne. "Swim for Your Life." New Scientist 171, no. 2301 (28 July 2001): 67.
It's cold, snow is falling, but 10-year-old Max Nolan knows exactly what to do when he finds a turtle close to death on a wintry Cape Cod beach. He moves it above the high water mark, covers it with seaweed, marks the spot and phones for help. Within an hour, it comes.
So begins Interrupted Journey, the dramatic rescue of a Kemp's Ridley turtle, named Yellow-Blue. The turtle's life is a solitary one, driven by instinct from its hatching on a beach in the Gulf of Mexico.
Kathryn Lasky's descriptions are pure Hollywood, and Christopher Knight's photographs are like stills from ER. "Between the nest and the tideline ghost crabs wait to snatch the baby turtles with their claws," Lasky tells us. And sharks lurk beyond the surf.
Turtle lover Richie Moretti is perfectly cast as Yellow-Blue's protector, funding a turtle hospital in the Florida Keys from the proceeds of his motel. In a lovely touch, guests can't take a dip because the pool is full of injured turtles.
It's a true story, but reads like perfectly paced fiction, skilfully milking your emotions in the best tear-jerker style. This is a great book to read aloud to a circle of rapt little faces, Gameboys and Buffy videos cast aside. It's a deliciously glossy book, sparkling and sophisticated. A really grown-up kids' read. Buy it now.
Mary Burkey (review date September-October 2001)
SOURCE: Burkey, Mary. Review of Interrupted Journey: Saving Endangered Sea Turtles, by Kathryn Lasky, photographs by Christopher G. Knight. Library Talk 14, no. 4 (September-October 2001): 56.
Vibrant photos, strong storytelling, and the immediacy of a young boy's connection to a sea turtle in crisis engross readers in an ecological adventure, all the more compelling because it is true [in Interrupted Journey: Saving Endangered Sea Turtles ]. Lasky and Knight combine their talents, as they did in The Most Beautiful Roof in the Word (Gulliver, 1997) and the Newbery Honor Book Sugaring Time (Simon & Schuster, 1986), to create a lyrical photo-essay that lifts information books to their highest level. Readers young and old will thrill to the international rescue effort that ensures an endangered Kemp's Ridley turtle a chance to live a healthy life in the wild. By focusing on a single turtle and a network of volunteers from Cape Cod to the Gulf of Mexico, Lasky and Knight provide a deeply personal look at the overwhelming issue of wildlife conservation. Meticulously researched and documented, this title is enhanced by striking photography, clean text, and page layouts that draw the reader's eye from one page to the next. Include this work in your collection both as a fine example of bookmaking and as an exemplary addition to ecological studies. Highly Recommended.
STARRING LUCILLE (2001)
Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 October 2001)
SOURCE: Review of Starring Lucille, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Marylin Hafner. Kirkus Reviews 69, no. 20 (15 October 2001): 1486.
Prepare a place for yet another precocious piglet protagonist with panache, this time the youngest in a family of three little pigs: Frances, Franklin, and budding ballerina Lucille [in Starring Lucille ]. She appeared in a previous collaboration (Lucille's Snowsuit, 2000), and this story finds little Lucille determined to have her moment in the spotlight by performing on her fifth birthday for her family. She wants to pirouette at her party in her new ballet shoes, tutu, and crown, despite her lack of formal dance training. Her older siblings attempt to squash Lucille's bids for attention, but their calm, wise parents corral the older piglets and help little Lucille celebrate her birthday in her own way, showing the sort of skillful parenting that subconsciously reassures preschoolers. Hafner's charming watercolors are filled with delightful details of a busy family, and her anthropomorphic pig characters are both expressive and believable, even when brother Franklin rides in on his bike wearing Lucille's tutu as a hat Lasky's witty text effectively captures the dynamics of family life and the feelings of a youngest child, with a tale that is reminiscent of the Frances stories. Give that ham a hand: Lucille is a lovable star who deserves another encore. (Picture book 3-6)
JAHANARA, PRINCESS OF PRINCESSES, INDIA, 1627 (2002)
Claire Rosser (review date November 2002)
SOURCE: Rosser, Claire. Review of Jahanara, Princess of Princesses, India, 1627, by Kathryn Lasky. Kliatt 36, no. 6 (November 2002): 11-12.
Lasky succeeds in bringing this most exotic era to modern readers [in Jahanara, Princess of Princesses, India, 1627 ], many of whom may be aware of the Taj Mahal, but little else about the dynasty that created it. Today's headlines are filled with names of places like Kabul and Kashmir, places known to Jahanara. Her family, devout Muslims, ruled over many who were Hindu—and this conflict is ever-present even in our times, in the conflict between the Muslims (who mostly are now in their own country of Pakistan) and the Hindus in India.
Much of Jahanara's diary tells of family conflicts between her father's four wives and their extended family. Her mother is the most beloved of the wives, a source of jealousy to be sure. (It is this mother who inspired the building of the Taj Mahal, her tomb.) One of the wives is a Hindu, and Jahanara's father tries to foster religious tolerance, but this infuriates those in the kingdom and in the family who are rigidly intolerant Muslims. In fact, as we find in the notes at the end, this intolerance continued after the death of Jahanara's father, and resulted in one of her brothers arranging the deaths of those in the family who tolerated Hindus in order to grab the throne for himself.
Jahanara is in a strange position in that she is not permitted to marry. She is a confidante of her parents, who treat her with love and respect. She adopts an orphan baby and raises her as her own in the household. Her life is filled with journeys on elephants across vast territories, gems (some of which have ended up as jewels in the crowns of the British royal family), celebrations, religious observances, love and grief.
Lasky has thrown herself into this history with great enthusiasm, as she explains in an author's note. The cover art is lovely. I believe this will be of special interest to readers who have family connections to South Asia, since it is such an important story from that history.
MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS, QUEEN WITHOUT A COUNTRY (2002)
Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 April 2002)
SOURCE: Review of Mary, Queen of Scots, Queen without a Country, by Kathryn Lasky. Kirkus Reviews 70, no. 8 (15 April 2002): 573.
In keeping with the theme of the Royal Diaries Series, one year in the life of young Mary Stuart is told as if she had kept a journal [in Mary, Queen of Scots, Queen without a Country ]. The historical detail rings true: Mary's coronation as Queen of Scotland as an infant; her betrothal at age five to the Dauphin of France in a geopolitical effort to foil the British; her upbringing in the French court under the care of Henry II and Catherine de Medici. But it is the personal details that will keep readers' attention. Lasky (Mommy's Hands ) portrays a queen who is well aware of her power and position at age 11, yet experiences universal emotions more typical of her age: a longing for love and friendship; joy in fancy clothes and dances; a desire to be respected and "grown-up," coupled with the urge to remain childlike. Mary's yearning for her mother back in Scotland and for her homeland itself are heartbreaking, but her goodhearted intentions toward her attendants, affection toward her future husband, efforts to be ready for First Communion, perceptive comments about the other members of the French court, and her assurance that even at 11 she must conduct herself as a queen make this year in her life more inspiring than sad. An epilogue, historical note, and annotated family tree put the events in perspective and reveal the unfortunate ending to Mary's life: she was beheaded as a rival to the English throne at age 45. Mary, Queen of Scots remains a beloved figure to history buffs; this enjoyable and approachable account should serve as a springboard for further inquiry for today's readers. (Historical fiction. 9-14)
Janet Gillen (review date June 2002)
SOURCE: Gillen, Janet. Review of Mary, Queen of Scots, Queen without a Country, by Kathryn Lasky. School Library Journal 48, no. 6 (June 2002): 141.
Gr. 4-8—Mary was only nine months old when she was crowned Queen of Scotland, succeeding her father, King James V. Because of the many political conflicts, she was separated from her mother and her country at the age of five. To forge an alliance with France, she was betrothed to Francis, the son of King Henry II of France and Queen Catherine de Medici. Mary was promptly sent to live in their care until she was old enough for the marriage to take place. That is where this story [Mary, Queen of Scots, Queen without a Country ] begins, as she chronicles her life throughout a one-year period. Life in France is filled with dances, playing with her future husband, and hawking, which is Mary's favorite pastime. However, the girl's life is made very difficult by the jealous queen. She finds comfort though in Henry's mistress Diane de Poitier, who is very much the lady and gives Mary strength and inspiration throughout the good and bad times. As with the other titles in the series, this diary is packed with facts that will give readers a wonderful opportunity to learn about a unique heroine from history. A historical note, epilogue, reproductions, and a family tree provide just enough additional information to whet the appetites of readers who may want to continue to explore the background of this ill-fated queen.
MOMMY'S HANDS (2002)
Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 March 2002)
SOURCE: Review of Mommy's Hands, by Kathryn Lasky and Jane Kamine, illustrated by Darcia LaBrosse. Kirkus Reviews 70, no. 6 (15 March 2002): 416.
Through simple observations, a trio of toddlers reveals the love, security, and nurturing that are expressed through the everyday tasks and motions of a mother's hands [in Mommy's Hands ]. One child relishes holding her mother's hand while another admires his mother's dexterity, as she deftly pours milk without spilling. The children also rely on the wisdom inherent in their mothers' hands as they patiently guide their smaller, inexperienced hands to master a basic task, such as using a rolling pin or forming letters with a pencil. The authors incorporate a gentle give-and-take into the tale: for all the admiration expressed by the children, they also describe their accomplishments as lauded by their mothers. While the narration is simply told in child-like fashion, the wealth of emotion behind the mothers' actions is clearly communicated to the reader. LaBrosse's (Little Brown Hen's Shower, above, etc.) bright, full. color illustrations add a multicultural appeal to the tale. Her friendly drawings depict African-American, Asian-American, and Caucasian pairs. Reading this cozy tale is rather like being enveloped by a mother's warm embrace, subtly reminding readers of the surety of their mother's love. (Picture book. 2-5)
Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 August 2002)
SOURCE: Review of Porkenstein, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by David Jarvis. Kirkus Reviews 70, no. 15 (1 August 2002): 1135.
The versatile Lasky (Mommy's Hands ) enters the Halloween sweepstakes with a delightfully comic send-up of gluttons everywhere by re-costuming a few recognizable characters [in Porkenstein ]. The famous inventor Dr. Smart Pig is lonely because he lost his two brothers to the Big Bad Wolf the year before. Ah, motivation, where doth it lead? Into the laboratory, where Dr. Pig will create his ultimate invention: a friend. But it will take a few tries, maybe. He adds a pinch of something too much here and there and his first experiments yield variations on the theme of pig. Finally, he overdoes it and creates Porkenstein, the biggest pig he has ever seen—literally. As happens these days, the publicity machine kicks in and it's not too long before the Big Bad Wolf comes calling, seeking what will give new meaning to the Big Meal. Let's just say the ravenous Porkenstein is up to the challenge and is picking hairs from his teeth by the time Dr. Pig and his new friend are ambling off to compete with all those hungry trick-or-treaters. Promising newcomer Jarvis debuts with a perfect mélange of softness and comedy, inserting many notable funny little nuances. An enormously satisfying taste of Halloween fun, without resorting to cliched spookiness, this leaves readers imagining what mayhem Porkenstein will make those neighborhood goblins digest (Picture book 4-7).
A TIME FOR COURAGE: THE SUFFRAGETTE DIARY OF KATHLEEN BOWEN (2002)
Claire Rosser (review date May 2002)
SOURCE: Rosser, Claire. Review of A Time for Courage: The Suffragette Diary of Kathleen Bowen, Washington, D.C., 1917, by Kathryn Lasky. Kliatt 36, no. 2 (May 2002): 11.
[A Time for Courage; The Suffragette Diary of Kathleen Bowen, Washington, D.C., 1917 ] is the diary of an 8th grade girl, who looks on as her older sisters, her mother and her aunt take part in the movement to gain votes for women. Her own family is a close one, and Kat's father, a doctor, is understanding about the fight for the vote. The family is privileged and well educated. However, Kathleen's Aunt Claire, although wealthy in her own right, is married to a man who despises the Suffragettes and demands obedience to the extent that the family is breaking apart. Since men have most of the power, the children are sent to their Southern grandmother's, away from their mother. Kat writes about all this because she is so close to her aunt, and especially to her cousin Alma. This aspect of the story points out just how difficult it was for women to hold any power in their own lives—tied into the fact that they had no rights as citizens. During this year, America enters WWI and Kat's sister Nell goes overseas to drive an ambulance, illustrating just how eager young women were to get involved in something larger than family life.
Lasky is always reliable about getting the history correct in her historical novels. She does a fine job here. And the illustrations and historical note at the end of the diary (part of the Dear America format) offers readers visual images to complement the diary: we see the Suffragettes marching with their banners, portraits of some of the most influential women, and get a sense of what the women endured in prison. This diary makes an important 20th-century history lesson come to life.
Rita Soltan (review date August 2002)
SOURCE: Soltan, Rita. Review of A Time for Courage: The Suffragette Diary of Kathleen Bowen, Washington, D.C., 1917, by Kathryn Lasky. School Library Journal 48, no. 8 (August 2002): 190-91.
Gr. 4-6—Kat Bowen records her days in Washington, DC, in a diary from her mother [in A Time for Courage; The Suffragette Diary of Kathleen Bowen, Washington, D.C., 1917 ]. A typical 13-year-old from a well-to-do family, she expresses her dreams and hopes as she recounts her thoughts on school, homework, relationships, parties, and her special bond with her cousin Alma. As the early days of 1917 pass, Kat becomes increasingly aware of the political issues that are prevalent, particularly the inevitable involvement of the U.S. in World War I and women's suffrage. Her physician father is quietly supportive of his wife's activism in the movement, while his brother-in-law, Alma's father, demeans it and forbids the women in his family to participate in any way. Kat soon joins her mother sewing banners and bringing hot bricks for warmth on the picket line. Lasky entwines some of the real characters of the day with her fictional figures. She gives a good overview of the harsh treatment these women endured during their picketing and imprisonment and touches on divorce, the plight of African-American citizens in the South, and President Wilson's disinterest in rights for women. Kat is well developed into a young woman whose exposure to the politics and consequences allow her to mature and decide what true liberty and justice for all really means. A historical note and reproductions of photos are appended.
BEFORE I WAS YOUR MOTHER (2003)
Diane Roback, Jennifer M. Brown, Joy M. Bean, and Jeff Zaleski (review date 27 January 2003)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, Jennifer M. Brown, Joy M. Bean, and Jeff Zaleski. Review of Before I Was Your Mother, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Leuyen Pham. Publishers Weekly 250, no. 4 (27 January 2003): 257.
"You know," says a woman, as she peers over her reading glasses with mock solemnity at her young daughter, "I wasn't always your mother." So begins this well-pitched proof that no mother was born yesterday [in Before I Was Your Mother ]. Subtly connecting the past and the present, Lasky's (Lunch Bunnies ; She's Wearing a Dead Bird on Her Head! ) baby-boomer narrator delivers a series of freewheeling reminiscences about best friends and pets, games and mischief, and beloved possessions. "I wasn't always your mother, who carries a purse full of bills to pay and wears shoes that won't hurt my feet," says Mother. "Once I was a little girl, who carried secret stuff in a green velvet bag and wanted a pair of bright red patent-leather shoes more than anything." Pham (Whose Shoes?) tints watercolor depictions of the mother's vignettes in sepia, but she understands that her readers may have little interest in the evocation of an era, and keeps a sharp focus on action. When Mother recalls fighting with her brother over a birthday cake's frosting roses, Pham frames the composition at a child's height and zeroes in on the siblings' self-righteous stances. Also acknowledging that the audience will ultimately want to know "What's in it for me?" Lasky's answer is just right: even as a girl, the mother "dreamed of having her own little girl to love." Ages 3-7.
THE CAPTURE (2003)
Diane Roback, Jennifer M. Brown, Joy M. Bean, and Jeff Zaleski (review date 7 July 2003)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, Jennifer M. Brown, Joy M. Bean, and Jeff Zaleski. Review of The Capture, by Kathryn Lasky. Publishers Weekly 250, no. 27 (7 July 2003): 72.
Lasky's (The Man Who Made Time Travel ) Guardians of Ga'Hoole series opens with [The Capture, ] this unevenly paced tale centering on Soren, an owlet whose nasty older brother pushes him out of the family nest. A large owl snatches Soren up and carries him to a deep, dark canyon, the location of the St. Aegolius Academy for Orphaned Owls. Its nefarious nature is apparent from the start: Soren and other new arrivals are given numbers to replace their names, they are forbidden to ask questions and are required to sleep with their beaks "tipped to the moon" and to walk, herd-like, during the night when a full moon is shining. This "sleep march" leaves the young owls "moon blinked," after which, in the words of Soren's friend Gylfie, "You no longer know what is for sure and what is not. What is truth and what are lies." Soren and Gylfie discover a means of resisting the sleep marches and vow to escape the canyon by learning to fly, a feat they accomplish with the help of a sympathetic elder owl. Though much of the narrative is encumbered by excessive detail about the rituals of the repressive regime, the story moves at a quick clip once Soren and Gylfie find freedom and embark on a quest with two other orphaned owls. The likable characters may well entice fantasy fans to accompany them as they fly on to The Journey, due in September. Ages 8-12.
Kathleen McBroom (review date January 2004)
SOURCE: McBroom, Kathleen. Review of The Capture, by Kathryn Lasky. Library Media Connection 22, no. 4 (January 2004): 65.
K-5, 6-8—Evil forces are terrorizing Ga'Hoole, the owl kingdom [in The Capture ]. Eggs are being stolen; fledglings are being kidnapped and delivered to an orphanage where they are brainwashed into mindless drones. Soren, a three-week-old barn owl, is snatched, but finds an ally in Gylfie, an equally young elf owl. Together they manage to resist brain-washing and attempt to find explanations as they plot their escape. They overcome gruesome obstacles, meet assorted villains and heroes, and uncover a horrifying plot involving total domination of their world. They eventually escape and are taken under wing by Twilight, a fiercely independent great gray owl. After a fruitless search for their families, Soren and Gylfie realize they must go to the Island of Hoolemere, where legend says a race of mighty owls dwell. There they hope to reunite with their parents and muster counter-forces. This "Book One" ends as the young owls, accompanied by Digger, a burrowing owl they have befriended, set off on their quest. This is an intriguing debut, featuring well-developed characters, exciting plot twists, and a heroic struggle between good and evil. Details regarding owl behavior are seamlessly threaded into the storyline. Destined to continue in three-month installments, this series will appeal to animal lovers and fantasy epic enthusiasts. Highly Recommended.
THE JOURNEY (2003)
Tim Wadham and Phyllis Levy Mandell (review date May 2004)
SOURCE: Wadham, Tim, and Phyllis Levy Mandell. Review of The Journey, by Kathryn Lasky. School Library Journal 50, no. 5 (May 2004): 152.
Gr. 4-8—In this second book in the series, Soren and his band of owls have escaped the St. Aegolius Academy for Orphaned Owls and go in search of the mythical Great Ga'Hoole Tree [in The Journey ]. When they finally arrive at the tree, they find themselves in a Hogwarts-like school where owls are divided into "chaws," or small teams, that focus on particular skills such as navigation or search and rescue. By the end of the book, Soren has learned the fate of his lost sister, discovered that he has some unique powers, and has lost his new mentor, leaving things wide open for the next installment. The story flows nicely and has a certain appeal that carries readers along, despite the sometimes-jarring addition of unnecessary owl poetry. Lasky's fully realized world is full of traditions based on the actual habits of owls, but this is still a world in which owls can read and write. Fantasy readers will enjoy the adventure, but the book will appeal mainly to fans of the first volume in the series.
LUCILLE CAMPS IN (2003)
Martha Topol (review date July 2003)
SOURCE: Topol, Martha. Review of Lucille Camps In, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Marylin Hafner. School Library Journal 49, no. 7 (July 2003): 100.
PreS-Gr. 2—When Dad takes Lucille's older brother and sister camping [in Lucille Camps In ], the youngest pig is left behind, and her mother tries to console her with fun projects and some homemade cookies. Refreshed from a nap, Lucille wakes up with an idea. Dragging her quilt downstairs, along with a bag of favorite toys, she and Mom make a tent of their own. Getting into the spirit, Mom proposes a picnic by the fire and, as the stars come out, the two crawl into sleeping bags and tell peaceful stories. Similar in theme to Kevin Henkes's Bailey Goes Camping (Greenwillow, 1985), this title is more fleshed out in both text and art. Lucille is full of spunk and verve and so it's only fitting that it's her idea to "camp in." The family dynamics are great-supportive while allowing for individuality. Everyone has an age- appropriate adventure and readers will recognize that even though it's hard to be left behind, it often works out for the best (no mosquitoes, marshmallows for breakfast). The vibrant pen-and-ink and watercolor illustrations provide the perfect complement to the text.
THE MAN WHO MADE TIME TRAVEL (2003)
Carolyn Phelan (review date 1 March 2003)
SOURCE: Phelan, Carolyn. Review of The Man Who Made Time Travel, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. Booklist 99, no. 13 (1 March 2003): 1196.
Gr. 3-5—Executed in an oversize format, which allows plenty of space for Hawkes' dramatic pictures, [The Man Who Made Time Travel ] tells the story of John Harrison, an eighteenth-century clock maker who solved the problem of tracking longitude in shipboard navigation. The book begins with a shipwreck, dramatizing the fact that the longitude puzzle was not just a matter of academic or economic importance but a life-and-death question for those who sailed the seas. After introducing some of the more absurd solutions proposed for tracking longitude, the discussion turns to young John Harrison, who was 21 when the Longitude Prize was offered by the British Parliament. Lasky shows how, over the next half-century, Harrison worked to design and perfect a timepiece that would earn the prize. Not every child will understand the technical challenge discussed; however, the text makes absorbing reading both for its sidelights on history and for the personal drama portrayed. Harrison emerges as an admirable, if idiosyncratic, individual whose story is well worth telling. Atmospherically lit and richly colored, Hawkes' large-scale paintings are often striking in their overall effects and intriguing in their details. Unexpected elements of humor in both the historical narrative and the illustrations lighten what could have been a dry, weighty treatment in other hands. Teachers looking for books for units on inventors will find this a memorable choice for reading aloud.
Blake Hume Rodman (review date May 2003)
SOURCE: Rodman, Blake Hume. Review of The Man Who Made Time Travel, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. Teacher Magazine 14, no. 7 (May 2003): 52.
In 1995, a book titled Longitude, by popular science writer Dava Sobel, hit the publishing-world jackpot. Translated into 23 languages, the volume landed on best-seller lists in the United States and abroad. Perhaps its popularity owed something to its alluring subtitle: "The true story of a lone genius who solved the greatest scientific problem of his time."
The genius, it turned out, was an unlikely Englishman named John Harrison, and the great scientific problem of his time—the 18th century—was finding a way to determine longitude at sea. In those days, a ship's latitude, its north-south location, could be figured from the position of the sun or the stars, but its east-west location couldn't be. Without a way to pinpoint longitude, ships were virtually at a loss.
In this picture book [The Man Who Made Time Travel ], Lasky has done for kids what Sobel did for adults. She compellingly relates in simple terms the intriguing story of Harrison's lifelong quest to solve the longitude mystery.
She begins with a stormy night in 1707, when some 2,000 men lost their lives in shipwrecks off the coast of England. The disasters occurred, Lasky writes, not because of the storm, but because the ships were lost.
Some seven years later, the British parliament, hoping to attract the attention of the best minds of the time, offered 20,000 pounds—the equivalent of $12 million today—to anyone who could create a means for measuring longitude. Lasky proceeds to describe a number of the proposals the contest generated, some thoughtful—astronomers were convinced the answer lay among the moon and stars—and others ridiculous.
Most of the book, though, focuses on Harrison. A 21-year-old carpenter when the contest was announced, he had little formal education but was skilled at figuring out how things worked.
He recognized that plotting longitude would depend on a ship's ability to keep accurate time. The problem, of course, was that clocks of the period couldn't keep reliable time, especially at sea.
Harrison had already built a number of wooden clocks when he began, as Lasky puts it, "to puzzle over the longitude problem." He became convinced, she writes, that the solution was "a clock in which time could travel," and he spent the rest of his life trying to build such a timepiece.
His first attempt, completed in 1735 and known now as H1, stood two feet tall, weighed 75 pounds, and had many flaws. His final clock, H5, completed in 1772 when he was 79, was the size of a large pocket watch. It was judged by King George III to meet the requirements of the longitude contest, and a year later the parliament awarded Harrison the prize money.
Lasky's narrative is a remarkable, well-told piece of history. Unfortunately, Hawkes' illustrations are not as successful. Several, including the title-page art, are quite stunning, rich in detail and color. But many are naive and even crude, somewhat surprising for a book about a man obsessed with precision.
A VOICE OF HER OWN: THE STORY OF PHILLIS WHEATLEY, SLAVE POET (2003)
Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 December 2002)
SOURCE: Review of A Voice of Her Own: The Story of Phillis Wheatley, Slave Poet, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Paul Lee. Kirkus Reviews 70, no. 24 (15 December 2002): 1852.
A sizable dose of imagination seeks to illuminate the life of Phillis Wheatley, the 18th-century slave poet, but reveals more about the author than the subject [in A Voice of Her Own: The Story of Phillis Wheatley, Slave Poet ]. Lasky (Porkenstein, 2002, etc.) opens the story in the hold of the slaver Phillis and then follows Wheatley's life and career as she is purchased by the Wheatleys of Boston, learns to speak, read, and write English, and begins to write and then publish her own poems. Throughout, the author imputes thoughts and feelings—"Boston was the strangest sight Phillis had ever seen"—without substantiation and even introduces dialogue which, without documentation, can only be assumed to be invented—"‘What will you call her?’ John Wheatley asked his wife." Perhaps most poignantly, Phillis is presented as treasuring a memory of her mother making an offering to the morning sun; however, even in the poem to which Lasky refers for this image, it does not appear in Wheatley's own writing. Poignant indeed, but the only person the reader can be certain of treasuring this vision is Lasky herself. Lee's (Hank Aaron: Brave in Every Way, 2001, etc.) acrylics glow with color, as if themselves lit by candlelight, effectively enhancing the sentimental mood of the narrative. The representations of Wheatley are clearly based on the only known portrait of the poet, the frontispiece of her volume of published poetry; a certain lack of expression in the illustrations, however, gives her an air of inscrutability. There is not a whiff of a bibliography, not even to refer readers to Wheatley's poetry, which is widely available in print and electronic formats. An author's note describes in lofty terms her motivations behind bringing Wheatley's story to a picture-book audience: "To be voiceless is to be dehumanized … Phillis's first liberation came when she learned to read and write and discovered her own voice as a poet." It is a pity that Lasky chooses to impose her own feelings and voice upon this woman whose voice she purports to celebrate. (Picture book/biography 6-10)
BLOOD SECRET (2004)
Claire Rosser (review date July 2004)
SOURCE: Rosser, Claire. Review of Blood Secret, by Kathryn Lasky. Kliatt 38, no. 4 (July 2004): 8-9.
This is a fascinating story told somewhat awkwardly—not because of the language, but because of the mechanism that drives the plot [of Blood Secret ]. A modern-day girl in New Mexico discovers the truth about her heritage through objects discovered in her elderly aunt's basement. Her ancestors come to life for her in some mystical way, and in her visions of their lives, Jerry looks back in time to the persecutions of Jews during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. She sees her ancestors convert to Catholicism to save their families; sees them seeking refuge with the Moors in Grenada, Spain; sees them journey to the New World, trying to survive. Jerry's ancient aunt Constanza (in her 90s) is a successful baker whose traditions are somewhat mysterious, including the lighting of candles each Friday evening. Jerry asks her why she does this and Constanza doesn't know … only that her mother taught her to do it. Jerry realizes this is a link to the family's Jewish heritage—this is the blood secret of the title.
Constanza is one of the truly wonderful characters in YA fiction, especially as a mentor to Jerry, a troubled young teenager who is literally mute because of the complicated losses in her life. Constanza and the family history give Jerry a sense of herself and fulfill her need to belong somewhere, to someone. Lasky offers an explanation of her way of telling this story by referring to the Navaho way of believing in windows to other worlds, of seeing people in the shadows.
Sharon Morrison (review date August 2004)
SOURCE: Morrison, Sharon. Review of Blood Secret, by Kathryn Lasky. School Library Journal 50, no. 8 (August 2004): 124.
Gr. 7 Up—Since her mother disappeared from a campground several years before, 14-year-old Jerry has lived in various Catholic Charities homes [in Blood Secret ]. The trauma of her experiences has left her with selective mutism. Although she wants to speak, she just can't get the words that form in her throat to come out. Now, she is going to live in New Mexico with her great-great-aunt, Constanza de Luna. After settling in and beginning school, Jerry discovers an old trunk in her aunt's basement. The mysterious objects within it seem to call to her, and each time she handles one of them, she is catapulted into her family's past. Brief vignettes describe the experiences of several of her ancestors, beginning with Miriam, a Jewish girl living in Seville in 1391 who witnesses the murder of her people and is baptized by force. Jerry, who has been raised Catholic, comes to realize that her ancestors were Jews, and she is upset by their heart-wrenching tales of religious persecution. Meanwhile, through her aunt's gentle manner and the understanding and acceptance of a new friend, the protagonist gradually becomes more and more socially engaged and begins to speak again. The story of Jerry's ancestors is skillfully interwoven with that of her present life. With each glimpse into her past, she is drawn more into her own family circle with her aunt. A well-told and satisfying story.
Claire Rosser (review date September 2006)
SOURCE: Rosser, Claire. Review of Blood Secret, by Kathryn Lasky. Kliatt 40, no. 5 (September 2006): 24.
To quote the review of the hardcover in Kliatt, July 2004: [Blood Secret ] is a fascinating story told somewhat awkwardly—not because of the language, but because of the mechanism that drives the plot. A modern-day girl in New Mexico discovers the truth about her heritage through objects discovered in her elderly aunt's basement. Her ancestors come to life for her in some mystical way, and in her visions of their lives, Jerry looks back in time to the persecutions of Jews during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. She sees her ancestors convert to Catholicism to save their families; sees them seeking refuge with the Moors in Grenada, Spain; sees them journey to the New World, trying to survive. Jerry's ancient aunt Constanza (in her 90s) is a successful baker whose traditions are somewhat mysterious, including the lighting of candles each Friday evening. Jerry asks her why she does this and Constanza doesn't know … only that her mother taught her to do it. Jerry realizes this is a link to the family's Jewish heritage—this is the blood secret of the title. Constanza is one of the truly wonderful characters in YA fiction, especially as a mentor to Jerry, a troubled young teenager who is literally mute because of the complicated losses in her life. Constanza and the family history give Jerry a sense of herself and fulfill her need to belong somewhere, to someone. Lasky offers an explanation of her way of telling this story by referring to the Navaho way of believing in windows to other worlds, of seeing people in the shadows.
HUMPHREY, ALBERT, AND THE FLYING MACHINE (2004)
Grace Oliff (review date October 2004)
SOURCE: Oliff, Grace. Review of Humphrey, Albert, and the Flying Machine, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by John Manders. School Library Journal 50, no. 10 (October 2004): 120.
K-Gr. 2—Humphrey and Albert, 10 and 8 respectively, do not want to go to Princess Briar Rose's birthday party [in Humphrey, Albert, and the Flying Machine ], fearing it will be—their favorite word—boring. Things look more promising when the evil fairy appears, but then the curse kicks in and they fall asleep for the requisite 100 years. The boys wake up three weeks early, however, and go hunting for a handsome prince to kiss the princess and break the spell, when they hack their way through the nettles surrounding the castle, they encounter the scientist and inventor Daniel Bernoulli, hard at work on a flying machine. With the boys' assistance, he completes the plane, flies over the nettles, and kisses the princess. Although he is not handsome, she imagines his mind, and "in that mind she saw beauty, and in his eyes she saw love." An appended author's note attempts to clear up the confusion created by the text regarding the real Bernoulli and his genuine accomplishments. This is an uncomfortable blend of reality and fantasy that simply doesn't work and will leave children with no clue as to who this prince of science was or why he was important. Manders's frenetic watercolor, gouache, and pencil cartoons are comic but rely so heavily on shades of brown that details often blur together. Debbie Dadey's Shooting Star: Annie Oakley (Walker, 1997) and Diane Stanley's Rumpelstiltskin's Daughter (HarperCollins, 1997) offer more satisfying mixes of fact and fancy.
LOVE THAT BABY!: A BOOK ABOUT BABIES FOR NEW BROTHERS, SISTERS, COUSINS, AND FRIENDS (2004)
Abby Nolan (review date 1 November 2003)
SOURCE: Nolan, Abby. Review of Love That Baby!: A Book about Babies for New Brothers, Sisters, Cousins, and Friends, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Jennifer Plecas. Booklist 100, no. 5 (1 November 2003): 501-02.
PreS-Gr. 2—Lasky's new book for expectant children [Love That Baby! ] reads like a field guide to babies—their eating habits, their sleeping habits, and their sounds. Divided into topics such as "Wide-Awake Baby," "Baby Cries," and "Baby Games," the book offers quick takes, simple observations, and helpful advice in a reassuring manner. "When your baby babbles, babble right back. They think it's a real conversation. And it kind of is," Lasky clearly recognizes how jarring a new arrival can be to an older sib, but she dwells on the positive, engaging older children in the process of raising a baby, In a subtle way, she shows how paying attention to an infant's behavior helps make a more peaceful household: "You can help feed her, or cuddle her…. Even if your baby doesn't stop crying, she will still know that you are near and that you love her." Plecas' plentiful watercolor-and-ink illustrations have the bright, airy tone of kid-friendly greeting cards, all the better to get children into a meeting and greeting sort of mood.
BROKEN SONG (2005)
Peter D. Sieruta (review date March-April 2005)
SOURCE: Sieruta, Peter D. Review of Broken Song, by Kathryn Lasky. Horn Book Magazine 81, no. 2 (March-April 2005): 204.
A minor character in Lasky's The Night Journey (rev. 4/82) undertakes an arduous journey of his own in this companion volume [Broken Song ]. A gifted violinist, fifteen-year-old Reuven Bloom lives in the Pale, "the only region in Russia where Jews were allowed to settle." When Cossacks massacre most of his family during a pogrom, Reuven escapes to Poland disguised as a peasant woman and carrying his baby sister in a basket on his back. Their dangerous trek is filled with incident and drama, though the rest of the novel—documenting Reuven's years as a revolutionary in tsarist Russia through his arrival at Ellis Island—is rushed and lacks immediacy. Sequences in which he comforts a dying neighbor with Dvorak and Bach and tracks down his stolen violin effectively demonstrate how he is able to retain his humanity despite deprivation and persecution. An epilogue outlines the remainder of the protagonist's life with "Dear America"—style finality ("The immensity of Reuven Bloom's talent was immediately recognized. He toured the world. In addition to playing the violin, he became a renowned composer") but is undercut by a subsequent historical note that identifies the characters as fictional.
DANCING THROUGH FIRE (2005)
Carolyn Phelan (review date 1 December 2005)
SOURCE: Phelan, Carolyn. Review of Dancing through Fire, by Kathryn Lasky. Booklist 102, no. 7 (1 December 2005): 49.
Gr. 4-7—From the promising new Portraits series, this historical novel [Dancing through Fire ] takes place in the 1870s in Paris, where Sylvie is a "little rat," or young pupil of the Paris Opera Ballet. She strives to dance well and to grow three-quarters of an inch so that she can join the ballet, while her widowed mother takes in laundry to make ends meet. When war comes to Paris, it brings hardship, hunger, death, and occasionally the closing of the opera house. To Sylvie, this period of upheaval brings challenges and loss but also growth in understanding and independence, as well as in inches. The artist Degas makes cameo appearances, and one of his paintings is used on the cover. Though readers may be unfamiliar with this historical period, they will be swept along by the strong story line. Young dancers will particularly enjoy the evocative passages when Sylvie is on stage or in class. Link this to Carolyn Meyer's Marie, Dancing (2005).
THE HATCHLING (2005)
Walter Minkel (review date January 2006)
SOURCE: Minkel, Walter. Review of The Hatchling, by Kathryn Lasky. School Library Journal 52, no. 1 (January 2006): 136.
Gr. 4-6—The fascistic Pure Ones, a tribe of barn owls who believe that they alone are fit to rule, lost their king, the evil Kludd, during a great battle in The Burning (Scholastic, 2004). In this seventh book in the series [The Hatchling ], Kludd's sinister widow Nyra continues to plot to conquer all of the owl kingdoms, especially the heroic, egalitarian owls who dwell in the great tree of Ga'Hoole. She raises her hatchling son Nyroc to one day take his father's place and teaches him to believe in the power of hate. But the older he grows, the more he disagrees with his mother's ways, and after he learns the horrible truth about a deadly ceremony the Pure Ones have planned for him, he realizes that he must leave his home and his mother. While Lasky has combined fascinating details of how real owls live with her imaginary civilization, the story lacks any humor that might relieve its dreariness. The Hatchling often lumbers rather than soars.
TUMBLE BUNNIES (2005)
Joy Fleishhacker (review date April 2005)
SOURCE: Fleishhacker, Joy. Review of Tumble Bunnies, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Marylin Hafner. School Library Journal 51, no. 4 (April 2005): 105-06.
K-Gr. 2—Another satisfying tale about a very childlike bunny. The Sports Spectacular is only one week away, and Clyde, who never seems to be chosen for any team, is already getting that "left-out feeling" [in Tumble Bunnies ]. As time goes by, his anxiety increases, spurred on by the caustic comments of his athletic older brother. Then Clyde's friend Rosemary tells him that she will be performing in the freestyle acrobatic event, which does not involve a team. With her help and the support of Coach Bunnstein, Clyde discovers that his natural talent for tumbling and his strong sense of individualism add up to an innovative trampoline routine that allows him to shine on the big day. Lasky puts her finger on the day-to-day concerns of her target audience, presenting a realistic look at family relationships, friendships, and youngsters' fears and worries. Done in watercolor and ink, the cartoon illustrations include colorful settings of both home and school. Humorous details and warm hues help to keep the tone light. A solid choice for libraries looking for comforting slice-of-life stories.
BORN TO RULE (2006)
Publishers Weekly (review date 24 April 2006)
SOURCE: Review of Born to Rule, by Kathryn Lasky. Publishers Weekly 253, no. 17 (24 April 2006): 61.
Lasky's (the Guardians of Ga'Hoole series) Camp Princess series is off to a sprightly start with this tale [Born to Rule ] set at a summer camp attended by "forty of the most royal princesses on earth." At center throne, for her first summer at camp, is the proper, ribbon-and-lace bedecked Princess Alicia of All the Belgravias. She is assigned to the reputedly haunted South Turret with some rather unorthodox royalty: the gutsy, outdoorsy Princess Kristen of the Isles of the Salt Tears, who wears a tiara fashioned from shark teeth and is far more comfortable holding a jousting lance than a tapestry needle; and the down-to-earth, no nonsense Princess Gundersnap of the Empire of Slobodkonia, whose mother has invaded numerous kingdoms and who has "mud-colored hair that sprang out like corkscrews from under her iron tiara." Fans of princess-populated fiction will appreciate the fanciful flourishes and tongue-in-royal-cheek trappings (etiquette lessons include instructions on "muffling a belch" and swimmers must wear "regulation bathing tiaras"). Lasky adds intrigue to the story with Alicia's search for answers to a mystery. Passages from her favorite book (Love Letters of a Forgotten Princess), pleas for help she hears at night, and the ghost of a princess who died of a broken heart more than 100 years earlier all play a part in its solution. A light, quick-moving caper. Ages 8-12.
JOHN MUIR: AMERICA'S FIRST ENVIRONMENTALIST (2006)
Margaret Bush (review date April 2006)
SOURCE: Bush, Margaret. Review of John Muir: America's First Environmentalist, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Stan Fellows. School Library Journal 52, no. 4 (April 2006): 127-28.
Gr. 3-4—[In John Muir: America's First Environmentalist, ] Lasky's picture-book sketch of the naturalist's life focuses on Muir's special love of California's snowy Sierras and Yosemite Valley and his successes in founding Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Club. The author recounts aspects of Muir's boyhood years in Scotland and teens in Wisconsin to introduce his personality and interests, and the brief account of his accomplishments closes with the often-told story of his Alaskan adventure with his dog Stickeen in 1870 and a page on the 1890 legislation to establish Yosemite as a park. The epilogue summarizes his achievements and later years without indicating how long he actually lived. Fellows's acrylic paintings, sometimes full page and often wrapping around the text, provide pleasant impressions of the man and the impressive landscape. This is a useful introduction to Muir, the founding of the national parks, and the broader idea of environmentalism. A final page describes the work of the Sierra Club.
PIRATE BOB (2006)
Kara Schaff Dean (review date July 2006)
SOURCE: Dean, Kara Schaff. Review of Pirate Bob, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by David Clark. School Library Journal 52, no. 7 (July 2006): 82.
K-Gr. 3—Pirate Bob and his shipmates live to loot [in Pirate Bob ]. If the scar on Bob's nose itches, then gold is near. His friendship with Yellow Jack, a scurvy-ridden old salt, is genuine yet complicated. After all, pirates are outlaws and they do not really trust one another. Pirate Bob dreams of the day when he has put aside enough wealth to leave his dangerous life behind, and maybe make some true friends, too. This uneven book is one part history lesson, one part philosophical debate. The details of the pirates' lives are minute and impressive. From the description of a well-orchestrated (bloodless) attack, in which each man performs his task like a cog in a large machine, to the casual mentioning that Pirate Bob eats turtle, Lasky puts readers squarely in the scene. Clark's google-eyed buccaneers appear to be a fun-loving bunch, if slightly deranged. But the quieter, introspective moments in the book, where Pirate Bob contemplates his relationship with Yellow Jack and the nature of happiness, do not always gel with the organized maythem of the action scenes. Children expecting a ripping yarn from start to finish might be derailed by the antihero's soul-searching. For a smoother blend of pirate guile and pirate heart, revisit Mem Fox's excellent Tough Boris (Harcourt, 1994).
THE LAST GIRLS OF POMPEII (2007)
Claire Rosser (review date May 2007)
SOURCE: Rosser, Claire. Review of The Last Girls of Pompeii, by Kathryn Lasky. Kliatt 41, no. 3 (May 2007): 15.
We know Lasky as a fine historical novelist, and telling a story [The Last Girls of Pompeii ] of the last days of Pompeii apparently has fulfilled a lifelong interest in that place of doom. She has chosen to create a fictional family and focuses on two young girls: the daughter of the house, Julia, and her slave, Sura. Sura has cared for Julia since Julia's birth and the two are close friends. Julia was born with a withered left arm, a deformity she endures but that others look upon with disgust, especially Julia's older sister Cornelia who is planning a wedding. Julia will never be able to marry because of her arm, and just as we know we are heading for the volcanic eruption that will destroy everyone (the characters, of course, don't know what is coming) we read about the well-meaning but desperate parents' plan to send Julia off to the Temple of Damia and sell Sura to raise money for Cornelia's expensive wedding. When the volcanic ash begins to fall and the earth trembles with the horror of things to come, Julia and Sura run off to find refuge and in so doing discover family secrets just as the family is destroyed. Helpful notes at the end of the story tell how the author came to this historical period and how she created her fictional family. She explains the role of religion in the lives of the Romans of this period and clarifies the archeological history of the discovery of Pompeii. A very successful approach. I think, and a good complement to any study of Roman history for this age group.
Geller, Conrad. "A Different Time, A Different Place." Writing 25, no. 4 (January 2003): 16-19.
Praises Lasky's convincing recreation of Civil War-era Nevada in Alice Rose and Sam.
Robinson, Merce, and Kelly Ellis. Review of Vision of Beauty: The Story of Sarah Breedlove Walker, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Nneka Bennett. Black Issues Book Review 2, no. 6 (November 2000): 80.
Offers a positive assessment of Vision of Beauty: The Story of Sarah Breedlove Walker.
Additional coverage of Lasky's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 19; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 6; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 11; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 11, 84, 141; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2;Something about the Author. Vols. 13, 69, 112, 157; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; and Writers for Young Adults.