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Books For Kids

November 19, 2000


Pam Munoz Ryan

Scholastic: 272 pp., $15.95

Told in a lyrical, fairy tale-like style, Pam Munoz Ryan's robust novel set in 1930 captures a Mexican girl's fall from riches, her immigration to California and her growing awareness of class and ethnic tensions. Thirteen-year-old Esperanza Ortega and her family are part of Mexico's wealthy land-owning class in Aguascalientes, Mexico. Her father is a generous and well-loved man who gives his servants land and housing. Early in the novel, bandits kill Esperanza's father, and her corrupt uncles threaten to usurp their home. Their servants help her and her mother flee to the United States, leaving Esperanza's beloved Abuelita (grandmother) behind until they can send for her.

Ryan poetically conveys Esperanza's ties to the land by crafting her story to the rhythms of the seasons. Each chapter's title takes its name from the fruits Esperanza and her countrymen harvest, first in Aguascalientes, then in California's San Joaquin Valley. Ryan fluidly juxtaposes world events (Mexico's post-revolution tensions, the arrival of Oklahoma's Dust Bowl victims and the struggles between the U.S. government and Mexican workers trying to organize) with one family's will to survive. She also introduces readers to Spanish words and Mexican customs. Readers will be swept up by her vivid descriptions of California dust storms and by a police crackdown on a labor strike ("The picket signs lay on the ground, discarded, and like a mass of marbles that had already been hit, the strikers scattered. . ."). Ryan delivers subtle metaphors via Abuelita's pearls of wisdom, and not until story's end will readers recognize how carefully they have been strung. (Ages 9 to 14)



By Joan Dash

Illustrated by Dusan Petricic

Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Foster: 208 pp., $16

Joan Dash pens an engrossing tale of the scientific contest for the Longitude Prize, which was offered through a 1714 act of Parliament. Opening with a gripping historical account of a shipwreck, the author sets up a compelling argument for the need to determine a vessel's position on the open sea. Without means for determining longitude, "English ships had been sailing everywhere in the Western world, relying on charts and maps that often had little relation to reality." The Parliament establishes the prize for "any device or invention for determining longitude" with a reward "roughly equal to $12 million today." (Even Isaac Newton competed.) Enter unlikely contender John Harrison, a carpenter and clockmaker, "a loner, plain-spoken, often tactless, with a temper he couldn't always control, and a genius for mechanics." Dash spotlights Harrison's biography as she navigates scientific and cultural history, describing the dynamics between officers and sailors. (She also mentions the role of Captain James Cook of the Endeavour in proving the worthiness of Harrison's invention--which figures prominently in Karen Hesse's "Stowaway," reviewed below). Dusan Petricic's caricature-like drawings and the ragged-edge paper lend the volume a touch of class. Dash begins with more panache than she ends with but keeps the suspense high throughout. Fans of science, history and invention and anyone who roots for the underdog will enjoy this prize of a story. (Ages 10 and up)



By Karen Hesse

Illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker

Simon & Schuster/McElderry: 320 pp., $17

Sparkling with humor, poignancy and adventure, Newbery Medal-winner Karen Hesse's historical novel, told in diary form, was inspired by a real boy who stowed away aboard Captain James Cook's ship Endeavour on its 1768 voyage. The author bases the story on what little is known about 11-year-old Nicholas Young (he could read and write, for instance, and was made an official crew member in April 1769, when the ship reached Tahiti) and spins an imaginative tale firmly anchored in fact. The brief diary entries adhere to the ship's actual itinerary and detail Nick's adventures (and misadventures), among them his ongoing run-ins with a vindictive midshipman (also documented), the excitement and danger of rounding Cape Horn and the captain's disappointment in the view of Venus' transit across the sun (one of the main reasons for the voyage). Nick grows into young manhood irrevocably shaped by the three-year voyage, teaching an illiterate shipmate to read, befriending a Tahitian boy and witnessing cannibalism while helping to nurse a crew ravaged by accident and disease. His lively observations (on seasickness: "I can say now that Gentlemen heave the contents of their stomach same as eleven-year-old stowaways") keep the action sailing smoothly forward, while Hesse's impeccable research buttresses the narrative with a wealth of detail. A sprinkling of Robert Andrew Parker's pen-and-ink illustrations provides additional texture, while an author's note and extensive glossary round out this compelling volume. (Ages 10 to 14)



By Laurence Anholt

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