From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg. I am quite sure that the vast majority of you are familiar with this modern day YA classic, but it is certainly worthy of one more accolade. The story is probably geared toward the middle grade audience and centers on a sister and brother who decide to run away from home and share an adventure. Their adventure is slightly unique in that they choose to run away to Metropolitan Museum of Art and camp out among the historical artifacts. While many students may find a field trip to the museum boring, these two children show us how fascinating art can be. The author even taught this adult to look at the world with a sense of awe and wonder, some skills that I think I lost long ago. There is a portion of the book that involves a mystery that the children want to solve – and provides an added layer of interest for all readers. I would rate the book a 5 out of 5 stars.
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead is a debut YA novel by this talent author which centers on a series of cryptic messages sent to a sixth grader living in New York City in the late 1970s. There were many aspects of the book that I enjoyed, not the least of which was the description of my favorite city at a time when I lived on the East coast. I thought Ms. Stead captured the voice and mannerisms of this age group in a way that I could truly recall this particular time in my life. The ability of these messages to predict future events added to the suspense of the story and held my interest – even though I was somewhat thrown by the time travel aspect of the ending (in fact, I had to re-read it twice before it made sense to me). This is NOT a fault of the author – this is definitely the fault of the reader. It was good for me to read this kind of time travel novel – although it is not similar to the style that I plan to write.
The Artist’s Specials is a series of 6 DVDs that focus on the life of a particular artist. I actually watched two of them for my research: Degas and the Dancer and Marie Cassatt: American Impressionist. Both of them were delightful and I would highly recommend them to any child – or child at heart. The Degas movie focuses on his paintings of ballerinas, in particular the young dancer who is scratching her back in the famous painting, The Dance Class. He forms a relationship with this young girl: she models for him, enabling him to perfect his artistic expression of movement, and he encourages her to dance until she is accepted as part of the National Ballet Corps. The film of Marie Cassatt focuses on her relationship with her visiting nieces and nephew. At first her the adolescent niece does not understand why her aunt would “waste her time” painting rather than following the more traditional route of marriage and privileged life, but in the end Marie has actually encouraged this young girl to follow her own dreams. The movie also touches upon the friendship that Cassatt and Degas shared (something that I hope to perhaps embellish in my own book).
Dancing for Degas by Kathryn Wagner is a debut novel, again with Degas as a central character, but definitely focusing on the more adult themes of the Parisian ballet. The protagonist in this story comes from a very poor family who has no hope of survival unless one of their children succeeds in life and can support the rest of the family. When the eldest son impregnates a local girl, this responsibility falls on the shoulder of the young daughter, Alexandrie. Even though she starts ballet lessons late in life (most star ballerinas have studied since the age of three or four), she does work hard and succeeds at earning the opportunity to study at the Parisian Ballet. This does not mean she will actually become a member of the esteemed corps, but she will have the opportunity to audition in due time. The book delves into the seedy green room antics of ballet patrons and the purchase of ballerinas for the night. Many of the girls care more about becoming a rich man’s mistress – guaranteeing a luxurious lifestyle for herself and some financial help for her family – than they care about actually becoming an “etoile” (star ballerina) Alexandrie becomes a model for Degas and becomes totally enamored by this artist, but he refuses to compromise art for love and marriage. There were parts of the book that I truly enjoyed – particularly the ending (it was not what I expected), but I had hoped that there was going to be more story of art, and less story of unscrupulous French aristocracy.
Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Scott Chessman. This is a small collection of five fictional stories inspired by as many paintings that the artist rendered of her sister. Lydia and Marie were close sisters, although they were as different as night and day. Marie was the independent, strong-willed sister with great aspirations and Lydia was sick for most of her adult life with what was to eventually diagnosed as Bright’s disease. The stories are mostly character sketches of a particular moment in time. I found them quite absorbing, although in a meditative sort of way. I was truly taken back in time where a particular social class lived at a leisurely pace that allowed them to notice beauty in everyday life. This would be the perfect book for a summer day – sipping a glass of iced tea in a shaded hammock.
Claude and Camille by Stephanie Cowell. This novel follows the love story of Claude Monet and his muse/model/lover/wife Camille. I enjoyed this book the best of the three historical fiction novels I read. I think I liked it because there was enough action/plot/conflict that I was always fully engaged (as opposed to Lydia Cassatt, where it was more a relaxed character study), and while the loose morals of this artistic society is presented here, it does not detract from the primary focus of the Impressionists artistic endeavors (whereas with Dancing for Degas, I felt that the focus on the book was more on the depravity of the young girls than the art of Degas). Since this novel focuses on their life together, it essentially spans the years of 1857 – 1879, the year Camille died. I enjoyed the pacing of this book, the attention to artistic detail, and the emotions portrayed of a starving artist who wants to provide for his family, but yearns to paint even more. I was truly in awe of Monet’s perseverance, despite popular opinion and financial distress. He was truly called to be an artist, he was willing to do ‘whatever it took” to heed that call – and the world is forever grateful to him (and his family) for making those sacrifices.
I have come away reading these novels learning that there is no one right way to tell a story. No one has told “my” story yet – so I feel confident that I am not unintentionally plagiarizing any one’s work. I am also still excited about my story – which tells me that I am on the right track. While I know that I must continue to overcome these senseless feelings of perfectionism (I want the rough draft to be perfect) because they are only setting me up for failure, I am still excited about the writing adventure that lies ahead. Even if nothing comes of it (which I doubt that it will), I feel confident that my experiences this summer will help me be a more compassionate and empathetic teacher in the fall when these teenage writers will be experiencing their own skeletons in the closet.