When the Whistle Blows by Fran Cannon Slayton

Today I am reviewing another 2k9 classmate’s book, When the Whistle Blowsby Fran Cannon Slayton. I had the opportunity to host Fran for the Louisiana Book Festival in October of 2009 and it struck me that she is as comfortable and easygoing as her writing. Her book reads easy, like you’re sipping tea in a rocking chair on the front porch, but she packs a powerful story behind that casual, southern charm.

Jimmy Cannon grows up in Rowlesburg, West Virginia in the 1940’s, and the story visits him every year on Halloween. We get to watch his growth from young teenager to young man as he and his friends make their way through high school in a small, railroading town. They play pranks, endure school, and compete in football championships. Jimmy’s eyes are set on the day he can work on the big steam engines – like his father and brothers before him – but his father wants a better life for Jimmy. The balance of the story and Jimmy’s self discovery revolve around this conflict. He grows to see himself and his father in a new light with each passing year.

Things to like about this story: It’s funny, well written, and provides a great sense of time and place without being overly nostalgic. Fran’s use of language and her profound insight are superb. The characters are so real – and struggle through their shortcomings to live out relationships with each other. The duel antagonism and love portrayed by Jimmy and his father will stay with you for a long time. And did I say it was funny? It is – which isn’t easy to pull off in this type of book.

Audience Recommendations: independent reading for any middle schooler, classroom reading in middle school literature or history, adults, intergenerational book clubs.

Fran has crafted an exquisite story with cross-generational appeal. It should stand the test of time and will help create a conversational bridge between grandparents and grandchildren.

Christmas Reads from Down the Bayou

Being from down the bayou in south Louisiana, I have a great many regional tales to remember and retell during the holidays. My favorite is the story of Papa Noel, or Pere Noel, as he is sometimes called. The Cajun families who live along the Mississippi River anxiously await the arrival of their version of Santa Claus every Christmas Eve.

Somewhere back in time, no one knows exactly when, the legend of Papa Noel and the bonfires crept into the holiday traditions here. Basically, from the day after Thanksgiving right until Christmas Eve groups of men and boys (and today women and girls) have built teepee-shaped bonfires atop the levee that hems in the mighty river. On Christmas Eve, these fires are lit and a long party ensues on the levee – until it is time to put the children to bed or attend midnight mass. The legend goes that the only way Papa Noel will find the good children along the river is by following the path of the bonfires – which put out a strong beacon in the dark and the fog.

Our bonfires represent our own version of Rudolph’s red nose – which is important because in many of our tales Papa Noel is pulled in a pirogue by a clan of alligators – not reindeer. Two books that give us a Cajun Santa are the now classic Cajun Night Before Christmas by Trosclair and the newer Legend of Papa Noel by Terri Hoover Dunham. Both are wonderful picture books for the holiday season.

In The Cajun Night Before Christmas, written in a stiff Cajun dialect that takes a little getting used to if you aren’t familiar, we are treated to a distinctly French Louisiana version of Clement Moore’s classic. With a Santa who dresses in muskrat, rides in a skiff pulled by French named alligators and who takes perhaps too many nips of blackberry wine, this tale is a wonderful read aloud – if you can pull off the dialect.

The Legend of Papa Noel tells the story of the bonfires more directly – and includes a beautiful white alligator, Nicolette. The white alligator is a rare occurrence in the Louisiana swamp. It isn’t an albino, it is the result of an unusual genetic abnormality that leaves the gator with white skin pigmentation and blue eyes. Dunham did a wonderful job with this story and the illustrations are beautiful.

There are many great Christmas traditions from around the world and I’m happy to have grown up with one of the truly unique customs that accompany the Yuletide season. How about you – do you have any unique Christmas customs from your neck of the wo

Heart of a Shepherd by Rosanne Parry

Today I’m presenting a midgrade contemporary fiction novel by my fellow 2k9 classmate, Rosanne Parry. Heart of a Shepherd tells the story of Brother and his ranching family. Set in rural Oregon, this book transmits a deep spirituality that is not often found in chidren’s novels today. Brother is raised in the Catholic tradition and spends a great deal of the story trying to keep a promise he made to his father before his father leaves to serve in the war in Iraq. Brother and his grandparents hold down the family ranch and life continues with its small triumphs and disappointments. When tragedy does visit the family, it is the strength of family relationships that holds everyone together and allows each of the characters to continue with hope for the future.

Things to like about this story:  beautiful prose,  strong male characters, complex supporting characters, positive role models, real relationships between grandparents, parents and children and a satisfying (if not entirely happy) ending.

Audience recommendations: independent reading for any middle schooler, classroom reading for fourth through eighth grade in literature or religion classes, adult reading.

Rosanne has created an enduring story that will provide satisfaction for many years. This novel has become one of my favorites to give to boys in the 11 to 14 age bracket.