The Emperor’s Army by Virginia Walton Pilegard

Today I’m posting my first publisher requested review. I was excited to have the opportunity to review a few books from New Orleans publisher, Pelican Publishing Company.  A regional publisher, Pelican specializes in “travel guides, art and architecture books, Christmas books, local and international cookbooks, motivational and inspirational works, and children’s books, as well as a growing number of social commentary, history, and fiction titles”. (Pelican website)

The Emperor’s Army: a mathematical adventure by Virginia Walton Pilegard. Illustrated by Adrian Tans. Pelican Publishing, January 2010.

Genres: Picturebook, Historical fiction

When scholarship falls out of favor because the evil prime minister gains influence with China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, a scholar and his son escape persecution by hiding in the mountains. They discover a huge project that artists arrested by the emperor are completing: a clay army to serve as guardians in the emperor’s afterlife. After the emperor dies, the peasants rob the buried army of statues, with the aid of the scholar’s son, and stage a revolt. The scholar and his son are rewarded and allowed to live in comfort, continuing to study.

This book would make a nice addition to an elementary school library and could be used as a teaching supplement in multiple subject areas. The rich language will probably require dictionary use by independent readers but provides a great opportunity to expand vocabulary.

Things to like about this book: First, Adrian Tans’ beautiful illustrations place the reader in the moment. Combined with the third person narration, the illustrations make it easy to settle in as though you are at the feet of a feudal elder in a long ago Chinese kingdom. The author introduces math concepts of volume and estimation, which allow for cross curricular usage. There is a brief historical note (which could have been expanded) concerning the first Huang emperor and an art activity for making clay sculptures.

Audience: Lower to middle elementary school. Read aloud in social studies or history class studying ancient China. Supplement to math or art class.

Reviewed from: F&G provided by publisher

Road to Tater Hill by Edie Hemingway

Today’s review is again from a fellow 2k9 classmate – I’ve got a theme going here. Edie Hemingway’s midgrade, historical fiction novel Road to Tater Hill was a terrific read.  It stuck with me long after I finished it and I kept imagining the characters and hoping for their happiness. Tater Hill is a book that makes you feel good when you read it – and it does so in a quiet, slow paced narrative that reminded me of sitting on my grandmother’s front porch and rocking away while she told me a story.

In  Road to Tater Hill, main character Annie and her mother have come to the mountains of North Carolina to visit with her grandparents while her father is on assignment overseas with the Air Force. Annie’s mom loses her baby due to a premature delivery and Annie is emotionally shut out by her mom, who is sinking into a deepening depression. Her loving grandparents spend all their time worrying about Annie’s mother so Annie seeks to understand her own pain and loss by spending time alone.  She discovers a mystery woman who has returned to Tater Hill after many years away.  This woman’s own journey through grief and loss makes her a most appropriate friend for Annie during this dark time. The characters’ growth through the story is woven delicately into the narrative and Hemingway’s tender portrayal of a family’s coping with tragedy is beautifully done.

Things to like about this story: Strong characters, loving relationships with grandparents, a great sense of place in the writing, and a happy ending that stays with you for a long time.

Audience recommendations: 4th grade through upper middle schoolers. classroom reading, book club reading.

Road to Tater Hill gracefully portrays our ability to pick up the pieces of a shattered life and rebuild it. Thank you, Edie Hemingway, for this important book.

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.