Monday 8 February 2016

Big John's Secret by Eleanore M. Jewett

Author:  Eleanore M. Jewett

Illustrator:  Gino d'Achille (cover)

Era:  1215-18 A.D.

Published: 1962

Award:  None known

Age Range:  9 years old and up

Review:  ★★★★☆

Big John lives with Old Marm, a woman who rescued him from his parents' castle when it was raided and siezed.  He works as a villein, but John knows that his family was once nobility, yet how will he be able to enact revenge on the enemy who stole his birthright and find his missing father? When Sir Alwynn accepts him as a page, John is overjoyed.  There is talk of his father last being seen in the Holy Land and Alwynn, a Knight of St. John, is preparing to leave on the Fifth Crusade.  But John's natural gentleness and empathy run contrary to his desire for revenge and his intentions of becoming a knight.  When he finds himself captured by the enemy, all his plans appear hopeless.  Finally, an encounter with Saint Francis of Assisi allows him to see the value of compassion and generosity, but the question still remains ...... Will John be reunited with his father and finally wreak the revenge that he has so earnestly desired?

Genre:  Historical Fiction

Historical Background:  In 1199, with the death of King Richard I, his brother John became king of England.  John began fiscal reforms to support his wars, as the royal coffers had been drained by Richard during the Crusades, but his short-sighted handling of the British nobles caused nothing but enmity and strife, and in 1215 he was forced to sign the Magna Carta peace treaty with the nobles.  In the story, John's father had run afoul of King John which lead to the seizing of his estates by another baron.

The Fifth Crusade was initially organized by Pope Innocent III, and preparations were taken over by his successor, Pope Honorius III.  When a six year truce ended in 1217, the crusade was launched, targeting Egypt as a route into Jerusalem.  The battle at Acre, Egypt on December 24, 1217, is documented as history by Jewett, but I could not find any information about it on the internet.  However, since she received a master's degree in comparative literature from Columbia University and had an avid interest in medieval times, I would surmise that Jewett's information is indeed accurate.

The Knights of St. John, of which Sir Alwynn is one, originated circa 1023, its mission to assist poor, sick or injured pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land.  After the First Crusade, it became a military, religious order, but still mostly dealt with service to the sick, and it was only in 1200 that there is a first mention of military service.  The name is still in service today, in the familiar form of St. John's Ambulance Brigade.        


  • Cambridgeshire, England, 1215-1217
  • Acre, Egypt, 1217
  • Jerusalem, 1218
  • Damietta, Egypt, 1218


Big John:  A twelve-year-old boy, much bigger than his age and villein to Sir Eustace.

Old Marm:  Big John's self-appointed guardian after the death of his parents.

Sir Eustace:  Lord of the manor and the man for whom John works

Lord Walter Warenne:  a knight

Reynold: a page who is part of Lord Warenne's company, and John's friend

Tostig:  a page at Warenne who is initially hostile to John

Sir Alwynn:  a Knight of St. John, and John's benefactor

Nur-Aslan: a weathly Saracen

Yusuf:  the son of Nur-Aslan

Historical Characters:

Francis of Assisi:  a friar, devout in his Catholic faith, who attempted to convert the Sultan Melek-al-Kamel (al-Kamil) to Christianity.  While he did not succeed, the Franciscan order has been present in the Holy Land since that time (1217).

Sultan Melek-al-Kamel: the fourth Ayyubid sultan of Egypt.  While calling for Christian heads during the war, he also was known to show great compassion and mercy.

Lord Ranulf, Earl of Chester:  based on the figure of Ranulf de Blondeville, 6th Earl of Chester

Damietta (Fifth Crusade) {1849}
Henri Delaborde
source Wikimedia Commons


What does the central character want?

  • John wants to find his father who is missing and possibly dead. He also wants revenge against the baron who burned his father's estate and helped send him into exile.  He believes becoming a knight will bring him his desires.

What keeps him from getting what he wants?

  • John's goodness and empathy towards people appear to work against his desire of becoming a knight, and in his search for his father.  In reality, it is John's own self who does not recognize the power hidden in these natural traits.

How does John finally get what he wants?

  • His experience with Saint Francis helps him recognize the value of true generosity and kindness, so he can then begin to appreciate these natural qualities within himself and finally, in forgiving his father's enemies, he is set free to pursue a vocation that is both honourable and natural, a vocation for which he is well-suited.

Frisian crusaders confront the tower of Damietta, Egypt
source Wikipedia

  • Man vs. Society  John place in society is confused and tenuous.  He must live and be treated as a villein, then page, yet there are questions of his parentage.  How will he recover the prestige he has lost and regain his rightful place in society?
  • Man vs. Himself  John is conflicted by his generous actions towards Yusuf.  He sees himself as a knight who should be victorious over his enemies, yet he shows the boy mercy.  This conflict is a mirror of his conflict within himself with regard to his father's enemies.  Do they deserve death or mercy?  His struggle also impedes him from recognizing his true calling.          

  • Love
  • Revenge
  • War
  • Injustice
  • Identity
  • Loyalty
  • Perseverance
  • Friendship
  • Education
  • Bravery
  • Forgiveness
  • Family

Born in 1890 and the only child of her parents, Eleanore Myers Jewett developed a vivid imagination and a love of reading.  While doing a master's degree in comparative literature at Columbia University, she continued her fascination with the medieval time period and in her books, the setting is brought vividly to life.  As a wife of a physician, she lived with him and their two daughters in upstate New York until her death in 1967.

© Cleo and Children's Classic Book Carousel, Years 2014 - 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cleo and Children's Classic Book Carousel with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Wednesday 25 February 2015

The Ides of April

Author:  Mary Ray

Illustrator:  Gino d'Achille (cover)

Era:  62 A.D.

Published: 1974 (?)

Award:  None known

Age Range:  12 years old and up

Review:  ★★★★

Senator Caius Pomponius Afer is murdered in his bed and the household slaves are taken into custody to face the sentence of death if even one has perpetrated this crime.  Aulus, Pomponius' valet and the first slave to happen upon his master after the assassination, is suspected, but when he dies in prison, who will prove his innocence?  Yet the slave list has been neglected and so, no one is aware that two of the slaves are missing. Where is Assinius, the Senator's steward, who had not been seen days before the murder?  And Hylas, the Senator's Greek secretary is not in the party.

Hylas, as it turns out, escaped detection in the house and is working steadfastly to find out who committed the dastardly deed.  He is certain that it was not one of the servants, but who could have had the opportunity and motive to commit such a vile execution.  Enlisting the help of Pomponius' son-in-law, Camillus Rufus, the nobleman and slave investigate, and unearth devious plots that could possibly rock the foundations of Rome's political body and cost them their lives.

Genre:  Children's Historical Fiction

Background:  Publius Clodius Thrasea Paetus is one of the characters in the story, yet he is a real Roman historical figure.  By his actions in the Senate and in public life, he exemplified a man of honour and convictions, often going against the status quo in favour of principles.  Upon Nero's murder of his own mother and the Senate's obsequious behaviour towards the Emperor, Paetus walked out of the Senate meeting, refusing to be part of it.  His opposition to Nero continued and eventually his admirable ethics caught up with him.  Nero contrived charges against him, accusing him of neglecting his senatorial duties, and he was sentenced to death by his choice.  At his suburban villa, he elected to have the veins in his arms opened and died with serene dignity.

Setting:   Rome in the year 62 A.D.  

Point-of-View:  The story is told from the point of view of the slave, Hylas, yet switches part way through the story to the point-of-view of Camillus.  This substitution offers a unique perspective for the reader as they get to first see Roman life through the eyes of a slave and later see it through the eyes of a patrician.



Caius Pomponius Afer:  A Roman senator

Camillus Rufus:  A military tribune married to Blandina

Domina Blandina:  Senator Pomponius' daugher and Camillus' wife.

Domina Faustina:  The step-mother of Senator Pomponius

Decianus Gallus:  The step-brother of Senator Pomponius

Galerius:  A friend of Camillus

The Household of Caius Pomponius:

Hylas:  The main character.  Senator Caius Pomponius' secretary

Assinus:  Senator Pomponius' steward

Aulus:  Senator Pomponius' valet

Nissa:  The mother of Hylas and Faustina's maid

Merope: Domina Blandina's maid

People of Rome:

Macrobius:  A prison governor

Varro:  A market porter

Matidia:  His aunt

Figulus:  A barber

Vibulanus:  A butcher

Dionysios:  Secretary for Correspondence from the Eastern Provinces in the Imperial Household

Historical Characters:

Thrasea Paetus:  A senator and former consul.  He lived during the time of three Emperors, Caligula, Claudius and Nero.

Seneca:  Tutor, and at this point, an advisor to Nero

Emperor Nero:  During his reign, he initially concentrated on trade and the enhancement of cultural life.  He is the Roman emperor who was accused setting fire to Rome.  He was also the first emperor to commit suicide.

The Remorse of Nero after the Murder of his Mother (1878)
John William Waterhouse
source Wikiart


What does the central character want?

  • Hylas wants to find the murder of Pomponius to save his mother and the rest of the slaves.  Camillus wants to find the murderer to pay a debt to Hylas and to see justice served.

What keeps her from getting what she wants?

  • Hylas is being sought by the athorities, which makes his search for those responsible and the gathering of clues, more difficult. Camillus is impeded by family loyalty.  He struggles with truth and exposure of those close to him.

How does Hylas and Camillus finally get what they want?

  • Hylas gets what he wants through Camillus, and Camillus, with the help of Paetus, finally realizes that truth and justice is more important than personal consequence.  Through the process of the investigation, he begins to see the slaves as people instead of just a commodity.


  • Man vs. Man  Camillus is in conflict with his wife and the possible public exposure of their family.
  • Man vs. Society  Hylas' place as a slave in society makes it difficult for him to search for justice or the truth
  • Man vs. Himself  Camillus struggles with himself to determine if justice or personal wants are more important          

Representation of the Roman Senate
source Wikipedia

  • Murder
  • Loyalty
  • Ethics
  • Duty
  • Bravery
  • Mutual Alliance
  • Family
  • Patrician vs. Slave

© Cleo and Children's Classic Book Carousel, Years 2014 - 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cleo and Children's Classic Book Carousel with appropriate and specific direction to the original content

Tuesday 20 January 2015

The Forgotten Daughter

Author:  Caroline Dale Snedecker

Illustrator:  Dorothy P. Lathrop

Era:  2nd century B.C. (around 113 B.C.)

Published:  1933 (Doubleday)

Award:  Newberry Honor (1934)

Age Range:  8 - 14 years old

Review:  ★★★★

Twelve year old Chloé lives with her companion, Melissa, in a shack in the mountains of Samnium outside of Rome.  The daughter of a Greek slave and a Roman centurion, at her mother's death she is abandoned by her father to her fate, which is that of a slave.  As Chloé grows to womanhood, she draws from the animals and nature around her as companions.  Her character is as lovely as the woods surrounding her, yet still she nurses an abiding hatred for the man who should have loved, nurtured and raised her as his own.  When a young Roman nobleman arrives at a neighbouring villa and encounters the young woman, Chloé's circumstances appear destined to change for the better, yet her past finally catches up with her and Chloe must decide whether she will hold on to the ghosts of the past or reach forward into a new future.

Genre:  Historical Fiction

Background:  The main story is woven around a true one, events surrounding Tiberius Gracchus, a man who was born to a noble family in Rome, yet one who ended up struggling for the rights of the lower classes. He managed to get an agrarian law put through the senate which would return land expropriated by wealthly Romans back to the peasant population.  This law stirred dissention in political circles and when Tiberius decided to run for re-election as a tribune, a group of irate Senators set upon him, clubbing him to death.  Cornelia Scipionis Africana also appears as Tiberius' mother and the daughter of the hero Scipio Africanus who defeated Hannibal in the Second Punic War.

Setting:  Most of the story takes place in the mountains of Samnium, outside of Rome.  Melissa and Chloé live in a hut up the hill which is separate from the country villa.

Samnite Soldiers from a tomb frieze in
Nola, Campania 4th century BCE
source Wikipedia


Chloé:  A girl who is half Greek and half Latin.  Her mother was taken in a raid on Lesbos, by her father, Lavinus, a Roman nobleman.

Melissa: Chloé's companion, who was also taken in the raid.  She was the daughter of a priest of the temple.  She is Chloé's surrogate mother.

Aulus Cornelius Maro:  A Roman nobleman who is a friend and supporter of Tiberius.  When Tiberius is killed Aulus is exiled to his country villa and meets Chloé.

Davus:  A Roman slave who oversees Lavinus' country estate early in the book.  He is harsh and cruel to Chloé in particular.

Bion:  A Greek slave who takes over management of the estate when Davus is sent to Rome.  Because of his nationality and kind heart, he becomes a benefactor to Melissa and Chloé and assists them whenever he is able.

Robina:  The villa's cook and a little bit of a gossip.

Lavinus:   Chloé's Roman father.  He is rumoured to have abandoned Chloe's mother and Chloé, and married another woman, for which Chloe holds intense antipathy toward him.

Historical characters:

Tiberius Gracchus:  A Roman tribune and a cousin of Aulus.  Though coming from a rich family, he struggled to improve the lot of the lower classes of Rome.  (see background)

Cornelia Scipionis Africana:  the mother of Tiberius


What does the central character want?

  • Initially Chloé wants revenge, or at the very least to hold on to her hatred for her father.  She also deeply wishes for something different than her life as a slave, but because of her sheltered situation, she is not quite sure what she wishes for.

What keeps her from getting what she wants?

  • As for slavery, the situation of slaves in Rome was governed by strict laws and the only way to escape it was to be freed by a master.  There does not look like there is much hope for Chloé's situation, even though Aulus believes that he can convince his family to accept her as his wife. Also, the anger and hostility that Chloé harbours towards her father prevents her from moving forward.

How does Chloé finally get what she wants?

  • With regard to her father, his return gives Chloé new information and allows her to re-examine her prejudices and conclusions.  Chloé's father accepts her as his rightful child and her days of slavery are no more.  Chloé also learns that love is better than hatred, and after realizing that she has based her feelings of anger towards her father on lies, she surrenders her heart to him.  Hatred is a type of slavery that will not only harm the one that it is directed against, but the person himself; it not only affects the relationship with that person, but because of its corrosive nature, can affect other relationships as well.  In letting go of her hatred, Chloé sets herself free.


  • Man vs. Man   Chloé is in conflict with her father, angry at his perceived abandonment. 
  • Man vs. Society  Chloé is in conflict with the Roman system itself that devalues a man and allows a human being to be treated as an animal.
  • Man vs. Himself  Chloé struggles within herself with negative feelings toward her father that, without her realizing it, prevent her from moving forward in life.                  

  • Hatred
  • Cruelty
  • Identity
  • Judgement
  • Acceptance
  • Love
  • Politics
  • Nature
  • Understanding
  • Forgiveness

Snedecker was known for her extensive research using only primary or secondary sources, and The Forgotten Daughter sings with a melody of the past.  Snedecker's writing brings Roman life to the reader in vibrant colours and poignant emotions.  The descriptions of the setting are beautiful and living and, as a reader, you feel that you have stepped right into the story.

Quotes from The Forgotten Daughter:

  • Forever besetting mankind is this temptation --- to make other men into machines.  Always in a new form it comes to every generation, and always as disastrous to master as to slave.
  • Despair in the old is a grievous thing, but not so bad as despair in the young.  The young have no weapons, no remembrances of evils overcome, nor of evils endured.  They have no muscle-hardness from old battles.  They see only what is present, and they believe it to be forever.  And they are very sure.  Besides, joy and up-springing are the right of youth, and without it youth falls to the ground.
  • It is strange how people will try to mend their lives when the garment is torn to shreds.  It is strange, too, how life's garment, unlike human weaving, grows whole with the mending.  It is as if some invisible kindness out of the air had set to work with you ---- here a little and there a little.
  • We folk of the modern day can, with a touch of the finger, flash a whole city into light; we can plunge through clouds faster than any bird; we can soar above the very atmosphere of earth.  But we have lost the sweet informing companionship of animals which was the daily life of men of old.  Animals as pets are not the same.  They are not these ancient vital companions.  These ancient animals were in equal partnership with men, gave as much as they took --- gave somtimes more. ...... Life could not go on without them; and with them life was sweet, warm, responsive.
  • One wonders how the people of the ancient world met their griefs.  These griefs were of more cruel nature than ours, and the people had, so it seems, less spiritual weapons to meet them.  That they did meet them and bear them in all those deep and long-lost centuries is a keen comment on the intrinsic worth of men.

© Cleo and Children's Classic Book Carousel, Years 2014 - 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cleo and Children's Classic Book Carousel with appropriate and specific direction to the original content

Monday 12 January 2015

The Cabin Faced West

Author:  Jean Fritz

Illustrator:  Feodor Rojankovsky 

Era:  1784

Published: 1958 (G.P. Putnam's Sons)

Award:  None known

Age Range:  3 - 12 years old

Review:  ★★★★★

A wonderfully poignant story of Ann Hamilton, a young girl who has moved west with her family, which include her parents, two brothers and a baby.  Her father, in his wisdeom, emphasizes that the family must "look west" now, and that there should be no looking back.  Ann, however, finds this resolve difficult.  She misses her family, especially her cousin, Margaret, who was her best friend.  How will she be able to carve out a new identity for herself in this unfamiliar land?  Who is this new Ann, who is now a pioneer girl?

Genre:  Children's Historical Fiction

Title:  The Cabin Faced West.  Why would Fritz choose this title for her book?  The title wraps around a major theme in the story: looking forwards towards your goals and challenges, and not looking backwards.  Ann and her family have left the East to settle in the West and now everything must face West:  their thoughts, their dreams, their faces, even their cabin, must look toward their new life.

Setting:  Hamilton Hill (now Ginger Hill), "The Western Country" on the other side of the Allegheny Mountains, west of Gettysburg.  For a map, see here.

Point-of-View:  The story is told from the point-of-view of 10-year-old, Ann Hamilton, a pioneer girl whose family has recently settled in the "west".  By viewing the stories through Ann's eyes, the reader is able to better perceive the thoughts and struggles of children of that time as they try to adjust to foreign lands and circumstances.  In Ann's case, she has been taken away from her family, and especially her best friend who is her cousin, Margaret, as well as the trappings of civilization.  Her internal conflict is in trying to carve out a new identity for herself, in getting used to the land and the people she meets.  Her struggle is keenly felt by the reader.


Ann Hamilton:  10-year-old Ann is unhappy that she's had to leave Gettysburg, her extended family and friends.  Her families' situation at their homestead in the west is still uncomfortable for her, and she struggles to find a place in this new life that has been given her.

Daniel Hamilton:  Ann's older brother.  Eighteen years old, he is trying to act a man and will sometimes reprimand Ann.  He tells his siblings that none of them are allowed to criticize the west.

David Hamilton:  Ann's seventeen-year-old brother, David has a twinkle in his eye and is quicker to laugh than his older sibling.

Mother:  Ann's mother is an understanding mother.  Through her we learn some of the chores and responsibilities of pioneer women.

Father:  A minor character in the story but he is portrayed as responsible and caring.  He gently assists Andy's family in seeing the value of hard work and how it can add to their lives.

Andy McPhale:  A settler boy who is rather sullen and difficult.   He shows up at the Hamilton's farm often, and Ann offers to teach him to read.  By observing her family, Andy learns the value of work, and what can be done through perseverance 

The McPhales, Andy's parents:  Andy's mother is sickly and his father is portrayed as small-minded and uneducated, but through the Hamilton's influence and kindness, Andy's family's qualities begin to improve.

Arthur Scott:  A young man who has come to newly settle in the area.  

George Washington:  The U.S. president, of course.  In the story, he is coming to check on his land in the area.  He has dinner with the Hamiltons.

Dr. Craik:  One of President Washington's companions


What does the central character want?

  • Ann thinks that she wants a life like she used to have, when really she is trying to find her identity within this new life of a pioneering family.

What keeps her from getting what she wants?

  • Ann's resolve to "look back",  sometimes without realizing it, impedes her from moving forward.  Nevertheless, her experiences with Andy and others around her are causing her to become more attached to her new surroundings and already are creating bonds with her new environment that she is not yet aware of.

How does Ann finally get what she wants?

  • Through the visit of George Washington and his wise words, Ann realizes that she is part of the forming of their country and the bravery and resolved that is required of her and all pioneers who set out to build a new life.  Finally, instead of focusing on the microscopic circumstances in life, Ann gets a glimpse of the larger purpose, and is transformed.

Conflict:  Man vs. Man  There is internal conflict within Ann in attempting to loosen her hold of the past and accept the future.  She needs to "face west".

  • Dissatisfaction
  • Perseverance
  • Looking forward
  • Kindness
  • Bravery
  • Self-reliance
  • Family
  • Liberation

"The future is traveling west with people like you ....... Here is the rising world ---- to be kept or lost in the same way a battlefield is kept or lost."

This story is based on a true story, one that happened to Fritz's great-great-grandmother, Ann Hamilton.  George Washington did, in fact, stop at their homestead in 1784 for dinner.  In Washington's diary on September 18, 1784, it reads:  "Set out with Doctr. Craik for my Land on Miller's Run, crossed the Monongahela at Devore's Ferry ...... bated at one Hamilton's about 4 miles from it, in Washington County, and lodged at Colo. Cannon's." Fritz's great-great-grandmother told the story to her children and it was passed down through the generations to finally be shared with us all.

© Cleo and Children's Classic Book Carousel, Years 2014 - 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cleo and Children's Classic Book Carousel with appropriate and specific direction to the original content

Tuesday 16 September 2014

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

Author:  E. L. Konigsburg

Illustrator:  E. L. Konigsburg

Era:  1967

Published:  1967 (Atheneum)

Award:  Newbery Medal 1968, William Allen White Children's Book Award 1970

Age Range:  9 and up

Review:  ★★★★

At 12 years-old, Claudia Kincaid is the oldest child in the Kincaid family, her other siblings being three younger brothers.  Feeling unappreciated and tired of the mundaneness of life, she decides to run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Joining her is her middle brother, 9 year old Jamie, whom she decides to take because he is reasonably easy-going and is also the only one in the family with money, which he continually makes by adeptly cheating at cards.

Metropolitan Museum of Art
source Wikipedia
As they adjust to life at the museum, they discover by chance a marble statue of an angel.  Upon further investigation, they find that it was sold to the museum by a Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and, even more exciting is the fact that it is suspected of being carved by none other than the famous Renaissance sculptor, Michelangelo.  Claudia sets out to discover the truth and, at the end of her search, finds something that she never expected.

Greek & Roman galleries
source Wikipedia
Genre:  Children's Fiction

Title:  From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  Why would Konigsburg choose this title for her story?  We understand finally that the secret of the statue comes to light from Claudia and Jamie's search through the Mrs. Basil's files, but there is more than this one "mix-up" in the novel.  Claudia is mixed-up as to what she wants and the actual story behind the statue, Angel, is mixed-up between fact and fiction as well.  But just as Mrs. Basil's mixed-up files that had appeared so secretive have a purpose and come out right in the end, so, too, do the other conflicts in the novel.

Setting:  The book is set in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  As the children's spend time there, the reader is introduced to information about the museum.

Point-of-View:  The story is told from a first person omniscient point-of-view by Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, yet one could almost call it third-person, as most of the story she relates is about Claudia and Jamie.  The narration takes the form of a letter to her lawyer, Saxonberg.  Why might the author have chosen an old lady who didn't actually share in the adventures of the story to tell it?  Well, in the first place, Mrs. Frankweiler has wisdom and experience.  She is not only able to inject nuggets of wisdom into the narrative, she also has more knowledge of the museum and pieces in it, than the children might have and can occasionally communicate that knowledge to the reader.  And being a rather mentally youthful old person, she is both able to understand the children's motivations and desires, while guiding them in their search.  She understands both what they want and what they need.


Claudia Kincaid:  At 12 years of age, she is the oldest child of the Kincaid family and a straight-A student.  Claudia is dissatisfied with her life, feeling the pressures of being an older sibling, and she longs for something other than the sameness of her life.  She comes up with the idea to run away to the museum.

Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler:  An 82 year-old widower who is the narrator of the story.  She's a little crotchety, but also spunky and wise.  She doesn't give the children what they want easily which teaches them the value of hard work.  Like Claudia, she likes secrets.

Jamie Kincaid:  Claudia's 9 year-old younger brother.  She chooses him as her companion because he has imagination, but mostly because he is the sibling with the most money.  He is also witty and thinks on his feet.  Claudia may be more academic, but it is Jamie who has life skills.

Saxonberg:  the lawyer to whom Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler addresses her letter (which is the novel).  The reader never meets Saxonberg, who instead remains an ambiguous character.  But since this book is full of secrets, is it surprising that he remains cloaked in mystery?


What does the central character want?

    Angel by Michelangelo
    early works
    source Wikipedia
  • Claudia wants to escape the mundaneness of life and the injustice of being an older sibling.  She desires to have an adventure that will change her so she can return home a different person from the one she was before.  When they discover the statue and its possible history, Claudia sees this as a chance for excitement and notoriety.  She is driven by this goal and finds out everything she can about the statue.  Her drive and dedication to this task could be compared to the effort Michelangelo gave to honing his craft and creating Angel. Claudia believes that if she can solve the mystery of the statue, she'll finally be someone; she can return home a celebrity, impress her family and finally be different than the old Claudia.

What keeps her from getting what she wants?

  •  Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler impedes Claudia from reaching her goal by making it difficult for her to find out the truth about Angel, and then demanding secrecy.  Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler says, "I admired her spirit; but more, I wanted to help her see the value of her adventure.  She still saw it as buying her something: appreciation first, information now."  Mrs. Frankweiler is trying to help fix Claudia's "wrong thinking".  If Claudia's focus is on being famous, that fame could be gone in an instant, but the effort that went into reaching her goal was by far more valuable.

How does Claudia finally get what she wants?

  • By having to work so hard to accomplish her goal, Claudia finally realized that public approval, or getting praise as an end which will only last for awhile, is nothing to the personal satisfaction of hard work and achievement that can last forever.  She learns that the only true way to be different is on the inside.

Conflicts:  Man vs. Man   There is conflict with Claudia and Mrs. Frankweiler as to whether to reveal the secret of the statue, and there is also conflict with Claudia within herself as she struggles with how to be a different person.

  • Dissatisfaction
  • Self-Reliance
  • Dreams
  • Secrets
  • Family
  • Character
  • Art


E.L. Konigsburg
"Secrets are safe, and they do much to make you different. On the inside where it counts. I won't actually be getting a secret from you; I'll be getting details. I'm a collector of all kinds of things besides art," I said, pointing to my files.

"I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal.  But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything.  And you can feel it inside of you.  If you never take time out to let that happen, then you accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you.  You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them.  It's hollow."  

"Having words and explanations for things is too modern."

Further Investigations:

© Cleo and Children's Classic Book Carousel, Years 2014 - 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cleo and Children's Classic Book Carousel with appropriate and specific direction to the original content

Friday 29 August 2014

The Witch of Blackbird Pond

"On a morning in mid-April 1687, the brigantine Dolphin left the open sea, sailed briskly across the Sound to the wide mouth of the Connecticut River and into Saybrook harbor."

Author:  Elizabeth George Speare

Era:  1687

Published:  1958 (Houghton Mifflin)

Award:  Newberry Medal (1959)

Age Range:  8 - 14 years old

Review:  ★★★★

In 1687, upon the death of her grandfather, Kit Tyler travels from her home in Barbados to stay with her aunt and uncle in Wethersfield, Connecticut.  A long way from everything that she's used to, Kit finds the Puritan community austere and not particularly welcoming, but finds a friend in Nat Eaton, the captain's son, and also befriends an outcast, a Quaker woman named Hannah Tupper.  But when Kit is accused of witchcraft, she must use all her wits and the friendships that she has made in her new community to prove her innocence.

Genre:  Historical Fiction

Background:  In the face of religious persecution in England, many men, women and children travelled to the New World and settled in colonies there.  In autumn of 1635, a number of sixty men, women and children travelled from Massachusetts and settled at Wethersfield, Windsor and Hartford. In 1636 the Connecticut colony was set up for a Puritan settlment.  The Saybrook Colony and the New Haven Colony eventually merged with Connecticut Colony.  In 1662, Charles II granted the Connecticut colony the right to their charter (like their own constitution) and to administer their own government, until Sir Edmund Andros arrived in 1686 under King James II.  He had plans to increase the king's power by uniting Massechusetts and Connecticut, therefore revoking their charter and setting up a new government.  This caused political turmoil in the Colonies.   On Halloween of 1687, Andros appeared in Connecticut with plans to remove the charter and convene a new government, but during a meeting, the charter disappeared under mysterious circumstances and, according to legend, was hidden in a hollow oak tree.  In the end, the new government concentrated more on New York and Massechusetts, and Connecticut, in return ignored the new government.  When James II was deposed by William and Mary in 1689, Boston sent Andros back to England in chains.

The Charter Oak, Hartford
source Wikipedia

Setting:  Wethersfield in 1687.  It is a strong Puritan community but the settlement is relatively new and survival is still an arduous task.  People are wary of strangers and resistant to new ideas.

17th Century Puritan Meeting House
(Old Ship Church, Hingham, MA)
source Wikipedia


Katherine Tyler (Kit):  she moves to Barbados to live with her aunt and uncle in Wethersfield.  Initially, headstrong and lacking self-control, through her experiences and contact with the people of Wethersfield, Kit learns patience, kindness, and temperance.

Nathaniel Eaton (Nat): son of the captain of The Dolphin.  He helps Kit to mature and grow as a person while challenging her actions.  He often seems to be present in times of trouble.

Hannah Tupper:  A Quaker who had been driven from Massachusetts and has settled in Wethersfield but is still shunned and persecuted by the community, who says that she is a witch.  She is befriended by Kit and is also friends with Nat.

Matthew Wood:  Kit's uncle.  While severe and quiet, he has a silent nobility that is not easy to see.  He is loyal and sensible, however, and sticks by Kit during her troubles.

Rachel Wood:  Kit's aunt, her mother's sister.

Judith Wood:  Matthew and Rachel's daughter.  Proud and haughty, she is draw to luxuries and dislikes her life of toil.

Mercy Wood:  Matthew and Rachel's second daughter.  She is lame, but her sweet and giving nature is truly attractive.

John Holbrook:  son of a tanner and unable to pay the tuition for college, he has come to Wethersfield to study under the Reverend Bulkeley.

William Ashby:  a wealthy young man in town who singles out Kit to be his future wife.  He is staid and practical and unimaginative.

Prudence Cruff:  a small, scrawny child who is neglected by her parents, particularly her mother, Goodwife Cruff.  Kit gains her admiration by rescuing her doll and covertly teaches her to read and write.

Historical characters:

Reverend Bulkeley: an ardent Royalist, he was faithful to the English king.  His philosophy collided with Matthew Wood's and later, Holbrook's, his student.

Mr. Eleazar Kimberly:  a schoolmaster in Wethersfield from 1661 to 1689.  He married three times and had five children.

Governor Edmund Andros: sent by King James II to the Connecticut colony, his purpose was to remove the colony's charter, threatening their right to self-government.

Captain Samuel Talcott: very little information on this character

Buttolph-Williams House - Wethersfield
considered the house where Kit lived
source Wikipedia

Quakers:  Another break-away sect from The Church of England, and called The Society of Friends, Quakers believed that a person could communicate directly with God and therefore, there was no need for ministers, priests or traditional church customs.  They were often persecuted even more harshly than the Puritans in England.  Some colonies refused to allow them entry.

Children would use Hornbooks to practice their letters
source Wikimedia Commons


What does the central character want?

  • Kit wants acceptance from her new family and from the community.  She also wants them to broaden their outlook so it fits with the society and expectations that she was used to in Barbados.

What keeps her from getting what she wants?

  • The community's austere, traditional views and suspicious nature prevent them from accepting Kit.   Kit's own impetuous nature and sometimes reckless actions also keep her from getting what she wants.

How does Kit finally get what she wants?

  • From learning self-control and by developing an understanding of the people she comes to live with, Kit learns to find peace in the community.  Most of the people also show signs of greater tolerance and more acceptance of new ideas than they had hitherto shown. 

Conflicts:  Man vs. Society   Kit does not understand her new community and comes immediately into conflict with it.  Hannah, also, does not fit into this community.  The community's lack of tolerance and quick judgement enhance the conflict.

  • Intolerance
  • Superstition
  • Identity
  • Judgement
  • Acceptance
  • Friendship
  • Politics
  • Religion
  • Understanding

This book truly has so much depth to it, that you could spend weeks studying it.  From the history of Connecticut, to witches in 17th century America, Barbados, the historical characters, etc., the amount of possible "rabbit trails" is endless.  A truly fascinating book and a classic in its own right!

Elizabeth George Speare

Quotes attributed to Elizabeth George Speare:

  • No, writing is not lonely.  It is a profession crowded with life and sound and color.  I feel privileged to have had a share in it.
  • Essentially and most simply put, plot is what the characters do, to deal with the situation they are in.  It is a logical sequence of events that grow from an initial incident that alters the status quo of the characters.
  • I do not believe an historical novel should gloss over the pain and ugliness.  But I do believe that the hero ….. should on the last page ……. still be standing, with the strength to go to whatever the future may hold.

Further reading:  

© Cleo and Children's Classic Book Carousel, Years 2014 - 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cleo and Children's Classic Book Carousel with appropriate and specific direction to the original content

Friday 25 July 2014

The Story of Ferdinand

Author:  Munro Leaf

Illustrator:  Robert Lawson

Era:  1936

Published:  1936 (The Viking Press, N.Y.)

Award:  none found

Age Range:  0 - 11 years old

Review:  ★★★★

A most popular children's book about a young bull who does not wish to go to participate in the bullfights in Madrid, but only wishes to smell the flowers in his field.  One day, a sting from a bumblebee causes Ferdinand to bolt and, being mistaken for the fiercest bull of the herd, he is captured and taken to the fights against his will.  Yet Ferdinand remains true to his nature and eventually returns to his beloved home.

A matador in full dress in Madrid
source Wikipedia

Background:  Leaf claimed that he decided to write The Story of Ferdinand to give his friend, Robert Lawson, a vehicle to showcase his illustrations.  Yet the book was released nine months before the commencement of the civil war in Spain, and it was taken as treatise on the promotion of pacifism.  The Spanish leader, Francisco Franco, and his supporters condemned it as propaganda, as did Adolf Hilter, banning the book in Nazi Germany.  In contrast, the political left embraced the book; in Poland it was the only non-communist book allowed by Joseph Stalin and, in India,  Ghandhi claimed it as his favourite book.

Setting:  Spain, the land of the matadores and toreadores.  Ferdinand sits in a country field yet soon he is taken to the city.  Contrast the two:

Country = pastoral fields, bees, flowers, peace, silence, time to play & romp,  time to think ……
City (Madrid) = captivity, loud shouting, crowds, busyness, attacks, violence, etc.


Ferdinand:  a young bull who does not behave like the other bulls; he wants to sit in a field and smell the flowers

The other young bulls:  they romp and play and want to be chosen for the bullfights in Madrid

Ferdinand's mother:  is understanding and nurturing, and supports his unusual nature

The Five Men:  arrive from Madrid and wish to find the fiercest bull to participate in the bullfights in their city

The bumblebee:  an innocent insect who is following his nature when Ferdinand sits on him.  He is at fault for Ferdinand's future troubles

The Banderilleros:  They cannot understand Ferdinand's passivity

The Picadores:  They attempt to make Ferdinand angry, but fail

The Matador:  Ferdinand reduces him to tears when he is unable to make him fight

Ferdinand is the protagonist and the matador the main antagonist.  A comparison of the two results in:

Ferdinand:  wants peace, quiet and to remain undisturbed.  He does not care about what people think of him.  He is easygoing and is able to remain true to his nature.  The end result is that Ferdinand is victorious.

The Matador:  wants the bull to fight so he can gain victory over his opponent, and therefore win the adulation of the crowd.  He relies on the bull to assist him in becoming famous.  He is incensed when life does not meet his expectations.  The end result is that the matador is defeated.


    What does the central character want?

  •     Ferdinand wants to sit in his field and to smell the flowers.  He wants peace and quiet.

    What keeps him from getting what he wants?

  • First of all, the bumblebee that stings him, makes him appear like he is a great fighter.  Then the five men from Madrid mistake Ferdinand's frenzied attempt to escape the pain of the sting and decide that he is the fiercest bull, the one they have been searching for.  They take him to Madrid.

    How does Ferdinand finally get what he wants?

  • In Madrid, Ferdinand stays true to his nature, in spite of the many forces pushing him to fight.  He refuses to fight and eventually is returned to his meadow.

   Conflicts:  man vs. nature (Ferdinand vs. the bumblebee), man vs. man
                    (Ferdinand vs. the five men and the picadores and matador),
                    and man vs. society (Ferdinand vs. the society that wants
                    him to fight)


  •     Pacifism
  •     Self-Contentment
  •     Individuality
  •     Staying true to your nature
  •     Challenging the status quo
  •     Steadfastness & determination
  •     Peace over violence (War)

Bullwrestling (1865-66)
Edouard Manet
source Wikipedia

Despite being embroiled in controversy, this book has remained a beloved favourite and has been translated into 60 different languages.

Hemingway wrote a somewhat odd rebuttal to The Story of Ferdinand, called The Faithful Bull.

Resources & Ideas:
    The Story of Ferdinand Lapbook
    Teaching The Story of Ferdinand from Five-in-a-Row (blog)

    The Story of Ferdinand - Wikipedia
    The Well-Trained Mind Questions

© Cleo and Children's Classic Book Carousel, Years 2014 - 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cleo and Children's Classic Book Carousel with appropriate and specific direction to the original content