Tag Archives: Children’s literature

Review: Ice Whale

29 May

Jean Craighead George is beloved for writing My Side of the Mountain and Julie of the Wolves. After her death in 2012, two of her children helped piece together her mostly-finished novel Ice Whale, which Dial Books just released.

large_Ice_Whale-198x300The book is, in a word, stunning. It’s less than 200 pages, but it spans 200 years, the lifetime of a bowhead whale. The story begins in 1848, when Toozak, a boy from the Yup’ik tribe, sees a special whale being born. The Yup’ik lived on the west coast of what is now Alaska and on the east coast of Siberia.

Toozak knows getting the privilege of seeing a whale born makes him special, but he is cursed by the village shaman after accidentally betraying the location of the whales to the Yankee whalers. He is charged to protect the whale he saw being born. He calls the whale Siku, and the curse will only be broken if the whale saves a Toozak or if Toozak and his progeny keep the whale safe through its entire life.

In the first chapter alone, I learned so much about whales. Craighead George creates symbols to represent whale songs and language. Certain chapters are told from the whale Siku’s point of view. In these chapters, Siku’s name is represented in symbols that look something like __~~-__~~. It’s a clever way of showing that whales have a complex language of their own.

Readers will also learn a lot about different kinds of Eskimo tribes. The novel acknowledges that there were and are many different nations and languages in the Alaska area. The tribes and the whales are affected by the European and American travelers who hunt whales for their oil and then their baleen. By the time we reach the 5th Toozak, he has an English and an Eskimo name: Charlie Toozak V.

The book also follows several generations of a Yankee whaler named Tom Boyd. A large chunk of the story takes place in 1980, when Emily Toozak VII gets lost on an ice floe and meets one of Tom Boyd’s descendants. She is saved by remembered knowledge of the old Eskimo ways of survival and by Siku’s help.

By the end, the story ties together gracefully. Do yourself a favor and find this book. It took me a couple hours to read, but it will stick with me for much longer.


Review: Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars: The Fall of the Amazing Zalindas

25 May

9780439828369_p0_v2_s260x420As a Sherlockian, I was excited when I heard about Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars: The Fall of the Amazing Zalindas, even though it came out in 2006. That goes to show how behind the times I am, but Tracy Mack and Michael Citrin created a book well worth visiting. It’s an excellent read for late elementary and middle school readers who are intrigued by Sherlock Holmes or the mystery genre.

The novel, the first in a series, focuses on the Baker Street Irregulars, Sherlock Holmes’s network of street urchins who help him in his cases. In the original canon stories, little is known about them, except that the leader of the group is named Wiggins. The Fall of the Amazing Zalindas follows Wiggins and his gang, particularly Ozzie, an orphan who works for a heartless scrivener.

The mystery starts as a simple one: How did the tightrope-walking Zalindas fall to their deaths at a nearby circus? Evidence suggests it was an accident, but foul play is suspected. This mystery gives way to a greater one involving a priceless book.

I immediately felt sympathy for Ozzie, who shows enough cleverness to impress the great detective himself. The rest of the gang is given character as well: the tough leader Wiggins, Alfie, who makes up for his small size with fierceness, a kind Punjabi boy named Rohan, and Eliot, an Irish seamster.

Although the group is strictly a boys’ club, investigations at the circus lead them to a fortune-teller’s daughter, Pilar. She insists on helping them, and her stubbornness and bravery results in Holmes calling her “a little Irene Adler” – a huge compliment considering that Adler was “The Woman”, one of the few women Holmes ever admired!

Sherlock Holmes is a secondary character to the boys in this story, but an important mentor to the boys. Coauthor Michael Citrin is a Sherlock Holmes fan and it shows- there are lots of canonical references and nods throughout the story.

One thing that broke my heart about the book, though, was the reduction of Holmes’s assistant Watson to a rather mean-spirited buffoon who didn’t help in investigations and disliked the Irregulars throughout the story. I suppose that taking Watson out of the equation gives the boys more opportunity to interact with Holmes, but so many adaptations and pastiches already give poor Watson the short end of the stick.

The book contains a satisfying story by itself, but it also sets up bigger questions for the series. Will Ozzie find out who his father is? How will the boys’ relationships with each other grow and change?

The book also contains several full-page illustrations done by Greg Ruth, which are done in pen and ink and have an appropriately timeless feel to them. And keep your eye out for out of place bold letters in the text. A secret message is threaded through the book!