Monthly Archives: January 2013

Adventure Underground: Caving Books


In Shiloh Cave, Indiana

I may be “That Library Guy” when hanging out at the Decatur Public Library, but away from there I do have other identities.  I am sometimes Camping Guy (and have even written a book  about that) and Hiking Guy.  And for quite a few years I’ve been a Caving Guy.  I love exploring caves, crawling, climbing, hiking underground, getting wet and muddy, wondering if each new passage will lead to beautiful formations, a cool waterfall, or just a place few people have ever been.

Caving is great fun, and even a bit adventurous — so how about some books that include caving?  You don’t have to be a caver to enjoy these.

One of the great cave explorers of history was Stephen Bishop, a slave who was among the first tour guides at Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, in the early years when it was commercialized.  With just a hand-held lantern (and none of the fancy gear cavers use today), he discovered and mapped miles of passages by himself.  Two recent historical fiction books about him:

bottomless_pitJourney to the Bottomless Pit: The Story of Stephen Bishop & Mammoth Cave, by Elizabeth Mitchell (lexile: NA; AR book level: 5.3; 99 pp)

The year is 1838, and 17-year-old Stephen Bishop, an African-American slave, has been assigned a unique job by his master, Franklin Gorin: to learn the tour routes and lore of Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, so he can guide tourists through the cave.  Gorin has just purchased the cave, and hopes to make money from it.  Bishop soon learns the limited area of the cave that was then known, but his relentless curiosity leads him to discover miles of new passages, exploring by himself areas no one had dared to go before.   I’ve been to most of the places in Mammoth Cave described in the book, but it was still exciting to walk, crawl, and climb with Stephen as he became the first human being to ever set foot in many of them.  Lots of caving action in this historically accurate portrayal of a true adventurer.

undergroundUnderground, by Jean Ferris (lexile: 770; AR book level: 4.6; 167 pp)

Ferris tells the story of Charlotte Brown, a slave assigned to work at the Mammoth Cave hotel.  She eventually meets and falls in love with the guide Stephen Bishop, and they are married, all of which is historically accurate.  At the same time, the Underground Railroad was helping escaped slaves flee to the north, and Ferris adds the story of Mammoth Cave serving as a stop on the way.  Though there is no evidence for that, it’s an intriguing idea, since the cave would have been an ideal place to hide slaves — no one knew it better than Bishop and the other African-American guides.  At the end of the story Stephen and Charlotte make a daring trip through Mammoth Cave and out neighboring Flint Ridge to help a slave escape.  Though the connection between those two cave systems wasn’t discovered until 1972, the author notes that conditions would have made it possible for Bishop to discover that route himself.

If you like the books, you should see the real thing:  Mammoth Cave National Park.  There are excellent cave tours of varying lengths, including “wild” caving tours for kids and adults.  You can even see Stephen Bishop’s grave in the old guide’s cemetery.

Want to know more about caves and caving?  Here are some great non-fiction titles in our library system:

Mammoth Cave: The World’s Longest Cave System, by Brad Burnham (24 pp)
The Creation of Caves, by J Elizabeth Mills (64 pp)
Caves, by Isaac Nadeau (24 pp)
Radical Sports: Caving, by Chris Howes (32 pp)
Caving, by Maeve Sisk (24 pp)


Still Winners: Older Newbery Books

NewberyMedalAs of January 2013, I’ve achieved a goal set several years ago:  to read ALL 91 winners of the Newbery Medal, awarded annually since 1922 to the best children’s book of the previous year by an American author.  Along the way I’ve discovered a lot of older gems that are still just as good as when first published, some decades ago.

Here are several that are “coming of age” historical fiction: a boy (or young man) faces a challenge and comes through stronger, wiser, more mature.  Each provides a picture of another time and place.  Sometimes the language is a bit older, and the story moves at a slower pace than modern children’s novels.  Some kids love them; some (particularly those assigned to read one for school) find them boring.  You decide for yourself.    (The year indicates when it was awarded the Newbery.)

Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes (lexile: 840; AR book level: 5.9; 256 pp)  1944

Mrs Bessie: “How old are you, Johnny?”
“And what’s that — a boy or a man?”
“A boy in time of peace, and a man in time of war.”
“Well, men have got the right to risk their lives for things they think worth it.”

The year is 1773; the scene is Boston.  America is on the verge of the Revolutionary War.  Johnny Tremain is a 14-year-old apprentice to a silversmith.  He’s talented and proud of it — until the day a crucible of molten silver breaks and so badly burns his right hand that it’s useless.  The story follows his climb from humiliation and despair to serving as a messenger and even spy for the patriots.  He will rub shoulders with folk like Paul Revere and John Hancock, and ultimately be involved in the Boston Tea Party and the Battle of Lexington.  The story is great for those who will enjoy the historical detail.  (My 12-year-old nephew loved it, and he has excellent taste in books and uncles.)

bronze_bowThe Bronze Bow, by Elizabeth George Speare (lexile: 760; AR book level: 5.0; 254 pp)  1962

Witness to his father’s execution by the oppressive Romans, young Daniel bar Jamin would like nothing more than to exact his revenge and drive the Romans from their land — by violence, if necessary.  His hatred leads him to join a raiding band living in the hills of Galilee.  But the needs of his invalid sister force him to move back home, where he tries to continue the fight.  Then he encounters a traveling teacher who is attracting great crowds, Jesus of Nazareth.  Will he be the Messiah so many expect to lead the revolt against Rome?  Or will he teach and model a different way, both harder and more powerful?  A wonderful, historical portrayal of the turmoil of first-century Palestine, and Jesus in that context.

call-it-courageCall it Courage, by Armstrong Sperry (lexile: 830; AR book level: 6.2; 95 pp)  1941

This retelling of a traditional Polynesian legend is set in the islands of the South Pacific near Tahiti, “before the traders and missionaries first came.”  Fifteen-year-old Mafatu is the son of the chief of the island of Hikueru, whose people bravely travel the seas and honor above all courage.  Mafatu, however, is afraid of the sea because it took the life of his mother years before.  One day he determines to face his fears and sets out in a canoe with just his dog as a companion.  On the journey he will face the challenges of survival, as well as a fierce storm, wild animals, and cannibals from another island.  A simply-told, engaging tale of a boy who finds courage.

Matchlock-GunThe Matchlock Gun, by Walter D. Edmonds (lexile: 860; AR book level: 5.1; 50 pp)  1942

This short story, based on a true account handed down by one character’s family, is set in 1756 during the French and Indian War.  Ten-year-old Edward Van Alstyne’s father, Teunis, is away, defending their settlement against a raid from the north.  In case of attack while he is gone, Teunis has taught Edward how to fire the antique, single-shot matchlock gun kept as a family heirloom.  When the Indians do come to burn their house, Edward has to summon all his courage to save his mother and little sister.

Note that some are uncomfortable with the story either because the boy is expected to kill, or because of the negative portrayal of Native Americans.  Others note that it’s an accurate portrayal of the times and a historical incident.

Alien Imagination: Escape from Planet Yastol

Pamela Service has written several short, fun science fiction series that are sure to appeal to those looking for easier chapter books.  In earlier posts I’ve reviewed her Stinker from Space and Alien Agent series.  Here’s the beginning of her latest, full of weird aliens and fast-paced adventure.

real-aliensEscape from Planet Yastol (Way-Too-Real Aliens #1), by Pamela Service (lexile: 620; AR book level: 4.2; 102 pp)

Imagine you’ve written a pretty cool story about another planet and the aliens living there — cool enough to win your school’s annual writing contest and get published!  THEN imagine discovering that everything you’ve imagined (in the book) is REAL!

That’s what happens to 11-year-old Josh Higgins.  One day when he and his sister Maggie are walking home from school, they’re kidnapped by these weird blue guys, and then whisked away to the planet Yastol — the very place Josh wrote about!  Turns out humans are the only creatures in the galaxy that can “channel” other places: they think they’re writing fiction, but it’s really true.  And the blue villains want a precious resource Josh described in the book — but he and Maggie aren’t about to help them.

Of course Josh wrote the book — he knows Yastol.  Can he use that knowledge to outwit the bad guys, find some help, and, most importantly, get back to Earth?

In the end, he and Maggie escape with the transportation device that brought them to Yastol, which sets the stage for more extra-terrestrial adventures in the sequels.  The next two books so far:

The Not-So-Perfect Planet (lexile: 630; AR book level 4.1; 115 pp)

The Wizards of Wyrd World 3 (lexile: 700; AR book level 4.6; 112 pp)

Shoulda Been a Winner: Okay for Now

Every year the American Library Association awards the Newbery Medal to the best children’s book of the previous year by an American author.  Some years I applaud their choice; others I scratch my head and wonder.  Last year I thought (along with a lot of other library folk) that Gary Schmidt’s Okay for Now was a prime contender.  It is one of the most brilliantly-written, powerful and engaging books I’ve read in a long time — and I was very disappointed when it didn’t even get a Newbery Honor award.  Still, this is MY personal 2012 Newbery winner, a superb read for youth as well as adults.

Okay for Now, by Gary Schmidt (lexile: 850; AR book level: 4.9; 368 pp)

“Joe Pepitone once gave me his New York Yankees baseball cap.
I’m not lying.
He gave it to me.  To me, Doug Swieteck.  To me.

It was the only thing I ever owned that hadn’t belonged to some Swieteck before me.”

Eighth-grader Doug Swieteck has nothing going for him.  His older brother (who stole the Joe Pepitone cap to trade for cigarettes) is a bully, his father abusive, mother passive, and oldest brother fighting somewhere in Vietnam.  As he begins telling his story, his father has lost his job, so the family has to move to “stupid Marysville,” a small town in upstate New York where Doug is quickly labeled the “skinny thug” from the city.

Then on his second day in “stupid Marysville” Doug happens into the open-one-day-a-week Marysville library.  Upstairs he finds a single glass case displaying a book: an original volume of Audubon’s Birds of America, open to the picture of the Arctic Tern.  Doug is mesmerized, imagining that the bird is plunging to his death in the open sea, and no one even cares.  What Doug sees in the Arctic Tern is a reflection of himself.

That same day Doug is befriended by Lili Spicer, whose father owns the local grocery.  Mr Spicer offers Doug a job, delivering groceries by wagon every Saturday.  And so he begins to meet the quirky and ultimately kind residents of Marysville who will gradually draw him into their lives.

Doug goes back to the library each week, and each new bird picture displayed becomes an image of what he’s going through.  The librarian, Mr Powell, notices that Doug wants to be able to draw the birds himself.  Doug is sure he can’t, but Mr Powell gradually helps him discover his own artistic talent.  And he discovers a mission.  The town, he learns, has been selling off pages of the Audubon book one-by-one to pay bills; Doug hatches a plan to get them back.

Doug Swieteck plays a minor role in Schmidt’s earlier book, The Wednesday Wars, as the school bully.  In Okay for Now, you come to understand why Doug is a bully, and you cheer for him as he begins the difficult climb to discovering who he really is.  It’s a tough journey, with setbacks and painful secrets that Doug only gradually reveals to the reader.  But this is ultimately a redemptive story, with a tremendously hopeful ending for everyone.

And Gary Schmidt is an artist of a writer.  The plot elements, the pacing, the balance of humor and hurt, the depth of the characters, the subtle hints and images, all are woven together into a story that grabs you.  And my favorite line comes from the librarian, Mr Powell, when one character says to him near the end of the book:  “It sounds like you know what you’re talking about”:

“I’m a librarian.  I always know what I’m talking about.”

You tell ’em, Mr Powell.