I don't think if I can wait til Christmas to read Hild by Nicola Griffith (FSG, 2013), a novel set in seventh-century Britain about the girl who becomes Saint Hilda of Whitby. Griffith wrote about Hild and genre (Fantasy or history?, 11/12/2013) for Tor.com, and Amal El-Mohtar reviewed the book for NPR in the context of conversations about women in historical fiction--and historical fantasy (Hild Destroys Myths of Medieval Womanhood, 11/14/2013). The early medieval world, historical fantasy, women (and children--Hild is just three at the beginning of the  novel), warriors and saints: I have a deep and abiding interest in them all. And lo, today is the feast day of Saint Hilda!

[That gorgeous cover is by Italian twins Anna and Elena Balbusso.]

My Havana for Nonfiction Monday

My Havana: Memories of a Cuban Boyhood by Rosemary Wells with Secundino Fernandez (illustrated by Peter Ferguson; Candlewick, 2010) encompasses the decade of my own parents' childhoods, and the city young Dino describes in it is almost as familiar to me as if I remembered it myself:

Until I [Dino] am six years old, in 1954, my world is sweet. "We live in a city built by angels," Papi says. There is no cold in Havana, only sunshine and warm rain. The city's avenues are lined with arcades of coral stone archways, ancient doors, and window frames....

The architecture of the colonial capital fascinates Dino (he grows up to be an architect), and he fills his sketchbooks with drawings of buildings, windows and doorways. As if taken from Dino's sketchbook, pencil drawings of architectural details are overlaid on a view of the rooftops in this wordless double-page spread:

Peter Ferguson's painterly illustrations, done in oil with spot art in pencil, capture a city suffused with golden light: very different from both Madrid, where Dino lives with his maternal grandparents from 1954-56, and New York City, where he and his family settle in 1959 after Castro comes to power in Cuba. They're an integral part of this relatively short (65 pages), yet surprisingly rich book.

Rosemary Wells was inspired to write My Havana after hearing an interview with Secundino Fernandez in which he described his intense homesickness for Havana, and his attempt to alleviate it by building a cardboard model of the city on the floor of his bedroom in New York (that episode makes it into the book, too). It's a beautiful and evocative example of the power of place in childhood memory, and one for which I am especially grateful.

A note on politics: The text of My Havana touches on the repressive Franco regime in Spain as well as on the Batista dictatorship and the Cuban revolution under Castro. I only wish the author's note had not.

Black Radishes and Pink Rabbits

There is a moment early in Black Radishes by Susan Lynn Meyer (Delacorte, 2010) when 11-year-old Gustave Becker has to pack his things prior to leaving Paris for the small town of Saint-Georges in advance of the Nazi occupation.  Aside from his clothes, he is allowed to bring only a few books and toys.  He chooses the books easily--his Boy Scout Manual and two favorites, The Three Musketeers and Around the World in Eighty Days--but the toys prove more difficult:

[H]ow could he choose only one?  Gustave picked up his new sailboat and ran a finger over its shiny blue and white paint.  Uncle David had given him and Jean-Paul each a sailboat last summer to sail in the fountains in the parks.  Saint-Georges was near a river, so a boat would be good to have.  But then he saw Monkey, partly hidden under his train set on the bed, and his heart tightened.  He had almost forgotten him.  Monkey's head tilted slightly to one side.  A gold post in his ear and the bright black, beady eyes looking out from his face gave him a mischievous air.

At this point I almost shouted, "Gustave, take Monkey!"  I didn't want him to make the same mistake that Anna does in Judith Kerr's When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971); packing, instead of the titular rabbit who had been "her companion ever since she could remember," a newly acquired woolly dog.  Fortunately (spoiler alert), he doesn't, and Monkey goes on to play an important role in the book's climactic scene at the border between occupied and free France.

Black Radishes is a beautifully crafted, impeccably researched novel (and a 2011 Sydney Taylor Honor Award Winner for Older Readers).  Debut author Meyer, an English professor at Wellesley, was inspired by her father's experience in WWII France, although she makes clear (in an informative author's note as well as an interview at BookPage, January 2011) that she's writing historical fiction; and I think Black Radishes is all the stronger for that.  Meyer is also working on a companion novel, tentatively titled Green and Unripe Fruit, which follows Gustave after he and his family emigrate to America in 1942.

And just in case you don't know what black radishes (which also figure in that climactic scene) look like, here they are.


Heart of a Samurai

This book was already on my to-read list when it was recognized with a Newbery Honor last month. I had picked it up from the new book display at the library (the same new book display from which I picked up and then put back the eventual Newbery winner, Moon over Manifest.  I'm still waiting for that book) on the strength of the gorgeous cover art by Jillian Tamaki; and the jacket copy, which promised "An action-packed historical novel set on the high seas!" Not to mention samurai. Which is a little misleading; the actual book is more complicated than that.

Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus (Amulet, 2010) is a fictionalized account of the life of Nakahama (John) Manjiro, who is believed to be the first Japanese person to set foot in America.  A poor fisherman's son, Manjiro was shipwrecked off the coast of Japan in 1841 and rescued by an American whaling ship.  The captain of the ship brought Manjiro home with him to New England, where he studied for several years before making his way back to Japan.  In keeping with Japan's isolationist policies at the time, Manjiro was immediately taken into custody; but he was later released, reunited with his mother, and given the rank of samurai.  His diplomatic work eventually helped open Japan to the world.

Heart of a Samurai encompasses Manjiro's entire journey; the central section of the book is concerned with his time in America. On a farm. Manjiro himself is very likable character: thoughtful, observant, optimistic, and funny; and the book is at its best when it stays close to his thoughts and observations about the differences, practical and philosophical, between Japan and America; and to his realizations about them both.

As I was reading, some incidents and characters struck me as more "fictionalized" than "historical."  And as it turns out, these were precisely the ones that Preus, in her Historical Notes, acknowledges having invented "to provide conflict and advance the story as well as to acknowledge the prejudice and ill will that Manjiro faced."  I wish Heart of a Samurai had been either more fictionalized or less; as it is, it's an uneasy balance--probably not unlike Manjiro's own.

[See also Pam at Mother Reader's take on Heart of a Samurai during her Newbery Discussion Week.]