Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Reader's Advisory, Or What To Get My Niece For Her Birthday

So my niece's 9th birthday was this month, and I usually get my nieces and nephews books since I know they already have way too many toys, the boys don't care about clothes, and the girls (or their mothers) are very picky about clothes. 

This niece is the easiest to shop for, probably because we have very similar tastes in books, and she is a voracious reader, just like her favorite aunt. She is smart, reads above grade level, and her mother isn't too concerned about mature content. She appreciates the classics and has already read several, likes either historical or realistic fiction, and likes spunky female characters, as do many girls her age. She is the poor neglected middle child in a family of five children, and is overshadowed by both older and younger brothers, so I also look for books with characters who are beset with siblings, especially the male variety.

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lingren.

Illustrated by Michael Chesworth and
Louis S. Glanzman, 2005. Puffin Books.
160 pages. Ages 8 - 12

The first book I thought of for her was a classic that I loved as a child, Pippi Longstocking by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, first published (in English) in 1950. Since that time, many versions have been published using various translators and illustrators, so there are a few different editions out there with different illustrations and cover art. This is the edition I happened to buy.

Pippi is a very unusual little girl who also happens to be nine years old. She lives alone as her mother is an angel in heaven and her father is "cannibal king" (actually a sailor who is missing at sea), though she has her horse and monkey to keep her company. Pippi is unusually strong and very eccentric due to her very unusual childhood. She has her trademark red pigtails braided so tight they stick out, freckles, and a wardrobe of patched clothes, odd accessories and mis-matched stockings.

She is befriended by her new neighbors, Tommy and Annika, and together they have lots of fun and a few adventures. Pippi lives by her own rules, likes to tell tall tales, and though she sometimes inadvertently makes fools of and frustrates adults, she has a good heart, is never mean, and usually ends up a hero. There are two other full-length books, Pippi Goes On Board and Pippi In The South Seas, as well as some picture books and short stories based on excerpts from the longer books. Pippi Longstocking is a great, fun, silly story full of imagination, perfect for a quick summer read.

Since my niece has already read several classics, and I know her mother is already familiar with those and can get them for her, I wanted to pick something relatively new, in the historical fiction genre that might have a similar "feel" of the classics she's already read. I also wanted the second book to be a little longer and slightly more challenging than Pippi. I had a few ideas of my own, and got some great suggestions from colleagues as well. 

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by
Jacqueline Kelly, 2009. Henry Holt & Co.
352 pages, ages 9-12.
I finally decided on a 2010 Newbery honor book, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly. This story is set in Texas at the turn of the previous century and tells the story of 11-year old Calpurnia Tate who is struggling with finding her identity as she enters adolescence, and is expected to take on traditional gender roles. To her mother's dismay, she is not very interested in "womanly" activities like cooking, baking, needlework, and housekeeping, but would rather spend her time outdoors, studying nature with her naturalist grandfather.

Over time, Calpurnia develops a close relationship with her grandfather as he nurtures and encourages her scientific exploration and education, giving her a copy of Darwin's Origin of Species and teaching her the scientific method, leading to the possible discovery of a new species. In addition to all this are all the typical issues 11-year old girls deals with, as well as dealing with six brothers.

I chose this book because of the historical setting, and I really liked the whole scientific exploration facet to the story, coming from a background in scientific research myself. I especially appreciated how each chapter begins with a quote from The Origin of Species. I also thought my niece would find some commiseration with Calpurnia since she has even more brothers than my niece. And as a bonus, there is a sequel titled The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate if she really enjoys this story.

She reportedly liked the books I chose for her last time ("Middle Grade Novels I Gave For Christmas"), so hopefully these will be a hit as well!

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