Saturday, July 31, 2010


A young adult novel by Lisa M. Klein retelling Hamlet through the eyes of Ophelia, this novel is intriguing but mixed. Ophelia is a bright strong willed young woman who chafes at the restrictions of her time. But aren’t ALL female main characters in YA like that these days?

Sent to the court by her father, who is a wheeler and dealer, Ophelia attracts the notices and approval first of Queen Gertrude, then of Hamlet. When retelling the traditional Hamlet story, the novel falters. Really, who can do it better than the bard, and the tropes of the story show through in the hands of a novice novelist.

However, when giving voice to Ophelia’s interior voice, the novel rises, and when ultimately Ophelia strikes out on her own and flees Denmark, the story is fascinating, well researched and compelling.

Ophelia’s life in a convent (aparantly, she does “get thee to a nunnery”) is well told. The author draws out parallels between the novices who are trying to please the prioress and in turn the prioresses need to appease the Bishop and her patron and finally, the nobility in Denmark trying to please King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, without over doing it.

This is a YA novel, Ophelia has sex with Hamlet and ultimately becomes pregnant with his child. The scenes are handled delicately, and without unnecessary detail. Due to the author’s sensitive handling, preteens and teens will not “learn” anything from these scenes. However, if a parent is uncomfortable with sexuality and pregnancy, they should read the novel first. Alternatively, read together or as part of a parent child book discussion, it provides an opportunity to discuss these issues and share values in the abstract.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

14 Cows for America

Beautifully illustrated and sensitively written by Carmen Agra Deedy, Thomas Gonzalez, and Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah, 14 Cows for America tells the story of an African village who donates 14 cows to America to help heal the nation brought to pain by the attack of September 11.

The story opens with the narrators return to his home village after a long absence in which he lived in New York City. In a tradition of his community, they gather to hear his story and he tells of the horrific attacks. The villagers are stunned to learn that even a country as mighty as America, can be wounded.

The American embassy is contacted, and the ambassador is dispatched for what he thinks is a routine visit. Upon arriving, he is stunned to learn that the villagers, in an area of the world considered poor and deprived, have resolved to sacrifice 14 of their cows to America. These cows will live in the community, but never be slaughtered for meat, for the duration of their natural life. The ritual is meant to bring peace to a community.

The story is sensitively handled, especially regarding the terrifying nature of the attacks which many young children, the audience for this book, may have little knowledge of. The illustrations are lovely and convey the message of the story without overwhelming the story.

Despite the fact that this book has been nominated for several awards, I wish it were written more lyricly. There is so much potential in the telling of this story, that is lost in somewhat wooden prose. The larger message of generosity and compassion between the poorest and the wealthiest is compelling, but I can’t help think that if the topic were not 9/11 and Africa, this story would not be getting the play it has.