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A somewhat good adventure among elephant drivers in WWII Burma

This is the fourth in a series of posts about novels for young readers that transport American characters into other cultures and countries. In writing about Elephant Run by Roland Smith, I’m stretching that profile a bit: the main character here is English. For suggesting this book, thanks to my good friend Mike Baginski, recently retired from a longtime teaching career at Main Street Middle School in Montpelier, Vermont.

Elephant Run has an admirable intent: soon after the outbreak of World War II, send readers into a village deep in the interior of British-colonial Burma with Nick Freestone, the teenage son of an Englishman who oversees this community of elephant drivers, or mahouts, from Hawk’s Nest, a grand home built by his late father, the indomitable Sergeant Major. When Japanese troops occupy the village and make Hawk’s Nest their headquarters, Nick becomes a prisoner and a forced laborer, while his father is taken off to an unsure fate.
      The plot, as they say, thickens. There’s a a haiku-composing Japanese sergeant, and a growing conflict of loyalties among the elephant drivers who had hoped the invaders would be their liberators, but turn out to be brutal on a new level. There’s Mya, a very attractive Burman girl who’s being menaced by a mahout allied with the Japanese; and there’s Hilltop, a mysterious, elderly Buddhist monk whom all the villagers revere and, for that reason, the occupiers can’t touch. And within Hawk’s Nest, it turns out there’s a secret catacomb of passageways, listening posts, and food and armament stores.
      Will Nick survive? Can he protect the beautiful Mya, and somehow find and rescue his dad? And what about Hannibal, the dangerous rogue elephant who’s been hidden on a tangled island from the occupiers?
      It’s an inventive plot, a good story, but somehow there’s a flatness. The characters don’t feel three-dimensional. The storytelling is mechanical, and the dialogue is, too. The writing often feels rushed, and the landscape and culture of the interior, which should be fascinating, never really come to life.
      I’m not a critic and I don’t like critiquing another author, especially one who’s taken on a gutsy adventure like taking us all at once into traditional mahout culture, the last violent throes of the colonial era, and a teenager’s experience of a rarely chronicled theater of the Second World War. For all those reasons, Elephant Run is worth reading. I just wish — sorry, Roland — that I had enjoyed it more.

See my blog for the list I've compiled of middle-grade and YA fiction that places American characters — and through them, readers — inside other cultures. If you've got a title to suggest, please email me!

 

The Revealers has been the novel most used by U.S. middle schools. It's easy to see why.

REVEALERS front cover

A middle-school novel that deals realistically with bullying in a multi-character story, The Revealers has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools. Here's an excerpt:

“People have really been doing things to him for years?”
    “Oh yeah. It’s always been open season on Elliot.”
    She shook her head. Her face was flushed. “And those two just ran away?”
    “Yeah. When they lost him and he fell, they got scared.”
    “They could have killed him.”
    “Well ... it wasn’t that far to fall.”
    “But he hit his head.”
    “Yeah.” I couldn’t argue with that. When we pulled Elliot out, his eyes were rolling back and he didn’t know where he was. He didn’t know who he was.

Download The Revealers in schools, a one-page pdf

The Revealers sequel opens up kids' struggles to become themselves in a hyper-linked world.

True Shoes cover 6-18-2013

from True Shoes:

When the doors opened, I’d just come through when someone grabbed my elbow. It was Cam; he spun me around and walked me back out. I said, “What are you doing?” — but he kept me going, gripping my elbow hard, until we were around a corner and no one else could see.    
    Cam had on a brown soldier’s t-shirt and desert-camouflage cargo pants. He yanked out his cell and flipped it open.
    He said, “You see this? I got it a few minutes ago.”
    “What?”
    He held his phone up, showing me the screen. His eyes were on fire.

Download True Shoes in schools, a one-page pdf

Download Novel Connections, a multimedia learning resource on cyberbullying and digital citizenship

"Picture a troubled teen quietly removing this book from the school library shelves, then sitting down ... and devouring it."*

Prince front cover high res

He pitched forward, and yanked me after him so hard I stumbled into a couple of high school guys, who put their hands out. “Whoa — easy, man,” they said, but I was already getting jerked pastthem, like a bad dog on a leash.
    He didn’t say a word, just kept this grip clamped on my arm as he stomped forward and hauled me along. People were jumping out of the way, everyone turning to look: high school kids, little kids staring with wide eyes, kids my age whispering and giggling, grownups drawing back with faces like masks.
    Tara was gone. Everything was gone. I was stumbling, stunned, seeing the faces in flashes and trying to keep my balance after every angry jerk on my arm. I tried to say something, but nothing came out. I couldn’t make words. I didn’t know any words except “Dad ... please,” and those I couldn’t say.

* from Foreword Reviews

Download “This important story invites honest discussion": Educators on The Prince of Denial"