The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman by Meg Wolitzer

You may not think that a book about Scrabble would keep you turning the pages, but Meg Wolitzer’s The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman kept me engaged.

Duncan and his mother have just moved across the country to Drilling Falls, Pennsylvania to live with Aunt Djuna.  Just as he is settling into his new school,  Duncan discovers that he has a secret power: his left hand is able to read the words and pictures on a page just by moving his fingers across them.  When school bully and hardcore Scrabble player Ken Colter discovers this ability, he convinces Duncan that he could be amazing at Scrabble.  His magic fingertips would allow him to choose whatever word tiles he wanted from the tile bag.  Ken and Duncan are soon on their way to the national Scrabble tournament in Yakaminee, Florida.  But Duncan is unsure whether he wants to go, and if he does, will he be able to put up with Ken’s bullying and use his super power to cheat their way to the finals?

This book has other interesting characters that all meet at the Scrabble tournament.  Wolitzer deftly juggles these different storylines while managing to keep the plot moving forward.  I especially liked how the author’s obvious love of words and the game of Scrabble came through.  Readers will appreciate some of the clever wordplays.  Who knew, for instance, that MARASCHINO is an anagram of HARMONICAS?

Themes explored in this book include bullying, missing fathers, discovering your talents, and first crushes.  I definitely recommend this book to readers ages 10 and above.

294 pages.  Published 2011.

From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg

Although I try to focus on recent Children’s and YA literature, I do slip the occasional classic into my reading mix.  I self consciously admit that there are many classics that I have not opened.  I wish that I was one of those Children’s Librarians who can truthfully claim that they have powered through all of the books of OZ and spent time with Anne of Green Gables, but I am not one of them.  I hope to be one day though!

Concerning From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, this book grew on me.   I confess that I was halfway through and wondering why it won a Newberry and why it continued to remain popular, but by the end, Konigsburg had won me over.

The plot involves two children, Claudia and Jaimie Kincaid, who run away from home and spend a week in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.  They bathe in the museum fountain, eat at the snackbar and sleep in a 15th century bed at night.  After a couple of days of tagging along with school groups, they become captivated by the museum’s recent addition of a small angel sculpture that could possibly have been carved by Michelangelo.  Claudia becomes intent on returning home only after they solve the mystery of whether it truly was sculpted by the Renaissance master.

I enjoyed the sense of low key adventure as the children runaway and hide in the MOMA.  Who hasn’t ever wondered what happens in museums or other public places when the crowds leave?  I also appreciated the children’s powerful curiosity as they become determined to learn everything that they can about the Italian Renaissance.  Claudia and Jamie remind us that we do not have to travel far to find excitement and wonder.

Taste of Salt: A Story of Modern Haiti by Frances Temple

     I often enjoy books that immerse me in other times and cultures, especially when I know very little about them.  Having little knowledge of modern politics in Haiti, Frances Temple’s A Taste of Salt was an engaging and eye opening book for me.

 The story centers around two young characters: Djo and Jeremie.  Djo is a young man who has grown up in the streets of Port Au Prince.  Abandoned by his family from an early age due to their poverty, Djo finds a home at Lafanmi Selavi, a shelter set up by the Catholic priest Jean –Bertrand Aristide.   Having a little schooling, Djo is able to become a teacher there, instructing the other street boys in reading and writing.  As time passes, Titid (Aristide) begins speaking out more and more on the injustices in Haiti.  Titid and his street children, including Djo, are marked for attack by the prevailing political order and their terrifying henchmen the Tonton macoutes.   But there are other threats as well as Djo learns when he is kidnapped, and transported to the Dominican Republic to cut cane on a sugar plantation.

Jeremie, a young woman in Port Au Prince, is also born into poverty, but her home life is more stable.  Her mother and aunt push her to work hard in school in the hopes that she will pull herself out of La Saline, the name of the slum in which she lives.  With this in mind she wins many awards in school, but she finds that she cannot escape the brutal political violence of Haiti.  After witnessing a massacre at a voting location and then the destruction of Titid’s church St. Jean Busco, Jeremie realizes that she must use her energy to help transform Haiti.

I thought that this book was an excellent read because it was both entertaining and educational.  I particularly enjoyed reading about Djo’s resourceful ways in which he deals with the horrendous life of cutting cane in Dominicae.  A Taste of Salt was published in 1992 and won the Jane Addam’s Children’s Book Award.  I’d recommend it to any young reader who wants to know more about Haiti, how underprivileged people cope with a dictatorial regime, and whether change is possible in broken societies.