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Rachael Vilmar presents news and reviews from the colliding worlds of children's books, young adult books, librarianship, knitting, cooking, and motherhood.
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Books for middle-grade readers in which the female protagonist is missing or estranged from her mother, the narrative voice is quirky and offbeat, and the tone verges on magic realism:
1. Because of Winn-Dixie, by Kate DiCamillo.
2. Everything on a Waffle, by Polly Horvath.
3. Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech.
4. Ida B : . . . and Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World, by Katherine Hannigan.
(Don’t you think it’s weird that four such similar books have all been written in the past five or six years? We criticize genres like chick lit for their endless repetition of plots, but there’s no law saying that serious themes can’t become monotonous as well.)
The way I numbered those titles is no accident. I think DiCamillo’s book is the best, Horvath’s is a close second (with the recipes almost nudging it into a tie for first place), Creech’s is far behind at third, and Hannigan’s is just godawful.
I mention these books now because I just finished reading Walk Two Moons, and I don’t think it deserved the Newbery Medal. If I had read it before the other three I might have liked it better, but I didn’t, so it just came off as yet another “My Mother Is Dead Or In Trouble But It’s A Good Thing I Have Such Wise People In My Community/Family To Teach Me What Life Is All About So I Can Approach Things From A Philosophical But Whimsical Point Of View” book. Yes, it made me cry, but they felt like cheap tears. I felt manipulated.
Call me superficial, but I think that Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a lot more authentic wisdom to impart than Walk Two Moons. Nobody’s going to award it a medal any time soon, but one particular episode – “The Body”- said more interesting things about losing one’s mother than all four of those books combined.
Socks saw a creature with a small, wrinkled, furless face, a sight that made his hair stand on end. His eyes grew large and he backed away. Whatever the thing was, he did not trust it ... His owners, his faithful, loving owners, had brought home a new pet to threaten his position in the household.
On the recommendation of a friend who knows that I have a new baby and an old cat, I recently picked up Socks, by Beverly Cleary. I was a pretty big Cleary fan in my day, but I had overlooked this one.
It was marvelous, of course (am I too uncritical in my enthusiasm for most of the children’s books I read, or do I just choose good books?). Cleary portrays the feline protagonist with just enough anthropomorphosis to make him an interesting character, but not so much that the story ever turned silly or cloying.
The lady really has a gift for bringing forth the magic of everyday life. Objectively speaking, not much happens in this book: a cat is adopted and grows to love and be loved by his people; the people have a baby and the cat feels jealous and bewildered; the cat eventually befriends the baby. These few events are suffused with such warmth, pathos, and wry humor, though, that they are elevated to the level of archetypal struggle: Loyal Friend Versus Inadvertent Interloper. Then again, what is literature all about, if not refocusing our attention on the things we take for granted, and reminding us that important issues (Love, Betrayal, Forgiveness) underlie our daily routines?
What I really found interesting about the book, however, has nothing to do with its literary quality. As a new mother, I found myself agog at all of the outdated parenting philosophies practiced by the Brickers. They proudly feed their baby formula (I, on the other hand, was reading this book while pumping breast milk at work). They put him to bed with a bottle, on his tummy, in a crib with a big, fluffy, bumper and a teddy bear. Call the SIDS police, quick! I know that most children would ignore these particular details, but they call to mind a larger issue. When the insignificant details are dated enough to make an otherwise wonderful book unpalatable to its target audience, should those details be updated? I recently read that new editions of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume, will feature more modern “feminine hygiene” products. Is this a good thing, or should we accept that every novel is a product of its time, and stop messing with them?
Shade's Children, by Garth Nix
In a bleak, dystopian, not-so-distant future...
Wait. Hold on. How many descriptions of YA novels could begin with that phrase? Right, a lot. What's up with YA literature and dystopia? Are we trying to terrify the Youth Of Today into fixing the world?
Anyway, in this particular dystopian future, a terrible and mysterious Change has taken place. One day, the children of the world woke up to find that everyone older than fourteen had vanished overnight, leaving them to be herded by armored Overlords into dormitories where they will live until they turn fourteen. On this "Sad Birthday," they will be taken to the Meat Factory, where their brains will be harvested and used to create a series of gruesome creatures.
Like I said, it's your typically cheerful, post-millenial YA science fiction.
Anyhow, a small group of children has escaped from the dorms. Under the guidance of a strange entity known as Shade, they battle the creatures of the Overlords and seek the information they need to turn back the Change. Unfortunately, Shade may not be quite the stable father figure they're looking for.
As in his Abhorsen series, Garth Nix imbues Shade's Children with a satisfying level of imaginative detail. His fictional worlds are fully realized, teeming with monsters so real you can almost smell their breath. And Nix gives the reader little respite from these monsters, plunging us into danger and suspense in the first paragraph, and not letting up until the brief and poignant epilogue. He also manages to touch on some interesting philosophical and ethical issues, without ever slackening the breakneck pace of the plot.
If Shade's Children does have a couple of negative points, they are most apparent if you have read the Abhorsen series. If so, you may notice some repetitive ideas and images (I won't name them here, for fear of spoiling the stories). The characters in Shade's Children are also a little bit flat, especially compared to the wonderful protagonists of Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen.
If you are only going to read one book by Garth Nix, choose Sabriel. It's one of my favorite fantasy novels published in the past ten years. If you're a Nix fan looking for more to read, however, Shade's Children is sure to please.
Well, my maternity leave is over and I am (temporarily) back in the library saddle. I’ll be leaving this library for good in July, and moving to Maryland, so it’s kind of difficult to really commit myself to things here, but I’m doing my best. It’s also kind of difficult to pump milk four times a day, and to get by on approximately five hours of sleep per night, but I’m doing both of those things too. If the clarity of my prose suffers, you will know why.
I thought I would give you all a quick round-up of the children’s and YA books I read while I was on leave (breastfeeding allows for lots of reading time).
Looking for Alaska, by John Green. I picked this one up because it won the Printz Award, of course. I should not have read it while I was in the hospital, recovering from childbirth. Now I don’t know whether I hated the book on its own merits, or whether it was just too depressing to read while my hormones were all galleywumpus. I suspect that I would have disliked it either way. When are we going to stop heaping accolades on these hand-wringing, navel-gazing, too-cool-for-school teen disaster fests?
Fat Kid Rules The World explores (very approximately) some of the same issues, and it does so with a lot more humor and panache, so go read that one instead. Because I said so. Seriously, though, if someone would like to comment with a defense of Looking For Alaska, I would love to hear why you liked it.
Twilight, by Stephanie Meyer. This book, on the other hand, I devoured in a single day. It was pure, delightful fluff. If the phrase “vampire romance” holds positive associations for you, if you ever watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer and swooned over Angel and/or Spike, if you thought Mina should have stayed with Dracula in the end, then you will enjoy this book too.
Permanent Rose, by Hilary McKay. I think I’ve spent enough time gushing over this series, so suffice it to say that it just keeps getting better – funny and absurd and heartbreaking. I think these books will be read for years to come.
There was also a great article in The Horn Book about this series; I think it was in the January/February 2006 issue.
Chrestomanci Quartet, by Diana Wynne Jones. All right. Speaking purely as a librarian and amateur critic, allow me to say: squeeeeeeeeee! These books are awesome!
I read Howl’s Moving Castle a few years ago, and I actually didn’t like it that much, so I didn’t check out Wynne Jones’s other works until I came across Charmed Life and The Lives of Christopher Chant in a used bookstore last month. I tore through them, and immediately went out and bought the other two novels (The Magicians of Caprona and Witch Week). These books are full of entrancing characters and deliciously clever ideas. Chrestomanci, with his outlandish dressing gowns and vague manner, is absolutely the most dashing sorcerer in recent literary memory (apologies to Snape lovers).
I just finished reading Dicey's Song, by Cynthia Voigt. I picked it up mostly because it takes place on the eastern shore of Maryland, where I will be moving in August as my husband takes a job at Salisbury University. I'm trying to get a feel for the area, so I was hoping the book would have a strong sense of place.
It doesn't. It's not that there's anything wrong with Voigt's descriptions of Maryland, it's just that they pale in comparison to her amazing characterizations. Dicey's Song is a character-driven novel, and its characters are fully realized, complex human beings. In comparison, the setting is just scenery.
So, though I didn't find what I was looking for, it was still generally a pleasure to read. I would recommend it to junior high girls who like a quiet, powerful read.
Two caveats, though: some of the details seem a bit dated (it was published in 1982), and, delving into personal preference here, its tone is unrelentingly serious. I prefer my realistic coming-of-age novels with a dash of absurdity and good fun. The Canning Season, by Polly Horvath, is a perfect example. For that matter, so is one of my favorite novels of all time, David Copperfield.
I'm sorry that I haven't posted in so long, but I'm afraid that it will probably be a long time before I post again. This baby is due any day now, and blogging just won't be a priority. Bear with me.
So, Scott Westerfeld. He is very prolific. He must write more than he sleeps. I'm not complaining, though, because I just finished Pretties (sequel to Uglies), and I can't wait for the third book, Specials, to come out.
This series is great. It manages to be fun, suspenseful and thought-provoking all at once. The classic dystopian premise hooked me immediately: what if, at some point in the future, after we've very nearly destroyed civilization with our wasteful, violent ways, the remaining humans formed a new kind of society? What if, in this society, on your sixteenth birthday you would receive plastic surgery that would make you jaw-droppingly gorgeous? What if everyone received this surgery, meaning that everyone older than fifteen was uniformly beautiful and healthy, and had approximately the same color of skin? Would that eliminate discrimination and create equality?
Intriguing questions, especially at a time when eating disorders are affecting children (boys as well as girls) as young as nine and ten years old. To his credit, Westerfeld does not provide easy answers. At the same time, though, he doesn't let the plot get too bogged down in by the weighty philosophically issues underlying his narrative. Above all, these books are page turners. They might make you think about some old societal problems in a new way (and you'll probably be creeped out the next time you look at Seventeen magazine), but mostly they'll leave you on the edge of your seat, waiting for the next installment.
I made a sad discovery the other night: like Susan Pevensie, I am no longer a friend of Narnia.
All right, maybe that's putting it too strongly. But upon rereading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for the third or fourth time in my adult life (I read it twice as a child, and loved it), I am forced to conclude that it's not a great book. The characters seem kind of flat, and the created world seems kind of flimsy, and the smug, chummy, ever-so-British authorial voice really grates on my nerves.
I also agree with Tolkien that the hodgepodge of mythologies "just won't do." I mean, given that Aslan, and not Christ, is the Christ figure in Narnia, why on Earth would they celebrate Christmas there? Someone recently postulated - I don't remember who, since everyone is making Narnian postulations this week - that the Narnia books fall within the tradition of fancy, rather than fantasy, and that's what makes it ok for Lewis to mix metaphors so recklessly. Fair enough, but I just don't think he does it very well. For my money, Lewis Carroll is the true master of fancy, while if I want cozy/grand British fantasy, I'll turn to Tolkien every time. That leaves little space for C. S. Lewis on my adult bookshelf.
He will always occupy an important place in my childhood memories, though, and I still do find some of his imagery very moving. There's nothing quite like the moment when Lucy steps from the wardrobe into the Narnian forest, feeling fur against her skin one moment, and snow the next. I also get shivers up my spine during Aslan's death scene, especially when they cut off his mane and the children notice that his shorn face looks nobler and more patient than ever. As far as I'm concerned, those two scenes are Lewis at his storytelling best, and for them I thank him.
Prom, by Laurie Halse Anderson
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:
I just finished reading a young adult novel about a seventeen-year-old girl who comes from a working-class family, and whose life includes underage drinking, a deadbeat boyfriend, mediocre grades, and an uncertain future.
Yawning yet? There’s more:
It’s also a comedy.
In the “acknowledgments” section at the end of the book, the author gives “a loud, rowdy shout-out to all the `normal’ kids who talked to me the last couple of years and told me nobody ever writes about them.” I had never really thought about it before, but nobody ever does write about those kids – at least not in the positive, upbeat way that Anderson does in Prom. Most books about poor kids, “troubled” kids, underachievers – i.e., most of high school America – are Very Serious Books. They are either cautionary tales or testaments to the triumph of the human spirit. The protagonist either fights her way out of her bleak environment, or she doesn’t. In the latter case, there are usually dire consequences.
Prom does have an underlying message about believing in oneself and being all that one can be, but the tone is anything but serious. The heroine, Ashley Hannigan, is strong, practical, and sarcastic. Her voice, as she narrates the story of her almost-disastrous prom night, is that of a completely authentic, “normal” teenager. Her observations of school and family life are genuinely funny, but they rarely stray into the territory of the slick, unrealistically clever, overwritten adolescence portrayed in so many books and movies (Stoner and Spaz, anyone?).
If I have one problem with Prom, it is not with the book itself, but with its potential readers. A lot of the enthusiastic teen readers I meet are not the “normal” kids celebrated in this book. I’m afraid that the “abnormal” kids – the high achievers, the quiet ones, the socio-economically privileged masses that I see in my library every day – will miss the point of the book, and fail to appreciate Ashley as a character. I've already read one Amazon.com review by a teen reader who thought this book was “trash” compared to Anderson’s other books. There’s something very troubling about that, to me. Are high-achieving teens that unable to relate to their more down-to-earth peers? Are they that smug about their grades/incomes/squeaky-clean records?
Are we promoting achievement at the expense of compassion?
I guess that’s a topic for another entry. And I suspect you already know my answer.
Someone on my children's literature email list recently linked to Oyate's document, "Deconstructing the Myths of Thanksgiving." According to their website, "Oyate is a Native organization working to see that our lives and histories are portrayed honestly, and so that all people will know our stories belong to us." From what I can tell, it seems like a serious, legitimate, and honest organization. In the aforementioned document, they attempt to dispel several pervasive American cultural myths about the first Thanksgiving.
As you can probably guess, the "pilgrims" (who were not actually pilgrims) did not get together with the "Indians" (who were not actually Indians) and have the big, happy, family feast that is portrayed in countless school pageants, greeting cards, and children's books. There was a lot of distrust on both sides, and the cautious truce between them soon dissolved into betrayal and violence.
I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do when I come across this kind of information. Should I go right to the shelves and delete any books espousing a traditional view of the first Thanksgiving? Oyate thinks so, and even provides me with a list of books to avoid (read: burn). I'm not the censoring type though, and besides, my patrons would kill me if I pulled a stunt like that.
Should I stop celebrating Thanksgiving altogether? Oyate lists "Thanksgiving is a happy time" as number 11 on its list of myths about the holiday. "For many Indian people," they caution, "`Thanksgiving' is a time of mourning." Well, what if it's still a happy time for me - does that make me a heel? What if it's a time of celebration, of remembering my blessings, and of reconnecting with family and friends? Even if I don't pay much attention to the old Plymouth Rock story, am I still playing the part of the oppressor by perpetuating an insensitive ritual?
I don't think so. What Oyate fails to recognize is that rituals, by nature, are incredibly complex. Even relatively new holidays like Thanksgiving have already gathered many layers of meaning. The story of the first Thanksgiving is only one of those layers, and an increasingly minor one at that. It mainly seems to serve as inspiration to elementary school teachers looking for trite art projects to occupy restless pre-holiday classes. As new perspectives on the holiday emerge (and I applaud Oyate for providing one of those perspectives), the old story will probably fade into the background, as well it should.
Meanwhile, however, I fully intend to eat my weight (plus the extra baby pounds) in cranberries, sweet potatoes, and pie next week. And that's no myth, turkeys.
All right, the title of this post is actually misleading. Kevin Henkes and Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler) have not interacted, as far as I'm aware, but I did read their books consecutively. They are only bedfellows for the purposes of this post.
Olive's Ocean, by Kevin Henkes
More than anything else, Olive's Ocean is a coming-of-age novel. Unlike other entries in that genre, though, it's not about the external events that lead the protagonist out of childhood. In this case, external events are almost peripheral. It is Martha's reflections on them that make up the substance of the short, dreamlike chapters in this quiet book.
As the novel opens, Martha receives a visit from the mother of a classmate (the Olive of the title) who has recently been killed in a bicycle accident. The woman gives her a gift - a page torn from Olive's diary, on which she mentions three wishes: to be a writer, to visit the ocean someday, and to become friends with Martha. The next day Martha and her family set out to spend a week at the ocean with her grandmother. Throughout the week, Martha is haunted by the diary passage. As she argues with her family, confides in her grandmother, and experiences the joy and sorrow of a first kiss, she continuously measures her life against Olive's. By the end of the week, as the family returns home, a subtle but crucial change has been wrought in Martha's psyche. We sense that she is no longer the child who opened the screen door on the first page of the book.
In Olive's Ocean, Kevin Henkes displays the same sensitivity to character and narrative restraint that make his picture books so unique. He has tremendous insight into the complicated inner world of a twelve-year-old girl. That being said, though, I'm never sure how to recommend a novel like this one (or like Indigo's Star, for that matter) to actual children. I find it difficult to describe quiet, realistic novels in a way that will make someone want to read them. I usually just hand them the book, and let them read the inside flap. This is inadequate, because some novels (Indigo's Star is one) are woefully misrepresented by their book jacket copy. I need to come up with a better solution.
The Penultimate Peril, by Lemony Snicket
This one, on the other hand, requires no recommendation. Children gobble it up. I have two observations about it:
1. This series keeps getting more and more morally complex. I thought the first four or five entries in the series were clever, but formulaic, but Snicket keeps raising the stakes. At this point, the reader is left baffled as to how to tell the good guys from the bad guys. It will be interesting to see how he resolves things in the final installment.
2. My husband, who studies eighteenth-century English literature, loves these books. I think it's because there's something reminiscent of that time period, in the stilted, slightly-distant quality of the narration, the intrusive narrative voice, and the cartoonishness of most of the characters. It's kind of inspiring that children can be convinced to enjoy such an esoteric style of prose.