2015 Gift Guide (No. 3): Chapter Books for the Courage Seeker
December 10, 2015 § 2 Comments
As a child who loved reading all sorts of books, the characters that stayed with me long after I finished the final page were not the knights in shining armor or the warrior princesses. They were everyday children—characters who looked or felt or went to school like me—whose strength and courage were greatly tested by circumstances beyond their control. These children got dealt a bad hand; and yet, they managed to come through with grace and humor, with an increased sensitivity to others, and with a wealth of self-knowledge. Perhaps it is through reading stories about loss, disability, bullying, or poverty that we can create our own personal roadmap to peace, compassion, and joy.
Without further ado, I present my three favorite middle-grade chapter books of the year for the 9-14 year-old set. (Mind you, these are in addition to Echo and Circus Mirandus, which I wrote about over the summer here and which are every bit as awesome as the ones below). These three novels are vastly different from one another, both in subject and in narrative voice—and yet all of them sing with the beauty of the human spirit.
Ten-year-old Ava, the protagonist of Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s deeply-felt The War That Saved My Life, may have an untreated clubfoot and a cruel, negligent mother, but her spirit is as feisty, resilient, and loving as any Great Heroine. Historical fiction at its best, the beautifully-written novel is set during the London Blitz, when children were ushered into temporary foster homes in the English countryside to escape the threat of bombs from World War Two. Ada is initially passed over by her mother as a child “worth saving”—largely because her mother wishes to keep her in servitude—but Ada is determined that her younger brother shouldn’t make the trip alone. In secret, she teaches herself to walk on her mangled and incredibly painful foot and escapes with her brother in the wee hours of the morning.
In the riveting pages that follow, Ava and her brother, Jamie, attempt to make a new life for themselves on the outskirts of an air force base, in the care of the polite but curmudgeonly Miss Smith, who has a sad past of her own and is initially ambivalent about taking in the children. Through Christmas celebrations, transitions to new schools, and the shifting landscape of war around them, the three ultimately come together as a family—and Ada, in particular, begins to heal from her abusive past.
But I haven’t even told you the best part: HORSES! It is Miss Smith’s horse that initially softens the stoic Ada and teaches her that vulnerability is not something to fear. Riding not only gives Ada an ease and freedom in her body that she has never known before, but it proves to be a valuable link to the greater community, in which she will ultimately play a nail-biting and life-saving role when the war catches up to her.
The sixth-grader protagonist of Lisa Graff’s Lost in the Sun doesn’t need a war to test him; he is waging his own internal war every time he sets foot outside his front door. In the year leading up to the novel’s opening, Trent accidentally hit a hockey puck into the chest of a teammate, who turned out to have an undiagnosed heart defect and died from the injury. While his family and friends don’t outwardly blame Trent for what happened, Trent nonetheless walks around under the suffocating weight of guilt, shame, and self-hate. He not only gives up sports and the other activities he used to enjoy, he lashes out at his teachers and his family (especially his stepmother), and he looks for ways to eschew responsibility for anything in his life, good or bad.
If that sounds like an especially disturbing premise, it can be—and yet, Graff is a master at infusing her narratives with appropriate levity and a contemporary context that feels immensely accessible to readers (last year’s Absolutely Almost was another favorite). Lost in the Sun is told entirely through the voice of Trent, who turns out to be as funny and sweet as he is volatile and sullen. He loves playing pranks with his brothers and watching Dodgers games with his mom. He is also deeply in need of a friend—and this comes, unexpectedly, in the form of Fallon Little, a spirited girl with a secret of her own (how did she get her jarring facial scar?) and a non-conformist attitude towards life. Ultimately, it is their friendship which allows Trent to forgive himself and to find his way back towards having meaningful relationships again.
Reading Graff’s book, I was continually reminded of recent studies linking fiction reading to empathy development. In Lost in the Sun, we readers are privy to the stark difference between what Trent is feeling on the inside (fear, sadness, loneliness, confusion) and what his behavior on the outside suggests (anger, apathy, egocentricity, stubbornness). Many people in the book see Trent’s explosive, even cruel, behavior and draw inaccurate (albeit understandable) conclusions about him. Some might even classify him as a bully—or, at the very least, someone not worthy of their friendship. Yet, we readers recognize the pain and vulnerability that lies underneath Trent’s harsh exterior; he endears himself to us with his honesty, and we can’t help but route for him on every page. In the end, it is characters like Fallon Little and Trent’s PE teacher, the ones who choose to look past the surface, that perhaps carry the most powerful and hopeful message for our children to do the same with their own classmates or siblings or teammates.
Katherine Applegate’s Crenshaw is possibly the lightest of the three novels, although it too has a protagonist struggling to make sense of the unjust hand he has been dealt. At first glance, Jackson is your typical fifth grader and oldest child: he loves hanging out with his best friend; he loves science experiments and facts about animals; and he loves (most of the time) the little sister who worships him. When Jackson was much younger—again, typical stuff—he had an imaginary friend: a giant talking surfer-dude cat named Crenshaw. And yet, when the novel opens, in a distinctly NOT-typical turn of events, Crenshaw re-enters Jackson’s life, literally floating down from the sky beneath an umbrella a-la Mary Poppins. This time, not only does Jackson not want Crenshaw around, he can’t get rid of him. If Crenshaw is just a figment of Jackson’s imagination, then why won’t he go away?
The answer lies in the other distinctly atypical thing about Jackson’s life (at least, relative to his peers). His family is poor. They have been homeless once before—forced to live out of their minivan—and Jackson is beginning to glean from overheard conversations, from the consistent lack of food in the house, and from his parents’ request that he and his sister sell off their toys in a yard sale, that it is going to happen again. It is Crenshaw—his dry wit, his physical comedy, and his downright absurd conversations—who proves to be the perfect companion for Jackson at the perfect time. Crenshaw can’t make Jackson’s pain go away, but he does help endow Jackson with the courage (and humor) to begin processing his dread, his anger, and his humiliation.
One of Applegate’s skills as a writer is her use of short, staccato, easy-to-digest sentences, despite the emotional richness of her material. We saw it in The One and Only Ivan, that magnificent tearjerker of a novel (I met Applegate last spring at a conference, and I asked her if Crenshaw was going to have me sobbing like Ivan did…she assured me with a smile that it would not make me cry quite as much). For a novel with such an important message—that the line is blurred between the haves and the have-nots, that not all modern families are afforded the same material benefits, and that the choices parents make are often as heartbreaking for them as they are for their children—I find it especially meaningful that Applegate has constructed a narrative that even a reluctant or under-developed middle-grade reader could devour.
To read any of the three novels above is a gift. All three do what literature does at its best: they transport us into the head of a stranger and make us feel, when all is said and done, like we know both the stranger and ourselves a whole lot better. And perhaps that will give us courage to face what our own lives have in store for us.
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Review copies provided by Penguin (the first two) and Macmillan respectively. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
Tagged: bullying as addressed in children's books, chapter books for 9-12 year olds, characters with disabilities in children's books, empathy, Holiday Gift Guide 2015, horseback riding in children's books, horses, imaginary friends in children's books, Katherine Applegate, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, Lisa Graff, poverty and homelessness in children's books, World War Two in children's books