A Light in the Dark: Three New Read-Aloud Chapter Books

May 14, 2020 § 3 Comments

It has been said that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes, but—at least, while quarantined—I can now add a third. Every morning for the past two months, the same conversation has transpired as soon as the breakfast dishes are cleared, around 8:15am.

Me: “OK, kids, head to the couch for read-aloud time.”

My son: “What? No! I need to get upstairs to get ready for school!” (“Getting ready for school” means opening up his Chromebook, clicking on a Zoom link, and waiting for the administrator to let him into the meeting…45 minutes before said meeting actually starts.)

Me: “Your class doesn’t start until 9am.”

Him: “But sometimes they come on early!”

Me: “You don’t need to stare at a screen any more than is necessary. Park your tush next to your sister.”

Every morning, we have this same exchange. Every single morning. For the record, I always win. I only insist on one tiny little fragment of consistency during corna-time and it’s that the kids and I spend forty minutes every morning reading aloud. It’s how we connect before dispersing into our own “virtual” agendas. It’s how we remind ourselves that the world still exists outside our doors, that it waits patiently for us to return, that it invites us to visit in our imaginations until we can come in person. It’s how we remind ourselves that we don’t have to leave the house to get our minds blown.

Quite simply, reading aloud is the one light in these dark days that we can always count on.

As soon as my fidgety, eager-for-that-screen-fix tween sits down on that couch and tunes into my voice, he doesn’t want to be anywhere else. I know this because he gasps the loudest, laughs the hardest, leans in the closest. Reading aloud to tweens and teens can initially seem like an uphill battle, but it’s almost always worth the struggle. In our family, it’s non-negotiable. And it always, always leaves them begging for more…even if just a few minutes earlier they were all too happy to skip it.

In the upcoming weeks, I’ll be doing a gargantuan middle-grade round up with favorite new books to put in front of your kiddos for independent reading. Today, though, I want to share three new middle-grade novels which lend themselves especially well to reading aloud, as evidenced by our own experience. Their genres—fantasy, comedy, and historical fiction—couldn’t be more different, but their characters, prose, and stories are similarly unforgettable.

(Note that suggested ages refer to reading level; all of these can be read aloud to younger audiences.)

A Wish in the Dark
by Christina Soontornvat
Ages 10-14

If you only read one book to your kids during quarantine, let it be A Wish in the Dark. Three pages into this story and I already had chills, the likes of which I haven’t had since reading Jonathan Auxier’s Sweep to my kids. Soontornvat’s prose sings and shimmers, seductively drawing you into her Thai-inspired fantasy world, where light and dark play off one another on every page. For the musical theater aficionados among us, the story is a creative retelling of Les Misérables, though familiarity with Victor Hugo’s story about an inmate on the run against the backdrop of a working-class revolution is certainly not a prerequisite. A Wish in the Dark gives us a provocative schooling on social justice without our realizing we’re being schooled. It’s a beautiful, magical, thrilling story which resides in the space between the “haves” and the “have nots” and exposes that division for what it can be: arbitrary and toxic.

Against a backdrop of mangoes, canals, and Buddhist temples, Chattana is ruled by the Governor, who once saved the city in the aftermath of a devastating fire with his mysterious ability to create and give light. This light becomes the sole source of energy in the city, powering everything from boat motors to cook tops. The Governor’s buzzing orbs might look beautiful (and render the need for fire and its many dangers obsolete), but their different colors are a visual testimony to the socio-economic divisions he insists on maintaining at all costs. The gorgeous gold orbs are reserved for the most privileged families, while the weak, flickering violet orbs are the only light Chattana’s poorest residents can afford. Light shines on the worthy, the Governor says, although what becomes increasingly clear is that “worthy” is a construct confirmed by birth and upheld by those in power.

In the book’s opening chapters, an orphan named Pong escapes the children’s reform center where he has grown up (his late mother a convicted thief) by hiding in a trash can of rotting durian rinds. The monks, on whose shores he washes up clean, can only harbor him for so long. Pong is thrust into a life on the run from law enforcement—specifically, from the Law Commissioner’s daughter, Nok, an acclaimed spire fighter bent on proving her worthiness to her father by catching Pong and returning him to jail. Pong and Nok’s dance is as physical as it is spiritual, challenging the rigid black-and-white thinking of their vastly different upbringings and guiding them towards recognizing that clarity, forgiveness, and compassion often reside in shades of grey.

Can you hear the people sing? This revolution may be defined more by light than sound, but in the same way we cheer for the French revolutionaries of Les Misérables, this new story calls us to stand up against those whose power is based on oppression. At the end of the day, we get to decide worthiness for ourselves. We get to make our own golden light and choose where to direct it.

The One and Only Bob
by Katherine Applegate
Ages 8-12

Sometimes we need to set aside the revolution for the day and indulge in some comedic relief. Although to call The One and Only Bob a comedy—Katherine Applegate’s follow up to her critically acclaimed and enormously popular novel, The One and Only Ivan—belies its weightier themes. It’s still Applegate, after all, so you’ll need to have the tissues ready, but you’ll cry less than you did reading Ivan. Bob, the canine narrator of the new book, is one funny character. In fact, Applegate admits to channeling Danny DeVito (who voices the character of Bob in the forthcoming movie adaptation of Ivan) as she wrote, and the result is a sarcastic, street-smart, self-deprecating mutt with a heart of gold. Bob may profess to be no saint (“I harass innocent squirrels. I hog the couch. I lick myself in the presence of company.”), but he’s capable of a lot more saintly behavior than he takes credit for.

Bob first got to know Ivan, mighty silverback gorilla, and Ruby, boisterous baby elephant, while Ivan and Ruby were living at a mall and Bob, a stray, would wander in and out of their tiny glass enclosures looking for food scraps. The One and Only Bob continues a short while after Ivan ends, with gorilla and elephant happily re-settled in a proper zoo. Bob lives a short distance away, now a domesticated pet of the zookeeper’s daughter, but with special visiting rights to the zoo. While Ivan and Ruby appear in the new book, the story is Bob’s alone: his dreams, his losses, and his complicated relationship with the human race. Humans may have tossed him out of a pick-up truck when he was just a baby, but it was also humans who, inexplicably, saved him.

Told with sparse, poetic prose, the book begins with a “canine glossary,” in which we’re introduced to some of Bob’s unique vocabulary (like “water bowl of power” and the “rhymes-with-pet-threat”), immediate proof that Applegate has spent a lot of time contemplating how the world looks from a canine perspective. (Bob is actually modeled after her own tiny dog, Stan.) A huge part of the fun of voicing Bob stems from our own fascination with what our pets think about us, but Bob’s appeal also comes from his vulnerability. He may talk like he’s got everything figured out, but we sense cracks in his defensive expositions on forgiveness (he doesn’t believe in it), the good ‘ol days (things were better when he didn’t have to answer to anyone), and self-reliance (“you’ve got to look out for numero uno”). We’re not buying everything he’s selling. And when a powerful tornado descends upon the zoo, putting everyone Bob cares about in danger, Bob’s actions begin to speak louder than his words.

Prairie Lotus
by Linda Sue Park
Ages 10-14

That our words can sometimes be as dangerous and powerful as our actions is a central theme in Linda Sue Park’s historical novel about a “half-Chinese” girl who moves into Dakota Territory with her white father in 1880. Already garnering Newbery buzz, Prairie Lotus is Park’s response to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books, which Park loved as a child but whose racial insensitivities—particularly with respect to Native Americans and black Americans—left her troubled, raising questions about her own ethnic heritage against the backdrop of American history.

Years ago, I shared the Little House books with my daughter, so I knew this was a must read for us. What I failed to realize was just how timely this story would feel in the context of COVID-19. With the virus originating in China and our president’s insistence on referring to it as the “Chinese virus,” Americans with East Asian appearance are being abused and attacked with such frequency that it has given rise to the term “corona-racism.” (Another fabulous middle-grade novelist, Kelly Yang, wrote a piece for Parents magazine about a recent incident where she was called an “oriental” and told to “go back where you came from,” while trying to socially distance with her dog and children in a San Francisco park.) The time is ripe to talk to our children about the history of racism against Asian Americans, dating back to the nineteenth century. Witnessing the daily microaggressions and at times open hostility directed towards the character of Hanna in Prairie Lotus is upsetting; conceding that this continues 140 years later is horrifying.

When Hanna arrives in La Forge from Los Angeles, still reeling from the death of her Chinese mother, she is the first person of Asian descent the frontier town has ever seen. Immediately, it becomes apparent that her two dreams—to go to school and become a seamstress in the shop her father intends to open—will be considerably challenging. While the teacher of the one-room school welcomes her warmly, most of the parents refuse to send their children to school until Hanna stops coming. While the town’s justice of peace encourages Hanna’s father to open his shop, others threaten to boycott it. People look at Hanna with surprise when she speaks English; they look shocked by her tidy appearance, including the beautiful clothes she makes. They throw around the word “chinaman” and speculate about the disgusting foods she must eat at home. One day, on an errand, she is almost sexually violated; even worse, few believe her word over the crass, drunk white assaulter.

Prairie Lotus is a story of a soft-spoken girl who learns to find her voice. Hanna must stand up to her overprotective father and earn her own risks, just as she must find the words to call out and rebuke the prejudices of those around her, to reveal herself worthy of friendship, ideas, and inclusion. At the same time, the novel offers a fuller glimpse of frontier life than the one Wilder gave us. The excitement and possibility are still there, but they run alongside a homogeneity deeply ignorant and mis-trusting of non-white persons. Until we gain a deeper understanding of this history, it appears we are doomed to repeat it.

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Books published by Candlewick, HarperCollins, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, respectively. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links, although I prefer we all shop local when we can, especially now!

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