All in a Good Day’s Bicycling

March 16, 2019 § 4 Comments

adventuresofagirlcalledbicycle-e1552680598146.jpgMy daughter received a bigger, bolder, faster bike for Christmas—and her enthusiasm to break it in is matched only by her despair that it only ever seems to rain or snow. As she waits for spring to spring, she has been making do with living vicariously through the heroine of the middle-grade novel, The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle (Ages 9-12), by Christina Uss, which I just finished reading to her. The speed with which we tore through this quirky, funny, heartfelt story—about an unconventional twelve year old, who bicycles by herself from Washington, DC to San Francisco in an effort to prove something to the adults in her life—is a testament to the appeal of the open road.

Recently, The New Yorker ran a piece by Jess Row, titled “How to Grant Your Child an Inner Life,” in which Row proposes that anxious parenting, coupled with the ease of tracking technologies and the transparency of social media, has “commoditized” our children’s inner lives. Reflecting on his own childhood in the eighties and early nineties—when “get good grades and don’t act like a delinquent…and you can do what you want the rest of the time”—he asks: “What does it mean for a child today to be alone, to have an independent inner life?” Perhaps because I myself was a Rilke disciple in high school, I especially connected with this next passage:

When I was eighteen, I read Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” with a sense of relief—here, finally, was someone not shy about giving direct advice on how to live![…] His message is quite simple, and universally applicable: You matter. Your feelings matter, even if (in fact, because) they’re not visible to others. Your inner life is real and important. Don’t be afraid to be alone[…]There aren’t many places where children and teenagers can go today to escape the noise of others—especially us, their (usually) benevolent overlords, who trade passwords, touch I.D.s, and credit-card numbers for 24/7, immersive, surround-sound access.

 

In many ways, The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle is a celebration of the inner life to which Row alludes—one harnessed, in this case, on long, lonely stretches of quiet roads, away from the benevolent hovering of parents or guardians.

Bicycle, the story’s protagonist, is named for the toddler t-shirt she is wearing the day she is discovered, penniless and parentless, on the front steps of the Mostly Silent Monastery. Bicycle is taken in, raised, and homeschooled by the formidable Sister Wanda Magdalena, whose bark is bigger than her bite, and who comes to love Bicycle as her own.

A curious, quick-witted soul, Bicycle is also unusually quiet for a girl approaching adolescence, owing largely to the fact that her only companions have been the Mostly Silent Monks. The monks might model for Bicycle the valuable art of listening, but their conversational skills are limited to the Sacred Eight Words: “yes,” “no,” “maybe,” “help,” “now,” “later,” “sleep,” and “sandwich.” While Bicycle is so attuned to the nuances of human expression that she can read any number of meanings into the word “sandwich,” depending on how it is delivered, she is less versed at initiating friendships with children her own age. At least, in Sister Wanda’s estimation.

When Brother Otto helps Bicycle purchase her namesake—a “glaringly, screamingly, almost unbearably orange” second-hand bicycle, which Bicycle affectionately names Clunk—Sister Wanda is optimistic that Bicycle’s newfound independence will encourage assimilation into the surrounding neighborhood, with its bounty of happily-playing children. “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the girl needs to make friends.”

Instead, while Bicycle is on her two-wheeler, she rarely engages with other children. Even when children attempt to talk to her, even when Sister Wanda sets up formal playdates, Bicycle “started pedaling hard and left them in her dust.” Bicycle seems always to prefer the entertainment of her own mind, and this only perturbs Sister Wanda further.

As parents, how often do our protective instincts hijack us, such that we begin to see our job as warding off imaginary dangers in our children’s futures? How tempting is it to scrutinize our children, locking eyes on some atypical attribute or behavior, and then fly the plane into the trees? What begins as vigilance turns into well-disposed worrying, turns into obsessive meddling, until we can no longer see the child in front of us.

Sister Wanda informs Bicycle she is enrolling her in The Friendship Factory, a sleep-away camp outside D.C., which promises to teach children social skills (“Three Guaranteed Friendships or Your Money Back!”). To Bicycle, the premise sounds like “a guaranteed nightmare.” After repeatedly trying (and failing) to plead her case, arguing that she be allowed to make friendships in her own way, Bicycle decides drastic times call for drastic measures. When the camp bus bound for The Friendship Factory makes a pit-stop, Bicycle unhitches Clunk and rides west as fast as she can, armed with a stack of paper maps.

What results is nearly 300 pages of adventure and challenge, of thrill and despair, of risk and reward, as Bicycle makes her way from D.C. to California, with the goal of arriving in San Francisco by July 8 to see her hero, competitive Polish cyclist “Zbig,” host the “Blessing of the Bicycles.” Bicycle has received fan mail from her biking idol—signed “Your Friend, Zbig”—so she hopes that, when the two meet in person, the world will recognize that she has what it takes to make and keep a friend. At regular turns, Bicycle mails postcards of her progress back to the Monastery.

Of course, as with any lofty goal, the real payoff lies in the journey itself. Against such vivid, memorable backdrops—from the sunflowers of Kansas to the purple mountains of Colorado to the unrelenting desert of Nevada—Bicycle meets a cast of eccentric characters, human and not-so-human. Many of these characters are hinted at on the book’s cover, and my daughter derived great satisfaction from checking off the backstory of each one. There’s Chef Marie Petitchou, who fears her French restaurant chain will lose out to the Americans’ pastime for fast food. There’s an uppity racehorse named The Cannibal, a favorite to win the Kentucky Derby, if only he can battle his homesickness for the French countryside of his youth. There’s a man in a chicken suit, a parade of pigs, a Cookie Lady, a sponge salesman, two feuding business owners, and a Bike Thief.

And there’s my daughter’s favorite: a ghost named Griffin, who has been haunting a Civil War battleground in Virginia for hundreds of years and longs for someone to lead him back to his Missouri hometown, famous for its fried pies. (Oh, I could write an entire blog post about the descriptions of food in this story!)

Long before Bicycle herself realizes it, we readers become keen witnesses of her power to touch the hearts and lives of those whose paths she crosses. She sets out to make a single friendship, but she ends up with friendships in every one of the nine states she traverses. She even, on occasion, comes to prefer the presence of another—even a ghost singing Civil War ballads on repeat—to the company of her own mind. These friends may not resemble the ones Sister Wanda had in mind for Bicycle, but they become critical to Bicycle’s well-being—and she to theirs.

None of these friendships would happen under the watchful eye of Sister Wanda. Neither would the brushes with starvation, physical exhaustion, and loneliness—which often drive Bicycle to venture outside her comfort zone and engage these folks in the first place. Still, it isn’t just Bicycle’s physical distance from the Monastery which enables her growth: it is the freedom she has on the open road in which to turn inward. To ponder. To reflect. To dig deep. To sort out the type of human she wants to be.

Our own tweens aren’t likely to get away with bicycling 4,000 miles largely unsupervised, but this book will nonetheless tempt them with the possibilities for self-discovery inherent in any amount of time spent outside the home, away from technology, social media, and parental watchfulness. If we read it aloud to our children, we might find ourselves nostalgic for the liberties we took in the 1970s and 1980s, often on our bicycles and in our own private worlds.

At the same time it celebrates the power of an inner life, The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle also affirms the role of the parent or guardian. As even Sister Wanda comes to see by the end of the story, in a series of delightful surprises, it may be our children’s job to sort out the type of human they want to be, but it’s our equally important job to validate them, to support them, and to help them get there.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids), Twitter (@thebookmommy), and now Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.

Review copy from Margaret Ferguson Books, Holiday House. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Keeping the Bails Up

February 14, 2019 § 7 Comments

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

We’ve been doing the eating-dinner-together-as-a-family thing for a long, long time (because bonding! because conversation skills! because better manners!), and let me tell you: I’m not sure it’s all it’s cracked up to be. (Definitely zero improvement on the manners front.) To be brutally honest, right now, in the middle of the worst month of the year, I’m not feeling it, kids.

When my husband and I, long finished with our own plates, start staring holes into the heads of our children, whose food only seems to multiply the longer we sit at the table, I start fantasizing about bedtime. And then I think, Be Present!, and decide, enough with the small talk which is going nowhere, and throw out, “Let’s talk about gender stereotypes!” At which point, both children shoot me a look which plainly says, Please go back to yelling at us about our manners.

And so, this is what I have decided. My kids are getting on in years (even if you can’t tell by their table manners), and it’s getting harder to find a daily time when they are both available for me to read to them. So why not make dinner time our read aloud time?

That’s right. We have cast our conversation skills to the wind, and now, the second I put down my fork, I pick up whatever book we’re reading, and we get to it. This is how we came to fall in love with Gary D. Schmidt’s new middle-grade novel, Pay Attention, Carter Jones (Ages 10-14). Not only is it tears-in-the-eyes funny and tears-in-the-eyes moving, it’s the very best distraction from the drudgery of dinnertime you could ask for.

Also, it permits me to do a British accent. Truly, any day can be improved by donning a British accent.

When an English butler shows up without warning one morning at the door of the Jones’ American house—a “portly” Mary Poppins character, minus the magic but with the umbrella—he is hardly met with a warm welcome, at least from Carter Jones, who is trying to steel himself for the first day of sixth grade. Allow me to share the story’s opening paragraph, so splendidly does it establish Carter’s narrative voice, with its infectious flair for the dramatic, its hefty dose of teenage skepticism bordering on disdain, and its fabulous dry wit.

If it hadn’t been the first day of school, and if my mother hadn’t been crying her eyes out the night before, and if the fuel pump on the Jeep had been doing what a fuel pump on a Jeep is supposed to be doing, and if it hadn’t been raining like an Australian tropical thunderstorm—and I’ve been in one, so I know what’s like—and if the last quart of one percent milk hadn’t gone sour and clumped up, then probably my mother would never have let the Butler into our house.

Carter doesn’t know how his mother can be sure the Butler isn’t a serial killer, even after he explains that his services are paid for by a generous endowment left in the will of Carter’s recently-deceased grandfather, for whom the Butler has worked all his life.

“Wait,” I said. “You mean my grandfather, like, left you to us in his will?”

“Crudely articulated, but true in the most generous sense.”

“Like, we own you?”

The guy carefully tied shut the folds of his umbrella. “Young Master Jones, indentured servanthood having been abolished even in your own country, no. You do not, like, own me.”

Come on. This book just begs to be read aloud.

Even though “you never know what a serial killer might do to throw you off guard,” Carter’s mother allows the Butler to enter the morning chaos of their household, to help the girls with their unruly hair and their missing socks, to pack school lunches, and to load all four children into his giant eggplant-colored Bentley (steering wheel on the right) and drop them at their first day of school.

As it turns out, the Jones family—Carter, his three younger sisters, their mother, and their prone-to-puking dachshund, Ned—needs saving from more than the drudgery of daily life. Though we don’t discover this until midway through the story, the family is still raw from the tragic loss of Carter’s young brother, Currier, who died from a rare illness a little over a year ago. Carter misses his brother terribly, but he misses his father even more—a deployed Captain in the Army, from whom the only correspondence during the story is a heart-wrenching letter to Carter’s mother, announcing that he is leaving the family for another woman in Germany. Coming to terms with the fickleness of death is one thing; coming to terms with the fickleness of human behavior, especially from someone you have always idolized, someone you have always trusted, seems nearly impossible.

The Butler, whose full name is August Paul Bowles-Fitzpatrick, is careful not to step into the shoes abandoned by Carter’s father—and yet, he becomes every bit the observant, compassionate, supportive, consistent, present adult figure Carter needs him to be. Even while extolling the superior virtues of British culture. Even while dispensing unwelcome mugs of tea with milk and sugar. Even while being, as Carter chides him, a “pain in the glutes.” The Butler may not be able to perform magic, but he seems somehow to be everywhere at once, offering the right—if enigmatic—words at the right time, always two steps ahead of those he is sworn to serve.

The Butler is also an ardent fan of both the metaphor and the sport of cricket, and these two converge in some of the most entertaining and poignant scenes in the book. Much like the Butler aims to do with Carter and his classmates at the Longfellow Middle School, this book will make a cricket fan out of every one of its readers. (Not to worry if you don’t know the first thing about the sport: every chapter begins with a different rule.) The hilarity of the Butler descending on the Minutemen’s Football Field, sporting his cricket whites and carrying a set of stumps and bails, is matched only by the way he successfully woos Carter, his neighbor, and the entire cross-county team into joining him. (“Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick, what are you supposed to be?” said Annie. The Butler rummaged around in the long case again and took out two huge gloves—white again—and he handed them to Billy…“Miss Anne, I am not supposed to be anything. I am a cricketer.”)

Cricket instills focus (“Pay attention, Master Jones!”) and hand-eye coordination, but it also imparts invaluable life skills, like teamwork, patience, resilience, and communication. It is a “gentleman’s” sport, marked by dignity and respect. Most critically for our young protagonist, it offers a space for self-discovery; for belonging; even for healing. In the metaphorical sense, cricket teaches us to “keep the bails up,” even during the roughest, most disorienting times in our lives.

Pay Attention, Carter Jones celebrates family. Maybe not the one Carter thought he had, maybe not even the one he wanted, but the one he’s building for himself, each time he sits through a ballet performance for his sister, or walks the dog for his mom, or give voice to his deepest, darkest fears without the risk of judgment. Each time he invites this quirky, old-fashioned British cricketer into his heart.

There’s nothing that brings a family together more than sharing a laugh or a heartwarming story. Here at our dinner table, we were lucky to have found both.

 

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll be guaranteed to receive a new post in your inbox 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids), Twitter (@thebookmommy), and now Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.

Review copy from Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Your Winter Break Read-Aloud

December 20, 2018 § 1 Comment

Several of you have reached out looking for inspiration on cozy, enchanting chapter books perfect for December (since, in the past, I’ve discussed how much we loved this and this). The bad news is that it’s a little late for you to read what I initially had in mind (and which we just finished) before the holidays. The good news is that I think Jonathan Auxier’s Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster (Ages 8-13)—which has now landed squarely atop my 2018 favorites—would be even better enjoyed after the holiday festivities. I’m referring to that week when we are a little quieter, a little more reflective, our hearts a little heavier—and yet, we’re still close enough to the holidays to believe that love is capable of spawning a little magic.

Set in Victorian London, Sweep might be classified as historical fiction with a touch of magical realism. The story concerns itself with the inside of chimneys, though not the kind that Santa slides down bearing gifts. Rather, if Santa slides down these chimneys, it’s to serve the wealthy children residing beneath them. To the children in this book—orphans serving as indentured servants to chimney sweeps, who task their little bodies with scaling the inside of chimneys to clean out the flues—chimneys are filthy, soot-filled, dangerously narrow and steep, and all that stands between them and probable premature death. The only Santa these children will ever know is one they fashion themselves.

Nan, the story’s eleven-year-old protagonist, is one of the best “climbing boys” London has ever seen. And she’s a girl. Nan serves alongside other orphans under the demanding, cruel Wilkie Crudd, though she forever carries with her the heartbreak of losing her beloved guardian, whom she affectionately refers to as Sweep, six years ago. When Nan is caught in a chimney fire early in the novel, she is saved by a small piece of hardened soot and ash, which the Sweep left in her pocket the night he disappeared, and which Nan has always treasured above all. Nan’s “char” turns out to be a golem, a magical protector who metamorphosizes in the fire into a monster-like creature, young and innocent as a child, but with powerful healing powers. Nan names him Charlie. Not wanting Crudd to know she is alive, and wanting to care for Charlie away from a world which would judge his monstrosity, Nan takes up residence in an abandoned mansion, which used to belong to a rich sea captain.

While a current of magic runs through the story, it takes on a multitude of forms. Charlie’s protective magic—a magic born out of the Sweep’s love—is the most obvious presentation. But there is subtler magic at work, too. There is the magic of stories, like the ones the Sweep used to tell Nan when he made “story soup,” a reminder that even when we have nothing tangible to give, we can still gift our imagination. There is the magic of kindness, like the Jewish schoolteacher whom Nan befriends, and whose encouragement and connections inspire Nan to believe she may be able to create a better life for her fellow climbers. There is even the magic of Christmas, when Nan dons whiskers like St. Nicholas and sneaks out to leave hand-fashioned presents for her friends; and the magic of New Year’s, when Nan perches high above the city and dares to dream of the future.

There is also the magic of Auxier’s writing (which first slayed me in The Night Gardener). To read this novel aloud is to be awash with some of the most gorgeous prose in contemporary children’s fiction. The flashback scenes to Nan’s life with the Sweep, rendered in italics, are positively breathtaking (just keep telling yourself, it’s OK for my children to see me crying). To read Auxier is to get a master class on what it means to immerse a reader in another world. On what it means to show—not tell.

And yet, in his meticulously researched novel (which took fifteen years to write!), Auxier walks a careful line between magical surrealism and the grim realities of Victorian London. It becomes increasingly apparent that the Sweep probably died from “soot lung”; and there is another tragic climbing-related death later in the novel. Auxier sets the plight of his child climbers against larger societal issues of the time, including child labor, poverty, homelessness, neglect, and even anti-Semitism. He has woven a deeply intimate story about a relationship between two outcasts—girl and golem—but he has also written a novel about activism, about fighting for change. Above all, it is a story of salvation.

Also in Sweep’s pages is the inevitable fall from magic (the post-holiday “crash,” if you will). Nan comes to realize that Charlie has only a limited amount of magic. Once he fulfills his purpose as her golem, Nan will again lose the only family member she has. If Nan is to find lasting salvation, she must look for and make it herself. She must put out into the world what she hopes to receive back. “We save ourselves by saving others.”

I wrote a lot of posts this month. Which meant that, more often than not, when my children were talking to me, I was lost in my own thoughts about how to phrase something. We all have times, either by necessity or choice, when we cannot present our best selves to our children. For as much as a good story sweeps us up, reading aloud has always been a sure-fire way for me to return to the moment, to let everything go and exist only for the eager listeners before me. Reading aloud might even be my salvation of sorts.

Thank you, Jonathan Auxier, for the unforgettable gift of this story. A story which enchants us one minute and moves us deeply the next. A story which so beautifully illustrates how love can work magic in the world.

I wish you all a wonderful and safe holiday season, and I look forward to sharing more books with you in the New Year. Thank you, as always, for reading and sharing and supporting what I do here.

 

AND…NEWS! I am now on Instagram (@thebookmommy), where you can find much more than I have time to include in this blog, including what my kids are reading on their own. Ditto for Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy).

Review copy by Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

 

 

Gift Guide 2018: Getting Something Out of Nothing

December 9, 2018 § 1 Comment

I wasn’t initially going to include Alyssa Hollingsworth’s immensely moving debut novel, The Eleventh Trade (Ages 11-14), in my Gift Guide, because it has some preeeeettttyyyy heavy flashback scenes. In other words, it’s not all Ho Ho Ho. But then I couldn’t stop thinking about it, couldn’t stop recommending it to my son and to some of his friends during carpool (a few who have just devoured Nowhere Boy, which tackles a similar subject). And then it hit me: this story is actually very much in the spirit of the holidays. It is about giving. It is about going to great lengths, making great sacrifices, in order to give someone you love something he desperately misses. And it is about what happens when you pour yourself into the act of giving. How the act itself becomes a gift—for both of you.

Sami and his grandfather are new to America, having arrived in Boston after years spent in refugee camps in Iran, Greece and Turkey, where they landed after fleeing Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban’s attack on their family. All they have left of their family and their life in Afghanistan—a place with “beautiful mountains and blue skies and more stars than you can see anywhere on this side of the world”—is a traditional Afghan instrument called a rebab. The instrument, part of the guitar family, is the only household item the two were able to salvage in the aftermath of the bombing, an instrument which the grandfather had used to make a famed and prosperous living in Afghanistan. Once in Boston, Sami begins middle school, while his grandfather plays the rebab in the subway station, scraping together the coins and dollars people throw his way to start a new life for his grandson.

And then, in the early pages of the book, the rebab is stolen. Swiped by a teenager who pawns it. Sami’s grandfather is defeated—his only choice now is to take a job in the kitchen of a restaurant—but it’s Sami who feels his grandfather’s pain most acutely. “We lost so much when we fled Afghanistan. Sometimes I think the only thing that kept us from breaking was the rebab. It was our heart and our past, but it was also a promise. It was our hope.” Watching his grandfather “waste his hands on dirty dishes,” especially knowing it was his own carelessness that led to the stealing, propels Sami into action. He needs to get the rebab back.

With help from a classmate, who in return convinces Sami to join his soccer team, Sami traces the rebab to a local music store, where it’s on sale for a staggering $700. Sami doesn’t have a penny to his name: he and his grandfather sleep on mattresses on the floor in a single-room apartment, and it’s rare that they can afford a soda. The only possession Sami can call his own is a Manchester United key chain, which his grandfather once gifted him. When another kid at school remarks on the key chain, Sami gets an idea.

What if he can trade his beloved key chain for something else? And what if he can trade that something for something else? Could he get to $700 on trading alone? So begins a wild goose chase, one which pushes Sami outside his comfort zone, challenging his English and forcing him into contact with people he might otherwise never have the gumption to approach. Along the way, Sami inadvertently begins to build a support network in America. He begins to put words to the horrors of his past, releasing himself for this first time from his memories’ strangulation. He begins to play soccer with wild abandon and reap the effects of true friendship. All the time, he never takes his eyes off his goal of returning the rebab to its rightful owner. All the time, he keeps his actions a secret from his grandfather, hoping the ends justify the means.

If The Eleventh Trade is about giving, about turning nothing into something, it’s also about what the act of giving does to ourselves. How it changes us; how it makes us see power within ourselves. How it connects us to our loved ones and to our community in vital ways. How, in many ways, the act itself becomes more meaningful than the gift.

 

Published by Roaring Book Press. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Gift Guide 2018: When We Can’t Go Home

December 6, 2018 § Leave a comment

When I was twelve, I was obsessed with Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming, a novel set in the 1980s about four siblings abandoned by their mother in a mall parking lot. The book follows the children’s physical journey—sleeping in woods, stealing food, battling the elements—to track down their great-aunt and convince her to take them in. Of course, the book is as much about the children’s emotional journey, processing their mother’s betrayal and questioning words like “family” and “home.” To my pre-adolescent self, Voigt’s story seemed like a child’s worst nightmare. But, if watching it play out was terrifying to me, witnessing the children’s resourcefulness and resilience along the way was also deeply consoling. I couldn’t look away.

I was reminded of Dicey and her siblings—of their heartbreak and their fortitude—many times while reading Kate DiCamillo’s Louisiana’s Way Home (Ages 10-13), a middle-grade novel even a reluctant reader won’t be able to put down. While set in the 1970s (not a cell phone in sight), the story has a kind of timeless, floating feel. In its review, Booklist likens it to a fairy tale, with “heroes, helpers, villains, and one princess looking for home.” This “princess”—or anti-princess, as she might more accurately be called—also happens to be one of the most memorable, infectious narrators our children will ever meet.

Louisiana Elefante is abandoned by her grandmother, her only living relation, on an impromptu middle-of-the-night road trip across the Florida-Louisiana state line. Granny begins the trip muttering about “a date with destiny,” about finally breaking a curse she believes has been on their family for generations. “The day of reckoning is at hand,” she cryptically tells her granddaughter. (Louisiana first appeared as a supportive character in DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale, although a child need not have read the earlier book to fall in love with this one.)

Louisiana is accustomed to Granny’s eccentricities—one might say affectionately so, which makes the later betrayal all the greater—so while she begrudges not getting clear answers and having to leave behind her friends and her cat, she does her best to stand by the only family she has ever known. When her grandmother succumbs to debilitating tooth pain, twelve-year-old Louisiana even takes the wheel (“you may be surprised to learn I had never driven a car before”), manages to locate a dentist’s office, and then talks her way into getting her grandmother emergency treatment. Louisiana is one calm, cool, and collected kiddo.

Despite Louisiana’s efforts, the road trip goes from bad to worse. After consecutive nights in the “Good Night, Sleep Night” motel, Granny suggests Louisiana find a local singing gig to pay their room and board. When she returns, Louisiana discovers her grandmother is gone, plaid suitcase and all. If that isn’t devastating enough, her grandmother has left a letter. (“Why would you write someone a letter when you were always and forever by their side? You wouldn’t. Unless, of course, you intended not to be by their side anymore.”) The letter not only confirms Granny isn’t coming back, but it reveals a shocking truth about Louisiana’s past. (Nope, I’m not saying any more than that.)

While Louisiana has had to play the adult too many times in her young life, she nevertheless approaches every minute of living with a childlike wonder. It is precisely this duality of personality—at once deeply wounded and unfailingly optimistic—that makes her such an enticing, beguiling character. Even while contemplating the gravity of her situation, Louisiana is distracted by the small wonders around her: a crow on a roof; the brightness of the stars; even the palm-tree curtains which seem out of place in a Georgia motel (“Why weren’t the curtains printed with peaches? That’s what I wanted to know.”). A vending machine is regarded as nothing short of miraculous.

Kate DiCamillo has said of writing this book that, no matter how hard she tried to tell the story in the third person, first person was “the only way the voice would come.” We, too, fall under Louisiana’s spell, continually surprised by the twists and turns in her story, yet always trusting we’re in the hands of a master. The book itself is Louisiana’s own reckoning, her insistence on claiming agency in a world bent on robbing her of it. “I’m going to write it all down, so what happened to me will be known, so that if someone were to stand at their window at night and look up at the stars and think, My goodness, whatever happened to Louisiana Elefante? Where did she go? they will have an answer. They will know. This is what happened.”

What happens is that Louisiana uses her infectious personality, fondness for pineapple upside-down cake, and unparalleled singing voice to befriend a boy named Burke Allen, to enlist the help of a minister and his crotchety organist, and to begin to shape her own destiny, independent of her grandmother and her alleged family history. To find family in the unlikeliest of places. To make a home out of two states. And to begin to forgive those who may have wronged her, but who nevertheless set her on this unique and always-wondrous path.

 

Review copy by Candlewick Press. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Gift Guide 2018: Favorite Chapter Book of the Year

November 28, 2018 § Leave a comment

My gift guide is just warming up! This post will be followed, beginning tomorrow, with a series of daily mini-posts, each highlighting a different book from 2018 which I love, which has mad gift potential, and which I have not had the occasion to write about…yet. A range of ages and interests and formats. Be sure to subscribe with your email address if you want to be guaranteed to see each one. Otherwise, feel free to take your chances on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) or Twitter (@thebookmommy); I kindly ask that you “like” as many posts as you can to increase the chances that others see them. And now, without further ado…

On my first day of tenth grade, which was also my first day at a new school 300 miles from home, I sat in the back row of an auditorium waiting for my mandatory “Approaches to History” class to begin. I sneaked peaks at my watch, in an effort to avoid making conversation with the students to my left and right, and because it was now several minutes past the scheduled start of class and there was no sign of a teacher.

The crowd began to quiet as the sound of yelling could be heard from the hallway. Two upperclassmen, a boy and girl, wandered into the front of the auditorium, in some kind of heated argument. As we watched, they began to shove one another, books flying, threats delivered; the girl began screaming for help. What kind of horror show have I chosen for my school? I wondered.

As quickly as it had begun, it ended. Even more aghast, I watched as the two students faced us, took a bow, and walked off. A teacher appeared and began distributing papers down the aisles. On each paper was a series of questions about what we had just witnessed. “Which party delivered the first blow?” “What was the exact sequence of events?” “What did he look like?” “What did she say?” We were also asked to rate the certainty of our answers.

If I had been shocked moments ago by the ruckus taking place thirty feet from me, I was even more shocked by my peers’ vastly different accounts of what had happened. This, of course, was the point of the exercise. There were wild discrepancies about what each subject had been wearing; there was even disagreement on race and accent. Almost no consensus could be reached on who had “started” the fight, who pushed whom first, or what the two were fighting about. And yet, the next day, when the teacher distributed the tabulated responses of our class, we learned that most people had rated their certainty above 70%.

The fallibility of historic reporting was something I had never stopped to considered. After this day, like one tends to do in adolescence, I began to question the truth of what I was seeing and hearing around me. I began to read history textbooks with the understanding that the way we transcribe our world is impossibly tangled up in the biases, prejudices, and preconceptions of both our individual past experiences and the cultures in which we live. As the saying goes, history is written by the winners.

But what happens when everyone loses? What can we discover about one another and ourselves? If we can’t tell what the world really looks like, where does that leave us?

These might be unusually weighty questions for a middle-grade novel to pose, but M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin have done just that in The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge (Ages 11-15)—albeit so deftly, through such a fantastical setting, and with so much absurd comedy that many of their young readers might not realize they’ve just been schooled on the limitations, missed opportunities, and dangers that accompany bias. It’s an age-old problem and one as timely as ever.

I have not come across a contemporary work of children’s literature as wholly original as The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge. At its most basic level, it reads like an epic fantasy, set against a Middle Earth-esque backdrop and starring an elf and a goblin: two historical academics brought together on a (misconstrued) mission to mend thousands of years of distrust between their two warring nations. But the story’s multitude of riches extend well beyond the surface. (Put another way: I don’t particularly care for fantasy, yet I chose this as my favorite book of the year.) In fact, the levels at which one can experience this book are so varied, I will defer to Anderson and Yelchin’s own competing descriptions of their story, which appear in the interview-style Author’s Note describing their collaborative process.

MTA: So Eugene and I created this book as a tribute to all of those brave writer-explorers in the ancient world who voyaged into unknown lands and tried to understand the cultures they found there: Marco Polo, Herodotus, Ibn Battuta[…]

EY: What are you talking about? This is a spy thriller. Murder! Chases! Double crosses! We got a bomb in there!

MTA: But, Eugene, at its heart, it’s really a tragic meditation on how societies that have been trained to hate each other for generations can actually come to see eye to eye. 

EY: A tragedy, my eye! A crazy story about two fools blinded by propaganda is not a tragedy. It’s a comedy.

MTA: Sure, Eugene, whatever. Basically, we just wondered why goblins get such a bad rap in fantasy noels like J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings.

In full disclosure, when I first started reading this 526-page tome—told through alternating chapters of traditional narration, letters, and wordless illustration (almost as if Brian Selznick’s books got a darker makeover from Hieronymous Bosch)—I thought, wowzers, this book is strange. Marvelously strange, but strange. I can think of maybe one or two children who would enjoy it. Then, with each chapter, I found myself thinking up more and more children (and adults) who I thought would love it. By the end, unable to decide if my husband or son should read it first, I just threw it at my husband and yelled, YOUR TURN TO READ TO OUR SON! (Upon further consideration, I actually think this book is best suited as an independent read. Although it does beg discussion and would be absolutely perfect in a book club setting.)

Have a kid who likes Tolkein, mythical creatures, or epic battle scenes? No-brainer. Have a kid who likes odd and eccentric? Yup, it’s here in spades. Have a visually-oriented child who would welcome interspersed chapters devoted entirely to mysterious, pen-and-ink illustrations, the likes of which they’ve never seen before?  Oh YES. Dry humor and political satire? It abounds. How about the kid who would appreciate holding in their hands an exquisite product of bookmaking, whose jacketless cover with its embossed letters and stamped gold ink feels like you’re laying hands on something maybe not entirely ancient but also not quite of the modern world?

What about a child who enjoys complex, flawed protagonists, capable of delighting and disappointing faster than one can turn the page? Herein lie two of the most memorable, if misguided, literary characters. Brangwain Spurge, a cantankerous elf historian largely preoccupied by his chance at fame, journeys to the land of the goblins on an unprecedented peace-making mission to return an ancient relic—a Faberge-type egg concealing a gemstone with ancient pictorial carvings—believed to have been captured long ago from the goblin king. (What Spurge doesn’t know is that he’s a pawn in a larger scheme by the elfin powers that be: the egg actually contains a bomb intended to obliterate the goblin king and his government.) Werfel, naïve and obsequious, is a historic archivist and the goblin entrusted with hosting Spurge. His job is to introduce the fellow scholar to the finer points of his beloved goblin culture and (he hopes) learn about elfin ways in return, resulting in famed publications of his own.

Whatever your reason for gifting this story to a particular child, the real gift will be in what is carefully and calculatedly revealed through its telling. Ironically, in a story about two individuals who come together out of a passion for historical accounting, both are equally blind to the cultural experiences of the other. Spurge is blinded by elfin propaganda, which has long painted goblins as violent, grotesque, and barbaric; as creatures who spurn cultural refinement for beheadings and relish living in squalor and poverty. The “skins” Spurge discovers hanging in Werfel’s house only confirm his bias; he never even registers the pride and joy in Werfel’s explanation of the goblin practice of shedding skins in celebration of achieving personal growth.

Werfel initially seems like the more open-minded of the two, but we come to realize that his failure to register offense at Spurge’s derogatory remarks stems from his blind commitment to ambition and hospitality. (“Goblins had a strong code of hospitality. Once a goblin invited someone across the threshold into their home, it was their duty to serve and protect their guest, no matter what. Hospitality was holy.”) We watch, helpless, as the two speak to one another without either being heard.

We may be helpless observers of the mounting tensions between Spurge and Werfel, of their failed attempts to penetrate the cultural bias both parties have brought to the table, but we’re also not entirely innocent. Anderson and Yelchin intentionally prey upon our own inherent bias as readers—specifically, our easy trust in visual truth. It turns out there’s an underlying tension between the story’s narration and its pictures. All the narration (apart from the letters) is done in third-person, although from Werfel’s perspective, so it’s easy to spot subjectivity. The visual chapters, on the other hand, are billed as “top secret transmissions,” literal thought pictures which Spurge records over the course of the day and then sends back to elfin headquarters at night, while suspended off his bed in a kind of trance. We automatically accept these visuals—in many cases, our only window into the story’s action sequences—as truth, simply because children’s literature rarely, if ever, tells us otherwise. If Werfel is illustrated as a towering, formidable figure with a scowling mouth and claws for hands—well, we assume that’s what he looks like, even if it doesn’t match the soft, gentle words that come from his mouth.

Until we don’t. At some point, we become aware that the words and pictures are at war with one another. That our eyes are deceiving us. Spurge’s visual reporting is flawed because, in many respects, he has made up his mind about what he sees before he even sees it. The truth—if we can ever get to such a thing—likely likes somewhere in the middle.

Only in Spurge and Werfel’s eventual shared exile do the two men begin to forge a touching, eccentric, friendship, one which moves beyond personal and cultural bias. Only in the climactic collapse of the two kingdoms do we trust that Werfel’s words and Spurge’s images are approximating something closer to the truth. Werfel begins to insult Spurge—the sincerest form of goblin affection, it turns out—and Spurge begins to see that his fellow historian is a lot more similar to him than he initially thought (at least, similarly sized).

Don’t just gift The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge because it’s wildly entertaining and wholly original. Gift it because it just might change the way a child experiences the world. If we approach new cultures with an open heart and an open mind, we might still not see the world exactly as it is, but we may find two things infinitely more valuable: compassion and connection.

 

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll be guaranteed to receive a new post in your inbox 2-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.

Review copy by Candlewick Press. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Humanizing Refugees

November 4, 2018 § 5 Comments

“Oh honey, that book is not for you.” I had just walked into our family room to find my eight year old stretched out on the sofa, reading Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin’s extraordinary but brutally gut-wrenching graphic novel, Illegal (Ages 10-14). I realized I had made a mistake leaving it in plain sight, atop a stack of books I had just finished for my next Capitol Choices meeting.

My daughter barely looked up. “But why? You know I love graphic novels.”

“I do know you love graphic novels. But this one is written for older kids. We can save it for when you’re older.”

“But I’m reading it right now. Plus, I’m understanding it.”

“It’s not that I don’t think you’d understand it,” I said, sitting down next to her and gently taking away the book. “It’s that there are some very upsetting things that happen in the book, and it would be hard for an eight year old to process those things.”

Of course, as any parent knows, if you don’t want your child to read a book, the least effective approach is to tell her it’s not appropriate. It didn’t help that my eleven year old walked into the room just then and said, “Mommy, that book is amazing. And really deep. Emily is much too young to read it.”

“I hate you all!” my daughter yelled. She stormed off to her room. Well, I thought, at least we dodged that bullet.

Not a chance. The next day, after school, Emily announced, “I have decided you can read the book to me. That way you can explain it to me.”

“Which book” I asked, feigning innocence.

“The book about the refugees. See, I know what it’s about.”

“We have other picture books about refugees,” I tried. “We can go back and reread those.”

But she was determined. The pleading went on for three more days. It even involved her bringing home a news article on the Rohingya refugees, which her class had discussed from Time for Kids.

I caved. I read Illegal to her. And she was riveted. She asked questions. She made me read certain scenes twice. At one point, she got especially quiet and still, and I realized she was holding back tears. I told her it was OK to cry, that crying didn’t mean she was too young for the story. And then I cried.

Illegal, illustrated by Giovanni Rigano, tells the story of Ebo, a parentless, penniless, music-loving, twelve-year-old boy from Ghana, who runs away when he learns that his beloved older brother, Kwame, has left to make the hazardous crossing to Europe, following in the footsteps of their older sister from months ago. We know that Ebo eventually catches up to Kwame, because the book opens with the two of them floating in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea on an inflatable rubber dinghy (“maximum safe load 6 people”), alongside thirteen others. The sky is blue-black; the water is darker; the boat has a leak; and the fuel tank is almost empty. No one knows how to swim.

The book begins and ends with this dramatic, hair-raising sea crossing—the very image that comes to mind when Westerners think about the refugee crisis—but it consistently breaks to jump back in time, revealing that getting into this rubber dinghy is the final step in what has already been an incredibly long and harrowing journey.

How many of our children—much less ourselves—have ever contemplated what it looks like for minors to travel alone for hundreds of miles; to live on the streets of busy cities; to vie for labor jobs to earn enough money for the next bus, the next truck; to risk their lives crossing the Sahara Dessert at the hands of armed criminals; all to arrive at the shores of the Mediterranean to face the riskiest, most insane, most desperate act of all? What must the life you left behind be like to choose this path?

And yet, the media, fueled by our own government, would demonize refugees like this. Would unilaterally cast them as shady, suspicious, ill-meaning characters who should turn around and go back from whence they came.

While I am not advocating sharing this book with children under ten or eleven, I can tell you this: Emily has gone on to read the book three more times on her own. I have learned from experience that, when children return to a book again and again, it is because they still have more to extract. More meaning, more understanding, more connection.

“What is it about Illegal that you like so much?” I asked her over breakfast last week.

She thought for a bit. “I guess I like that Ebo survives.”

There is death in this book: death of strangers, of friends, even of Ebo’s own brother, who dies saving Ebo in the story’s most devastating moment. There is violence and cruelty; both are depicted graphically. Still, at the heart of the book, there is beautiful, wide-eyed, caring Ebo, who touches the lives of everyone he meets and instills camaraderie in a group of boys to gives them strength in numbers. For young readers, even middle-grade readers, Ebo’s survival is critical. It softens the blow of the surrounding death and violence. It is the ultimate sign of hope: that someone, in this case a child, can beat every odd stacked against him. Can survive the unimaginable. A boy who runs into his sister’s arms in the final page and exclaims triumphantly, “I will hold her forever and never let her go.”

Our breakfast discussion included my eleven year old, who weighed in on what struck him about the book. “You don’t think about kids having to do stuff like that. You hear about it in the news, but you can’t really imagine it until you read this book.”

And yet, the refugee crisis is happening now. It is the world we live in. Might there be value in opening up our children’s eyes to it (albeit appropriately and sensitively)? In the words of Melissa Orth, a Maine teen librarian featured in this week’s article in the School Library Journal, titled “Can Diverse Books Save Us? In a Divided World, Librarians are on a Mission”:

As a teen librarian in the whitest state in the union, I feel it is my duty to not have the collection reflect my community, but rather to reflect the wider world…Books featuring characters with different cultural experiences from their own can educate teen readers and build empathy.

Max, the thirteen-year-old American protagonist of Katherine Marsh’s heartfelt and suspenseful new middle-grade novel, Nowhere Boy (Ages 10-14), has never given two seconds’ thought to the plight of refugees, until he finds one squatting in the basement of the townhouse his family is renting during their two-year sabbatical in Belgium. The boy in the basement is Ahmed, a Syrian refugee who believes himself to be orphaned; he watched his mother and sister die in bombs back in Syria and his father drown while attempting to paddle their dinghy across the Mediterranean.

Sound familiar? If Illegal concerns itself with the refugee’s geographic journey, culminating with Ebo reaching the safety of the European coast, Nowhere Boy begins upon arrival—when the equally daunting journey of making a new life in a foreign and often distrusting culture begins. When Paris is attacked by terrorists who are traced to Belgium, Ahmed knows he dare not show his face in public for fear of being mistaken for a terrorist. Alone and nearly starving, he implores Max to help him live secretly in his basement. Not even Max’s parents can know.

Max is facing his own challenges with cultural assimilation. Already a struggling student, he resents having to attend school in a foreign language. He especially dislikes spending after-school hours with a strict, elderly Belgian tutor, who at the same time that she attacks his French, also delivers racist comments about Europe’s Muslim population—remarks which Max finds untrue and offensive, especially since one is living in his basement and another is his only friend in school.

As the two boys connect over their “outsider” status (and a shared love of comics), they forge a dangerous but ultimately redemptive friendship. The story is told through the boys’ alternating points of view, in short chapters, which not only keeps pace for even the most reluctant readers, but poignantly highlights the difference in the boys’ cultural orientations. Indeed, it is this difference that makes their friendship so intriguing and remarkable.

If refugees themselves are often stigmatized in Western culture, so is the act of helping them. If Illegal is a story of hope, Nowhere Boy is a story of empowerment. Of standing up in the name of human decency and kindness. A story about a boy who looks another boy in the eyes and sees something of himself in him—despite their looking nothing alike, despite their foreign upbringings, despite those who would have him thrown out, turned in. Even when Ahmed’s secret becomes too complicated for Max to keep alone, he engages the help of both his Muslim school friend and, incredibly, the school “bully.” Together, they develop a plan to give Ahmed a chance at an ordinary childhood, a chance to go to school and ride bikes and play sports. The plan goes awry at nearly at every step, but the nail-biting resolution is a testament to the power of kids fighting for what they believe is right and good and true.

Citing parallels with the Holocaust and those who, at great personal risk, harbored Jews in their homes, Nowhere Boy asks us to see past labels, past the “other,” to the human being inside. It challenges us to move beyond being a passive presence and towards extending a hand. It rewards, in the words of the novel, “put[ting] yourself at risk for another person.” In a world where adults seem increasingly unable to do this, perhaps it is only fitting that this novel illuminates the possibilities when kids take matters into their own hands. I am reminded of the words spoken by the King at the conclusion of our October read aloud, A Tale Dark and Grimm (yup, it was every bit the hit I had hoped):

There is a wisdom in children, a kind of knowing, a kind of believing, that we, as adults, do not have. There is a time when a kingdom needs its children.

I had planned to give Nowhere Boy to my eleven year old to read on his own, but I’ve since decided to read it aloud to both him and my daughter. Her fascination for this topic seems boundless at the moment, and I don’t want that to go to waste. Sometimes our children know what they need better than we do. Sometimes they are ready before we think they are.

Sometimes we need to get out of their way and let them direct their love into the world.

 

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll be guaranteed to receive a new post in your inbox 2-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy), where I regularly post articles and updates on what my kids are reading to themselves.

Books published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky and Roaring Book Press, respectively. Illegal was originally published in Great Britain by Hodder Children’s Books. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

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