Humanizing Refugees

November 4, 2018 § 2 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!

How The Penderwicks Saw Us Through 24 Days of Rain

October 25, 2018 § 6 Comments

Last month, Northern Virginia saw twenty-four days of rain. Adding insult to injury, this deluge of wet, gloomy weather happened during the one month each year when our family barely holds it together in the first place. Where the ensuing chaos of back-to-school transitions is trumped only by the fact that both my children once upon a time insisted on entering the world within two weeks of one another (and have since insisted that their celebrations never overlap).

Fortunately, we are not strangers to the salvation of the right chapter book series for back-to-school season (see here). Still, I have never been as thankful for one particular set of literary characters as I was last month.

Exhibit A begins when my (almost) eleven year old came upon me at the kitchen counter, surveying a spread of Tupperware containers.

“Can you read Penderwicks to me and Emily?” he blurted out.

(Um, do I look like I am available for reading, you good-for-nothing…) “I have to make dinner.”

“Oh. Right. What are we having?”

“I’m going to turn these various leftover vegetables into quesadillas.”

“Wait, can I make the dinner instead? Then you could sit and read to us, and I could listen while I cook.”

You are going to WHAT?! (As much as I’d like to tell you I have kids who regularly help out with cooking, I do not have kids who regularly help out with cooking. Getting them to trim green beans can be a knock-down-drag-out fight.)

And yet, as I took my place on the couch next to my daughter, ours backs to the ensuing sounds of banging and clattering coming from the kitchen, the incredible happened. My son sautéed vegetables. He grated cheese. He filled tortillas and then flipped each one on a cast-iron skillet until it was perfectly browned. He used the pizza cutter to make equal wedge-like slices. All the time, I read from The Penderwicks in Spring. Together, we laughed and leaned in and pretended it wasn’t pouring rain outside for the umpteenth day in a row, pretended that spring was springing outside our window like it was outside the Penderwicks’ house.

The Penderwicks: a family so fun, so funny, so well-meaning, so deliciously and perfectly flawed, that they cannot fail to bring out the best in everyone who knows them.

“Are you ready for us?” I asked, turning to see three heaping plates on the counter.

“No, keep going,” JP replied. “I want to make the table look extra nice before we sit down.”

I give myself a tiny bit of credit for this. I always knew we would want to binge read The Penderwicks books (Ages 8-12), by award-winning Jeanne Birdsall, so I not only waited until the last one in the series came out (this past spring), I also waited until my kids were almost eight and eleven—the perfect ages for a series whose later books take on increasingly mature terrain, as the characters themselves age (romantic pitfalls and all).

We flew through The Penderwicks and The Penderwicks on Gardam Street over the summer, then finished The Penderwicks at Point Mouette during the first week of school, yearning nostalgically for our own travels to Maine (Maine’s Point Mouette being the site of the Penderwicks’ two-week, unplugged summer vacation.). That left The Penderwicks in Spring and The Penderwicks at Last for September and October.

Who are these infectious creatures? While the Penderwicks family (spoiler alert) picks up some new additions as the series goes on, the spotlight initially focuses on four sisters and their affable, eccentric single father. Rosalind, the eldest, can be bossy, but she’s also fiercely protective of her younger siblings, having stepped up to care for them after their mother died of cancer (four years before the start of the first book).

Skye, next in line, may resemble her late mother’s conventionally beautifully features, but her tomboy personality, infuriating stubbornness, fondness for the soccer field, and astute mathematical mind sometimes make her feel like the “black sheep” of the family.

Then there’s hopelessly romantic Jane—the sibling who regularly elicits the most giggles from my brood—who, as an aspiring author, sees everything around her as potential fodder for her fictional series about a heroine named Sabrina Starr (although don’t count her out on the soccer field, either).

Finally, there’s Batty, just four years old when the series begins (but who stars as a fifth grader and college student in the final two books), and whose devotion to fairy wings, mishaps, and animals—including her beloved dog, Hound—wins over everyone she meets.

Who is our favorite? That answer changes faster than I can turn the page. Birdsall continuously develops her characters: they ebb and flow and keep us guessing, all the while taking up residence inside our hearts. The cast of supporting characters—most of them boys—is equally memorable.

If this is a book whose main characters are girls, does that mean it’s a girl book? YOU HUSH UP RIGHT NOW. True, my daughter now claims The Penderwicks as her second favorite series of all time, after Harry Potter. BUT ALSO, my son will tell you it is now his third favorite series, after HP and Percy Jackson. That my son’s enthusiasm matches his sister’s isn’t just high praise: it is proof positive that author Shannon Hale (a.k.a. Princess in Black) knows what she’s talking about when she says there is absolutely nothing about being a boy that predisposes you to enjoy only stories about boys—and that we as parents better stop pushing our own bias on our children.

Besides being filled with fleshed-out characters, what makes this realistic fiction so enticing, so worthy of sitting your mother down and cooking for her?! While The Penderwicks books are set in today’s time, largely in a fictional Boston suburb named Cameron, they have a charm—especially against a backdrop of increasingly “heavy” middle-grade fiction—which feels refreshingly old-fashioned. They feel like the timeless tales we remember from our own childhood, the ones which kept us warm during winter nights, which helped us pass lazy summer days on a porch swing.

Sure, the Penderwick siblings get into scrapes—but they are scrapes with bulls, or runaway rabbits, or with the prickly mother of their best friend (and “honorary sibling”) Jeffrey. These are girls who climb trees to sneak into the bedroom of a friend in need; who run off brooding to throw rocks into the ocean and almost drown trying to save a dog; who sneak into golf courses in the early dawn to spy on moose.

Sure, the Penderwick siblings are not perfect. They squander; they dig in their heels; they let misunderstandings brew and nearly swallow them up. Their relationships with one another change over time, alliances form and break apart. But they continue to abide by what they call Penderwick Family Honor. They continue to call MOPS (Meeting of the Penderwick Sisters) to formulate Great Plans, like how to keep their beloved father from marrying again, or how to stop a fellow sibling from running away. They continue to act with the conviction that they are stronger together.

Sure, their adventures are crafted, often hilariously so, to keep us breathless with excitement—but they are also adventures which feel alluringly like the simple, pure, pared-down essence of childhood. For our children reading these books, the Penderwicks are a harbinger of all that is good and true in this world: of curiosity, of kindness, of laughter, of resilience, of familial bonds which stand strong against the currents of time.

In short, they are exactly the thing to read when life—or twenty-four days of rain—has got you down.

 

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 Alfred A. Knopf. 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!

Marvelously Macabre

October 18, 2018 § 1 Comment

When my kids were younger, there was a nearby house which went all out in the weeks leading up to Halloween. I have never seen anything like it; rumor has it the entire second floor was dedicated to storing the decorations during the other eleven months of the year. There was no discernible theme. It was simply a collection of macabre paraphernalia thrown together on a front lawn: dark hooded figures wielding axes; skeletons with gaping eye sockets; dismembered body parts robotically twitching. For young children, I thought it would have been repulsive at best, terrorizing at worst.

Instead, my children adored it. “If we go to the grocery store, we can drive by the Halloween House,” I’d say, and you’ve never seen kids fly out the door faster. “Can we take our pictures next to the scary guys?” they would shout. And we did.

As it turns out, my kids were not the only ones who came to anticipate the Halloween House as soon as they detected a chill in the air. When the owners finally sold the house and moved away, people came from far and wide to lay claim for a few dollars to a decoration or two. (Sadly, we arrived too late—a grievance which my father-in-law is fond of remedying by gifting us macabre decorations of our own, most recently a set of unassuming book spines, out of which shoots a black and shriveled up hand, accompanied by loud symphonic banging, when I walk by. My kids find this terribly amusing.)

What I have come to understand is that children, like adults, embody a fascinating paradox when it comes to the macabre. Death, which most of us avoid thinking about at all costs, suddenly inspires fascination and enjoyment when represented artistically. In a recent opinion piece for The Guardian, which sings the praises of authors like Roald Dahl under the title, “A touch of the macabre in children’s books is nothing to be scared of,” Eleanor Margolis argues that so long as it is presented with humor, macabre imagery becomes a safe and healthy way for our children to contemplate some of the darker sides of life—elements which might otherwise terrify them:

…the vital ingredient in introducing children to the macabre is humour. This is where old morality tales fall short. The Brothers Grimm, for example, produced a collection of fairytales that manage to be gruesome, preachy, antisemitic and (can you imagine?) not even particularly funny. This need for balance is where Roald Dahl – the king of “too dark for kids” – hits the absolute sweet spot. Sure, after I read The Witches, for a short time I suspected most of my friends’ mums were witches, and I was duly petrified of them. But the book was also packed with silliness. It was, along with Matilda and The Twits, easily the most gross, unsettling and deeply fun book I’d ever read. Because those concepts can coexist, and decent writing sets them off against each other like peanut butter and jam. There’s often a thin line between scary and funny, and children (above all people) know this to be true.

Roald Dahl may be one stellar literary choice for indulging our morbid fascination with a side of good cheer (I concur that sharing The Witches with my kids never gets old), but there are others, including what may be the best purchase you’ll ever make for under five dollars. Alvin Schwartz’s In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories (Ages 4-8) is a slim “I can Read” paperback, originally printed in 1984, featuring seven short stories and poems inspired by traditional folktales, each delivered with easy, repetitive vocabulary and lots of white space.

As a child learning to read in the 1980s, I was obsessed with this book (perhaps it’s no coincidence that another book I loved—in fact, the first one I remember reading all by myself—was The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree, similarly ripe with macabre imagery). Imagine my delight when both my kids went gaga over Schwartz’s spooky stories. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that my daughter learned to read so that she could read this book to anyone who would listen. There was actually a time when she would lure unsuspecting friends on playdates to her room so she could read In a Dark, Dark Room to them. (I would stand outside her closed door, grinning at the gasps and giggles which emanated.)

I’m serious. I don’t think there is another book that has received more attention from my children over the past six years.

All signs would point to my kids not being alone. An updated version of In a Dark, Dark Room is set to be released next week, with new illustrations by Victor Rivas (though I have a hunch I will always prefer Dirk Zimmer’s original art, which is what’s photographed here). Part of the book’s enduring appeal is that the storytelling is pitch perfect. In just a few pages, Schwartz uses repetition to build suspense, culminating in a deliciously spine-chilling and uproariously funny reveal.

But it’s more than simply great storytelling. The presence of the macabre here—characters with grotesque facial features; hairy corpses which come alive; ghosts who boo in the night—gives young children the bewitching feeling that they’re getting away with something. Should I even be reading this? Aren’t these the things my parents are always dismissing as not real, as fit only for nightmares? This is bonkers. This. is. awesome.

Nowhere is this delicious thrill more evident than in the book’s third story, “The Green Ribbon.” If you mention In a Dark, Dark Room to someone who read it as a child, chances are they’ll respond with something like, “Is THAT the book with the story about the girl who wears the ribbon around her neck?” Yes. Yes, it is.

Once there was a girl named Jenny.
She was like all the other girls,
except for one thing.
She always wore a green ribbon
around her neck.

Jenny’s friend, Alfred (like us readers), is determined to get to the bottom of this green ribbon. “Why do you wear that ribbon all the time?” Alfred asks her over and over, first as her childhood pal and later as her husband. “I will tell you when the right time comes,” Jenny replies. Finally, as she lies in old age on her death bed, Jenny tells Alfred that he can untie the ribbon and learn her secret. He unties the ribbon.

…and Jenny’s head fell off.

I mean, come on. Find me five better words in children’s literature! Total jaw dropper. Unforgettable. Herein lies all the motivation we need to read: to have the rug yanked out from underneath our feet and to fall back onto the safe, downy softness of our bed in amazement.

I’m not sure anything can live up to the celebrity of In a Dark, Dark Room in our house, but my kids and I found a kindred spirit in the newly-published The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael (Ages 4-8), a picture book by master storyteller Bonny Becker (Bear and Mouse, need I say more?) and illustrated with an obvious fondness for the macabre by Mark Fearing.

The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael may be less straightforward than In the Dark, Dark Room, but the delivery is once again perfect: the rhyming text builds with suspense, drawing us into its nebulous world, then turning on us with a reveal we didn’t see coming. Young Michael McMichael looks the picture of innocence as he waits for the bus to take him to his grandmother’s house, his hand grasping a picnic basket lined with red and white checks. He may as well be Little Red Riding Hood. In contrast, the arriving bus, numbered ominous Thirteen, raises the hair on our necks. My kids were quick to point out the multitude of omens, from the fang-like mirrors to the misshapen tires.

The bus was full, barely room inside.
Perhaps he should wait for a different ride?
But he was late. And, well, besides,
It was Gran’s dear pet he transported.

While the passengers seem normal enough, we feel for little Michael, who watches as one by one each person gets off the bus, leaving him with a driver “whose face was thin as bone/ and more and more distorted.” When Michael begins to look around the empty bus, he sees further evidence of a fate quickly approaching—hungry mouths on the seats and hissing snakes hanging from the bars—although we can’t tell what’s real and what’s his imagination. Only when the driver announces his intention of collecting “meat or bone” for payment, do we realize the child is trapped (“Our coffers will not be shorted!”). My son flipped back to the page where the earlier passengers were disembarking: had I noticed they were a bit shimmery around the edges, a bit ghost-like?

Just as the bus accelerates past a graveyard and straight toward a dark forest, as the driver’s facial features become even more grotesque and his advances even more predatory, the narrative takes a (much-welcomed) lighter turn. We begin to realize that quick-thinking Michael is making an escape plan. Playing into the driver’s carnivorous appetite, he offers to sacrifice his Gram’s pet to pay his fare. (Or does he? I won’t dare spoil the ending like I did the green ribbon; suffice it to say that Michael (and his Gram) are feistier than we thought them to be.)

A scary story doesn’t find a receptive audience—doesn’t work—unless our children are allowed a chance to recover some agency while reading it (the equivalent to pointing out that the animatronic hand on the front lawn has inadvertently turned over and stalled). When our children see that, in the story they’re reading, it’s a child’s own cleverness, resourcefulness, or thievery which triumphs over death, they feel likewise empowered to look down death’s nose and cackle right back.

This year, my children are eight and eleven, precisely the ages I’ve been waiting for to break out one of my favorite macabre chapter books. Here is another instance where the horrifying and the hilarious pair perfectly. Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm (Ages 8-12), the first in his best-selling trilogy (recently redesigned with tantalizing covers by Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat), hacks traditional Grimm fairy tales into grisly, bloody, gruesome bits, then dishes them out with such irreverence and wit, our children would be left speechless if they weren’t laughing so hard.

We began last night; and while reading aloud by candlelight turns out to be harder than I thought (damn aging eyes), I didn’t learn nothing by reading In a Dark, Dark Room all those years ago. Ambiance counts. Especially when I’m asking my children to use their own imaginations to conjure up the macabre images Gidwitz so alluringly and unapologetically describes.

With the covers half over their faces, they hung on my every word. Of course, that’s precisely what Gidwitz intends when he writes things like this:

Before I go on, a word of warning: Grimm’s stories—the ones that weren’t changed for little kids—are violent and bloody. And what you’re going to hear now, the one true tale in the Tales of Grimm, is as violent and bloody as you can imagine.

Really.

So if such things bother you, we should probably stop right now.

You see, the land of Grimm can be a harrowing place. But it is worth exploring. For, in life, it is in the darkest zones one finds the brightest beauty and the most luminous wisdom.

And, of course, the most blood.

The darkness finds us all eventually. While we can, let’s have fun occasionally seeking it out. At least, for one marvelously macabre holiday.

 

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 of The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael from Candlewick. 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!

The Best Problem Solving of Our Summer

August 2, 2018 § 1 Comment

In my ongoing challenge to tempt my ten year old into inserting more literature into his self-chosen deluge of graphic novels, comics, and (understandably addictive) action-packed series by the likes of Dan Gutman, Stuart Gibbs, and Rick Riordan, I announced at the beginning of the summer that I would read Stacy McAnulty’s debut novel, The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, aloud to him. He seemed generally unenthused with this proclamation (“Is this going to be a slow book?” he asked over furrowed brows, after he gleaned from the inside flap that there would be no spies, time travel, or epic battle scenes); but I was undeterred. You see, I’m not just used to this reaction. I’m also used to how well my plan works.

We weren’t but four nights in when the predictable happened: “Mommy, sorry to tell you this, but I actually read ahead last night after you left. And it gets really good. I kinda want to just read it on my own now.” And then I got to watch, delighted, as he carried the book everywhere for the next few days, reading it with the same gusto normally reserved for mythological monsters.

The best stand-alone novels do what most plot-driven series don’t even attempt: they allow the characters themselves—in all their glorious, complex humanity—to take center stage. More and more studies are linking reading literature to developing empathy, precisely because these rich character studies allow our child readers to glimpse the world through the eyes of another. When we inhabit, however briefly, the life of someone who looks or sounds different than us, who has a different background or orientation or set of circumstances, then it is that much harder to sit in silent (or not-so-silent) judgment when we meet someone similar in real life.

Reading realistic fiction shows our children that there is often a great deal more to people than meets the eye.

Of course, no highfalutin discussions about empathy are going to convince my ten year old to read more novels—hence, why I sometimes resort to sneaky tactics. That said, these sneaky tactics would never stand a chance if it weren’t for novels like The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl (Ages 10-14) and Kelly Yang’s equally spectacular Front Desk (Ages 10-14), both of which put their protagonists in super stressful, downright near impossible predicaments, and then let us watch them problem-solve their way out. JP might be developing empathy around learning differences and mental health conditions (Lightning Girl) and immigrant experiences (Front Desk), but all he cares about it is that these protagonists are as fascinating as they are unfamiliar.

Lucy Callahan, the twelve-year-old protagonist of The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl (Ages 10-14), has not been to traditional school since she was struck by lightning four years ago in a freak accident and developed acquired savant syndrome. She is now in possession of a “supercomputer brain,” capable of solving math operations instantaneously. And not only school math. Give her a date, and she’ll instantly rattle off what day of the week it falls on. Tell her your birthday, and she’ll instantly tell you your age, right down to the second. She also has synesthesia, meaning she sees numbers as different colors.

My son, being a math enthusiast, figured this was just about the coolest thing that could happen to a person…until he read on. Just because you can solve a math problem in a few seconds doesn’t mean the rest of middle school is as easily calculated. Still, Lucy’s grandmother, her sole caretaker, insists that Lucy give public middle school a try.

At the top of the list of problems whose solutions are not readily apparent to Lucy is her obsessive-compulsive disorder, a side effect of her lightning-damaged brain and the main reason she would prefer to pass her days in the germ-controlled, non-judgmental security of her bedroom, with a chat room of Internet math geeks as her only companions. How does a girl, suddenly forced to go to traditional school, explain to her classmates why she has to sit and stand exactly three times before settling into her desk at school? Or why she whips out Clorax wipes to sanitize her desk, her bus seat, and her classroom’s doorknobs?

Lucy may not be able to hide her OCD—for which she faces no shortage of teasing—but she decides she can hide the other thing that sets her apart: her genius brain. Fearful of being seen as any more of a “freak” than she already is, Lucy figures out exactly how many math problems she needs to get wrong on her weekly quizzes to fly just below the radar. She even begins to make friends. But what happens when we become liked or accepted for someone we aren’t? What are the trade-offs when we deny the very part of us that makes us special?

Ironically, Lucy gets closer to answering these weighty questions when she solves a more concrete problem, one she initially has little interest in solving at all. Paired with two classmates for a mandatory community service project, Lucy finds herself dragged into the pinnacle of germ-infested places—an animal shelter—where her peers are bent on helping more dogs find long-term homes before they are turned over to the city to be euthanized. Lucy, it turns out, is just the Lightning Girl to calculate the statistical probability for each dog’s adoption, before turning the results into social media campaigns to help the dogs that need an extra nudge. While applying her amazing brain power to the data, Lucy inadvertently stumbles upon one of life’s most gratifying conundrums: How does helping others to solve their problems actually serve to liberate our own?

Helping others becomes a self-affirming drive of ten-year-old Mia Tang as well, a girl with a seemingly endless list of problems to solve and the protagonist of Kelly Yang’s Front Desk (Ages 10-14). Mia’s family runs a motel in southern California, and Mia—when she’s not at school—gets to man the front desk. If having the run of an inn, which includes a pool and a tip jar, sounds like a pretty awesome gig for a pre-teen…read on. For one, Mia and her family are forbidden to use the pool. Or to have their own rooms (her parents sleep on the couch in the lobby). Or even to receive the full wages promised to them when they took the job.

Mia and her family are immigrants, based closely on Yang’s own family, who came to the United States from China in the 1980s as part of the most educated and skilled class of Chinese immigrants, only to find themselves reduced to menial jobs and a median yearly income of $8,000 (kudos to the fascinating Author’s Note at the book’s end). Why doesn’t Mia participate in gym class? She can’t risk injury, because her family doesn’t have health insurance. Why does she pocket her hamburger at school? To bring it back to her uncle, so he doesn’t have to dumpster-dive after his shift at the burger joint. As I witnessed Mia and her family trying to assimilate into American culture, while simultaneously making ends meet and harboring fellow immigrants, I could not stop thinking, My son has got to read this book. Everyone has got to read this book.

Fortunately, my son needed little coaxing on this one, owing to the novel’s fast pace and frequent brushes with police, loan sharks, and attempted assault. Still, Yang has done a commendable job of introducing young readers to an often grim reality through the eyes of a heroine who is anything but grim. Mia may not have the brain of a math genius, but she is exactly the energetic, resourceful, and kind problem-solver her family needs her to be. She not only looks for ways to improve the motel’s customer service, but she sets her sights on helping her community at large. Some of these challenges are easier than others. How do you wash hundreds of towels when the washing machine breaks? Throw ‘em in the bathtub, turn on the water, and start stomping. How do you help your family out of poverty? Enter an essay contest. How do you expose racial bias among the police force? Attempt to solve the whodunit yourself.

And yet, as with Lightning Girl, some problems confound even Mia, especially when they are influenced by layers of cultural bias. Why does it matter what brand of blue jeans she wears at school—or even that she wear blue jeans at all (instead of the pack-of-three floral pants that her mom sends her to school wearing)? Is the motel’s morally-bankrupt owner, the son of whom turns out to be Mia’s classmate, really as cruel as he seems? And when their relatives back in China report that they are all getting rich, why does Mia’s family refuse to leave America and go home?

If growing up is learning which problems you can solve, which are bigger than you, and which are better left unsolved, then The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl and Front Desk aren’t just entertainment. They can be read as how-to manuals for navigating the messiness, the cruelty, and the injustices that life sometimes deals. These stories give us bold, intelligent, complex girls as companions on this journey, and they remind us to look beyond the surface when we meet someone who seems nothing like us.

 

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Books published by Random House and Scholastic, respectively. Review copies purchased by me! 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!

Familial Strife: Summer Reading Recs for Tweens

June 7, 2018 § 2 Comments

While I mostly discuss books that lend themselves to sharing aloud with children, I make exceptions around holidays and summer break to offer shorter write ups of middle-grade chapter books—ones you’ll want to put into the hands of your older readers and then get out of the way. (You’ll find past favorites here, here, and here.)  Sitting on the Capitol Choices reviewing committee affords me ample opportunities to keep up with what’s current. Fortunately, for all of us with tweens, the well is especially deep right now.

Some (ahem, grown-ups) believe summer reading should be exclusively light and fluffy. I beg to disagree. Away from academic pressures and structured sports can be the perfect time for our children to embark on uncharted territory: to push outside their comfort zones; to dabble in different writing styles; to experience characters who look and sound nothing like them; and to contemplate—from the security of the page—some of the heavier lifting they might someday be called upon to do.

Once a tween reader myself, there was nothing more alluring than a plot synopsis promising a solid dosage of strife. Not because I was a particularly somber or morbidly-minded child (a flair for the dramatic, maybe), but because it was equally fascinating and reassuring to witness young characters dealing with really crappy situations—and emerging stronger, braver, and more compassionate. Author Kate DiCammillo once said her favorite thing about writing for young children is that you are morally bound to end your story with hope. When we read stories about the messiness of life, we are able to play out our own fears and insecurities, our own worst-case scenarios, with proof of resilience. And hope.

The novels discussed below (all brand new, with one exception) have at their center familial strife. Even on a good day, the family unit is a particularly fraught arena for tweens, caught as they are between still relying on their parents for everything and yet beginning to set apart their own identity. These are stories where, whether from loss or tragedy or poverty or cultural betrayal, the main character is forced to re-evaluate his or her place in the family. And to ask the sometimes devastating, if illuminating, questions that arise as part of that struggle.

What if you can’t rely on your family?

Just Like Jackie, by Lindsey Stoddard (Ages 9-13)

This eleven year old defies gender stereotypes at every turn—she’s fierce at baseball, can fix cars, and is unapologetically angry a lot—but that’s just part of the reason why both girls and boys (if my son’s enthusiasm is any indication) will spark to her. Robinson, named after the baseball legend, has never questioned the life she leads with her adoring grandfather on a maple sugar farm in Vermont, until she is assigned a family tree project at school. Robbie’s curiosity about what happened to her mother peaks at the same time her grandfather begins exhibiting signs of Alzheimer’s, leaving Robbie to wonder whether his reluctance to talk about the past is intentional or not. Robbie struggles to conceal the disorder of her home life from the outside world, including from her best friend and school counselor, who must go the extra mile to convince Robbie that she is not alone. (How refreshing to have a successful school therapist in middle-grade fiction!)

What if your family has to come together to survive?

The Night Diary, by Veera Hiranandani (Ages 10-15)

This gripping, stay-up-all-night story might be set during a period of history most American children know nothing about—the 1947 Partition of India, whereby India became independent of British rule and was abruptly split into two countries on the basis of opposing religions—but its theme of divisiveness feels eerily relevant given the current culture wars on our homeland. Twelve-year-old Nisha, whose late mother was Muslim but whose father is Hindu, is forced to flee her beloved home—formerly India, now Pakistan—to seek a new home across the border. In the soul-bearing diary entries she addresses to a mother she never knew, we learn about Nisha’s harrowing journey by foot and train alongside her brother, father, and grandmother, as well as the unanswered questions Nisha has about her parents and their past—secrets which, if not revealed, could compromise the family’s ability to bond together for survival. Alongside this unforgettable heroine, whose writing becomes an antidote to her paralyzing shyness, is a sensory-filled portrayal of Indian culture, with dishes described so tantalizingly, they’ll have your child begging to go out for Indian food (once they are assured of the family’s safe passage).

What if your family suddenly feels off kilter?

Rebound, by Kwame Alexander (Ages 10-15)

Kwame Alexander is unquestionably one of the greatest contemporary writers of rich male characters, and his trademark style of writing in free, fast-moving verse means that his stories are equally accessible to “reluctant readers,” as they are to those looking for nuance and depth. A prequel to Alexander’s Newberry-winning The Crossover (although equally powerful on its own), Rebound stars African-American Chuck “Da Man” Bell, back when he was just Charlie, a boy reeling from the death of his father and inexplicably angry towards his mother. When the mother decides to send Charlie to his father’s parents outside Washington, DC for the summer, he doesn’t know which is worse: leaving his pals Skinny and love-interest C.J. to read comics and eat Now or Laters without him, or having to live under his exacting grandfather’s thumb (“Hustle and grind, peace of mind…that’s my motto. You do what I say this summer, everything’s gonna be fine.”) And yet, during his days at the Boys and Girls Club, where his grandfather works, Charlie discovers a talent and love for basketball. As the rhythmic language mimics the bounce of the ball, Charlie gets his shot at a well-deserved rebound, courageously arcing between vulnerability and healing.

What if you feel invisible inside your family?

Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World, by Ashley Herring Blake (Ages 10-15)

Twelve-year-old Ivy was already feeling uncomfortably sandwiched between the demands of her infant twin brothers and the aloofness of her teenage sister, when a tornado tears through her hometown and destroys her house and all its possessions, right down to her prized set of dual-tipped brush pens which she relies on to fill her visual journals. Displaced for the next year with her five family members in a tiny hotel room, all of whom seem too preoccupied by their own stress to notice hers, Ivy struggles to make sense of her own sexuality amidst the social landscape of middle school—mainly, that while her friends are suddenly boy-crazy, she thinks only about the mysterious new girl. Ivy finds a role model in the lesbian inn manager, who assures her that she needn’t rush to pin a label on herself, that life is one long journey towards understanding and embracing our complex individualism.

What if you lose the only family you know?

Hope in the Holler, by Lisa Lewis Tyre (Ages 10-14)

Wavie and her mother may have lived in a trailer park, but their life was rich in love. When the latter dies of cancer at the novel’s opening, Wavie steels herself to the assumption that she’ll never be happy again. Even worse, she is whisked away to her mother’s “backwards” Appalachian hometown by an aunt she never knew she had—and who, it becomes eminently clear, is only interested in Wavie for her late mother’s social security checks. Outside the aunt’s front door, however, Wavie finds a community of diverse, witty, big-hearted people, who belie the poverty that surrounds them and raise the question of whether family can exist where blood ties do not. Even more, Wavie’s charmingly compulsive drive to spread beauty wherever she goes, with her penchant for gardening, inadvertently lands her straight at the center of the town’s oldest mystery—which turns out to hold the key to her salvation.

What if your family betrays you?

Amal Unbound, by Aisha Saeed (Ages 10-15)

Twelve-year-old Amal’s parents may love her, but their love is powerless in the face of deep-rooted gender bias in rural Pakistan, where girls are treated as currency. When her parents rack up debts with their village’s corrupt landlord, they are forced to repay him by turning over Amal as an indentured servant, now forced to live a prisoner inside his gated mansion. With her position of servitude, Amal doesn’t just lose the company of her cherished family; she loses her chance at continuing her education and fulfilling her dream of becoming a teacher. Inspired in part by Nobel-Peace-Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai’s true-life fight for women’s education in Pakistan, Amal’s story becomes one of resistance, as she devises a daring plan for reclaiming the agency that has been taken from her and from those around her. You have to celebrate a story where the oppressed female protagonist professes in the closing pages, “I knew now that one person could hold many different dreams and see them all come true.”

What if you go looking for your family, the one you think you should have?

Gertie’s Leap to Greatness, by Kate Beasley (Ages 9-12)

This book isn’t new—you can read my post from December 2016—although it is just out in paperback. It also fits perfectly with the theme of familial strife. Gertie, our plucky fifth-grade heroine, is a girl of action in every sense of the word (she resuscitates a bullfrog with a turkey baster in the opening chapter). Unfortunately, her enthusiasm for solving the world’s problems also extends towards the mother who abandoned her when Gertie was just an infant—and whom Gertie is convinced she can “win back,” despite her living in a different city with another family. Suddenly, this isn’t just a fun and funny story about a quirky girl; it’s also a subtle primer for how to handle rejection from those who are supposed to love us—and how this rejection might even lead us to appreciate what has been right in front of our eyes the whole time.

 

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Review copies provided by Harper Collins (Just Like Jackie), Penguin (The Night Diary, Amal Unbound, Hope in the Holler), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Rebound) and FSG (Gertie’s Leap to Greatness). Ivy Aberdeen published by Little, Brown. 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!

What STEM Looked Like 100 Years Ago

April 12, 2018 § Leave a comment

While my children were on a school camping trip earlier this week, I ducked up to New York City to visit my mom. On Tuesday, we went to the “Public Parks, Private Gardens” exhibit at The Met, a stunning collection of mostly Impressionist works featuring French flora, from the bountiful irises of Monet’s Giverny to the lush riverbanks of Renoir’s Seine. Against many of the backdrops were sitting figures, largely women, wearing floor-length muslin with empire waists and elaborate straw hats secured with ribbons. “We’ve lost so much of the beauty and elegance that was part of everyday life back then,” my mom mused aloud, understandably seduced by the romanticism infused in the soft lines, the twinkling light, the sheer profusion of color.

At the same time that my mom was smiling at these women’s parasols, I couldn’t stop thinking, These women all look miserable. Their faces looked contorted, if not bored to tears, as they sat with half-completed stitchery in their hands, or perched in the shadow of a towering top-hatted male figure. A few of these women looked directly out of the painting. I felt their eyes on me, a silent, desperate plea. Let me out of here!

 

No doubt I have been influenced by the rebellious heroine in the award-winning The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (Ages 10-14), the first in a two-book series which I’ve been reading to my daughter (we are partway through the equally delicious second, The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate). These novels, written by Jacqueline Kelly, embody everything I look for in a read-aloud book: they’re a (hefty) step above my daughter’s independent reading level; the exceptional writing is packed with challenging, expansive vocabulary; and they carry the potential to deepen my child’s own understanding of her place in the world—in this case, her place against the historical, complicated backdrop of girls coming of age in America.

Like the paintings at the Met exhibit, the books are set at the turn of the century, only instead of France, the backdrop is the Texas countryside. The star is a twelve-year-old only daughter of an aristocratic family, whose father runs the town’s cotton gin. Calpurnia Virginia Tate—or Callie Vee, as she’s affectionately known to family and friends—is rapidly approaching the age where she is expected to come out in society as a debutante; in preparation, her mother encourages her to practice diligently for piano recitals and perfect embroidery worthy of entry into county fairs. While she might be able to capture armadillos and wrestle in the dirt like her six (!) brothers for now, the clock is ticking. Her place will soon be in the home, her attention exclusively on crafting meal plans, raising babies, and managing servants.

But Calpurnia is a restless, inquisitive, sharp-witted soul, whose very purpose, it seems to her, is to question the expectations society has placed so squarely on her small shoulders. She’s okay at piano, but she’s downright terrible at handwork (…“the long striped scarf that I was knitting bulged in the middle like a python after dining on a rabbit”); and her early attempts at making an apple pie had my daughter in stitches. The thought of a life filled exclusively with domestic pursuits feels to Callie like nothing less than a “life sentence”: “I was only a practical vessel of helpful service, waiting to be filled up with recipes and knitting patterns.”

And don’t get her started on the subject of romance. Callie cringes when three of her little brothers become smitten with her best friend, falling over themselves to carry her books on the walk to school; and she’s even more horrified when her eldest and favorite bother, Harry, begins to blush easily and bring potential (rather vapid) suitors home for dinner. Callie’s take on advances from the opposite sex? “…[I]f any young knights in armor dared to come calling on their white chargers and plead with me to let down my hair, I would pelt them with peach pits until they went home.”

What Calpurnia discovers she enjoys and excels at most—indeed, what she sneaks off to do at every chance—is something foreign, if not forbidden, to the female sex in her day. That is, investigative science. At the encouragement of her eccentric, reputably cantankerous grandfather, who since his days as a Confederate general has squirreled himself away in the family’s back shed, cataloging flora and fauna found in the nearby river and brush and fermenting pecans in an attempt to create whiskey, Calpurnia becomes an apprentice of natural science.

Armed with a net and a red leather pocket notebook, in which Grandfather encourages her to write her many observations and questions about the natural world, Calpurnia is empowered. She throws herself into the challenge of making sense of Grandfather’s copy of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, a book she initially tries and fails to find at her local library, coming of age at a time when the theory of evolution was largely dismissed in Southern culture. (Excerpts from On the Origin of Species and later from The Voyage of the Beagle open each chapter; older readers will enjoy deciphering why certain passages were picked for certain chapters). Indeed, the great suspense of the first book is whether the Smithsonian’s National History Museum in Washington, DC will accept her and Grandfather’s submission of a “vetch” cutting, a flowering plant found in the marshes near their house, and credit them with a newly-discovered species.

To be sure, Calpurnia’s “unladylike” adventures—dodging an angry badger, rescuing the Thanksgiving turkeys from certain doom, and convincing the local photographer to let a plant sit for a portrait—make for much more entertaining reading than a story about readying oneself for domestic pursuits. But our enjoyment of these books isn’t just about the dirt under Callie’s fingernails or the ways she chooses to occupy her time. We are given a window into the emotional world of a girl who is at once confused about why she doesn’t see models of professional, independent women around her (beyond her teachers and the new switchboard operator for the town’s only telephone) and ecstatic at being treated as a collaborative scientist—as an equal—by a grandfather who previously didn’t know her name. The author isn’t afraid to let us see Callie flounder, her confidence soar and then plummet, her questioning nature turn as much on herself as on her beloved flora and fauna. In Calpurnia, we have a crusader, a determined breaker of molds, but we also have an immensely vulnerable and relatable young soul.

“Calpurnia’s world is so interesting, don’t you think, Mommy?” my daughter said one Saturday morning, as she crawled into bed with me and opened the book for me to read. My Emily has long been fascinated by what she calls old-fashioned life, and she references series like Betsy-Tacy and Little House on the Prairie long after we finish them. Indeed, in Calpurnia’s world, there is much that feels foreign compared with modern day, from the skeptical discussions surrounding the first automobile in nearby Austin, to Calpurnia’s horror when her mother ties her ringlets in lumpy wet rags the night before a piano recital (“I smelled like brimstone and looked like a casualty from the War”). And just what exactly is in that bottle of Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound for Women, which her mother drinks from each time she has a “nervous headache?”

But I think what fascinates Emily most about Calpurnia’s world is the narrow definition of a woman’s place, here an upper-class white Southern woman. It’s hard for our children to imagine this, growing up at a time when girls can become almost anything they want (even if, ahem, they still don’t get equal pay). This, of course, is why Calpurnia is such a compelling heroine. Callie’s magnetism stems from her defiance in the face of these limitations. She doesn’t set out to defy—indeed, her defiance causes her no shortage of discomfort and confusion. She inadvertently defies her parents and, in turn, society by the simple but rebellious act of indulging her own interests, of questioning and engaging with the world around her, instead of sitting idly by. Callie’s enthusiasm for the natural world is contagious. We want nothing more than to join her in the untamed wilderness.

Where Calpurnia’s journey will lead her by the end of the second book—what compromises she’ll undoubtedly have to make—I cannot yet say. But I know that Emily and I will be routing for her with every turn of the page. One thing is for sure: she doesn’t need us to rescue her from some Impressionist painting.

 

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Book published by Henry Holt & Company. 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!

If You Like Wonder, You’ll Love This

February 8, 2018 § 4 Comments

On our way to see the movie adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, about a boy with a congenital facial abnormality beginning middle school, my son said aloud what we were all thinking: “I wonder what Auggie is going to look like.” Because, of course, there are no pictures in the novel. Even Auggie himself warns us in the first few pages, “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” Most of what we gather about Auggie’s face comes from what the people around him tell us, when it’s their turn to speak.

Our relentless curiosity about people who look different from ourselves, especially about things which bear little resemblance to our conventional ideas of “normality,” is only natural. Several times in the book, Auggie addresses the curiosity people have about him, especially when seeing him for the first (dozen) time(s). It’s not the curiosity itself that makes him uncomfortable, he tells us; it’s when people—out of shame or embarrassment or even an attempt at kindness—try to pretend their curiosity isn’t there. What causes Auggie pain on a daily basis is all the “not staring.”

Every new class I had was like a new chance for kids to “not stare” at me. They would sneak peaks at me from behind their notebooks or when they thought I wasn’t looking. They would take the longest way around me to avoid bumping into me in any way, like I had some germ they could catch, like I was contagious.

In one of my favorite scenes in the movie, a beautiful visual interpretation of Palacio’s words, Auggie imagines how he would feel if a giant Wookie started going to his school. As Auggie pictures a shaggy Chewbacca standing atop the school steps, surrounded by students trying not to stare at him from the courtyard, he imagines walking up the stairs and looking the creature in the eyes: “I’m sorry if my staring is making you uncomfortable,” he says gently but confidently, offering his hand to the Wookie to shake. A beautiful reminder of how we all want to be seen and acknowledged for who we are.

As moved as my ten year old was by the book and movie of Wonder, I suspected he might be blown away by a similar but true story (after all, Wonder is fiction). My hunch proved to be correct. For all the (certainly well-merited) attention R.J. Palacio has received, I would love to see some of that heaped onto Robert Hoge, an Australian writer who was born with a tumor the size of a tennis ball in the middle of his face, as well as abnormally short, twisted legs—and who narrates his inconceivable life story for middle-grade children in his inspiring memoir, Ugly (Ages 9-13). I just finished reading it to my son, and we were both left moved beyond words.

Robert is born healthy as a horse, albeit on the inside. On the outside, he has a massive bulge from the top of his forehead to the tip of his nose; his eyes are spaced too far apart; his nostrils are splayed; his legs are twisted and too short; and the toes which aren’t missing altogether are bent downwards. (For the sake of us readers, Robert likens his physical appearance to a child’s hasty creation of a sculptured face in clay, only one that suddenly collides with a big angry fist right before being finished.) It takes his mother a week (yes, a week) to summon up the nerve even to visit her son in the ICU. In fact, it isn’t until Robert’s four siblings beg their parents to bring him home from the hospital that his mother and father make the decision to keep him (at which point they never stop loving him).

Whereas Wonder is largely concerned with how Auggie affects and transforms the people around him, Ugly is more focused on the protagonist’s own struggle to come to terms with who he is and to find his unique way in the world (Hage says he wanted to title his memoir, “This is Robert’s big, exciting life of ugliness.”). Spanning birth to high school, Hoge approaches his writing—as he does his life—with dry humor and a disarming directness, which immediately puts us as readers at ease. (There’s a particularly hilarious chapter where he describes trying to pedal a bike without a knee joint; he ends up head down in the bushes: “My bike-riding career had started and finished all in one go.”) But Robert never lets us forget how different he is made to feel on a daily basis, both by the world and by the people around him—and how painful that difference can feel.

Like Auggie with his love of Star Wars and video games, Robert shares many of the same interests as other boys his age, especially team sports. And yet, too often, his disabilities prevent him from indulging these interests, regardless of how much effort he puts forth. He might fall on his face (literally), lose one of his prosthetic legs mid-stride, or be stopped cold by an interfering, usually well-meaning adult. I should mention that, in addition to being a memoir about a child with physical disabilities, Ugly is a fascinating glimpse into growing up in the 1970s and 80s (talk about hands-off parenting!); going to Catholic school (picture a nun trying to pull out Robert’s prosthetic legs from a swamp during a class field trip); and Australian culture (in middle school, Robert finally discovers his talent for “lawn bowls,” a competitive team sport typically favored by retired Australian men).

Robert’s awareness of the extent of his differences expands with age, peaking in that ever-tumultuous time known as middle school. In his previous years in lower school, Robert certainly encounters teasing, but his physical differences are quickly accepted by most of his classmates, and he is well-liked and confident, if somewhat naïve. (Our heart breaks when his fourth-grade love letter to a girl is rejected, and Robert tells us it never occurred to him until later that his appearance could have been a factor.) Nothing prepares him for the litany of verbal insults he faces on a daily basis in middle school.

For my son, the most fascinating part of the memoir was Robert’s “top ten list” of unflattering nicknames he grows accustomed to hearing during his time in middle school. Counting down from ten to one, Robert takes each nickname apart: discussing its origin, rating its originality, explaining why and how badly it hurts, and revealing how he “got over it.” Some nicknames, like Toothpick Legs, are fairly easy for Robert to rebuke in the moment (“They’re not made of wood!”); and some, like Go-Go-Gadget Rob (a nod to the 1980s animated series, Inspector Gadget) even get a few laughs from him for creativity. Others, like Retard, are a painful reminder of how people equate physical disabilities with mental impairment (“my brain worked quite well, thank you very much”); and Cripple is “so broad it seemed to cover all the very worst things I sometimes thought about my disability and myself.” But it’s Toe Nose—so chosen because in one of Robert’s early reconstruction surgeries, doctors use the bone and cartilage from his amputated toes to make him a new nose—that delivers the biggest blow, each and every time he hears it, and is the one name he “never did get over.” Reading through Robert’s analysis of these names, we not only get further glimpses into his incredible resilience, but we are reminded of the very power of words.

As it turns out, Robert’s peers are not the only ones to direct disparaging words at him. Adults can be just as painful. In one of the most gut-wrenching scenes in the book, Robert shows up at an elementary school for a day of community service to help teach second graders, only to have the school’s principal tell him she should have been “warned” in advance about his physical appearance. When Robert apologizes, the principle says “good” and shows him the door. As the reader, I had to choke back tears when Robert goes on to explain that from here on out, he refuses to apologize for what he looks like.

As we get deeper into Robert’s story, we watch him mature such that his path becomes less about trying to fit into the world around him and more about owning his differences—or, as he consistently puts it, his “ugliness.” We witness his delight on the page the first time he realizes he can “use my disability to make people laugh.” To help his bunkmates win a camp talent show, he removes his prosthetic legs and walks around the stage on his hands for several minutes.

But the greatest testament to this evolution comes in the book’s final chapter (spoiler alert!), when Robert at fourteen shocks his family, friends, and us readers by refusing a monumental, long-anticipated surgery which carries the possibility of substantially improving the “normalcy” of Robert’s face, albeit at great risk. At once, Robert decides he is tired of being the clay in someone else’s hands, the canvas for another’s brush. “In that instant, I owned my face.”

I could trust myself to the doctors who had done so many wonderful things to get me so far. I could give them the chance to move me closer to normal, risks, rewards, and all. Or I could take my chances and make my ugly way in a sometimes ugly world just the way I was.

I knew I was ugly. But everyone is uglier than they think. We are all more beautiful too. We all have scars only we can own.

The series of black-and-white photographs which conclude the book, showing Robert as both a child and an adult, serve as a testament to this pride. They are a testament to the agency embraced by this incredibly insightful, brave, and witty soul, whose story reminds us that it’s okay to wonder, but it’s better to step forward and embrace one another.

 

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Book published by Puffin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random 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!

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