March 16, 2019 § 4 Comments
My 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.
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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!
February 7, 2019 § Leave a comment
Last week, we subsisted on a steady drip of peppermint hot chocolate (#polarvortex). This week, it’s in the 60s and my kids are in t-shirts. These mercurial fluctuations are not for the faint of heart, so while we are at the whim of Mother Nature, we may as well attempt to lose ourselves in a book which doesn’t take itself too seriously. As it turns out, my daughter and I just finished the perfect one.
I have fond memories of reading Astrid Lindgren’s The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking to my kids four years ago, all three of us laughing ourselves silly. Free-spirited Pippi, committed to living life with wild abandon, is one of those characters who cuts straight to the heart. She calls things as they are. She takes up space. She isn’t afraid of living or loving too largely. It’s downright refreshing. Some days, it seems there aren’t enough Pippis.
Well, good news! Pippi’s spirit is alive and well in Maria Parr’s delightful Norwegian novel (perhaps named for Pippi’s creator?), Astrid the Unstoppable (Ages 7-10), about a plucky, red-headed nine year old living in a Scandinavian mountain village. Originally published in 2009 and later translated from the Norwegian by Guy Puzey, the book arrived on our American shores this past November…and not a moment too soon. Nicknamed “the little thunderbolt of Glimmerdal,” Astrid is Exactly What This Winter Needs.
The parallels to Pippi abound, well beyond the red hair and boisterous personality. In lieu of a pet monkey, Astrid bestows affections on one Snorri the Seagull, who shares her home and perches atop her helmet on bicycle rides. Astrid doesn’t live entirely alone as Pippi does—she has her quiet but attentive father—but she does mourn the absence of her scientist mother, who is on an extended excursion to Greenland to study rising water levels, akin to Pippi’s legendary father off captaining the seas. Like Pippi, Astrid is left mainly on her own, with large stretches of time in which to entertain herself. As her father tells people, “I let her out every morning and hope she’ll come back in the evening.”
It is what Astrid does with her open-ended days that makes reading about her so much fun. In the two months leading up to her tenth birthday, which happens to fall on Easter, Astrid is determined to make the most of every minute in her teeny, tiny remote mountain village, whose snowy peaks and frozen rivers, sheep farms and “enchanted forests,” are Astrid’s playgrounds. She attempts to somersault on skis while singing to herself. She makes a giant gingerbread castle for Snorri. She charms her way on and off the ferry without every paying a fare. She faces off with an angry ram. Always, she uses her innocent frankness and contagious wit to talk herself out of the messes she inadvertently creates. (During most of the story, Astrid’s school in the neighboring village is off for “February half term.”)
Until now, Astrid—much like Pippi—has spent little playtime with children her own age. She is the only child in her village, and visiting children are forbidden by the unimaginative Mr. Hagen, who runs the Wellness Retreat at the base of the mountain (and is the only adult whom Astrid seems incapable of winning over, despite her best efforts).
Astrid’s best friend is her seventy-four-year-old godfather, a strikingly large sheep farmer rich in contradictions. Gunnvald is part cantankerous “troll” (as Astrid affectionately calls him) and part lively fiddle player. He is at once hardened from a bruised past and possessed with a soft spot for Astrid (“She was sharp as a starling, Gunnvald thought…”). When the story begins, Gunnvald’s favorite pastime is rigging up prototype sledges for Astrid to race down the mountain. (One can tell something about how these sledge runs go by chapter titles like, “In which Sledge Test No. 1 is launched, and Astrid is threatened with a call to the police.”)
For as much as Pippi’s spirit may infuse these colorful scenes, Astrid the Unstoppable also packs a substantial emotional punch, the likes of which we do not see in Astrid Lindgren’s classic. This Astrid’s is a true coming-of-age story. The novel spans mere weeks, but a series of dramatic happenings firmly alters the way Astrid sees herself, her loved ones, and the larger world.
Most significantly, Astrid begins to sense the presence of looming secrets in the lives of her grownups. Secrets which suggest life is inherently more complicated than skiing somersaults. Secrets which reveal failings in the people she idolizes. Secrets which inspire Astrid to think less about her own entertainment and more about helping others—perhaps a fitting progression for someone on the verge of double digits.
The most significant of these secrets involves Gunnvald. When Astrid discovers Gunnvald has an estranged daughter, one whom Gunnvald lovingly raised for several years before letting her leave with her mother and never come back, Astrid is flabbergasted that such a truth was kept from her. Now an acclaimed violinist with a monstrously huge dog, Heidi (the reference to another literary classic is purposeful) abruptly returns home after receiving a desperate letter from Gunnvald, who mistakenly believes he is on death’s door after taking a spill over a coffee pot and landing in the hospital. It turns out Gunnvald is a long way from dying—he happens to be as prone to the dramatic as Astrid—and now must confront the pain of his past head on.
Astrid’s role in her best friend’s saga is wildly entertaining and touchingly genuine, as she attempts to do what children do and presume all questions have straightforward answers. Grown ups, Astrid comes to realize, are capable of making terribly stupid and hurtful mistakes. Sometimes it takes the voice of a child to call things as they are. To remind people of the presence of today, the power of music, and the possibilities in forgiveness.
Astrid the Unstoppable is the best distraction we could ask for in these final weeks of winter, bringing a welcome smile to our faces, at the same time that it leaves a tiny little thunderbolt on our hearts.
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Published by Walker 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!
December 14, 2018 § Leave a comment
Where are my World War II buffs at? If my son’s reaction is any indication, they will want to read this incredible, largely unknown story. When Thirty Minutes Over Oregon: A Japanese Pilot’s WW2 Story (Ages 7-10), written by Marc Tyler Nobleman and illustrated by Melissa Iwai, first showed up on our doorstop, my son took one look at the Japanese prop plane on the cover and whisked it away. He returned twenty minutes later. “Mommy, this book is AMAZING. You will definitely want to write about this.”
What sucked my son in was the promise of warfare, which the story initially delivers on, giving a fascinating account of the only two times the United States’ mainland was bombed during WW2, both times by Japanese bomber pilot Nobuo Fujita, during a covert mission off a submarine in 1942. Say what?! Why have I never heard about this? That’s because the bombs did very little damage. Dropped over a large forested area outside the town of Brookings, Oregon, the bombs were intended to start a large fire which would then spread to nearby towns—only the ground was too wet for the flames and smoke to catch. The greater danger befell Nobuo himself, who almost couldn’t locate the sub on his way back from the second bombing and nearly ran out of fuel in the air.
The bombings, however, are just a part of the book’s story. More extraordinary is what happened twenty years later, in a rare and beautiful example of reconciliation between two former foes. In an effort to drum up tourism, Brookings mailed an invitation to Nobuo in Japan, inviting him to attend their Memorial Day festival as a guest of honor. Nobuo, who lived outside Tokyo and owned a hardware store, had long suffered depression and guilt following the war. He had “never [not even with his family] discussed his Oregon raids, though they were rarely out of his mind.” He knew the intention of the raids had been to harm and kill. When word got out about the invitation, many people in America were as shocked as Nobuo’s family to learn what he had done. And many on both sides of the ocean felt Nobuo should decline the invitation. In America, there were protests and petitions.
Still, the governor of Oregon, backed by President John F. Kennedy, spoke out in support of the invitation, echoing the sentiments of a local veteran, who said of Nobuo, “he was doing a job and we were doing a job.” Nobuo and his wife flew to Oregon on a jetliner. (“A little larger than the plane in which I made my first trip,” Nobuo joked.)
Nobuo’s visit to Brookings—and the reciprocal visits that followed, including one 23 years later, when Nobuo paid to host three Brookings high school students in Tokyo—showcases the very best of our two countries. Indeed, it showcases the very best of humanity. I can scarcely read these pages without tearing up. There is such dignity in the way in which the town of Brookings sets aside the past and honors Nobuo with an American parade. (There’s good fun, too, when Nobuo is served “a large submarine sandwich topped with a plane made of pickles and a half-olive helmet.”) Similarly, there is such grace in the way Nobuo gifts to the people of Brookings his 400-year-old samurai sword, the same family heirloom he kept with him for luck during the wartime raids. Or in the way he shows Americans around his homeland. “The war is finally over for me,” Nobuo said.
Children may come to this book for promises of planes and bombs, but they will leave with an appreciation for the wounds of war—and a hope that some of these wounds can be soothed through forgiveness. Nobuo and the people of Brookings kept up their friendship until the very end of Nobuo’s life, when a Brookings town representative sat with Nobuo on his deathbed and explained that the town had made him an honorary citizen. To this day, the Brookings library houses thousands of dollars’ worth of children’s books about other cultures, all donated by Nobuo. “[Nobuo] wondered if World War II would have been different had his generation grown up reading books like those.”
I can’t help but hope that reading books like Thirty Minutes Over Oregon might also help our children’s generation think about what can be gained from letting our heart, not our politics, fly the plane.
Review copy from Clarion 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!
This holiday season, I’m running 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 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 them. Otherwise, take your chances on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) or Twitter (@thebookmommy); I kindly beg you to “like” as many posts as you can to increase the chances that others see them.
December 12, 2018 § Leave a comment
This is mixed-media artist Pamela Zagarenski’s third year appearing on my Gift Guide (previously for this and this) and for good reason: there is a jewel-box quality to her picture books, their pages adorned with surreal and scintillating spreads destined for endless discovery. Her newest, Zola’s Elephant (Ages 4-7), written by Randall de Seve (whom I fell for long ago, when I used to sell The Duchess of Whimsy at my store), is every bit the treasure we’ve come to expect: a story of two girls, their pathway to friendship, and the phantom elephant which bonds them.
Zola’s Elephant may culminate in a new friendship, but it’s more about how difficult friendships can be to initiate. Especially when one of you is shy. At the heart of the story is a wild fabrication—created by our unnamed, red-haired narrator to mask her shyness—about the new girl, Zola, who has just moved in next door. The girls’ mothers have decided the girls “should be friends.” Except that our narrator knows Zola already has a friend. This is because she saw a large box being moved into her house. A box which can only mean one thing. An elephant.
Our narrator, herself an imaginative elephant aficionado, doesn’t need to go over to Zola’s house to picture exactly what she’s doing. “I know Zola’s feeding her elephant right now because I smell toast. Lots of toast.”
Never mind that the next spread reveals to the reader the actual situation over at Zola’s house, a familiar sight to anyone who has temporarily lost their parents to a mass of moving boxes.
And so it goes: our narrator delivers impassioned excuses for why she “can’t go make friends with Zola now”—Zola and her elephant are frolicking in a bubble bath; they’re playing hide and seek; they’re building a circus-themed club house (“I know because I hear hammering”)—and then the page turns reveal the stark, bored, lonely reality.
Ironically, the more our narrator tries to imagine away her hesitancy, the more she falls under her own spell. “I like stories…and clubhouses and playing hide-and-seek and taking bubble baths with elephants.” (An observant reader will note she has a stuffed elephant in her hands at the book’s beginning.) Perhaps she should walk next door and take a peek.
The spreads that follow, revealing not only what happens when the two girls meet, but how they end up making use of what was actually in the big box (spoiler: not an elephant), are a testament to how two imaginations can be better than one.
(Sheesh, you didn’t think I was actually going to show you. Something has to be kept a surprise for Christmas morning.)
Review copy by 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!
December 5, 2018 § 1 Comment
“EVERY SINGLE EARLY READER BOOK IS BORING! NOT ONE OF THEM IS FUNNY!” my daughter blurted out in the middle of a (completely unrelated) dinner conversation two years ago. For months, she had been reluctant to practice reading and even more reluctant to talk about her reluctance. (True story: it wasn’t until her soul sister, Dory Fantasmagory, started going through a similar struggle that my Emily began to find words for hers.)
Never underestimate the power of humor to captivate a budding reader. I credit Mo Willems’ “Elephant and Piggie” series with kindling my older son’s desire to learn to read, but its seduction was largely lost on my daughter, who by the time it was her turn had been hearing those books read aloud (by her brother) for years. Thankfully, Willems went on to create an imprint of similarly-toned readers; and funny, offbeat stories by the likes of Laurie Keller, Charise Mericle Harper, and Dan Santat did bring a novel respite to my daughter’s gripes.
When I received a copy of Sergio Ruzzier’s Fox and Chick: The Party and Other Stories (Ages 5-7) earlier this year, my daughter—now a mature and prolific reader—snatched it up and announced, “Where was this book when I was learning to read? Mommy, do you remember how I told you there were NO funny early readers?” Yes, honey. Yes, I do.
As an early reader masquerading as a picture book, Fox and Chick has just about everything going for it: three short stories are illustrated as comic strips with occasional double-page spreads; the text is delivered entirely through speech bubbles; the vocabulary is largely phonetic; there’s sufficient repetition; and, best of all, it’s ripe with dry humor. (I would recommend it for a child who has been learning to read for a little while, but isn’t ready to move into early chapter books.) It also stars a pair of anthropomorphized animals every bit as quirky and different from one another as some of children’s literature most memorable duos (after all, before there were Elephant and Piggie, there were Frog and Toad and George and Martha).
The first story, “The Party,” serves as a perfect introduction to Fox and Chick’s personalities, best showcased when played off one another. Fox—restrained, meticulous, and borderline cantankerous—is less than thrilled when his book reading is interrupted by Chick’s incessant knocking. Chick—exuberant, impulsive, and stater of the obvious (“How can you be reading that book if you are talking to me?”)—is merely asking if he can use the bathroom. “Of course you may.” “Thank you, Fox. Very kind of you.”
Fox attempts to lose himself in his reading once again, though he can’t help but notice the ticking of the clock: Chick has been in the bathroom for some time. “Chick, are you okay?…Chick, I am coming in!” Fox is horrified by the chaos he finds on the other side of the door. It turns out “May I use your bathroom?” meant “May I use your bathroom to have a party with my friends?” “In my bathroom?!” roars Fox. Chick responds, “Oh, I see…,” and he and his pals quickly exit stage left.
Though he may play the part of the party pooper, later stories reveal Fox has a wonderfully droll sense of humor. My favorite story has to be “Good Soup,” where Chick follows Fox around his garden as the latter collects vegetables for soup. Fox’s vegetarianism offends Chick’s world order. “Fox, foxes are supposed to eat field mice, not carrots!” To which Fox responds, “I don’t like to eat field mice.”
The more exotic the vegetable, the more adamant Chick’s protests become, until he walks himself straight into the trap which a clever reader will have been anticipating all along: “And they’re supposed to eat squirrels…lizards…and little birds.” “Little birds?” says Fox (is that a sly grin?). “Yes, Fox, little bir…Uh-oh.” Later, the two sit down to enjoy Fox’s soup. “I’m glad you don’t like to eat little birds, Fox.” To which Fox responds, “At least not today.”
If the success of series like Elephant and Piggie are any indication, there’s huge appeal in early reader texts that make use of conversational banter to tell their story. Kids like knowing that the hard-earned words coming out of their mouth have entertainment, even comedic, value. Now add in Ruzzier’s always charming, expressive illustrations, and I say, thank goodness Fox and Chick are only getting started.
Review copy by Chronicle 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!
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.
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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!