The Candy Smash is Jacqueline Davies most recent addition to the Lemonade War series (HMH, $15.99). Like Davies’s previous books (The Lemonade War, The Lemonade Crime, and The Bell Bandit), The Candy Smash contains a central theme around which the plot and chapters are organized. This time it’s writing. As usual, Davies does an excellent job showcasing different perspectives about the theme. Jessie, always pragmatic, is working on writing a newspaper. She approaches her self-assigned editorial job with structured design, following the rules of journalism to the letter. Evan, on the other hand, enjoys the emotions that envelop him during the class’s morning poetry reading. He plays with words, letting them swirl and play freely. This story takes place in February so the looming prospect of Valentine’s Day is wrecking a bit of havoc on their fourth grade classroom. When Jessie decides to investigate class crushes, she dances dangerously close to exposing too much and unwittingly embarrassing her classmates. Evan does intercede — thankfully because I was really starting to get worried. Although he protects his classmates, his own dabbling in poetry teaches him to take a few emotional risks of his own. Another incredibly satisfying book by Davies. Kids and 4th grade teachers will eat this one up.
Eleanor & Park (out today!) is a debut YA novel for author Rainbow Rowell (St. Martin’s Griffin, $18.99) and it’s a good one. Eleanor starts school mid-year. Classes have started, friendships have been made, cliques have formed, and the unofficial bus seating arrangements are fully entrenched. So when she shows up one morning, with wild red hair and rather unusual clothing, there is no space for her, even though there are plenty of seats. Finally Park, happy to keep his head down, tune out the world, and stay off the popular crowd’s radar, does what any reluctant high school hero would do, he angrily gestures towards the empty seat next to him and tells her to sit the fuck down. Thus begins one of the slowest, but extremely satisfying, courtship of two high school misfits.
Eleanor & Park is set in the mid 1980s, and there are tons of fun references to clothing styles, hair styles we’d all like to forget, music and The Latest in technology. Park is half-Korean; he reads comic books and listens to punk music. He does not quite fit in in his small Kansas town. Eleanor is living on the edge of poverty, in an extremely broken home, and keeps to herself, lest anyone should find out about her situation. She does not quite fit in in her small Kansas town. Neither of them feels lovable, and yet after sitting next to each other on the bus day after day, they fall hopelessly, and head over heels, for each other.
The bursts of racism, sexism, and homophobia that pepper this book strike me as particularly realistic for the 80s, but also made me slightly uncomfortable. Probably because they felt all too familiar. I don’t know how current young readers will interpret such comments. Will they understand that the book is portraying a specific era and not endorsing a certain kind of behavior? Will they chalk it up as the ignorance of dark times? Are the 80s really vintage already? Is this book going to be considered ‘Historical Fiction’? Eleanor & Park is a fun read as well as a reminder to stay true and value weird.
Hooray! I get to spend the next four days surrounded by books, booksellers, publishers, and authors! As much as I’d like to think that I’ll continue to work, I might as well admit now that I probably won’t. And I didn’t manage to pre-write any posts. So I’ll be taking a break here at Coastline Books until early next week. I’m looking forward to returning with a stack of stacks of books!
Today’s recommendation continues with The Lemonade War series. The Bell Bandit is a good chapter book for kids who appreciate mysteries (HMH, $15.99, paperback due in May 2013). The mystery within the book isn’t particularly exciting or adventurous, but as usual, Jessie approaches the question of the missing bell like the detectives she reads about. Kids who like mysteries will appreciate the recognizable tropes of the genre. The Bell Bandit takes Jessie and her brother Evan away from school and this story focuses more on the family dynamics. The kids and their mother always spend the winter holidays with their grandmother, but this year things are different. First, Grandma is in the hospital. Second, part of her house has been burned. The two are related. Grandma turned on the kettle and then forgot about it and went on a long walk. Grandma forgets a lot of things these days, including important things like Evan’s name or that he’s her grandson. She remembers the bell though, the one that sits on the hill near her house. According to tradition, the neighbors gather at the bell on New Year’s Eve. The oldest and the youngest people present at the festivities ring the bell together. When Jessie realizes that the bell is missing, she sets out to solve the crime and find the bandit with her new friend, Maxwell.
Stories that only teach are boring. Stories that only entertain feel like a waste of time. Davies’s books excellently mix engaging stories and life lessons. Her books teach by example rather than forcing the lesson. Maxwell is different. The reader knows that even though the text never says exactly why or how. Instead, the text describes his actions, his mannerisms, and the way he interacts (or doesn’t interact) with others. Jessie, who has never been very good at reading people, appreciates his matter-of-fact approach even though she gets frustrated with having to explain social conventions to him, the way her brother had to explain them to her. Davies is excellent at conveying both Maxwell’s and Jessie’s characters, without limiting either of them to labels and diagnosis. Some young readers will make the connection themselves, perhaps with Evan’s help, since he’s more of a nuanced reader of people than Jessie is. Other readers might not fully understand Maxwell’s character, and that’s a good thing, too. It means there will be opportunities for them to engage in conversations about varying abilities. Likewise, not all readers will fully comprehend what is happening with Grandma, as the words dementia and alzheimer’s are never used in the story. Even so, kids ages 9-11, who like realistic stories will feel for Evan as he struggles to communicate with her in the ways she can understand and the ones who want to know more will ask.
I discussed The Lemonade War in a recent post and was so taken with the book that I couldn’t wait to read the rest of the series. Although Jacqueline Davies’s books do comprise a series, each one is so different that I will continue to review them separately. They are all excellent in their own right and I’m impressed with how she has developed the books. At the end of The Lemonade War, Evan discovers that Jessie and Megan’s hard-earned money has been stolen from his shorts, while he was swimming at a friend’s house. In The Lemonade Crime (HMH, $6.99), when school starts a few days later, Scott Spenser, who had left the pool party rather abruptly, starts boasting about his new gaming center. Jessie and Evan know that Scott has to be the culprit and Jessie sets out to prove it by putting him on trial. She organizes the whole 4th grade class into witnesses, judge, jury, and audience. As the prosecutor, she represents Evan. Scott, the defense, declines to be represented by a girl — the only classmates left since most of the boys are witnesses from the party. The class conducts a secret, no-adults trial on the playground and Jessie, despite her extensive preparation, discovers that courtrooms can be emotional, no matter how hard you try to stay objective. What an excellent introduction to the justice system! And I particularly appreciated Megan’s desire to act as Scott’s public defender. Megan, Jessie, and Evan all eventually accept that in the judicial system not everything turns out the way you want it to, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fair.
I know I’m getting in a bit of a rut with the age titles. It’s so much easier, but not as helpful when you’re looking for subject recommendations. My goal over the next couple of weeks is to go back and add subject references to the blog titles. For today, however, Planet Middle School by Nikki Grimes is good for a kid who enjoys sports and is on the cusp of adolescence (Bloomsbury, $15.99). Joylin plays basketball. Her younger brother Caden is an artist. I’m always a fan of books that push gender boundaries and show young readers that what it means to be a girl or boy isn’t as clear cut as some would have you believe. The kids’ dad has a difficult time with his non-athletic son, although he is rather supportive of his daughter’s talent, and both kids struggle to align themselves what the perceived norms of their respective gender. Caden tries to learn basketball to impress his father and Joylin tries wearing skirts, heels, and lipstick to impress a boy. She’s just as surprised at her newfound interest as anyone: “There are suddenly // cute boys everywhere. // I swear.// They keep popping up // all the time”. She’s never cared about clothes or giggling before and she’s not exactly sure what kind of girl she wants to be now. Caden basically embarrasses himself on the court and Joylin usually ends up literally falling all over herself in front of Santiago — not quite the impression she’s going for. Written in free verse, Joylin’s flowing narrative voice is pitch perfect. She navigates the highs and lows of early adolescence with her two best friends KeeLee and Jake and when she questions “Where is a parallel universe // when you need one?”, I had to smile. Ah, middle school. How many times did I have that thought, although never quite so poetic!
I’m slowly working my way through the recent ALA Youth Media Award winners. I’m moderately embarrassed at how many winners had completely escaped my notice. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (Simon & Schuster, $17.99) received both a Prinz honor and the Stonewall prize so it immediately went to the top of my list of must reads. Of course, as any bookseller knows, it becomes difficult to get your hands on winning books (unless you already have them in stock) after the award show since all the *other* booksellers are all scrambling to get the books in their store. Insider info: booksellers totally watch the awards with the order window open so that they can put in requests as the winners are announced. Seriously. One minute late and you don’t get any of the books : ) Anyway, I put in a request for Aristotle and Dante with our store owner and waited for the book to arrive. This past weekend I was pulling books for our annual sale, and the book was on our sale list! What!?!?! Not only had the book arrived and I hadn’t noticed, but it accidentally made it on the sale list! My special order! I was shocked. SHOCKED. And thrilled because now I could finally read the book. All’s well, so they say.
As for the book. YES! yes, yes, yes. So good. Narrated by Aristotle, the story chronicles the friendship of two boys who meet at the pool in El Paso during the summer of 1987. Aristotle, who can’t swim, is floating around thinking about how most high-school guys are tools. My word, not his; it is 1987. Dante offers to teach him how to swim. Naturally, if your name is Aristotle and you meet a kid whose name is Dante, you are going to have to be friends with him. Fortunately, Dante isn’t a tool. He’s smart, well-read, funny, thoughtful, artistic. I want to be friends with him myself. Aristotle and Dante debate what it means to be a real Mexican. Dante teaches Aristotle about literature. Aristotle saves Dante’s life. Dante’s family moves away for a year.
Aristotle struggles with the silence surrounding his brother’s absence, that his parents refuse to discuss. He struggles with understanding his father, back from Vietnam, who can’t seem to talk about anything. He struggles with his own nightmares. He has a great relationship with his mother, which is one of the things I really loved about this book. Parents in YA novels are often absent or horrible, and that sort of makes sense from a teen’s perspective. But in this book, both Dante’s and Aristotle’s parents are lovely. Not perfect. Not idealized. But lovely, supportive, and smart. Smart enough to know their sons even better than their sons do. I respected both sets of parents in this story and appreciated that Sáenz gave all four of their characters so much depth without distracting from the two boys.
Although Dante is more confident and outgoing than Aristotle, he has his own struggles, namely his feelings for Aristotle. I’m a fan of narratives that rotate between different characters and in some ways I would have loved this story to move between Dante and Aristotle so I could have heard more of Dante’s thoughts. But of the two, it’s Aristotle who struggles with expressing himself. We need him to narrate because otherwise he’d be as much of a mystery to us as he is to Dante. Besides, he has a biting outlook on life that I really liked: “Reading my own words embarrassed the hell out of me. I mean, what a pendejo. I had to be the world’s biggest loser, writing about hair, and stuff about my body. No wonder I stopped keeping a journal. It was like keeping a record of my own stupidity. Why would I want to do that? Why would I want to remind myself what an asshole I was?” He has a soft side though: “My mother and father held hands. I wondered what that was like, to hold someone’s hand. I bet you could sometimes find all of the mysteries of the universe in someone’s hand”. I bet you could, too, especially when your best friend is Dante.
I enjoyed Gordon Korman’s Ungifted so much that I decided it was time to read some of his other books. I don’t know why I’ve never read his stuff before; he is great! Schooled (Hyperion, $6.99) is a quirky book about Capricorn (Cap) Anderson, who has spent his entire life living on the all but abandoned commune left over from the 1960s. His grandmother, Rain, is the sole remaining resident and has raised and educated Cap entirely on her own. When she falls out of the plum tree, Cap, 13, drives her to the hospital, ending in his arrest (driving without a license) and a brief stint in the home of a social worker, who happens to have spent part of her childhood in the commune. And so Cap starts junior high. Little does he know — because honestly there isn’t much Cap does know about the outside world — the class’s biggest loser is always voted in as President of the 8th grade. When Cap is elected, when he is pranked, and when he is teased by his classmates, he takes it all in stride. Anger, jealousy, and vindictiveness are all completely outside his frame of understanding. Instead, he strives to do his best in his new position, as he knows it’s what Rain would expect of him. The longer that Cap stays true to himself and the principles that he’s learned from Rain, the more the student body starts to recognize and, sometimes begrudgingly, accept his strength of character. His belief in the individual skills of his classmates ultimately yields its own brand of community.
Cap is adorable. The narrative alternates between a number of characters, which allows for a more comprehensive development of the school environment. Korman utilizes this rotating narrative strategy effectively in both Schooled and Ungifted and conveys equal parts disdain and sympathy for both the school bully, Zach, and Hugh, Zach’s biggest prey (besides Cap). He also paints a very realistic picture of the middle school experience. According to Hugh, “Adults are always trying to figure out what makes kids tick. . . . Know what? They don’t have a clue”. The adults in Korman’s books, at least the ones I’ve read so far, do try really hard but they often miss the point, demonstrating that Korman, himself, does have a pretty good clue. I’m going to start recommending his books to kids who have read and enjoyed Andrew Clements’s school stories. I’m also really excited to eventually read more of Korman’s books and will let you know if they measure up to these two.
Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone. I thought I’d compile a list of my favorite literary relationships. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some important ones, but here they are in no particular order.
Elizabeth and Darcy. Yes, yes. I’m one of those people. Every time I reread Pride & Prejudice I enjoy watching how their relationship slowly develops and how they influence each other’s perspectives. I like that they are both thoughtful even when it comes to their own errors and mistakes.
Nick and Norah. One of the things I love about Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist is that the two characters from the book are quite different from the two characters in the movie, but I like both of them equally, although for different reasons.
Annie and Liza from Annie on My Mind. I didn’t read this novel until my first year out of college. I was living in New York and had was in the middle of the end (things never seem to just end) of my first serious relationship. This book is so lovely it broke my heart all over again.
Morgan and Arthur in The Mists of Avalon epitomize the experience of unfulfilled love. Bradley is genius at making you desperately want them to be together even though you know it can’t possibly be.
Vicky and Adam from A Ring of Endless Light and Troubling a Star. I’m not sure if Vicky and Adam ever really get together, but when I was in high school, I thought the scenes of them swimming with dolphins were unbelievably romantic.
Lola and Cricket from Lola and the Boy Next Door. I really thought this book would be a guilty pleasure and was quite surprised at how much I enjoyed the book and appreciated watching Lola and Cricket’s friendship develop.
Celie and Shug from The Color Purple. I love it when you read a book that is really hyped and then discover that it’s better than the hype suggested.
Hazel and August from The Fault in Our Stars. See comments for The Color Purple. Also, Hazel and August know how to make life count.
Other contenders include Paul and Noah (Boy Meets Boy), Chester and Wilson (Chester’s Way), and Rosalind and Orlando (As You Like It). I’m sure I’ll think of others that I wish I had included as the day goes on, but who are your favorite literary couples?
I don’t often read graphic novels. Not because I don’t respect them; quite the contrary, actually. I think comic books and graphic novels are a great medium for reluctant and avid readers, but I do often recommend them to adults who are buying for a reluctant reader. Even as I say that, I realize that it sounds like I think graphic novels are easier or something. I don’t. It takes a lot of skill and patience to read text and illustrations, which is why I don’t often read graphic novels myself. Moreover, I think they are accessible to reluctant readers and are often overlooked, so I like to encourage people to consider them as a viable and respectable genre.
I’ve had the ARC for Drama, by Raina Telgemeier (Scholastic, $10.99) sitting on my bookshelves for a while now, but haven’t read it out of laziness. When it won a Stonewall honor award for the ALA recently, I was intrigued, especially since there is nothing on the cover or in the blurb that made that connection. What a surprise! First, I loved the reading experience. I think you have to get in the rhythm of graphic novels and because I don’t read a lot of them, I forget how to read them. But it didn’t take long before I got swept away. I’m sure I missed a lot of crucial parts of the illustrations, but I got better about taking the time to read them along with the text. Second, I was really taken aback by the pragmatic inclusion of the LBGTA plot lines. Callie loves theatre, but she’s discovered that she’s better behind the scenes than on the stage. She builds sets and props for her school’s drama productions. When she meets twins Jesse and Justin, she discovers two new recruits for the department. Justin craves the limelight and Jesse is perfectly happy to help Callie on the crew. When all the drama starts, during the final performance, Jesse shows that he is just as talented as Justin and also brave enough to push the boundaries of acting. Justin is relatively open about his sexuality. Jesse is more ambiguous. Callie stays pretty cool even in the midst of all the drama and by *not* turning this story into a romance, Telgemeier manages to focus the attention on Callie, her passion for theatre, and the value of friendship.