Orphans are a common trope in children’s literature. I’m sure many people have researched and written on this topic, so I won’t do that here. But I will say that Rooftoppers, by Katherine Rundell with illustrations by Terry Fan (Simon & Schuster, $16.99, out today), delightfully plays with and challenges all the conventions of books about orphans. It is wonderfully mystical, and laugh out loud funny. Charles Maxim finds Sophie floating in a cello case in the English Channel after a shipwreck. According to the pin on her front, reading 1! it is probably Sophie’s first birthday. Charles, a scholar, takes her in and plans to care for her, despite the consternation of one Miss Eliot from the National Childcare Agency:
‘But it’s a child! You’re a man!’
‘Your powers of observation are formidable,’ said Charles. ‘You are a credit to your optician.’
‘But what are you going to do with her?’
Charles looked bewildered. ‘I am going to love her. That should be enough, if the poetry I’ve read is anything to go by.’
So Sophie isn’t alone; Charles does love her, and despite her rather unconventional upbringing and the fact that Charles allows her to wear trousers (!), she is happy. They are happy. Until Sophie turns 12 and the National Childcare Agency decides that Charles is an unfit guardian for a young woman. Sophie, who has hair the color of lightening, and loves to play the cello, has memories of her mother aboard that ship. She also finds an address for a music shop in Paris in the cello case that Charles finds her in. The two of them spirit away to Paris to look for her mother. There Sophie discovers a world of urchins — not street urchins, but rooftop urchins. With a little friendship, music, and just a touch of magic, Sophie might find exactly what she is looking for on the rooftops of Paris.
We look back and identify ground breaking books: Alice in Wonderland, Where the Wild Things Are, Snowy Day. Do we know they are groundbreaking when they first come out? In some ways, yes. The immediate audience was aware that these books did something different; they changed something in publishing. To me, David Levithan’s newest book, Two Boys Kissing (Knopf, $18.99, out today), feels groundbreaking. The book is about two boys kissing. The title is Two Boys Kissing, and even the cover image shows two boys kissing. This book does not blink. It does not compromise. Don’t like it? Avert your eyes, because this book is. And it’s phenomenal. Like the books listed above, Two Boys Kissing is groundbreaking not because it has an agenda. Not because it’s trying to prove something or change anything. But because it is so well written and is an amazing story. Inspired by true events, the story centers on two boys who are trying to set a new record for the longest kiss — upwards of 32 hours. But there are several other stories woven throughout and they all deal with boys at various stages of their relationships. The novel is narrated by a Greek chorus of gay men who died from AIDS in the 1980s and this is where things really start to get interesting.
The boys are blissfully unaware of this chorus in the same way that gay kids today are often unaware of the struggles of previous generations. At the risk of saying “kids today!”, that’s exactly what’s happening here, but it is entirely appropriate. Kids, all kids, don’t always know the past. Why should they? They’re kids. As frustrating as it might be for the chorus to see that they boys don’t really know their stories, that is the way it works. Each generation fights to make things better for the next one and that next generation reaps the benefit without ever knowing there was a fight.
As for the chorus, their nostalgia for their own lost youths, their admiration for the freedom within the gay community today, and their resentment that they never had the chance to experience that freedom is heartbreaking. Levithan elicits empathy and love from the reader for both generations.
As I’ve said before, he is a masterful writer. This book, like his others, is differently amazing. I finally had the chance to meet him for about 45 seconds and was able to say the one thing that I’ve always wanted to tell him, “I wish your books had been around when I was a teenager.”
After hearing all the Rep Picks for great upcoming books back in February 2013, one title went to the top of my list to read: If You Could Be Mine, by Sara Farizan (Algonquin Young Readers, $16.99, out today). Sahar and her best-friend Nasrin, live in Iran. They have been friends since childhood and Sahar has been in love ever since, at six, Nasrin pulled her hair and said. “Sahar, you will play with me because you belong to me. Only me”. Innocently telling her mother that she would like to marry Nasrin, Sahar learns that such a desire is haraam, a sin. The two girls, now seventeen, keep their relationship a secret. When Nasrin’s parents arrange for her marriage, Sahar is distraught. She begins to look for ways to keep the two of them together. In Iran, homosexuality may be a crime — punishable by death — but being born into the wrong body is regarded as nature’s mistake, a disease that can be cured by corrective surgery, which is sanctioned by the state. As Sahar investigates this option, she struggles with understanding her love for Nasrin and societal definitions of sexuality. Caring only about staying with Nasrin, Sahar is forced to confront the very clear distinction between being a lesbian and being transgender.
The story is infused with Iranian words and customs that will be of interest to readers who enjoy learning about other cultures. It also raises some very challenging questions about sexuality and categorization. But overall, it is a well-written and universal story about a girl growing up and trying to find herself. It’s a story about love and the things we’ll do to hold onto to it and a story about that first discovery when you start to see the world outside of your childhood. If You Could Be Mine is Sara Farizan’s first novel and it is bold. I look forward to seeing more from her in the future.
Holly Black’s Doll Bones (Margaret K. McElderry, $16.99) and Jerry Spinelli’s Hokey Pokey (Knopf Books for Young Readers, $15.99) both deal with the transition from childhood to adulthood, but are very different in their approach to the process. Hokey Pokey imagines an almost idealized world of childhood, where the rules are a little less formalized that the wild frontier. Kids rein bikes like horses; they move in packs, and there is a clear distinction between boys and girls. This world is filled with candy, games, and not a little recklessness. It doesn’t quite fit with my own memories of childhood and I do wonder how kids under 12 will respond to it. Do they recognize their own world in this book? Is it only possible to see childhood, once you’re looking back? The biggest problem I had, though, was the insinuation that the the border between childhood and adulthood was both abrupt and definitive. Once you leave Hokey Pokey, or ‘grow up’, there is no going back. One day you’re a kid. The next day you’re an adult, which doesn’t seem very realistic to me. I don’t know any kids who make the transition easily and singularly. I certainly didn’t.
Alternatively, Doll Bones also narrates the transition from childhood to adulthood, but despite the fantastic elements this book feels more realistic. First, the transition isn’t so abrupt, but rather happens over a journey. Also, there is a significant internal conflict about the change for each character, that varies from character to character. Zach’s dilemmas are different than Alice’s, who again is struggling with different things than Poppy. Finally, by the end of the book, although Zach, Poppy, and Alice have grown up, there is a clear sense that they each have more growing up to do and that on occasion, they might even ‘relapse’ and not grow up at all. Doll Bones is described as “spooky” and “scary”, which I didn’t find when reading it. I liked the ambiguity, even at the end (and I don’t think this is a spoiler) about whether the game was a game or the game was real. Because games are always real. And reality is a game. And I see no reason to make a distinction. Is Doll Bones a ghost story or a growing up story? Well, yes. Also, Black demonstrates that gender is just as fluid as ‘growing up’. Zach enjoys playing imagination games with dolls in the afternoon with Poppy and Alice. He also likes playing basketball. He doesn’t switch from boy to girl. He’s a boy who likes a variety of things. He doesn’t broadcast his afternoon games — he knows that some of the other boys wouldn’t approve — but he doesn’t feel the need to stop either. Doll Bones is ultimately about the between spaces. Maybe it is a ghost story after all.
Jenny Lee puts a canine spin on the value of friendship — or finding your pack — in Elvis and the Underdogs (Balzer + Bray, $16.99). Sure Benji has friends: the doctors and nurses at the hospital where he spends most of his time, the librarian, since he eats alone in the library when he is at school, and his mom, who fiercely watches over him. However, when he has a seizure and his doctor tells him he either has to wear an extraordinarily ugly helmet to school or get a therapy dog, Benji opts for the dog. Upon arrival, the dog, Parker Elvis Pembroke IV, emphatically informs Benji that he was meant to be the President’s dog and there has clearly been a mix-up. Benji can understand Elvis — everyone else hears barking or growling — and Elvis is worth listening to: “Benjamin. I’m not going to eat in the library. Maybe you can eat neatly enough to be allowed to do so, but I cannot. I’m a dog. I eat off the floor, when I think about food, I produce a large quantity of saliva. It’s a physiological response that is Pavlovian and is a long story that I can’t get into right now, especially when I’m hungry”. Elvis is a therapy dog with the personality of Frazier Crane. He’s serious about his duty to protect Benji, but Elvis also knows a little something about the importance of having a pack and he’s determined to help Benji create his own.
Having lived abroad, I get so tchetchy about books (and movies) about people who go abroad and suddenly everything is different and life is amazing. I sound bitter, I know. But living abroad isn’t magical. You still have to go to the grocery store. I don’t think you find yourself abroad; I think that when you step away from everything and everyone that you know, suddenly you are forced to see yourself and depend on yourself in a way that you never have before. And you realize that the world around you might be different, but you’re still you. This isn’t a good thing or a bad thing, it just is. I think traveling can change your perspective. It can open you up to amazing things. It can force you to look closely at your own culture. It can introduce you to new people. It can illuminate trends and patterns. It can push you outside your comfort zone. It can make you marvel at how big the world is, while you simultaneously start to appreciate how small it is. I love traveling. I love moving around. I love discovering things and places that I didn’t even know existed. But one of the things I’ve noticed, is that I’m always still me. I think that’s one of the reasons, I appreciated Maureen Johnson’s 13 Little Blue Envelopes (HarperTeen, $8.99). Ginny Blackstone’s aunt sends her on a trip. Ginny has to follow the directions left to her, one envelope at a time. Ginny has adventures across Europe. She meets interesting people. And yes there is a bit of romance. But she doesn’t suddenly become a different person. There is a lot of space in this book. A lot of silence. It took me a while to figure out that Ginny doesn’t say very much. She seems to be soaking in the views around her. Watching more than participating. I really appreciated that. I liked that she goes on a grand adventure, but fundamentally stays the same person all the way through. It’s the steadiness in this book, as opposed to all the books about Amazing Things That Happen When You Leave The Country, that make 13 Little Blue Envelopes stand out.
On that note, I’m heading to Scotland for a few days. More posts to follow, because there are some amazing new books out. I’ve been remiss lately and look forward to catching up.
I’m writing this post on February 5, 2013 because I am so excited about recommending this book that I can’t wait for it to come out in June. Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, by Chris Grabenstein (Random House, $16.99) is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for bibliophiles, mixed with The Westing Game. It’s an ode to children’s literature. A love letter to everything we appreciate about good books. This book is a must-read for anyone who likes to read and has read a lot, if nothing else than for the enjoyment of the prolific and well-placed references to the best of children’s literature.
Eccentric Mr. Lemoncello rebuilds the public library and invites twelve 12 year olds to participate in a lock-in. The town has not had a library for twelve years and he wants to share his love of reading with a group of kids who have grown up without the benefit of a public library. The lock-in morphs into a game. The first player who discovers how to get *out* of the library will win the grand prize. So you can see why bibliophiles will love this book; it is one long celebration of books and reading. What I loved most, however, is that the game and the clues were revealed in such a way that the reader could play along with the characters. I didn’t have to passively watch the characters solve riddles (one of the things that really frustrated me about The Mysterious Benedict Society), but instead I could participate and try to figure out the puzzle for myself along the way. Almost everything in the book is a clue of some sort, so I found myself reading very carefully, trying to remember all the details. Clues are repeated throughout the book, however, which was useful because I didn’t have to write it all out, although I did consider doing so! Read, play, and enjoy! And if anyone figures out the final puzzle, please let me know! I don’t know if the ARC I read just didn’t have all the information or if I missed something really important!
Dan Yaccarino’s new picture book, Doug, Unplugged tells the story of Doug, a robot, who learns his daily lessons by downloading data and information (Knopf, $16.99). When he finally notices a pigeon on his windowsill, he knows all sorts of facts, but those facts haven’t told him that pigeons make a funny cooing sound. What else could Doug learn about the city, were he to unplug? Doug ventures outside (!) to find out. His adventures augment his factual understanding with sound, smells, and experiences that he can’t download. He plays with friends, admires the views, but most of all learns to appreciate his family. Doug, Unplugged, contains bright, vibrant illustrations, that convey Doug’s delightful facial expressions as he explores his environment. Technology isn’t absent in Doug’s adventures and the book conveys a balance between the information that Doug has access to via computers and the experiences he acquires when he steps away.
Patricia Reilly Giff is known for her historical fiction, and her most recent book is an excellent new addition to the genre. Gingersnap is set in New York during World War II (Wendy Lamb Books, $15.99). Jayna lives with her older brother Rob. After their parents’ accident, Rob took custody of his sister as soon as he turned 18. When he’s called to duty, the only person left to care for Jayna is the landlady. Whether inspired by ghosts, voices, or her own intuition — the reader is left to decide — Jayna leaves the landlady’s house, sets off, armed with her turtle, and follows the clues left in an old suitcase in Rob’s room. A recipe book written in French and an old photograph lead her to Gingersnap, a bakery in Brooklyn, and a woman that Jayna desperately hopes is her grandmother. Conveying the realities and hardships of life on the home front, Gingersnap, demonstrates that love and good food are two key ingredients in creating a family.
Mo Willems’s fans will be delighted to know that he has a new picture book available, entitled That Is Not a Good Idea! (Balzer + Bray, $17.99). The story unfolds like a silent movie with color images interspersed with dialogue on black pages. A dapper male fox meets a demure female goose. The two strangers take a walk through the woods and then decide to have lunch. The audience, comprised of six delightfully cute baby chicks, continually interjects, yelling, “that is not a good idea” at the screen. Like all of Willem’s book, this one has a twist, but just when you think you know what the twist is going to be the story twists off in a completely different direction. Although younger children might not recognize the silent film motif, they will appreciate the humor of this story. Pigeon lovers should make sure to look closely; as usual, he makes a cameo.