Crystal Allen’s new book, The Laura Line, was another book that I heard about at Winter Institute this year and was extremely excited to read (Balzer + Bray, $16.99). Overall I think this book has a lot of important things to say and for the most part, I appreciated Laura’s narrative voice; however there was one major plot point that didn’t seem right. Laura’s parents leave for two weeks for military duty. The aunt who usually takes care of Laura can’t make it this time, and she has to go live with her grandmother instead. Laura hates visiting her grandmother because she’s inordinately embarrassed by the slave shack that sits on the grounds. Laura doesn’t think that this part of her family history should be glorified in any way and she refuses to step inside or hear the stories about why it’s there. As the narrative continues, Laura finally does open herself up to the shack and it’s significance to American history. She finally recognizes that the shack holds generations of stories about the Lauras in her family who have lived before her and she is proud of their accomplishments.
I love the idea of the shack embodying the horrors from American history and how its physical presence forces Laura to struggle with the past and the shack’s place in her own life. She wants to forget slavery happened and live her own life, which makes a lot of sense and I appreciate Laura’s conflict between ignoring the past and being defined by the past. This conflict is particularly acute in middle school, when kids are simultaneously working to define themselves outside of their families as they also try to figure out their place within their families. What doesn’t make sense to me is that Laura has never engaged with the shack. She’s close to her mother and her mother is close to her grandmother. Surely as a young child, Laura would have wanted to hear the stories, feel connected to her mother, or be curious about the shack. She wouldn’t have yet felt the socio-historical implications of the shack, have been embarrassed by what her classmates think, or have been so afraid of something that her mother and grandmother obviously cherish. Again, there are a lot of excellent attributes to this book and it is a solid introduction to the personal history of slavery, as well as a great companion novel for studying family history. I think, perhaps, I would have enjoyed it just a little more if the story narrated Laura’s return to her family rather than a first discovery.
Laura is a spunky character who loves both fashion and baseball; I fully appreciate this fluctuation between gender norms. She’s smart, capable, and resilient. She cares about what her peers think, but she also stands up for herself and her best friend. She follows her intuition and accepts the consequences when she ignores it. There is a lot of life, character, and history in this book. Teachers and librarians take note.
I picked up Wendelin van Draanen’s Flipped (Knopf, $8.95) years ago on a business trip because the cover is so great. It is streamlined, uncluttered, and just intriguing enough to spark my curiosity. The back matter is also very well done, the two stories are intertwined and upside down. You read Bryce’s story from top to bottom and then flip the book over to read Julianna’s. I bought the book and read it over dinner. (I once read this Dilbert comic where he says to the server, “I’m not a loser who can’t get a date; I’m a business traveler.” I’d always think about that line when I was traveling for business and eating alone.) Anyway, Flipped is really amazing. I’ve re-read it several times over the years and I love it every time. Julianna and Bryce are in 7th grade, but they met the summer before 2nd. They live across the street from each other and even this tiny distance completely affects their perspective on what’s happening between them. Each chapter flips the story; we hear Bryce’s perspective and then Julianna’s. Or the other way around. Not only are their stories flipped, from the beginning Julianna has flipped over Bryce. Julianna is a phenomenal character. She’s not like all the other kids and her unique perspective on the world, along with her ability to rise above and see the bigger picture, makes her one of my all-time favorite literary characters. Bryce tries really hard to keep his feet on the ground, and stay safe, but he grows on you. It might be his bright blue eyes. Or maybe it’s because he starts to step outside his comfort zone and flip his own perspective, slowly becoming even more awesome than the one-dimensional image of him that Julianna has created. Although, by this time Julianna’s own views about Bryce have started to flip . . .
Lest I’ve given the impression that this book is a cute romance à la Little Manhattan, I do want to say that there is a lot more going on in this book besides Julianna and Bryce’s tumultuous relationship. Both characters have extremely interesting and complex family structures. I cry every time Julianna and her dad visit her uncle and then again when Bryce learns about his own birth from his grandfather. There are no easy answers in either family, but the connections and family dynamics create depth and complexity for both Julianna and Bryce. Secondary characters, including their teacher and friends, are fleshed out enough to give the story more depth. As for the movie that came out in 2010, it is surprisingly true to the story and I admit I love it. But the book is better : )
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.