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.
Golden Boy, by Abigail Tarttelin, isn’t the first book to contain a character who is intersex, but books on this topic are few and far between (Simon & Schuster, $24.99, out today). Max Walker is the stereotypical golden boy. On the surface. But Max and his family have a secret. He is intersex: a person that used to be referred to as a hermaphrodite. Within this story, Max’s existence falls perfectly between horror (he has never been shamed or punished by his parents for being who he is as many intersex children have been) and complete acceptance (the parents do not make Max’s situation known to the outside world). Max identifies as a boy, but he is a true intersex: half and half. His family did not put him through reconstructive surgery as a baby. He’s known and understood that he was different his whole life, but it’s never really been a big deal. Just something that the family never discusses. At 16, the one childhood friend (boy) who knows about Max, rapes him. Rape is traumatic for anyone, but Max deals with a whole other layer of trauma. How is he supposed to process what happened? Thankfully he goes to a Doctor, one who is smart and sensitive enough to do some research and help Max find the vocabulary he needs to understand himself. This description might sound clinical, but even trying to talk about this book is a reminder of how inadequate our language is.
The narrative moves between Max, his brother, his mother, the doctor, and the girl he starts to fall for. This movement strengthens the story, because as each person struggles to talk about Max, the reader truly starts to appreciate Max’s inability to articulate himself. I most appreciated the Doctor’s narrative voice. She is professional, and remains at a somewhat critical distance, but truly helps Max and the reader navigate this rather uncharted territory. Max’s mom struck me as way too intelligent to be saying such ridiculous things. I liked her when Max talked about her. I started to despise her when she spoke for her self. I think the book would have been much stronger without her first-person chapters or perhaps if her voice had been introduced towards the end of the story, as Max’s dad’s voice is.
I also particularly liked Max’s younger brother’s commentary. Daniel is significantly younger (about 5 years); he looks up to Max and because Max is his older sibling, he knows nothing different. He is the only character (including Max) who doesn’t perceive Max as an aberration, because, to Daniel, Max is perfectly normal. Daniel’s voice, somewhat young and innocent, provides a strong counter to all the confusion that pervades everyone else’s voice. Golden Boy is not an easy book to read, but it is well worth it. I’m delighted that it has found the support of a major publishing house. This is a story that needs to be told.
In Natalie Kinsey-Warnock’s True Colors (Knopf, $15.99), Blue was found in a kettle on Hannah’s doorstep on December 7, 1941, when she was (probably) 2 days old. Hannah took her in, named her, and raised Blue on a farm in rural Vermont. As one of the few children in the town, Blue has always eagerly awaited the influx of summer visitors, including her best friend Nadine. During Blue’s tenth summer, however, everything changes. First, Nadine doesn’t seem interested in any of their usual summer activities. Second, Blue finds clues about the mother who left her behind and dreams about leaving town to find her family. Third, the editor of the local paper invites Blue to contribute a weekly column. The more she starts to research her town, the more she discovers that everyone is not who she thought they were. When Hannah has an accident, all of the people she has supported over the years step up to help Hannah and Blue. When Blue’s life is endangered, once again the neighbors are there, and Blue discovers that family is closer than she ever realized. Blue is a great character and her frustrations with Nadine are very realistic. Blue is just at the cusp of stepping outside herself, awaking to the existence of her community, and noticing (and appreciating) the people around her. I cried my little eyes out while reading the final few chapters and the quilted cover, which evokes the range of quilt references present in the story, is excellent.
Naomi Shihab Nye’s Habibi is one of those amazing books that I feel everyone should read, no matter what types of books they normally read (Simon Pulse, $6.99). Liyana was born and raised in the United State, where her mother is from, but her parents have always said that at some point the family would move to Palestine, where her father is from. So when she’s 14 and life is just starting to get interesting, Liyana is bummed, but not surprised, to hear that her family is leaving the US. Liyana’s story of growing up, of discovering a new culture, and of feeling caught between her old life and new, caught between the conflicts raging around her in Jerusalem is told with amazing delicacy and thoughtfulness. Embraced by her family, Liyana loves them all as well as their cultural heritage, especially her grandmother, Sitti. Nevertheless, she also knows that their experiences are not her experiences and that their world-views are not her world-views. Therefore when she meets Omar, and he represents everything that threatens her family, she must find the humanity within the conflicts and demonstrate that each individual is bigger than history.
Woo hoo! Sara Pennypacker’s latest book in the Clementine series is now available (Hyperion, $14.99)! These books, illustrated by the incomparable Marla Frazee, are my top recommendation for any early reader, who is ready for chapter books. Clementine and the Spring Trip is the 6th book in the series and there is due to be one final installment. Clementine, the first volume, is still my favorite, but this new one had me giggling all the way through. Clementine has the most delightful perspective on the world around her and I love love love that the adults in her life (parents, teachers, even the principal) recognize her uniqueness and support her, even when she’s challenging them. As many times as she has been sent to the principal’s office for not paying attention, the principal pays close attention to Clementine. Her parents encourage her to expend her energy in constructive venues (art, building projects, growing a garden) and never try to stifle her creativity. Her mother, the artist, and father, the building superintendent, have found happiness in their own lives and therefore are comfortable helping Clementine find her happiness. I admire the lack of DRAMA in these books, even as they are delightful to read and filled with clever stories and narratives. Pennypacker is excellent at recognizing the priorities of a third-grader (spring trip? great! but, not on bus 7, it smells!) and Frazee adds a tremendous amount of insight as well as humor into her illustrations: the image of the class gagging at the mere thought of riding bus 7 is perfect! Can’t wait for the final book. No! Stop! I don’t want this series to end!
Walter Dean Myers’s Darius & Twig (HarperCollins, $17.99, out today) packs a lot of big thoughts into a compact book. Darius wants to be a writer, but he’s struggling to understand his story. Twig is a natural runner. The two boys are best friends and fiercely support each other, even when no one else does. This story touches on community, loyalty, family, violence, respect, dreaming big, but it manages to address all of this things with a subtlety that is remarkable. Myers paints a very clear and lucid picture and then steps back quietly, while letting others make observations. He doesn’t set out to teach lessons, or impose anything on his readers. Instead, he tells a deceptively straightforward story about two friends that can be enjoyed on its own. For readers who want to push further into the story, however, the setting is incredibly rich, the secondary characters are interesting and complex, and the representations of class, race, socioeconomics, education, athletics are thought provoking. More than that, however, this story describes how writing forces us to look deeply inside of ourselves. I hope that high schools adopt this book and start using it in their writing classes. The evolution of Darious’s story is phenomenal. There are no easy answers, but what I love are the subtle changes as Darius looks critically at himself and his world. Myers’s reputation proceeds him. There’s a reason.
I think books have an infinite range of functions. I hate to be general to the point of uselessness, but they can entertain, teach, challenge firmly-rooted ideals, encourage self-reflection, open up new cultures and experiences. The list goes on. I think the best stories are ones that do several of these at once rather than just one. Stories that are pure entertainment are usually mindless to the point of embarrassment. Stories that are purely about instruction are boring and terrible to wade through. Even when I agree with the subject matter being taught, I hate books that are so focused on forcing the message that they don’t actually contain an interesting and engaging story. Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 (Random House, $6.99) is the perfect combination.
Kenny, aged 10, narrates the story of growing up in Flint, Michigan. He’s struggling to grow up, but is honest about his weaknesses. He can be naive, he isn’t always a good friend or a good brother, and, although he hates to admit it, he cries a lot. He’s also smart, observant, and rather witty: “It’s times like this when someone is talking to you like you are a grown-up that you have to be careful not to pick your nose or dig your drawers out of your butt”. Basically, he’s a 10 year old kid.
Kenny is an objective narrator. He provides just enough information about his family, his schoolmates, and his town to paint a vivid picture, but doesn’t over explain and ruin the chance for readers to figure things out for themselves. Class is an issue in this book, but Kenny never overtly labels any other character. Instead he notices what his classmates do or do not have, mentions kids forgetting their lunch, or lists the number of shirts and pants someone wears. It’s up to the reader to understand, for example, that Rufus’s family doesn’t have enough food to send school lunches, or the real reason Larry, the bully, steals Kenny’s gloves.
I like that. Writers such as Curtis clearly respect child readers, because they provide all the pieces, but let the readers put them together for themselves.
Although most of the first three-quarters of the book are humorous anecdotes about the “Weird Watsons”, the “go to Birmingham” part of the title hovered like a shadow and provoked not a small amount of anxiety. Also, the book is dedicated “In memory of Addie Mae Collins (born 4/18/49, died 9/15/63), Denise McNair (born 11/17/51, died 9/15/63), Carol Robertson (born 4/24/49, died 9/15/63), and Cynthia Wesley (born 4/30/49, died 9/15/63) the toll for one day in one city”. That anxiety proved not to be misplaced and there is a church bombing at the end of the book. I thought Curtis handled these final chapters extremely well. There is enough description to convey the horror of the bombings that occurred in Birmingham, but nothing in this book felt too much for a 9-12 to handle. Also, *spoiler alert* the scenes of Kenny’s post-trauma reactions were far more poignant and effective than having Joetta die would have been. Curtis follows up with an epilogue and in his discussion of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing on September 15, 1963, he rightly notes that, “Although these may be nothing more that names in a book to you now, you must remember that these children were just as precious to their families as Joetta was to the Watsons or as your brothers and sisters are to you”. The ache of worrying about Joetta, followed by the thrill of learning that she survived, makes the historical reality of Addie, Denise, Carol, and Cynthia’s deaths even more heartbreaking.
Both the novel and the epilogue end positively, but with a call to action. Overall the book is a reminder of all the best qualities of children’s literature. A great read for any day of the year.
R. J. Palacio’s Wonder (Knopf, $15.99) has been receiving excellent press since it was released in February of this year. It made the New York Times Notable Children’s Books list for 2012 as well as the Kirkus Reviews Best Children’s Books of the year. It’s also been flying off our shelves since summer and is on our store’s Picks of the Year so I figured it was finally time to read it.
August Pullman is starting 5th grade and for the first time in his life, he is going to school. Due to a statistically improbable genetic condition, he doesn’t look like anyone else: “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse”. Auggie’s perceptions and ability to read people have become so acute over the years that — regardless of the severity of someone’s response — he always registers the exact moment that a person first sees him. Some people scream, some express quiet shock, and some only pause for one millionth of a second, but Auggie always knows. Fifth grade, as the principal of Beecher Middle School indicates, is the beginning of the transition from childhood to adulthood. His classmates reactions to him range from innocent curiosity to maliciousness.
While the narrative is primarily focalized through August’s perspective, Palacio gives the story more depth by incorporating other character’s interpretations. As perceptive as Auggie might be, he is young. He is so aware of people’s initial impressions that he often misses the changing over time as people get to know him. Hearing his friends’, his older sister’s, and some of her friends’ voices allows for more complex understanding of the full story. Shock doesn’t always mean fear. Sometimes people say things they don’t really believe. And first impressions fade into deeper understanding.
“my head swirls on this, but then softer thoughts soothe, like a flatted third on a major chord. no, no, it’s not all random, if it really was all random, the universe would abandon us completely. and the universe doesn’t. it takes care of its most fragile creations in ways we can’t see. . . . maybe it is a lottery, but the universe makes it all even out in the end. the universe takes care of all its birds.” ~ Justin, Wonder