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.
Loki’s Wolves by K. L. Armstrong and M. A Marr (Little, Brown, $16.99, out today) is the Nordic answer to any kid clamoring for more books about mortals who find themselves in ancient-god-type situations. Set in North Dakota, which is unusual, but kind of refreshing, Matt Thorson has grown up hearing the Norse myths and sagas as if they were family history, which it turns out they are. Matt is a direct descendent of Thor and his classmates, cousins Fen and Laurie, are the descendants of Loki. The three are somewhat begrudgingly thrown together to prepare for an event called Ragnarök, otherwise known as the apocalypse. In Matt, Fen, and Laurie’s adventures through North Dakota, they encounter Valkyries, trolls, other mortal/god descendants, and the local police. It’s up to them to decide whom to trust and how best to prepare themselves to save the world from the end of the world. The first book in a series, Loki’s Wolves isn’t quite as well-paced as Riordan’s books, or as funny, and there were occasional confusing narrative shifts, but the series has a lot of potential and it’s fun to read about cultural myths that aren’t as well known as the Greeks’. Besides, I don’t think Riordan fans will complain too much. Loki’s Wolves is the perfect book for any reader who thoroughly enjoyed the Kane Chronicles (me).
At Winter Institute, I had the pleasure of meeting Linda Urban, author of A Crooked Kind of Perfect. She is currently promoting her latest book, The Center of Everything (HMH, $15.99). I had sent a copy of A Crooked Kind of Perfect to my godbaby for her 9th birthday and she love it, so I asked Linda to sign a copy for her. That was weeks ago and I just got around to mailing it off today, because of course I wanted to read it first. Ruby, age 12, is also the Essay Girl for her town’s local parade, which celebrates Captain Bunning, the town founder and inventor of the donut hole (not really). Thanks to a rather complicated local tradition (successfully toss a quarter dated with the year of your birth through the outstretched hands of the founder’s statue on your birthday after repeating your wish 90 times), Ruby has earned herself a Bunning Day wish. Ruby’s grandmother, Gigi, has recently passed away, and Ruby wants something that can only come from a wish. But wishes are funny things and often have rules and guidelines just tricky enough to allude even the most accomplished wisher. Ruby’s wish — the one she wished on her birthday, and all the wishes she hasn’t dared to wish in case she jeopardizes her hard-won birthday wish — flits through the narrative. Her wish dances around her, carefully nudging her along, so that by the time she realizes her wish isn’t going to be granted, she’s found everything that she didn’t know to wish for.
I’ve been debating with myself whether it’s worth writing about a book that I didn’t like, given that the point of this blog is to make book recommendations. Well in this particular case, I read a book last night that I have actually recommended on several occasions. We do that sometimes, recommend books we haven’t read. I usually try to be honest about it. “Have you read it?” “Well I’ve read the back.”
The book in question is Liz Kessler’s A Year Without Autumn (Candlewick, $6.99). I wanted to like this book, not least because it has a great cover. It also has an interesting description. I like books with a little time travel, especially when it’s handled well (see Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me). I also thought this book looked like it would be a good step forward for fans of Emily Windsnap. It is a little more serious, has complex themes, and in general just looks really good. But it was boring. There is a lot of unnecessary description of things that had little to do with the story. And I don’t think the girls sound very realistic. There is something about their conversation that feels stilted to me. Many of the word choices seemed particularly British, so I assumed the whole time I was reading that the book takes place in Britain. At the end, however, it becomes clear that the girls are supposed to be American. By that time I was just confused because they really didn’t sound like American pre-teens. Anyway, the book has an interesting premise and would probably even generate some thought-provoking questions about fate, friendship, and what you can and cannot control in your life. I just wish that there was more to help me connect with the Jenni and Autumn or at least care what happens to them. I don’t think I’ll start steering people away from it (I do that sometimes, too), but I’m taking it off my list of books to recommend.
Clearly there is a theme to this week, but it’s omnipresent at the moment and I can’t think amout much else. Being with grandma has been amazing and most of the times things just feel normal, as if grandpa is in the next room getting a coke or taking a nap, both of which he did a lot. But then I walk into the dining room and there is a lovely portrait of him that has been prepared for the memorial service and it’s an immediate reminder that he isn’t coming back. Or there will be a slight pause in conversation and someone gets a little misty and we all think about how much he loved sitting around the table “fixing the problems of the world” as my grandmother likes to say. And I think about what he’s missing. The whole family is here and he should be, too.
Cynthia Rylant’s Missing May (Scholastic, $5.99) describes the turbulent emotions of being left behind, and the desire to hold on long after someone is gone. When May suddenly dies, Summer and her uncle Ob struggle between mourning May’s death and holding on to the possibility that she could communicate with them from the spirit world. I come from a rather religious family and the discourse is always clearly focused on grandpa being “in a better place” or “with the Lord”. These types of phrases don’t mean much to me as I can’t imagine him wanting to be anywhere other than with his family. But these are the phrases people hold on to; the ones they say to comfort each other and themselves; the phrases we use to help ease the pain of letting go. I can’t decide if I envy the certainty that grandpa continues on — in another place. But I do know that hearing all the stories this week means that we can let go, without losing him.
As expected Grandma is the most stoic person here. With all the kids and grandchildren, most of whom are adults, there are a lot of voices. It’s hard to know what’s best and everyone has an opinion, but at the same time we’re all following Grandma’s lead and working very hard to remember Grandpa with positive and upbeat memories. Sometimes we even joke and laugh, because that’s what Grandpa did best. He had a kind word for everyone and a joke or story always at the ready.
I’ve discussed it before, but Madeleine L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light is one of the most poignant stories about death that I read as a teenager. It’s a book I’ll recommend over and over. I wonder if my cousin, 15, would appreciate it right now. Someone said the grandchildren — there are 15 of us ranging from 42-9 — are taking grandpa’s death really hard. I would think 15 is the hardest age of all: old enough to feel the full weight of what has happened, but not yet fully possessing the tools to cope. Despite the subject matter, there is a joy in L’Engle’s book. One I see here as I am surrounded by a family who is struggling to celebrate grandpa even as we all desperately miss him.
Hurricane Sandy delayed this post a bit. I’m still waiting for power, but the electricity company trucks worked for a while outside then drove away so I’m not optimistic.
Neil Gaiman’s Newbery Award winning The Graveyard Book (HarperCollins, $8.99) does in fact take place in a graveyard. Bod (you get the joke, right?) is indeed raised by ghosts. This book is also laugh-out-loud hilarious and, like all of Gaiman’s stories, just weird enough to make you wonder if you really got the whole idea. Is the bizarre ending really profound? Am I just not quite twisted enough to understand the subtleties? Either way The Graveyard Book is worth reading — on Halloween or any time of year really. I’ve never met a community of ghosts I more want to be friends with. You’ll never look at cemeteries the same way again. And my dark house is suddenly starting to feel very much alive.