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Random Thoughts on What I'm Reading
I first read The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis several years ago. This wonderful middle-grade novel about the Weird Watsons is one of my favorites. A new edition came out last year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963.
In the first chapter, we learn about the "Weird Watsons" of Flint, Michigan, through the eyes of ten-year-old Kenny. When his teenaged brother, Byron, constantly gets into trouble, Dad and Momma threaten to make him live with strict Grandma Sands in Birmingham.
After Byron goes too far with his delinquent escapades, Dad and Momma keep their word. They load up the Brown Bomber and the Weird Watsons--Dad, Momma, Byron, Kenny, and little sister Joey--drive South. Momma assures them that Birmingham will be quiet and slow, just what Byron needs to straighten up, but they're heading into the dark heart of racist America.
When Kenny experiences the church bombing firsthand, it changes the Watsons forever, just as it changed the country.
Amazingly, The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 is also funny. It shows a close, loving family dealing both with the everyday ups and downs of life, and with the larger theme of what it means to be African-American in the mid-sixtiies.
And through it all, the irrepressible Kenny is our guide. For ages 8 to 12.
Ten-year-old Caitlin is a typical fifth grader. She loves to draw and eat pizza. She’s also atypical in two major ways: she has Asperger’s syndrome, and her older brother, Devon, was recently killed by a school shooter.
Kathryn Erskine explores both these storylines beautifully and sensitively in her middle-grade novel, Mockingbird.
We hear Caitlin's first-person voice tell her own story. Her world is confusing, as she doesn't understand about social cues, friendship, and Looking at the Person. Her dad (her mom died when Caitlin was a baby) is struggling to deal with Devon's death, too. A school counselor also stumbles at times, showing how even well-meaning adults can't always be there for Caitlin.
More than anything, Caitlin wants Closure--a tough concept for any child, but especially one who has trouble with emotion and relationships. A friendship with a first grader, Michael, helps Caitlin reach out and learn about navigating the world.
As Caitlin searches for Closure, we learn about her bond with Devon and how the mockingbird of the title was a tie between sister and brother.
At the end, I learned from Caitlin. We all need Closure in different ways, and Caitlin's journey shows that it's possible if we just keep trying. Ages 8 to 12.
In Jack and the Wild Life by Lisa Doan, the sequel to the hilarious Jack the Castaway (see below), Jack’s parents have learned their lesson. Or so they say.
Richard and Claire Berenson have a plan—surprise!—for a new moneymaking scheme that’s sure to be a success. They’ve even followed the Family Decision-Making Rules, as established by seventh-grader Jack.
So what could go wrong with their plan to open a rustic (to say the least) tourist camp in Kenya, where you can live like the Maasi, build your own hut, and milk a cow named Princess?
Plenty, as Jack finds out. He gets chased up a tree, fights off honey badgers (who aren’t as sweet as they sound), and runs from an angry bull elephant. Worst of all, his parents have lost him again! Surviving on Chips Ahoy and oranges may be fun for an hour, but try several days.
Jack needs all his ingenuity and every piece of duct tape in his backpack to get through this one. Oh, and did I mention the stuffed monkey his (maybe) girlfriend Diana makes him take along? He’s not only lost, he’s the laughingstock of Africa.
Jack and the Wild One is a wild ride, with zany illustrations by Ivica Stevanovic. Bring along your own Chips Ahoy, and hope you survive for the third promised book in the Berenson Schemes series. Ages 9 to 12.
I just reread Linda Sue Park's 2001 Newbery Award winner, A Single Shard, for a writing workshop I attended. What a treat. This is just about the perfect novel.
The story is set in a small village in twelfth-century Korea, where thirteen-year-old orphan Tree Ear lives under a bridge with the homeless Crane-man.
Tree Ear, who feels shamed at having an orphan's name, longs to be a potter. But that profession is handed down to potters' sons only, not orphans like himself. Still, Tree Ear hides and watches the master potter Min at work. He dreams that one day he will make a beautiful pot himself, even though that dream seems impossible.
After Tree Ear accidentally breaks one of Min’s pots, he works off his debt as the master's helper. Excited, he expects to make his own pot the first day. Instead, Min gives him endless, menial tasks like chopping wood and hauling clay.
Two questions propel the story forward: Will Tree Ear become a potter? And will he ever find love and a family of his own?
I won't reveal the answers. Tree Ear's coming-of-age journey, despite the odds and obstacles against him, is one that is deeply satisfying. For ages 9 to 12.
Jane Gardam's novel for teens, A Long Way from Verona, begins with this wonderful first paragraph:
"I ought to tell you at the beginning that I am not quite normal, having had a violent experience at the age of nine. I will make this clear at once because I have noticed that if things seep out slowly through a book the reader is apt to feel let down or tricked in some way when he eventually gets the point."
This narrator is very aware of her readers (us), and that's because she's a writer "beyond all possible doubt." She's been told so by a visiting author to her school.
Jessica Vye, age 13, is brilliant, annoying, chatty, ironic, hilarious, and dead serious--in other words, she's all the things that make a fictional character great.
The novel takes place during World War II in England. As for that violent experience? I won't ruin the surprise. A hint: it involves an encounter with a "maniac."
Jessica's journey to becoming a poet is honest and truthful. She made her way into my heart--so much so that I've read this novel three times.
Welcome to the journey.
Guys! Have you ever wondered how a girl thinks?
Girls! Have you ever wondered how a guy thinks?
If you answered yes, check out this teen short story anthology Girl Meets Boy, edited by Kelly Milner Halls.
The subtitle says, "Because there are two sides to every story." That's what this collection does. Noted writers for teens have been paired to write about the same scenario, but from different perspectives. What a great idea!
In "No Clue, AKA Sean," Rita Williams-Garcia writes from the point of view of Raffina, an African-American girl interested in a white guy at school--Sean. Guys usually hit on Raffina because of her brother, a basketball star, but Sean is different. He actually knows how to pronounce her name.
We read Sean's point of view in "Sean + Raffina" by Terry Trueman. Sean sits next to Raffina in Human Relations 2 while their teacher talks about intimate body parts. As Sean says, "Could there be any worse place in the universe to be sitting right next to someone you'd really like to hook up with?" I'd have to say no. Read on to see if Raffina and Sean get together.
My favorite pair of stories comes from the writers James Howe and Ellen Wittlinger. "Want to Meet" tells Max's story. He's a gay kid in a world that doesn't accept him. He goes online to find someone to talk to, and "meets" a boy named Alex in a chat room. Then it's Alex's turn in "Meeting for Real," when Max gets a surprise.
I recommend this collection for older teens because of the mature nature of the stories. They're funny, sad, and insightful--and they include teens from all parts of the country and from different backgrounds.
Best of all, they give a glimpse into the workings of the mind of that mysterious guy or girl you're interested in.
If you want to laugh until your sides hurt, rush out and find a copy of Jack the Castaway by Lisa Doan.
Eleven-year-old Jack just wants to attend school, do homework, and avoid poisonous frogs.
Unfortunately his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Berenson, have other ideas. Their get-rich-quick schemes have involved panning for gold in the Amazon, taking unsuspecting tourists on safari in Kenya, and exporting precious stones from India--all of them a disaster.
When they announce their newest scheme, which means moving to a Caribbean island, Jack has no choice but to go along.
Jack is reminded daily that the Berensons aren't like other parents. They encourage him to eat candy for breakfast, plan to educate him with their "home-schooling thingy," and don't worry in the least after Jack has disappeared for several hours in a foreign country.
When the Berensons launch their new scheme, a snorkeling business, Jack knows it will be another disaster. But he doesn't know it will be his disaster until he finds himself cast ashore on a deserted island circled by a whale shark. His only company is a parrot named Loco whose favorite phrase is, "Bad dog." Not exactly helpful when you're almost out of food and water.
Will the Berensons find Jack? Will they finally follow a checklist as Jack has been begging them to?
Fortunately, the hilarious Jack the Castaway is the first book in the Berenson Schemes series. I'm looking forward to more adventures and misadventures--assuming Jack and Loco get off that island. Ages 9 to 12.
I'm continuing my quest to read all the Newbery Award books. The 1972 winner, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien, is a delight.
Mrs. Frisby, a mouse, lives on the Fitzgibbons’ farm. Even though her husband, Jonathan Frisby, had a tragic death, Mrs. Frisby lives contentedly in a cinder block with her four children: Theresa, Martin, Timothy, and Cynthia.
All is well until the day Timothy gets sick. It’s time for planting on the farm, and the Frisby family must move to their summer house along the brook. If they don’t, their house will be plowed under. But Timothy is too sick to move. What will Mrs. Frisby do?
Through Mr. Ages, an elderly mouse, she meets a wise owl who gives her advice: she must ask for help from the rats. The rats? Everyone knows they live beneath the rose bush, but why should they help her? Still, Mrs. Frisby has no choice.
She approaches the rats and meets the extraordinary Nickodemus, Justin, and other rats who have an amazing story to tell. The rats beneath the rosebush are no ordinary rodents. They’ve been used in laboratory experiments at NIMH, where they’ve developed unusual powers. And Mrs. Frisby's husband, Jonathan, had a connection to these special rats. What is NIMH? The author never tells us, but the reader will have fun figuring it out.
I can’t tell you more without giving away too much of the story, but suffice it to say that Mrs. Frisby and the rats of NIMH make a formidable team. This fun animal fantasy has mystery, drama, and suspense. For ages 8-12.
The year is 1950. The setting is the French Quarter in "the Big Easy," New Orleans.
In the young adult novel Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys, seventeen-year-old Josie Moraine's mother is a prostitute who treats Josie harshly.
Since age 12, Josie has lived above the bookshop where she now works. Josie wants a different life for herself. She wants to move someplace where no one will know her or her past.
After she meets a socialite college girl who attends Smith College back East, Josie dreams of going there herself. But where will she get the money?
Josie's team of friends conspire to help her. There's Patrick , whose father owns the bookshop. There's Cokie, the chauffeur for the brothel, and the only adult male Josie trusts. And there's Jesse, the boy who's falling for Josie.
After Josie's mom gets involved with the local mob, Josie's chances of escaping New Orleans seem slim. But her resolution to leave grows even stronger.
This young adult novel deals with a difficult subject, but it's also a character study of a girl determined to choose her own path "out of the Easy." Ages 14 and up.
Jennifer K. Mann's debut picture book that she both wrote and illustrated, Two Speckled Eggs, shows that friendship can come from unexpected places.
Ginger wants to invite all the girls in her class to her birthday party—except Lyla Browning. "Lyla Browning was weird: she smelled like old leaves, she didn't talk much, and she even brought a tarantula in a pickle jar for Show-and-Tell."
But Mom says Ginger has to invite all the girls, or none of them. Lyla arrives at the party early and brings a plain, brown box. The other girls show up, and the party begins! But it’s not the fun party Ginger expected.
The other girls create chaos, wreck the party games, and don’t like Ginger's silver-and-gold birthday cake.
Meanwhile, Lyla is exploring the house with her magnifying glass. When a ladybug lands on Ginger’s nose, she laughs. Lyla does, too. And when Ginger opens Lyla’s gift in the plain, brown box, it’s something special that none of the other girls would have thought of.
Jennifer Mann is one of my critique partners, and I'm thrilled to see Two Speckled Eggs in stores and libraries. Check out her beautiful, kid-friendly artwork, and read this story about how being a little bit different can lead to a wonderful friendship.
Roddy Doyle's A Greyhound of a Girl is a book I found in one of the Little Free Libraries that dot Bainbridge Island. In this “grand” novel, a ghost story set in Ireland, four generations of women go on a journey exploring life and death.
There’s 12-year-old Mary, who doesn’t consider herself a child anymore. There’s Scarlett, her mother. There’s Emer, Mary’s grandmother, who’s facing the biggest journey of all: death. And then there’s Tansey, Mary’s great-grandmother, who’s...well, a ghost.
As Mary and Scarlett try to cope with Emer’s fatal illness, Tansey appears to Mary one day. Mary isn’t scared, just curious. At first she thinks Tansey is one of the neighbors. But there’s something odd about her. She fades in and out. She’s young, but dresses and speaks in an old-fashioned way.
Mary and Scarlett accept that Tansey has come back to see Emer, her daughter. They learn Tansey's story: that she died as a young woman, when Emer was only three, and she wasn’t ready to let go of life. As Emer faces her final days, Tansey plans to help her.
When the four women take a midnight journey to the farm where Tansey and Emer lived, a farm that’s been a part of family lore, they discover the powerful bonds that connect them. They also witness the strength and love it requires to say good-bye.
If I’m making this novel sound maudlin, it isn’t. Mary is cheeky, her brothers “Dommo” and “Killer” are hilarious, and Tansey is full of quips.
Best of all is the language. Roddy Doyle writes primarily for adults and is known for his sharp and spot-on dialogue. Here the characters speak in an Irish lilt that will make you start trying to copy them.
Instead, you can reread A Greyhound of a Girl and relive Mary’s journey, which is our journey, too. Ages 9 and up.