November 2007

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Finding Your Way

Pat Murphy’s Wild Girls came my way completely out of the blue. I mistakenly assumed it had fantastic elements as one of the two preteen protagonists claim in the opening chapters that her mother was transformed into a fox. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Wild Girls is one of the best books I have read in ages about being true to yourself in spite of family chaos. It’s about finding out who you are, even at the age of eleven or twelve, and gaining self respect. That’s a lesson rarely shared in books for children and one that I found most welcome.

The “wild girls” of the title are Joan and Sarah, otherwise known as Fox, who meet the summer that Joan is the new girl in town. Sarah is being raised by her father, a science fiction writer, after her mother’s abandonment five years before. Joan is struggling to hold onto her world as her parents’ long suffering marriage threatens to explode. These are not troubled girls, but they are uncertain and sometimes sad. In school they find themselves on the fringes, tolerated but not popular. Joan has an easier time than Sarah but it is to each other that they pour out their hearts and share all their worries. The book takes a major turn when the girls decide to write a story together and enter it into a contest. Winning gives them a chance to celebrate their wild selves and also to take part in a writing class for young people on a nearby college campus. They make friends with like-minded students (and adults) and through writing begin to see their own lives in a different way. The book then becomes not so much about growing up as it is about standing tall, and seeing the transformation in these two young girls is truly powerful reading.

What really impressed me about the book though was how seriously Murphy addresses the issues of breaking families. She shows how even though adults might think they have a situation in hand, children know what is going on and it messes with them constantly. Here is Joan silently watching her parents:

I watched my father put the spoon in the sink. Through the window, I saw my mom step into the kitchen. She was saying something; I could see her mouth moving. When she stopped talking, she was pressing her lips together hard, as if she were trying to keep words from escaping.

I didn’t have to hear what they were saying. I knew they were arguing about something. My father was saying something mean and my mom was trying to act like it wasn’t mean.

The book is full of moments like that one -- of Joan and her brother struggling not to blame each other, of Sarah’s anger with her missing mother bubbling over and into her life, of Joan’s mother learning again what it means to think of herself first. The biggest revelations were found in the depictions of the two fathers, men who could easily have been cardboard figures (cool quirky dad, workaholic angry dad) but transcend those categories and become memorable characters on their own.

Jumping into the teen years, in Carpe Diem author Autumn Cornwell has created a thoroughly engaging protagonist who is literally on the trip of a lifetime. Vassar Spore is the definition of overachiever and she has her whole life (at least through her Ph.D.) planned out by the age of sixteen. She comes from parents who encourage this sort of goal setting (her name is not a hint, but a plan) and it is the only sort of life that Vassar knows. As the book begins the most important thing in her world is spending her upcoming summer in multiple AP classes so she can surge ahead of the competition and cement herself as future valedictorian of her class. Then her hippie grandmother calls with a whole different plan for little Vassar and before you know it, she’s on her way to Malaysia for the kind of summer that generally her world would never even allow her to imagine, let alone consider.

Grandma Gerd is an artist, and she is afraid that Vassar is becoming not only too focused on schoolwork, but even worse an academic snob. She manages to threaten her son and daughter-in-law with some kind of blackmail concerning a deep dark family secret and Vassar ends up with no choice about going to Southeast Asia. The Spores pull together and plan everything -- down to the ten suitcases that she must bring with her in order to survive in Malaysia, Cambodia and Laos. Vassar manages to wrangle out a promise from her principal that if she writes a novel about her summer she still might get some AP credit. The novel which is emailed back to her friends throughout the book provides a way for her to stay focused on the world that surrounds her and also remain connected with the life she left behind. Interestingly enough though, as her friends become more incredulous over the things Vassar writes, she finds herself reconsidering her own actions and opinions about the people she meets and the things she sees. Nothing, of course, is as Vassar expected to be and as her grandmother forces her to engage more and more in her present circumstance, Vassar discovers that maybe all that working towards the future is not the way to live a life -- or not the way she wants to live hers anyway.

It would be easy to dismiss Carpe Diem as a typical book about a focused teen removed from her comfort zone and forced to reassess her life. In a lot of ways that is what the book is about but honestly, Cornwell has done such a smash bang good job of writing here that I hate the idea that anyone could dismiss this title. The author has traveled and lived all over the world and she writes about the countries Vassar visits with both realism and humor. These are not guidebook encounters the character enjoys, but honestly drawn moments both big and small. I loved how she changes from someone too uptight for her underwear into a teen who decides to “learn for learning’s sake.” And Cornwell’s inclusion of a love interest who happens to be actually Asian -- well that is a wonderful thing to see in a YA book. Finally that mysterious bit of blackmailing plays out slowly and all the secrets are revealed in a most satisfying manner. All in all, I have to say that Carpe Diem really is a classic coming-of-age story and one that I thoroughly enjoyed.

With The One O’Clock Chop author Ralph Fletcher has written a charming tale about one pivotal summer in the life of fourteen-year old Matt. He gets the kind of job that is done by men, not boys (clam digger); he makes a horrific discovery, falls hard for his visiting cousin and sees what it means to take a stand about doing the right thing. Along the way he also moves toward a better understanding with his harried (but very kind) mother and physically distant father. In other words, One O’Clock Chop is about the summer Matt learns what it means to grow up and take charge of his life and the fact that he does it while sweating out on the ocean and digging clams makes this far more of a “doing” book and less of a “sitting back, talking sarcastically and thinking deep woeful thoughts” kind of book.

Early on, Matt takes the job working alongside an experienced clam digger because he is saving money to buy his own boat. His willingness to do hard work to reach his goal is part of the story here, but most of it involves his unexpected feelings for Jazzy, who he has not seen since they were very young. Although the relationship does not proceed beyond kissing, Matt still has strong feelings for her, which makes the inevitable (they are fourteen after all) break-up all that much harder to take. Working his way through all of this gets tough when Jazzy makes a bad choice with one of Matt’s classmates. In times of confusion the teen finds himself reaching for the phone to call his father, a nice surprise in a book about a broken family where the distant parent is usually ignored, if not hated.

One O’Clock Chop is a quiet book about taking a chance on life, testing the waters of love and those all-important first steps towards manhood. The adults in the book are particularly well drawn; Matt’s boss Dan is tough but reliable and treats Matt as an adult, something that forces the boy to rise to the occasion and assume some responsibility. The relationship between the two cousins is touchingly written and shouldn’t scare any readers away. We are talking about a crush here that is more about helping Matt figure out who he is then turning into a middle grade takeoff of VC Andrews. Matt works it all out over the summer; how to get a job done, how to love and lose, and how to be a good friend and good son. These are significant lessons that don’t often get told well; Fletcher has done a nice job of writing the sort of story that really can’t be shared enough with kids trying to find their way.

In Lily Archer’s Poison Apples the plot’s direction is clear from the very beginning when the author explains that while “there are probably thousands of girls out there with really stellar stepmothers,” this book is not one of them. Instead Apples is about some truly selfish, immature, cruel stepmothers and the havoc they wreak on three teenage girls. The twist is that these girls decide not to sit back and take it -- they choose to make life hard for the stepmothers as well. That is why the “poison apples” are born and what they decide to do to the monstrous second wives is very funny to read.

Alice, Reena and Molly are three girls from different places who have nothing in common other than sudden family shakeups. Alice’s writer mother has passed away leaving her and her father truly bereft. At first she thinks it is a good thing when her father begins seeing someone but as “R.” proves to be both bitchy and way more controlling than seems possible, Alice realizes she is dealing with the enemy. Then her father decides to move, and she gets shipped off to boarding school. Clearly R. has won and Alice is miserable.

Reena and her brother are shocked when their father casts aside their mother for a ridiculously young yoga teacher who is enthralled with all things India (which probably explains her attraction to their Dad). In her case, Reena is stuck between a father who does not want to deal with his first wife and a mother who is an absolute wreck at the thought of no longer being a wife. She and her brother flee to boarding school to get some breathing room, not realizing that Dad’s fling is going to take more than one bizarre turn. (I’m just going to say the woman decides to get a pet penguin and leave it at that.)

Finally, Molly has been eager to leave her small dead-end town for ages but after her parents divorce and her mother suffers a subsequent breakdown she is at a loss as to what she should do. Her father suddenly remarries his high school sweetheart who seems to be an advertisement for every bad trailer park cliché and Molly feels doubly abandoned. Boarding school is not just an option, it’s a new home and she can’t help but hate her stepmother for taking everything, including her father and sister, away from her.

Archer writes The Poison Apples from rotating perspectives so we get to see how the misunderstandings between the girls are perceived on all sides. In the end their plans for getting back at the stepmothers are ill-conceived at best, but they are a strike back against forces that really haven’t given them a second’s thought. Archer dances close to making this a big “oh, they weren’t as bad as we thought they were” story, but saves it with an ending that celebrates friends and acknowledges that really, some step-parents just flat-out suck and you have to learn to live with it. (Actually some parents flat-out suck as it is not like the fathers are all that great here either.) There are several moments of really wonderful writing though such as when Molly tries to connect with her father:

“I really, really like Putnam Mount McKinsey,” I announced.

“Aw, that’s great.”

“It’s like: I never want to leave!”

I watched him carefully to see his response. I don’t even know what kind of response I wanted, to be honest. I think maybe I wanted him to wish I would come home -- but because he missed me, not because Candy needed a caretaker for Sandie and Randie. And even though I wanted him to wish that I would come home, I didn’t want him to make me come home.

My feelings were kind of complicated.

But I got no response from him at all. He just stared down at the stove, moving the spoon around in concentric circles.

And as much as Molly wants to blame her stepmother Candy, she knows her father should care enough to say something, anything, to his daughter. And more than an evil stepmother, his silence is what really hurts.  

The Poison Apples is Lily Archer’s first novel and it’s a very good riff on how much good friends can save you when everything else goes to hell. It’s also very funny and one of those pitch perfect reads for sharing with many girlfriends (whether they have stepmonsters of their own or not).

With Into the Ravine, Richard Scrimger has written one of those timeless buddy stories that is reminiscent of Stephen King’s “The Body” (actually closer to the film version) along with some more literal borrowing from Huck Finn. Jules, Chris and Cory have been friends forever in a way that means they can’t imagine life without each other but also that traps them in a playground kind of relationship where more things are left unsaid then perhaps should be. Out of sheer boredom they build a raft and decide to float it down a creek through their town one summer. It is a harmless trip taking only a day; a parent will meet them at the park where the creek ends and other than some sunburn and bug bites they don’t expect much in the way of danger. This is an unscripted adventure however and all sorts of things are discovered in the journey about both themselves and their town.
This is a novel that celebrates friendship between boys without being the slightest bit false in tone or characterization. Here’s Jules on Cory:

He’s special, but not the way the teachers use the word, meaning slow. He really is special. Maybe he’s a beat behind in math and reading, but he’s a great artist. His spaceships or zombies look like you’d see on TV, and he can do cartoons too. And he knows every color there is. Cory is just, well, Cory. Teachers don’t ask him to take off his red cap anymore. That’s Cory, they say. Chris and I don’t hang out with him to be nice, or because our moms said we had to. We like him. And he gives us something to share. I sometimes wonder if we’d be as good friends if Cory wasn’t there.

This passage is at the very beginning of the book, before the hobos and the bullies and the beautiful girl. Before the boys stumble onto a funeral and hear for the first time about the dangerous “Bonesaw.” Jules and his friends are far from finding out just how much they mean to each other, and just how powerful their friendship can be, when he makes the observation about Cory. The path to those realizations is full of many challenging moments that all fit perfectly into the book’s setting. In other words, don’t expect spies or magic but do plan to see the sort of leaps and thrills that most kids could reasonably expect to find on a similar adventure (excepting Bonesaw, I suppose).

In his novella Promises to Keep Charles de Lint returns to the early days of one of his most beloved Newford characters, Jilly Coppercorn. For fans this will be a delight well worth seeking out but teen readers who have a chance to read it should not pass it up. You do not need any prior knowledge of Jilly’s life to enjoy this story and its message of taking control of your life and moving beyond the legacy of a horrific childhood. It is also a very interesting journey into the world of the dead that has the usual de Lint twist of difficult choices and heavy promises.

The story opens with a chance meeting between Jilly and Donna, an old friend. After a brief conversation where Donna invites her to a bar where she will performing later that week, they part and the plot begins to travel back in forth between Jilly’s present life as an art student and waitress and her childhood when she first met Donna in the Home for Wayward Girls. As Jilly struggled to overcome her longtime abuse at the hands of her older brother, she and Donna, who lost her entire family to a violent attack, became close friends. A big part of why they got along was Jilly’s acceptance that Donna was able to see and speak to her own brother, who was dead.

Over the years as the girls grow up they drift in and out of each other’s lives culminating in their dual descents into drug addiction and life on the streets. Jilly gets lucky, finds help and creates a new life with close friends and real prospects for a healthy and happy future. She has long lost track of Donna before they run into each other on the street and her eagerness to reconnect with her friend makes her overlook a few odd questions about the bar where Donna’s band is performing and the other people who are present the night of the show. Jilly later regrets “leaping without looking” but she can be forgiven for carelessly rushing in; her trusting nature is part of what makes her such an endearing character and it is easy to understand why she acts as she does.

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away but suffice to say Donna’s circumstances have changed dramatically and while she still loves Jilly, she no longer knows her friend as she once did and this leads her to make a rash conclusion of her own. The girls find themselves stuck with some big questions about the best choice for Jilly’s future, and as the story flashes back to her recent life in Newford it becomes clear that friendships of all kinds play a big part of Promises to Keep as well as commitments a person must make both to themselves and the people they care about.

It’s not easy to change who you have been all your life, and it can be very scary to take on new responsibilities. Jilly finds herself caught between the lure of an easy life and the challenge of hard fought personal victories. What she decides, and how it affects her friendship with Donna, makes this fantasy/coming-of-age story all things good and powerful and a classic peek into the wonder that is Newford.

Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story is now out in paperback, and anyone who missed it the first time around has no more excuses. This story of teenage Craig, who suffers a major breakdown brought on by the academic stress of his new high school, should be all things depressing, maudlin and clichéd that any novel about depressed teens is like, but it most certainly is not. I actually avoided it for all those reasons -- we have enough books about suicidal teens, thank you very much, and I didn’t need to read another one. I am ever so grateful that I gave Vizzini’s book a shot however because it really is so very different from what I expected. It’s not even the humor so much that made the book memorable to me -- it is more that what Craig goes through is universal and in fact, a lot more of us have been or are in the same boat he is. Consider this revelation shortly after he becomes suicidal and commits himself to the neighborhood hospital’s psych unit:

I wish the world were like this, if I just woke up and marked the food I’d be eating and it came to me later in the day. I suppose it is like that, except you have to pay for whatever you want to eat, so maybe what I’m asking for is communism, but I think it’s actually deeper than communism -- I’m asking for simplicity, for purity and ease of choice and no pressure. I’m asking for something that no politics is going to provide, something that probably you only get in preschool. I’m asking for preschool.

The moment he mentioned simplicity I realized just how universal the message was that Vizzini had written. The burning need to simplify has gotten so great that we sell magazines and make TV shows about it. The absurdity of that notion is actually lost on most of us, as the author shows with Craig’s Herculean effort to make it into an impressive school only to learn once he is there that his earlier efforts are nothing compared to what it will take to stay. And then once he graduates there is the right college and the right job and the right marriage and the right house. Craig’s life will be bent on obtaining the next thing until he dies, and reading all the “simplicity and authenticity” magazines in the world aren’t going to reduce that life equation to something he can manage. His breakdown is the sanest thing he has done since getting into the school, and the first opportunity at peace he has had in months.

The hospital gives him a chance to both meet people who expect nothing from him and think about what he wants. His discoveries there are sweet and funny and quietly extraordinary. The way he finds his new path to growing up is wonderful to read and also will be deeply insightful to anyone, regardless of age, who finds themselves in a comparable race to success.

I was deeply moved by Craig’s character, by how he blunders his way into trouble and out again and also by his very kind family who does not know what is wrong and thus can’t help him fix it. (They are blissfully, delightfully normal, something else you don’t often find in a story about a kid in trouble.) The people Craig meets in the hospital defy all Cuckoo’s Nest comparisons and provide him with the opportunity to see life a little clearer, and thus get ever so much closer to his own hopes and dreams.

Finally, Shauna Cross’s Derby Girl is a riot girl story in the best sense of the word. Bliss Cavendar (pity her for that name) is the unfortunate daughter of a former beauty queen who has no interest at all in the pageant world. Bliss would much rather listen to her favorite indie rock, wear old concert t-shirts and dye her hair wild colors. She excels at being a cynic who refuses to fit in but life in her small Texas town seems to thwart her sardonic nature at every turn. She seems doomed to seek the Miss Blue Bonnet crown whether she wants it or not until she dares herself into trying out for the roller derby league in nearby Austin. To say that the sport electrifies Bliss’s life would be an understatement, but almost more importantly, it gives Cross’s book a very unique spin.     

Personally I don’t know beans about roller derby beyond the great Raquel Welch movie from the 1970s. What Cross, who is a member of the Los Angeles Derby Dolls, does here is reveal all the female badass appeal of the sport. She shows how smart you have to be to form a winning strategy and how tough Bliss has to be to survive a game, let alone the inevitable confrontation with her mother. There is also a romance between our heroine and a musician fan of the sport, who ends up being everything Bliss needs – for a very little while. The bigger story to me though was between mother and daughter, a relationship that seemed very clichéd in the beginning but turned out to have more than a few surprises. I was quite pleased to see how Bliss’s mom developed as the story progressed and how the teenager came to understand just why pageants would mean so much to her, and how hard it would be for her to let go of that dream for her daughter.

I was drawn to Derby Girl first and foremost because of the sport, but once I met Bliss I fell hard for her burning desire to do something else. I really loved what the book had to say about just what sort of heights a teenage girl should aim for and what kind of amazing experiences they can have if they are brave enough to try. Nicely done, Ms. Cross.

As always, I can be found at my site, chasingray.com, where conversations continue everyday on topics such as good books, flying and writing about Alaska. Feel free to check it out.
           

Cool Read: Kingfisher’s new chemistry book, The Periodic Table: Elements With Style! has to be one of the hippest and best designed books on the subject ever published. Created by Basher and written by Adrian Dingle, it generally features a two-page spread for every one of the elements that includes a witty write-up on one side and a witty illustration on the other. You have to see it to really appreciate it, but as an example, magnesium is characterized as “happy to mix in a social gathering of the elements, making friends with anyone, even moody hydrogen. I’m sparky and I always cause a reaction!” It is drawn red with flames coming out of his head -- like sparks. Just like that, the reader gets an image of magnesium that stays with them, and makes the element easier to remember.

All of the other important information on the elements is included on each page, including date of discovery, density, atomic weight and number and symbol. This is, first and foremost, an exceedingly useful book. The fact that everything you need to know about the elements is presented in such an engaging and charming matter though elevates it mightily head and shoulders above any kind of academic text. This is science writing of the best kind for children from elementary school age up and to and including college. It’s bright and saucy and bloody well brilliant. I have no idea at all why I haven’t been hearing about it all over the place; it’s certainly a must-have for students everywhere.