February 2008

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

The Long Road to Recovery

With Long May She Reign Ellen Emerson White returns to her much beloved President’s Daughter series and gives us the mother of all coming-of-age novels about a very troubled teen. This was a book that I could not put down and it also left me conflicted and confused for weeks afterwards. I wasn’t sure if I loved it or not but I could not forget it. And then I realized that my problem was not this book but rather my own distance from what it is to be a teenager. This was a case of an adult reviewer who had a problem with a protagonist’s love interest and let that color the way she saw the whole book. And that’s why reviewing books for children and teenagers is not so easy sometimes; the things that seem absurd for an adult reader are achingly real for an eighteen-year-old. This is especially true when it comes to romance, something I forget from time to time, but it in no way should prevent anyone from reading this amazing book. I’m over the whole boyfriend thing now, I swear. (Although if another book in the series is on the horizon I do hope that Meg drops this guy before chapter one.)

It is unnecessary to be familiar with Meg’s life prior to reading Long May She Reign, as White fills readers in very quickly on the events that occurred in prior books. Meg’s mother is the President of the United States and because of that, Meg was kidnapped and beaten by terrorists. Her mother refused to negotiate for her release but, after being left for dead, Meg was able to escape. She sustained severe injuries though and much of Reign is occupied with her struggle to cope with the resulting physical and psychological trauma. There is also the problem of her parents, who are at odds over the decision not to negotiate for her release. Life in the White House is incredibly tense and early on Meg decides she needs to leave for college, as she would have if the kidnapping had never occurred. Part of her would love to hide in the security of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue forever but she knows that is helping no one, least of all herself. So Meg goes off to college, and all sorts of chaos ensues.

White does a first rate job of writing about life as the child of the president. Readers will see how tough it is for Meg to have a life with everyone waiting and watching to see if she can cope with life again. She struggles to make new friends while also trying to care about school and grades again. The fact that she used to be a great athlete and now can barely walk is another different kind of pain, and one she tries to find the strength to confront in the middle of everything else.

And there is a boy, who I can understand that Meg finds appealing, and their romance is yet another facet of her attempt to be normal. Each small step she makes in the forward direction is met by the care and concern of her parents and family friends, the only people she trusts and the only ones who truly know her. Meg has a lot to confront -- she is pretty much the literary poster child for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder -- and just getting through the night without going insane seems impossible at times. But she keeps on with that forward movement because she knows the alternative will see her only in darkness and despair and she doesn’t want that; she doesn’t want the bad guys to win.

Long May She Reign is a big (720 pages!) book that reads fast and furious. It’s a remarkable achievement for White, and a grand personal adventure for readers. This is the story of a girl who didn’t want her life to be different but now must deal with what it has become. I really fell hard for Meg Powers and I think she is a wonderful literary character. I’d put her strength -- her stalwartness -- up there with Meg Murray any day, and I certainly consider her one of the teen heroines for the ages.

Jonathon Scott Fuqua addresses the difficult topic of mental illness in his novel, King of the Pygmies. Fifteen-year old Penn suddenly, in the midst of the most mundane of activities, finds himself hearing voices in his head. The voices don’t tell him to do things, don’t assault or attack him, but still they don’t belong there. They seem to arrive and leave at will and Penn quite naturally is terrified.

It isn’t long before Penn’s parents find out what is happening and their reactions are predictable and appropriate; they want to get Penn to a mental health professional as quickly as possible for an evaluation and diagnosis. His mother thinks he has schizophrenia, which seems plausible, but then something happens that derails their careful plans. Penn’s Uncle Hewitt, former Chief of Police and now a mournful widower who has become the town drunk, tells Penn that he also hears voices and it is a gift that should be treasured. He tells Penn they are “pygmies,” and his nephew is so talented at reading the minds of those around him, of hearing their unspoken thoughts, that he just might be the King of the Pygmies.

You can imagine how well this goes over with mom.

In the middle of trying to understand what is happening to him, Penn is also a teenager falling in love with Daisy and spending time with his older brother Matty and even hanging out with his almost delinquent cousins. He’s a kid with a paper route who knows his parents are fighting the good fight every day just to keep a roof over his head (this is a blue collar family and it’s portrayed wonderfully) and he hates that this sudden thing has added to their worries and there is nothing he can do to alleviate about that. Unless Uncle Hewitt isn’t crazy and maybe there is something going on here that isn’t scientific at all and maybe it could be a good thing if he learned to handle it, maybe it could just be part of Penn and not a tragedy. He doesn’t know but he hopes, and that hope is what keeps him going as he tries to find some answers.

Penn is a wonderful character and just about everyone in this book is deep and thoughtful and the way his family hangs in there and fights hard to believe in their son is really a delight to read. Fuqua has done an outstanding job of showing a middle class family in crisis but rather than fall back on the traditional collapse of the family structure he gives us people rising to the occasion. They aren’t perfect and they all have their moments of fear but they are good people and it was so nice to read a book that allowed them to be that way, that didn’t feel the need to fill an already powerful narrative with a bunch of pointless emotional distractions. The story is about Penn and what happens to him and Fuqua gives his novel room to breathe here.

The author has a personal and powerful note at the end about mental illness that runs for several pages and is worth the purchase price alone. Altogether, he has written an excellent book and I hope he realizes just how much it stands out from the current crop of YA titles. (Fuqua also has a recent YA title out from Soft Skull Press, Gone and Back Again that deals with teenage depression and I have on good authority it is an excellent read as well.)

On the surface, Danny Parsons in Ron King’s Quantum July seems to be suffering from the most common of teen complaints: his family is breaking up. His mother has jumped at a chance to return to physics years after sacrificing her academic career to raise her children. The new career also seems to be leading to a new apartment. Meanwhile his father has gotten lost in some sort of supermarket employment stupor that has sucked away all of his ambition. He doesn’t even know how to ask his wife to stay.

For his part, Danny spends most of his time dreaming about the exciting lives he would like to have, all very different from the one he is living. While this is a bit troubling to his family it is something else about Danny that turns his life (and everyone else’s) upside down. It seems that Danny is able to set events in motion simply by touch. His brilliant sister Bridget decides to test her theories about her older brother and together the two set themselves careening on a path through math and physics that gives Danny a glimpse of the father he always wished he had -- the ultimate escapist fantasy. But at what price does he get this father; what price must he pay to switch his reality for another?

Through Bridget, King patiently explains a surprising amount of quantum physics theory, especially the Shrödinger’s Cat experiment. What’s really cool is that in the context of Danny’s changing world, and all too familiar family circumstance, it is fairly easy to understand. In the end what it comes down to is that Danny must choose but just as his father has been paralyzed by indecision for more than a decade, Danny finds himself equally unable to act. But not choosing has terrible consequences; it can bring about the end of a marriage and tear a family apart in one case and cause death and destruction in another. Danny has to do something and he has to do it fast, but knowing that and acting on it are two very different things, and the reader will be kept guessing until the very last page. Quantum July is a first rate novel and an impressive way to make physics a crucial part of a surprising thrilling story about a boy trying to accept his parents and the choices they have made.

The three young girls in Jacqueline Woodson’s After Tupac and D Foster are friends forever; joined at the hip and determined to hang out well into adulthood. Two of them, Neeka and the unnamed protagonist, live in the same neighborhood in Queens, while “D” discovered them sitting on their stoop while she was out “roaming” one day. The girls reach out to D and slowly, over the next couple of years they learn that her mother has gone away and she has been in foster care, some of it brutal, for years. They also learn that all three of them are fans of Tupac Shakur and it is his music that provides the theme songs for the story and their lives.

The home D is living in now is a solid, dependable place and the three friends are clearly living working family lives that include all the right things like caring adults, decent clothes and good food. But there is also the specter of danger, in the mistake for love that Neeka’s older brother made that saw him end up beaten and in jail, and the concern everyone has for her other brother, a basketball star who seems more dedicated to his sport than his schoolwork. (But how do you not support his dream when it could come true?) Woodson is impressive as always at showing how life can be hard in a million little ways, and that those little hardships can bring great pain. And all along she uses Tupac Shakur’s story, his near death, his sentencing for an unlikely crime and then murder, to share the concerns of the girls and their families. They do not know Tupac but they know his pain and more importantly, he seems to know theirs. He is their voice and that is why when his voice is silenced it hurts so very much.

This is the story of three young girls but in their conversations and concern for each other stories are told about race and class and fear. It’s a story about wanting more, hoping for more but also for knowing who you are and who you need to be. It’s a gentle story but not one that is easily dismissed. I expect Tupac and D Foster to be on the award lists next year and if it isn’t, I will be sorely disappointed.

Finally, Crissa-Jean Chappell takes on the complicated issue of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in her novel, Total Constant Order. Fin’s life has been spiraling out of control since her parents moved to Miami for a better job but then found their marriage ending. School is an unforgiving nightmare that is barely tolerable and to say that she is unpopular would be a dramatic understatement. The town is so different from her New England home, her parents are not at all like they used to be (or should be) and Fin seems to have lost her way in a fundamental way. On top of everything else the small series of habits that slowly developed as her life was falling apart have become compulsions she can no longer control. Fin is in trouble, and getting help is a lot tougher than she could have imagined.

Fin’s mother is not completely out to lunch -- she takes her daughter to a psychologist to try and figure out what is going on. The doctor suggests medication to deal not only with the OCD but also clinical depression; but finding the right dose is tough and there are alarming side effects. Fin discovers that a fellow student, another outsider, is also a patient. Thayer suffers from ADD and is on Ritalin, a drug he candidly describes as both helpful and sending him into a rage. There are clearly no easy answers here, not for what makes your life hard and not for getting it back on track. Fin and Thayer bond over their mutual difficulties and then find a real friendship forming. But they are still two kids trying to carry a very heavy load and things get out of control and downright scary before either knows what is going on. Fin learns that parents might not understand but if you’re lucky they will try to -- if you are honest they will do the best they can to understand.

I found Total Constant Order to be a very engaging title; Fin is a sympathetic character and her struggle to regain control of her life makes for good reading. But more importantly this is one of the few books I’ve read that tackles frequently diagnosed disorders like OCD and ADD and shows that not only are the disorders hard, but the cures are equally difficult. This is no teen melodrama, or movie of the week; it’s a sensitive portrayal of just how much it sucks to be a teenager whose life is in disarray. When adults are in trouble their feelings and concerns are respected and heard; when it happens to teenagers they are considered melodramatic whiners. Chappell gives some of those kids a voice with Fin and Thayer’s stories, and I hope that people hear what they have to say.

Until next month, I’ll be at chasingray.com writing about books, Alaska and lately, flying cars.

Cool Read: Dinomummy is the story of how then sixteen-year old Tyler Lyson discovered a mummified hadrosaur, something so rare that it is literally changing the way paleontologists think about dinosaurs. Tyler grew up in South Dakota fossil country and found his first one when he was six years old. He and a friend later formed an organization dedicated to “excavation, preservation and study of dinosaur fossils.” He knew he had something special when he found the hadrosaur but even Tyler could not have imagined just how spectacular a discovery it was.

In heavily illustrated pages Dr. Phillip Manning, a British paleontologist who Tyler first contacted and was instrumental in the excavation of “Dakota,” tells a story that not only explains how he believes the dinosaur died but also how Tyler discovered her. There are plenty of details here about how she was excavated and what secrets this “dinomummy” has been able to reveal. The story is exciting, easy to understand and fascinating from start to finish. The illustrations, which include enormous full size photographs that surround the text, are a delight to the eye. This is a science book that will captivate even those with the slightest amount of dinosaur knowledge and it is an out-of-the-ballpark winner for the dino-crazy crowd.

As for Tyler, he is now a PhD student in paleontology at Yale University, a fact that will likely inspire legions of other backyard fossil hunters to keep looking. His story makes it clear that any kid can find something special as long as they know what they are looking for, and believe enough in themselves not to give up the search.