December 2008

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Holiday Break

There are always lots of things to do over winter break but one of my favorites was to crash with a stack of books I wanted to read -- not a single assigned title. Here are some I hope get a fair bit of attention from this year’s readers.

Afghan Dreams: Young Voices of Afghanistan is the book about that country I’ve been waiting a long time to see. Aimed at American children, it consists of a series of interviews and stunning full color photographs with Afghani children between the ages of ten and eighteen. These brief interviews, conducted by photojournalist Tony O’Brien and filmmaker Mike Sullivan cut right to the chase and reveal much about the horrors of war. O’Brien and Sullivan asked the children what they would ask if, like Aladdin, they discovered a magic lamp. It is startling how small their dreams are; they want to go to school, to help their families, to help their country, to have peace. They want Afghanistan to be free from war. Consider Faridah, age 16:

I also work in the morning making carpets, and then I go to school. I work hard and am ranked third in my class. We have studied Germany. I’d like to go there. I want to discover new things, to know what no one else does. Then I could teach; I’d like to teach third grade.

I am accustomed to wartime; that’s all I know.

Most of the children in Afghan Dreams work very hard, and if they are lucky they also attend school. Not all of them however are lucky. This is Nadira, age eleven:

I have been working on the carpets for six years. Because of the work I don’t go to school. I would like to go; my family would like me to be in school.

There are eight in the family, and four make the rugs. I don’t know how much I make in a day; the money goes to the family. I start at five in the morning and finish at seven at night.

This is not a book of despair, however; it is actually one of the more hopeful books I have read about Afghanistan. The children are eager to meet western children, to share with them the stories of their lives, to discuss their plans for the future. “I want to be a mechanic,” says Ramat, age eleven; “I want to be a judge,” says Neelab age fourteen; and then there is this from Bilquis, age fifteen, "I would like to become a teacher, and if the government accepts me, teach here in Shahidan. But it is not my decision. I hope it will happen."

This is a beautiful book and while it will find a home in classrooms and perhaps be used for book reports it should be read simply because it is wonderful and beautiful and special. It should be read by American children just so they can learn about Afghani children and, apart from all the politics, what these children are like.

For fiction lovers, under its new imprint Big Mouth House, Small Beer Press has just issued The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories by Joan Aiken. These timeless stories are a blend of modern writer Hilary McKay’s charming Casson family with the absurd magical bits of Harry Potter’s world. For Mark and Harriet Armitage and their parents to have a unicorn appear in the garden, or goblins install themselves in a party tent, or witches cast curses upon various family members, is really just part of their day. Their corner of England is inhabited by all sorts of oddities (for example the local music teacher lost the love of his life to a failed bit of magic which trapped her in a garden accessed through a cereal box), and with a mixture of light comedy and serious foreboding, readers will keep the pages turning with absolute delight.

In the prelude, readers learn why magical things happen to the Armitages and from there the adventures unfold in a rapid succession of stories. There is the unicorn, the fairy godmother, the ghost, the dragon (and later the baby dragon), the griffin, the witches and the warlocks and their sometimes nefarious deeds, the stranding at the lighthouse, the shark in the fish ponds and the rude lady who steals Granny’s tree (but the kids steal it right back).

In the way of Elizabeth Enright’s Melendys and Jeanne Birdsall Penderwicks, Aiken clearly had a gift for writing characters who are engaging, and more importantly, easy to relate to. Mark and Harriet are smart and brave and decidedly down to earth while their parents have a welcome sort of blasé attitude about the often crazy circumstances surrounding them. These stories are fantasy in the best way -- the Armitages live as so many of us would like to, more because of their pleasure in each other’s company then all the magic they find (although the magic is fairly awesome). This is the first title from Big Mouth House and with others from Holly Black and Delia Sherman planned it is clear that Gavin Grant and Kelly Link are serious about bringing great authors to teen and middle grade readers. With The Serial Garden they have started out in the most glorious fashion and have published the single book that I urge everyone to look for while shopping for the younger set this holiday season.

In Season of Ice author Diane Les Becquets has crafted a story about a typical middle class American family and shows how quickly the economics of survival can overwhelm them. Genesis lives with her father, stepmother and younger half brothers and while life is not always easy, it is certainly good. Then one day in late fall, Genesis’s father disappears while doing a job on a nearby lake. After his boat is recovered the ice moves in and the family realizes they must settle in and wait for spring and the hope that his body will be found then. Without proof of Mike Sommer’s death however, his life insurance is not forthcoming. This makes his loss double-fold; the emotional pain of not knowing is hard enough but now Genesis must face just how dependent they have been on his paycheck and thus the many different ramifications losing him has on her life.

There are several aspects of Season of Ice that form a fairly traditional coming-of-age story: Genesis must figure out how she fits into a family now led by her stepmother and also struggles with her own questions about how little she knew about her father’s hopes and dreams and the place in the north woods where he often worked away from them in the timber industry. With his disappearance as the big mystery in her small town, rumors swirl about what might have happened to Mike Sommers and Genesis finds herself all too easily convinced that he could have willfully abandoned his family. She begins to wonder who he was and, beyond that, who she might be.

What really elevated this title for me was the author’s focus on how the loss of a primary breadwinner can devastate a middle class family. The Sommers have no time to mourn Mike; they must pull together and work to keep their house. Genesis drops out of school to increase her hours at the local diner and her stepmother fits a cleaning job around her child care duties. Everything gets difficult in the most banal and mind numbing and utterly realistic way. As consumed as Genesis is by questions about her father, she can’t ignore her responsibility to help her family survive. This has to be one of the most realistic teen novels about working class America I have ever read and it is anchored by a wonderful protagonist who cares more about her family -- all of it -- than she ever imagined. Highly recommended.

Anthony Eaton’s Into White Silence reads at first as the history of a doomed Antarctic expedition. In the introduction, the author explains how he discovered a small journal of an unknown voyage that prompted him to write the book. He writes:

Words are strange things. As a writer, it is something of a perpetual puzzle to me, how a few scrawled glyphs on a piece of paper can contain so much power over the human imagination. That such visceral experiences as love and hate and fear and pride and despair can be so easily bound to the page is a mystery which only deepens the further I explore it. The journal of William Downes is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

Casual readers might think that introduction leads to a nonfiction narrative but soon enough it becomes clear that this is indeed a work of fiction. It just mimics so beautifully the works of real polar explorers and tells a story of obsession and tragedy that is all believable. (Okay, the part about the “Ice Man” is something new, but that’s what makes the book a thriller.)

Downes is the book’s hero and his attempt to get some of the lingering adrenalin from the First World War out of his system once and for all will be easy for 21st century teens to understand. Persuaded to join the crew of the Raven by a former commanding officer, Downes is easily convinced that the crew will accomplish something noble and heroic in Antarctica. It is soon clear, though, that their expedition leader Mr. Rourke is much more in love with the idea of glory then he is concerned for his men’s welfare. Downes dutifully posts his diminishing faith in the expedition in his journal, recording all the tragedies that befall the men. The tension rises to a fever pitch as the Raven becomes trapped in the ice and the men are hunted.

Eaton uses an interesting format with Into White Silence, alternating between Downes's journal entries and the contemporary observations of the unnamed author. The author’s thoughts and research into Downes and other Antarctic mysteries keeps the book grounded as a contemporary thriller. What happens to Downes is frightening but the author’s own discoveries have a disturbing aura as well. The final result, currently available only to lucky Australian readers, is a true mix of history and adventure that should draw many readers in, particularly those who harbor their own suspicions about what draws men to the planet’s distant places.

Sara Ryan accomplishes an artful blend of teen romance, coming-of-age drama and celebration of artistic/academic freedom in her whip-cracking smart novel Empress of the World. Crafted around a summer spent at a program for gifted youth, the story follows Nicola (“Nic”), who is enrolled in a course to satisfy her lifelong fascination with archaeology. Nic’s interests are purely academic until she meets a quirky group of fellow students. Core to the group is Battle, a beautiful dancer, who is in the program more for her parents’ sake then her own. Nic feels an immediate affection for Battle which rapidly becomes an attraction. Soon she falls head over heels for the other girl and their relationship takes off with all the speed and urgency so common to a teenager’s romance.

It would be one thing if Empress of the World was all about Nic and Battle, but the supporting cast is critical to the plot and Nic’s complicated friendships with Isaac and Katrina are worthy of novels in their own right. Ryan is careful to show that Nic’s summer is all about completely finding herself -- both as a friend and lover. Her questions about her sexuality are only one part of the essential truth she is seeking, just as her interest in the archaeology program is spurred by a determination to make sure that archaeology really is her life's goal. Beyond Nic’s story are Battle’s struggles with her parents, echoed by Isaac’s worries over his home life, and then the craziness of Katrina’s sudden crush on a teacher. The summer is thus a whirl of questions and consternations followed with astonishing moments of clarity and a growing sense of permanent and significant change to all of their lives.

There are many reasons to recommend Empress of the World and its significance to LGBTQ teens in particular can not be overstated, but what really impressed me was the way that Ryan celebrated the intellectual curiosity of her characters. These are all smart kids and they like being smart; even more importantly they like not being stupid. This is an author who creates characters who are game to give all aspects of teenagehood a shot -- from falling in love, to studying, to dressing up like crazy fools. It’s not easy, but Nic and the others understand that life is something worthy of giving your full attention. They are here for love and for life and though it might hurt a bit, they give it their all. Let’s here it for the kind of cool kids we can all respect and for Sara Ryan, whose Empress of the World (and its sequel Rules for Hearts), celebrate personal courage and the rewards that come from taking the biggest chances.

Fans of Ellen Klages’s The Green Glass Sea will be delighted to know that its sequel, White Sands, Red Menace is a fine continuation of Dewey and Suze’s story while adding a few intriguing wrinkles that build off past events. (New readers can certainly start here but the better course is to read Green Glass Sea first.) In some ways Klages is writing a saga, not only of an unorthodox but also quintessential American family but even more so of a long overlooked period of American history, the immediate post-World War II era. Her second book establishes her as a YA author to be embraced and avidly read and should be most welcome to her middle grade and teen audience.

In White Sands the Gordon family has moved from Los Alamos, to Alamogordo, home of the White Sands Missile Range. While Phil Gordon works with former German scientists on rockets destined to go to the moon, his wife struggles with the outcome of their Los Alamos work. The girls have settled into a friendship that is now burgeoning on sisterhood. (Dewey is the daughter of a fellow scientist who died and has been taken in by the Gordons.) Dewey continues to be fascinated with engineering and along with the artistically inclined Suze has created a massive mechanical sculpture. It is the perfect blend of art and science -- a technological work of beauty that celebrates their interests and binds them together.

As she did for Los Alamos in Green Glass Sea, Klages nails the realities of post war life in the small town of Alamogordo. Suze makes friends with a Mexican American classmate who immediately exposes the geographic and ethnic divisions in the town. (This does not prevent them from bonding over good food however.) Dewey struggles to find a mechanical soul mate among the teen boys in the school and both girls chafe under the sexist requirements of home economics. As Phil becomes more immersed in work and Terri pines for a return to the academic life they knew before the war, questions arise about Dewey’s past and her place in the family as well as the history of those Phil works with. Dewey and Suze find themselves with a growing political awareness and uncertain which side to take as the adults stake out opposing positions on national issues. The drama builds on multiple levels as the plot unfolds until decisions must be made all too fast and there are too few choices left for anyone.

If you have a young teen or especially curious (or voracious) tween in your life, then Klages must be an author of choice. There’s not a false step in White Sands, Red Menace and I am quite envious of the many young readers who will be enjoying this talented author for the first time this holiday season.

In Suzy, Led Zeppelin and Me, it is 1972 and teenage Martin is passionate about two things: Led Zeppelin and the unattainable Suzy. His love for Zeppelin’s music is what keeps him sane while longing for Suzy (who is dating Zed, the coolest guy in school). Together with his friend Greg they pine for the girl, overanalyze the music and amuse themselves with imagining a world where they heroically defeat the “hordes of Xotha.” (D&D fans rejoice!) We have all been here to some degree or another, and in Martin Millar’s semiautobiographical novel teens will find a hero who feels their pain while simultaneously celebrating their frustration with people who just don’t get it.

Millar frames his novel around the actual arrival of Led Zeppelin in his hometown of Glasgow in 1972. The concert was an incredible moment for Glasgow teens and in the novel young Martin and his friends are rhapsodic at the mere idea that the group will be performing there. The concert is the novel’s frame; it grounds Martin and Greg and is the way they measure everyone they meet. Here’s an early observation of one of their classmates:

Cherry kept a diary, another bad thing. Sometimes she could be seen on her own at school scribbling down an entry. Only a person who didn’t really have a life would do that.

Cherry went to violin lessons. She kept a diary. She didn’t even know who Led Zeppelin were. What a loser.

This sort of casual observation is what makes Martin such a realistic character and when the author jumps ahead to the modern Martin (who spends a lot of time hanging out with his friend Manx and struggling to judge titles for a book award without actually reading any of them), his recollections of the ’72 concert and his Suzy crush proves what many teens already suspect -- that contrary to adult claims, some things you do not get over and some people you do not forget. Indeed the entire parallel narrative of older Martin recalling his youth is a testament to that truth and taking it one step further, the fact that Martin Millar wrote a novel about an adult version of himself reminiscing about his teen self (and still talking about it with his adult friends) is a validation of every moment in every teenager’s life when they announce that their lives will never be the same. It won’t, Millar writes.

Published for adult audiences, who will certainly enjoy it, I think Suzy, Led Zeppelin and Me is also an excellent teen novel. Millar has not forgotten what it is like to love from afar, have your heart broken, and find eternal life in music. That it does it with a lot of wit and tenderness makes the book soar and cements him (along with the startling Lonely Werewolf Girl) as a YA writer to watch.

I don’t often review picture books but Give a Goat by Jan West Schrock and illustrated by Aileen Darragh is a title that so exemplifies everything about the holiday season that it merits a special mention. Schrock is the daughter of Dan West who founded Heifers for Relief (now Heifer International) and in this retelling of a true story she writes about a fifth grade class who decide to raise money and buy animals through Heifer to help children around the world (and in the U.S.). Darragh’s dreamy pastel illustrations accompany the straightforward story about the children researching their idea to send aid, raising the money and engaging their community to join their project. In the end everyone becomes caught up in the idea of helping and the Heifer model of “passing on the gift” takes hold in many different ways.

Give a Goat is obviously a message book, but it’s nicely done and the inclusion of characters of multiple ethnicities and religion is certainly welcome. Clearly this is a book for classroom settings and I can easily see how it could be worked into all sorts of lessons international, economical and moral. But it just struck me while reading it that we all need to consider what Schrock’s happy children discover in these pages -- that we can do so much for so many if we try. Call it corny but changing the world can happen, even with some bees, or some chickens or a goat. And if the holidays aren’t about this, then really -- what are we celebrating for?

Hope you have a happy holiday season of good books and good reading. For more recommendations and literary discussion check out my site, chasingray.com or guyslitwire.com, where two dozen posters review titles five days a week for teenage boys.

Cool Read: David Macaulay is rightfully a legend in children’s book publishing with numerous nonfiction titles on mechanical and architectural subjects. He has two books out that dazzled me recently in different ways: the human body encyclopedia The Way We Work and a look at the design and construction of the late 16th century in Mosque. While the books will appeal to any literal minded or curious child, they are quite different. The Way We Work is strictly an anatomy book, although it does have its share of funny cartoons to lighten things up. The illustrations are anatomically correct but less exacting than in Macaulay’s building books. This keeps the book from getting too gruesome but it retains both clarity and a strong sense of order. (Although the site of broccoli in a mouth cavity is always going to be a bit icky regardless of how pretty the pastels are.) Very exacting and thorough, covering all the systems from one end of the body to the other (including the always tricky reproductive organs quite artfully presented here), this is a book for mid elementary school through junior high but be prepared to answer the questions that will likely arise after diving into so much impressive information.

Mosque brings readers deeply into the streets and souls of 1595 Istanbul. While filled with fictional characters, their actions are based on Macaulay’s research of the real Ottoman Empire architect and engineer, Sinan. As always, the detail in Macaulay’s illustrations is outstanding but the story about an admiral and member of the court who commissions the building of the mosque is equally engaging. He brings this region, whose history is so woefully misunderstood by western readers, to life and makes clear its significance. By reading each stage of the building’s construction and seeing the many people involved in completing it, a huge swath of Ottoman society is revealed. While a book like this would always be welcome for historians or architectural enthusiasts of the ten and over age, it is especially important to have it available now. Completely absent of politics, Mosque still imparts a significant message: cities are built by hands and hearts all over the world, and in this way at least we are all and always the same.