Summertime, and the Reading Is Easy
It is rare that I am utterly swept away by a story, but Elizabeth Hand’s enchanting Illyria took my heart from the very first page. Indulge me a moment as I share just a passage about after school fun that should have been banal but Hand makes amazing:
"During the day we all attended St. Brendan’s School, several blocks away, up a winding hill shaded by old apartment buildings and elm trees, all now long gone. Every afternoon we raced home and changed from our uniforms into what were then called play clothes -- a misnomer, since our after-school activities were more like the extended rehearsal for a street-theater production of Lord of the Flies. We moved from house to house to house like invading army ants. We devoured everything we could find, terrorized the youngest children, raided toy chests and attics, crowded into basement rec rooms to watch Star Trek and Superman, stole each other’s record albums and baseball cards and Barbie clothes, gave too much food to goldfish and dogs that were not ours -- all until we were driven back outside by irate adults.
Whereupon we’d move next door, or across the road, or down to the woods overlooking the river, and the whole cycle would begin again."
This is almost fifteen-year-old Maddie talking about life in Yonkers, New York, in a neighborhood dominated by houses once belonging to the wealthy, and now mostly to members of her family -- all of whom are descended from a former great actress who “forsook the stage” in exchange for respectability. Maddie and her cousin Rogan, born on the same day, the youngest of many siblings and thrown together at every turn by benign parental neglect, have never known anything other then their small corner of the world. It would not be enough, it is barely enough, if they did not have each other. Therein lies the problem, however, because Maddie and Rogan feel too much for each other -- in fact, they feel everything.
Now before your Flowers in the Attic alarm bells go off, understand that this is Liz Hand writing, and that means there is nothing common and nothing tawdry about this novella. This is about teenagers who love the excitement and pageantry of the stage and the romance of each other, and can not stand the dullness of their secure homes. After being swept away in their high school performance of Twelfth Night, and with the surprise of a magical discovery in the family mansion, they dare to embrace the allure of theatrical lives. They ignore all the warning signs of increasingly concerned family members, choosing instead to revel in the moment.
Illyria is simply one of the grandest, lushest, most adult stories I have read for teenagers in a long, long time. It is head and shoulders above everything it shares the shelves with, a jewel among so many stones. There are real feelings at work here, real longings, triumph and tragedy that belies that oft-used chestnut that teenagers know nothing. The drama is as sincere as the passion and every page has been treated with such care, such beautiful language, that you want them to linger. I can’t think of a better way to flaunt school assignments and parental expectations then to make Illyria the keystone of your personal summer reading plan. It will make your heart beat, and whisper in your ear of what might have been long after the last page is turned. Illyria is simply sublime.
There are those particular summertime books that are set in particularly summertime places, and while you can certainly enjoy them year round, they lend themselves most strongly to this season. Sally Derby’s novel Kyle’s Island does have a serious tone (it is about the aftermath of a divorce and loss of a much loved family cabin on a Michigan lake), but it is so deeply immersed in fishing and boats and swimming and catching worms and camping that you will feel compelled to reach for the nearest pair of shorts and flip-flops before you have reached the second chapter. (Heck, the cover alone made me want to do that.) It’s heartfelt and sweet and full of some serious thinking and kindness -- but it is mostly a homage to all those summers on all those lakes that are enjoyed by so many every year.
Kyle and his three siblings have grown up vacationing at their grandmother’s lake cabin. After her death and their parent’s breakup, the cabin has to be sold, and while everyone is sad, Kyle is devastated. He takes a summer job with a neighbor in the hopes that the money will help save their vacation spot. It’s a longshot and he knows it, but he has big hopes. As the weeks go by he finds himself coming to terms though with how his life has changed. In some ways this is just a book about snacks and swimsuits and that first moment when your parents let you down, but it’s also a book about finding a way to grow up a little and still be happy. The only thing that would have made Kyle’s Island a better read for me was geography -- I wish I was on a dock dangling my feet in the water as I turned the pages -- that would have made it very sweet indeed.
When I first read about The Pickle King by Rebecca Promitzer, it struck me as the perfect summer book -- a big complicated mystery/thriller with a crew of smart kids and a ghost or two. In other words, it sounded like a good diversion for long hot days. What I found, however, was something way beyond my initial hopes. This MG mystery is unlike anything I’ve read in years -- it has all the elements I expected to find, but a plot that careens in a dozen different directions and has ups and downs of epic proportions. There are friends to the end, stolen body parts, an asylum of sane people made crazy, some very bad guys, revealing pictures, and people who hide in a most unexpected place. It’s a more cynical, smarter, tougher, modern Trixie Belden and friends. Buckle yourself in when you start reading because the narrative turns on a dime, and you will never see those curves coming.
Bea is bored out of her mind. Her beloved father is dead, her mother has been committed to an asylum due to paralyzing grief, and while a kind family friend is taking care of her, life in Elbow is pretty much the dullest you can imagine. It rains all summer, every summer, and there isn’t a dang thing to do. Determined to win a local photo contest (and the prize, a holiday trip) she sets out with her friend Sam to photograph local faces. What they discover, though, is a dead body -- and from that point on Bea finds herself at the whim of a ghost who will not rest in peace until she gets his killer. Soon enough, they band together with their fellow bored classmates, and the crew (rich and lonely girl, geek boy, responsible sister with tagalong little brother) set out to solve the crime. Along the way, they uncover a citywide conspiracy and end up having to run for their lives -- more than once. They also check out an abandoned train, the labyrinthine garbage dump, and mysterious X-rays at the local hospital. It’s nonstop action, but it's the solid friendship between the characters that is the heart of the story.
My only complaint about the The Pickle King is the adult character who runs a music store. He uses a form of pidgin English that doesn’t fit well, and proves to be a needless distraction. While I assume the author was seeking some kind of Caribbean dialect, it doesn’t work, and at best is ill-chosen. Overall, though, this is a 400-page-long popcorn movie, and I say that as a compliment. Bea is fun -- the whole crew is awesome -- and I had a blast reading about their adventures. Add a bologna sandwich, chips, and some lemonade, and you’re set for summer good times.
If perhaps you just don’t have the time to dedicate to a novel but still want to get some great fiction reading in, then lucky you -- because Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow are back with another mythic anthology, The Beastly Bride: Tales of the Animal People. Just as they did in earlier titles (like The Green Man and The Coyote Road), Windling and Datlow have gathered together a stellar group to entertain readers, this time with a wealth of shape-shifting stories. From Tanith Lee to Ellen Kushner to Peter S. Beagle and Midori Snyder, there are a ton of great authors at work, and as usual, I find myself struggling with how to tell you all about with such little space. Suffice to say, I can’t mention all of the loveliness, but here are some bits that particularly struck my fancy.
E. Catherine Tobler addresses a difficult summer at the end of World War II in “Island Lake.” Lizzie is terrified and thrilled by her damaged father’s return, but also saddened by the fact that her uncle was lost. While the aftermath of war is a quiet backdrop to this story, it is mostly about Lizzie, Laura, and Winnie, and what draws them to the lake. It is a summer of secrets and discoveries and remembrance, and also, because it is about teenage girls, the dark mysteries of attraction. With the war ever present in their lives, “Island Lake” struck me as a very timely story even though it is purposely set more than fifty years ago. It works powerfully for today -- further proof that some things never change.
I have long been an unabashed fan of Christopher Barzak, and his story “Map of Seventeen” only reinforces my affection for this writer. When her older brother Tommy returns to their small Ohio town from New York City with his boyfriend in tow, Meg expects to hear they have been banished to the country because his soon to be in-laws can not abide their same-sex relationship. Spying on the two by the nearby lake, however, she learns that the least startling thing about Tristan is that he is gay -- and the inspiration behind her brother’s recent series of merman paintings is suddenly crystal clear. But that is not the point of this story -- it’s never that obvious with this author. Barzak has created a complex, conflicted and utterly believable teen in Meg, and all of her frustrations are blown away when she sees how much Tommy loves Tristan and how deep their secret is. “Map at Seventeen” is about how the world changes when you are at that moment before leaving home -- and how you change as well when you grow up enough to see what might be out there waiting for you.
Tanith Lee writes about a young man’s concerns with his fiancée in “The Puma’s Daughter.” This one comes down to questions about secrets and lies and how much you can turn a blind eye to someone you love. Of course Matthew is dealing with some fairly radical differences when he meets the young woman he has been promised to, but in the era of Twilight, it is nice to see an author actually consider that maybe all otherworldly extremes are not the stuff of eternal romance. In "The Hikikomori", Hiromi Goto writes of a teenage girl “trapped in a Chiba suburb” who has endured the frustrations of schoolyard taunts for too long, and has now retreated to her bedroom forever -- or has she? Gregory Frost has a traditional tale set in John Wayne country about a young girl who gains her freedom in a most unorthodox manner -- “The Comeuppance of Creegan Maxin” is as western as you can get. Stewart Moore’s “One Thin Dime” is reminiscent of Bradbury while also nodding a bit to Harry Potter and carnivals (if you can imagine such a mix). There is Halloween and a house you should not approach -- and that’s all I’m going to tell you, but it’s a cautionary tale that is a bit outside the box for sure.
“Pishaach” by Shweta Narayan is a love story of the best sort, in that someone finally understands the girl who has been so long misunderstood, and she stands up and she makes a choice and reaches for joy. Be especially sure to read the author’s note after this one; it will make you think about many other stories as well. Richard Bowes writes, as he does so well, about New York City, a cat, and a woman who sees that cat, and about her daughter who has questions about where she came from. “The Margay’s Children” is a decidedly New York tale about family, and also about why a very discreet doctor is necessary for some particular births. (Bowes is always so good -- don’t miss this one.)
And amongst the many other wonderful offerings in The Beastly Bride (poetry from Jane Yolen and Delia Sherman!), I must mention “The Flock” by Lucius Shepherd, which is about a teenage boy who is just good enough for his hometown football team, but might not be good enough for more. It’s about grackles (cousins to the crow), and being lost in South Carolina and a boy who, “if it hadn’t been for football... would have been an outsider in high school, angry and fucked-up, a loner whom everyone would have voted the Most Likely to Go Columbine.” It’s about being mightily and perhaps permanently stuck, even though your life has barely begun and then, dramatically, it is about a bargain that results in a football game that is more frightening than any teenage boy could imagine.
And basically the Corvid family is scary. Don’t ever forget that.
Windling and Datlow make anthologies look easy, and with The Beastly Bride, they spoil us all over again. There is something for everyone, and so much to enjoy in this collection; an embarrassment of richness that belongs on any beach blanket or stuffed in the backpack of all those taking a break from summertime jobs.
Of course summer is also all about enjoying the outdoors, and one way you can do that while also learning is through some great nature books. If you like your birding with a bit of cheeky humor, then get yourself right off to the local store and buy a copy of Bird Watching by Paula McCartney. As photography curator Karen Irvine explains in her introduction, McCartney is a photographer who definitely went out into nature and took notes of what she found there -- and then took pictures of… well, here’s Irvine:
Her work is the exact opposite of that of amateur ornithologists, who carry large cameras with telephoto lenses into the woods and wait patiently to capture decent image of a bird. McCartney skirts the inconvenience of waiting and opts for instant gratification. She allows however, for her viewer to become engaged by placing bird models at a distance from her lens, inviting believability but also allowing the viewer to notice, upon closer observation, the wires that secure the birds in position.
So yes, not one of these birds is real, and yet the settings are certainly true. McCartney also includes standard guidebook entries with “Name,” “Location,” “Coloring,” etc. She mixes the bird pictures with images of plants, and notes on where the shots were taken (maintaining the field guide fantasy that they are real birds). There is a slyness to this entire project that is continued to the very end, where she juxtaposes close-ups of the birds in a formal life list. And yet for all its humor, this is serious photography, something Darius Himes addresses in his afterword. McCartney could have used Photoshop, and not engaged in the pretense at all -- or gone to the trouble of posing the fake birds. “But that’s just substituting one form of fakery for another,” writes Himes. “And in a certain way, McCartney’s photographs seem decidedly more honest. She was there, the fake birds were there, the landscapes were there, and she had a camera and film to record it all.” And that is what makes Bird Watching so intriguing -- McCartney did the work even though she didn’t have to. It makes the title not only a winner for photographers but birders as well -- they will get the truth behind the joke, and likely embrace the artist for going the extra mile to create this field guide like no other.
And if you’re carefully studying McCartney’s work, then really you should be bird watching as well. Peterson has two new field guides (for birds of Eastern & Central and Western North America) to check out. In full color, with dozens of different ways to distinguish them, you will find maps, habitat descriptions, and even overhead views (especially helpful as often that’s the only view you get) of tons of birds. Other than the information on individual birds, I liked the appendices showing range maps to make your watching easier, and handy life lists ready for checking off. The guides also include access to video podcasts which will give birders songs to listen for, among other things (including a mini bio of Roger Tory Peterson himself). There are zillions of field guides out there, but for decent general overviews that give you the basic information you need, you would be hard pressed to find one better than Peterson. For older kids in particular, I like these books -- a great way to get started on a lifelong hobby (and it just might save your life, if you believe Stephen King [and that would be my obligatory birding/It reference].)
For teens who are already avid birders, Peterson also offers Molt in North American Birds. There is a lot more text here, as author Steven Howell explains the factors affecting feathers (from diet to climate), and then goes into discussions on specific birds and their molting strategies. Enthusiasts will find this to be a useful title for increased scrutiny of many species, and hopefully beef up those life lists in the field guides. Molt also has a ton of gorgeous full color photos, so those not quite up to this level of observation will still find a reason to peruse the pages.
Finally, Loree Griffin Burns, who impressed the hell out of me with her brilliant Tracking Trash, returns to the Scientists in the Field series with another timely entry: The Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe. Pretty much everyone is now aware of the significance bees have in the nation’s agriculture, and the mysteries surrounding their sudden demise in 2006 were well covered in the national press. Burns goes behind the scenes, back to the beekeeper who first raised the alarm (after discovering 20 million of his bees had vanished from their winter quarters), and into the research methods of those charged with discovering just what was causing Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). This is science at work, and along with Ellen Harasimonwicz’s clear photographs of everything from bees to hives to honey, Burns goes a long way towards showing how we depend upon these tiny insects.
Everything I like about the Scientists in the Field series is evident in The Hive Detectives, from the clear conversational tone that makes difficult questions and answers easy to understand, to the forthright manner in which Burns presents the problem and the steps taken towards finding a solution. It is likely that the people she writes about here have never been interviewed for an audience of children, and yet Burns presents their efforts in prose that makes them brainy and heroic -- they truly are on the front lines of a war that matters in ways we are just beginning to appreciate. Without bees, we don’t eat -- it’s that simple. So from the hobbyist beekeeper introduced in the first pages to the professionals who carry their hives cross country and see that our nation’s crops (from almonds to pumpkins) are pollinated, bees are serious business. And yet there is no easy solution to CCD, and the combination of factors that might have spawned it are disturbing, to say the least. With The Hive Detectives, Burns gives us reasons to make big changes in how we live and does it in a way that will appeal to both teens and adults. This is significant and enthralling writing, folks, and if you don’t have her books in your personal library (with the entire Scientists in the Field series), then you are really missing something fantastic.
COOL READ: Writer and artist Sallie Wolf has put together a sweet title with The Robin Makes a Laughing Sound. Subtitled “A Birder’s Journal,” this blend of poetry, field guide and nature notes is going to find a very specific audience that will flat out adore it. Wolf arranges her entries by season, and includes bird lists, haiku, observations, ruminations, watercolor illustrations and drawings on every page. Essentially, she is inviting the reader into her life, providing a space at her window and her desk. It is a very personal work, for all that it does not share about Wolf’s actual personal life. You are merely seeing what she sees, and perhaps altering your own conclusions about art and nature through her influence. Teen readers who might be wary of their own creativity, and are reticent to face the blank page, will find a sympathetic fellow artist here -- someone who uses the barest of brush strokes to capture the creatures she sees. Exquisitely designed by Charlesbridge, The Robin Makes a Laughing Sound is one of the more elegant books to come across my doorstop in a long time. I hope a lot of young birders and artists and poets find it.
Colleen Mondor can be found blogging on literary matters at Chasing Ray, and invites those interested in books for teen boys in particular to also check out the group blog Guys Lit Wire.