Thursday, April 26, 2007

The blogging's been light, but the reading hasn't

I'm about halfway through The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing v. 1, and I feel a bit about it the way I feel about the movie "Brazil": blown away by the brilliance, but not sure I can actually stand to get through the product.

There's something about a certain kind of misery that I can't handle in books. It has nothing to do with the degree of torment, or I wouldn't have been able to have read as many Holocaust novels as blithely as I have. And more recently, I found reading Sold a riveting but relatively un-dusturbing experience--I mean, yes, I am deeply disturbed by the concept of teenage girls being sold into prostitution, and the story was very sad, and very well written, and I was completely drawn in, but somehow it didn't sicken me so I had to force myself to keep reading, which is what's happening with Octavian.

The only other book I remember this happening with was The Amulet of Samarkand, which I abandoned partway through. Something about the utter bleakness and loneliness of that child wizard's life overrode the wonderful craftsmanship of the novel, and the funny footnotes, and all that, and rendered me unable to continue.

I can't put my finger on what exactly it is about those two books that makes them so hard for me to read. Is it, for some reason, that the suffering protagonists are boys? Well, but The King of Mulberry Street and Milkweed and The House of the Scorpion all put their boy heroes through some pretty horrific paces, and I gobbled them all up without much trouble.

On the other hand, everyone has their own triggers. Here are some books that never bothered me in the least, but which other people found upsetting:
  • A student I taught some years ago was so deeply disturbed by the Dursley's treatment of Harry at the beginning of Sorcerer's Stone that she just couldn't read any more of the book.
  • A woman I know-- who has written some pretty intense fiction herself--can't stand the hopelessness of the kids' situation and the cynicism of the author in A Series of Unfortunate Events.
  • My spouse, as I've mentioned before, is deeply shaken by any book in which something Really Really Bad happens to children or their parents, which narrows the reading field considerably.
  • And one of my best friends, as a teenager, just could not bring herself to read past the first chapter of The Catcher in the Rye, because she was so mortified on Holden Caulfield's behalf when he left the team's fencing equipment on the subway.
So, maybe it's nothing particular about those two books; could be that it's just me.

In any case, I'm considering putting Octavian aside in favor of the book I'm supposed to review for my librarians' group. It's a contemporary tale about a 12-year-old runaway, and sounds practially frivolous in comparison.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Artifacts from the Whirlwind

There's a lot of controversy about the age at which children are ready to learn or read about the Holocaust; I've heard different educators say with equal conviction that 5th grade is too young and that you can discuss the topic with preschoolers if you do it sensitively. My own opinion leans toward the wishy-washy "it depends on the kid" side. Five Owls has a good article on the subject here. The author, Lisa Silverman, also published an excellent article on Holocaust picture books in a recent issue of School Library Journal.

Today our school observed Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Memorial Day. For the 4th grade class, I pulled out a bunch of those picture books and put them on the tables for silent reading. I read them Keeping the Promise: A Torah's Journey, which tells the story of the miniature Torah that Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon took into space with him on the ill-fated Space Shuttle Columbia mission in 2003. The Torah had been given to profesor Joachim Joseph as a Bar Mitzvah present when Joseph was a 13-year-old inmate at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The Rabbi who gave him the Torah asked him to promise to tell the story, and he passed it on to Ramon so that the entire world, watching broadcasts of the shuttle voyage, could hear that story.

When the book was finished, I asked the class if they thought Ramon shouldn't have taken the Torah into space with him, given that this precious artifact is now lost forever after the shuttle crash. Which is more important: the object, or the story? Both, they said. But it's better to have the story and no physical Torah than to have the object but not know the story that goes with it.

Then we read a book about an artifact whose story has been lost and can only be imagined: Who Was the Woman Who Wore the Hat? The author, Nancy Patz, saw a woman's hat in a glass case at a Holocaust museum in Amsterdam. The display had no label and no explanation. She found herself drawn to the image of the hat, and wondered about the woman who wore it: what was her life like? How did she like her coffee? What happened to her? She drew the hat on the heads of various imagined women, juxtaposed with images of people being rounded up, peering from trains. The result is a spare, haunting picture book. Because the book is physically small it would be hard to share with a large class. but this 4th grade happens to be small also, so they gathered in and listened thoughfully until the book was over.

Do you have to know someone's story to remember them? We wondered afterwards. Or can you remember by imagining? They had a lot to say on the subject.

Another Holocaust book based on an artifact is Hana's Suitcase, by Karen Levine. It's too long to read aloud in a single sitting, but makes a great longer-term read-aloud. I'm pretty jaded about Holocaust books, but this one knocked me back with its clear, sensitive writing, and with the true story it relates: about one girl caught up in the Holocaust; about a group of Japanese students devoted to learning and teaching about an event far from them in time and space; and about the teacher who's determined to solve the mystery of the suitcase. The author manages to write about a scary, painful subject without either sensationalizing or holding back, and makes historical research seem pretty exciting, in the bargain. A remarkable story.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

In Which the Novels of John Green Engender a Moment of Family Togetherness

A slightly reconstructed conversation.

Scene: Els, Spouse, and 6-year-old Child are getting into the car to drive to the airport.

Spouse notices the book-on-CD on the passenger seat.

Spouse (who has just read and enjoyed An Abundance of Katherines on Els's recommendation) *with a touch of envy in voice*: Oooh, I see you're listening to Looking for Alaska!

Els: Well, yes. It's good. But I'm not sure if you'd like it; I just started the fourth disk and I think Something Bad is about to happen.

Spouse: Oh. Okay. But if nothing bad happened, you wouldn't have any plot, would you?

Els: It's that I think of it, nothing really bad does happen in Katherines. Well, there are two bad things, but they both happen before the book starts. You just find out about them during the time of the book.

Child, *piping up from back seat* : I know one of them! He gets dumped by a bunch of girls named Katherine, right?

Els: Uh, right.

Child: What's the other one?

Els: If I tell you, it'll spoil it for you when you read it in ten years or so.

Child: Please, please tell me! Please! I promise I'll forget it!

Els: You can't promise to forget something!

Child: Pleeeeease, please tell me anyway! What's the other bad thing?

Els: Oh, okay. It's [spoiler revelation that the main characters discover near the end of the book].

Child, *baffled but resigned*: Oh.

Els: See, it's important because it [gives important information about a secondary but crucial character]. Because of [explanation delving into way more detail than necessary about bigger economic and moral issues].

Child: Oh.

Els: Do you really think you'll forget that?

Child: I forgot it already!

Els: What did you forget?

Child *with carefully vacant intonation belied by gleam in eye*: Um...I can't remember!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Global Kidlit in Vancouver

Usually on a visit to Vancouver I try to make it to Vancouver Kidsbooks. I missed it this trip, and it's the one thing I wish I'd made time for. Vancouver bookstores and libraries have an amazingly wide-ranging selection of kids' and YA books. There seems to be a sense of obligation to keep up with literary trends in the entire English-speaking world--Australia, New Zealand, Britain, and even South Africa--as well as the United States and of course Canada itself.

Here are a few books I've found at Kidsbooks on past visits:

Camp X
by Eric Walters.
A huge hit in Canada when it came out, this cracking yarn of a World-War II spy story set in a small Canadian town barely cracked the U.S. consciousness. In fact, I couldn't even find a copy in the states when it showed up on the Young Reader's Choice Award nominee list a few years ago. Fortunately (for me and for all the kids who've been snatching it off the shelves ever since) Kidsbooks had it.

The Exiles
. by Hilary McKay
Hilary McKay's Casson family books are well-loved among American kidlit connoisseurs, but it's harder to find her earlier books within these borders. The Exiles, McKay's first novel, sends four cranky, argumentative sisters off to an unwilling beachside summer with "Big Grandma." It's not as tightly-constructed as the Casson books, but her trademark humor and strong, quirky characters are well in evidence.

A Monkey's Wedding
, by Norman Silver
Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, it ain't. This tale of four teenage girls of different races and backgrounds in post-apartheid South Africa makes for grim reading at times; the friends' stories don't all end happily, to say the least. This book gave me a sense of kids' actual lives in the "new" South Africa that news stories never would have provided. For that reason alone, it's survived several personal-library weeding sessions.

Orphan at My Door: The Home Child Diary of Victoria Cope, by Jean Little
The "Dear Canada" books are our neighbor to the North's answer to the "Dear America" phenomenon. This volume, by one of Canada's best-known historical novelists, takes as its topic the "Home Children", British orphans who were shipped overseas to be employed/adopted by Canadian families. Their story is similar in some ways to that of the Orphan Train children in the States--some found real homes, some were abused. "Orphan at My Door," set in Guelph, Ontario, in 1897, actually tells the story of a Canadian girl whose family is hosting a Home Child.

Four Pictures by Emily Carr,
by Nicholas Debon
Emily Carr was an adventurous and driven painter with a deep passion for art and for nature. At a time when nice Victorian ladies (Victorian in both senses--Carr lived in the British outpost of Victoria) stayed home and received callers, Carr set out for a remote First Nations village to learn about the people and sketch their art. She was eventually "discovered" by the Canadian Group of Seven and achieved some recognition. This graphic biography sketches out the main events in Carr's life while giving a sense of her work. It's short--just 30 pages--but beautifully done.

Monday, April 9, 2007

The Thump Factor

The inconvenience of being without Internet access in a foreign (well, Canadian--only three hours away but still officially foreign, last time I checked) city for nearly a week was almost made up for by the glory of having hours at a stretch to just sit and read. And read! And read! And so I finally had the chance to plunge into the 389-page treat that is A Drowned Maiden's Hair.

That was well worth it, all right. I'd give up more than Internet access to read that book again. Mmm.

As I'm apparently the last person in the kidlitosphere to read it, and it won the 2006 Cybil Award for middle-grade fiction and has been gathering hosannas of reviews all over the place, I won't go into detail about the plot. But I was thinking, later, about why that book was so especially satisfying: what was it?

Well, it was readable without being lightweight, meaningful without preachiness. God knows it has plot--that subtitle "A Melodrama" is well-earned--but it's not aboutthe plot, per se. What it's really about, in some ways, is grief. So much so that I advised my partner (who with me is parent to a strong-willed, physically daring, and perhaps slightly spoiled daughter, and who has a hard time reading books or seeing movies in which Bad Things happen to children) not to read it. But it's not a sad book.

The characters are (o, overused reviewer's phrase) well-drawn; I believed, wholly, in Maud Mary Flynn, and wanted to know what would happen to her; I believed in Hyacinth and wanted desperately for her to get her comeuppance. But I've read lots of books with great, believable characters that didn't get to me like this one. So what was it, exactly?

"Thump" is the word I came up with finally to describe that particularly delicious reading experience. A Drowned Maiden's Hair has Thump.

"The thump factor" is a phrase usually used to describe the physical heft of a book, but that's not what I'm after here. For lack of a better definition, Thump in this context refers to a perfect or near-perfect balance of emotional plot and action plot (As Brooklyn Arden explains in this post, the emotional plot of the first "Harry Potter" novel is "Harry finds friends and a home." The action plot is, oh, you know, "Harry goes to a cool wizard school and saves the Stone and finds out about Voldemort.") Books with Thump have both, plus something else: they reach beyond the specifics of plot and character to big, universal themes. But they don't get all caught up in the message; they keep you turning the pages, keep you needing to find out What Happens Next. Plus, to keep all that going, the prose itself has to be brilliant.

And all of it has to fit together: the meaning can't feel tacked-on, the plot can't falter, the characters have to pop off the page but still be believable, the emotions have to feed into the action and vice versa...

Oh, forget it. The more I try to describe Thump, the longer and more tangled this post gets. So I'm just going to provide a couple of lists: one of books with thump, one of books I love without. There are lots more in both categories than the ones below, plus a few I'm not sure about. But when I looked through my reading list from the last several years, it was surprisingly easy to pick out the few Thump books from the others: like they say about pronnography, I might not be able to describe it, but I know it when I see it*.

Books With Thump*

Holes, by Louis Sachar
Maybe the archetypical Thump book: a plot that won't quit, with layers of meaning that you can't stop thinking about. A third-grader can read it and love it; an adult could write a master's thesis on it. No wonder it won the 1999 Newbery as well as numerous Children's Choice awards (it beat out Harry Potter for the 2001 Young Reader's Choice Award, at my school and all over the region).

The Sea of Trolls
, by Nancy Farmer
It's a chunky, compelling historical/fantasy adventure story about a boy who's kidnapped by Vikings and has to go to the Troll Lands to save his sister! No, it's a deep and thoughtful exploration of philosophies that value life vs. those that valorize death! It's a floor wax! It's a dessert topping! It was my favorite book of 2005, and a fair bet to win this year's YRCA Intermediate award if my students are anything to go by.

The Greengage Summer
, by Rumer Godden
At first glance, this slim novel might seem a bit dreamy: a British family travels to the Champagne country of France for one enchanted summer; the two oldest daughters learn the ways of the world. But the coming-of-age emotional plot is wrapped around a taut mystery/thriller that doesn't let up until the very last page.

The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau
Lina and Doon are racing against time to save their city, sure. But there's more here, about the nature of society and individuals' obligations to the common good. That kind of theme-y stuff is understated, though, and never as lecture-y as I've put it here. And the prose is gorgeously transparent. It doesn't draw attention to itself, but there are passages--like the one where Lina and Doon see night outside the City for the first time--that just glow.

To Kill a Mockingbird
, by Harper Lee
Okay, this is the other archetypical Thump book; there's a reason it's assigned reading at high schools by the hundreds. It's a courtroom drama, a meditation on the nature of justice and mercy and a great kid story all at once--Scout is right up there with Ramona and Clementine and Junie B. in the pantheon of tough, smart little girls.

Books I Love That Don't Quite Have Thump

Harriet the Spy
, by Louise Fitzhugh
If you forced me to choose at gunpoint, I'd say (like many other women of my generation) that this is my favorite book of all time. But the truth is, what makes it compelling is Harriet herself, eccentric and brilliant and cranky as she is. The plot is secondary.

The Saturdays, by Elizabeth Enright
Oh, but this is a lovely book--you just want to climb in through the Melendys' window and hang out with them. Episodic, though. Like a lot of other non-Thump books I love, the characters and situation predominate.

Fly by Night, by Frances Hardinge
You can't accuse Fly by Night of lacking in plot; it's got twists and turns up the wazoo, plus boffo characters and linguistic pyrotechnics, and a powerhouse ending that will resound with anyone who loves Story. But the story gets a little boggy and hard to follow in the middle, and it could have been tightened by maybe 50 pages and a plot thread or two. I loved it enough to buy it (not many books get bought in our two-librarian household), but it's too tangled and unwieldy to nail down that elusive thumpy quality.

Airborn, by Kenneth Oppel
I wavered before putting this one on the list, because I hate to put it down in any way; it's such a compelling read, with such great characters, chock full of adventure, and with those amazing cloud creatures thrown in. But in the end, there's not enough else going on to put this in the Thump category: the story doesn't reach out of itself to connect with anything bigger, the way Holes or The Sea of Trolls do.

The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron
When kids' book people complain about the lack of kid-appeal in many Newbery Medal winners, it's partly the thump factor that they're talking about. I loved Lucky, loved the setting and the quirky characters and the language, and I cared about what happened to her. But when you get down to it, the plot was a bit thin.

*Obviously (I hope) this is all totally subjective; I'm not trying to come up with some authoritative Abundance-of-Katherines type theorem about the Thumpiness of books, just to define it for myself and whoever's still reading after my vacation-induced absence.

What do you think: are there books that have It for you? Or don't? And how do you define It?