The cover of Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson looks like something my mom would read, but it’s Little House on the Prairie with a plot and girl power. 16-year-old Hattie is an orphan who inherits her uncle’s homestead in 1917 Montana and works to prove the claim on her own. The timeframe puts the story in the middle of World War I and anti-German sentiment is brewing on the prairie.
It’s a simple story that weaves together several complex threads to make a satisfying whole that focuses on faith, country and the power of what you can do when you have the strength of friendship.
The anti-German fury is disappointing, but the historical reality is that we have a long track record of demonizing our enemy by persecuting our neighbors. It’s maddening and you’d think a country of immigrants would learn. But we don’t.
The homestead details are very reminiscent of Laura Ingalls Wilder, except of course it takes place nearly 50 years later, which gives an interesting insight into the Montana homestead experience. It also features a strong and young woman striking out on her own, which was based on a true story.
It’s a solid story that gives a full impression of a place and time, not leaving out the cold, hard realities.
In Coaltown Jesus by Ron Koertge, a teen struggling with his older brother’s death prays for God’s help and Jesus shows up in the sort-of flesh. Only Walker can see Jesus and he gets advice and insight like a guardian angel, only it’s on the odd matters like what girl likes him and how to score a pair of new sneakers. Or so it seems.
While Coaltown Jesus has the potential to be incredibly hokey, the offbeat, poetic style works. It should be kind of cheeseball and completely insulting. Instead it’s funny and light, while still managing to probe deep, painful questions and offer hope.
It’s also short and sweet, something you can read in one sitting.
Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick is a sparse and somber account of the Cambodian genocide in the late 1970s told from the perspective of a teenage boy, Arn Chorn-Pond.
It’s an immediate and straight-forward account told in his broken English, sometimes detailed and sometimes bare, like you’d expect from a child.
Citizens are rounded up and killed or forced into camps and Arn is forced into music and realizes it’s a way to survive. He’s eventually forced into service as a child soldier and later escapes to a refugee camp in Thailand. It’s brutal and the tactics seems non-sensical, which is about all I can make out after reading about the aims of the Khmer Rouge: Set up an agrarian-based society, keep out anything foreign, kill anyone with any form of education, knowledge or skill.
Their agricultural reform led to widespread famine.
Nevermind the genocide that killed anywhere from 1 to 3 million people, many found in more than 20,000 mass graves.
As brutal as the first half of the book is, it becomes a story of survival for Arn Chorn-Pond as he goes from camp prisoner to musician to child soldier to refugee to American adoptee. He had little or no help as he transitioned to American culture, something that’s hard enough for teenage adoptees today with all the counseling and preparation available, and without the horrors of genocide and guilt of being forced to kill as a child solider.
But it’s not all horror. Arn Chorn-Pond has gone on to become a humanitarian, founding multiple organizations and helping to preserve traditional Cambodian music and promote forgiveness and reconciliation.
All the Right Stuff by Walter Dean Myers is a Socratic dialogue about the social contract, the unwritten rules that determine our behavior, wrapped around the barest of plots.
I’m not a big fan of philosophy and I love a good plot, so this one didn’t do it for me.
In the aftermath of the death of his estranged father, Paul begins a summer job working in a soup kitchen. Elijah, the proprietor, quickly begins to teach Paul about more than chopping onions. They get into deep discussions about the social contract, the roles we play and why we do what we do. The debate becomes real as Paul mentors a young teenage mother who sees basketball as her only hope and is being recruited by a local gangster who doesn’t abide by the social contract.
In some ways it reminds me of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, with the philosophic conversation broken up by manual labor (in this case, preparing soup).
In the end it’s just a conversation. It’s all discussion and little action.
But I want a story that actually tells a story.
When Julia and her friend Patrick team up on a state fair project, Julia is disappointed that the silkworm project is too Korean. She wants to do something more American.
Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park (author of A Long Walk to Water) is a simple story that touches on race and identity, but doesn’t drown in them. It’s an internal debate for Julia, but it doesn’t overwhelm the story. It’s actually refreshing to see her struggle with difficult questions, ask some awkward questions, and move on. It’s not one of these depressing novels about the horrors of institutional racism. It’s about everyday struggles, everyday problems.
That makes it a lot more relatable.
What’s weird about Project Mulberry is the between-chapter dialogues between Julia and Linda Sue Park, the author. The character and the author actually have a conversation. They talk about how the story is going, what Julia likes and doesn’t like, etc.
It’s a fun concept and an interesting way to teach kids about the writing process. But I’m not sure if it works. I felt kind of ambivalent about it, and it seems if something like that is going to work it really needs to be a positive addition to the book.
Mexican WhiteBoy by Matt de la Peña is gritty. It’s real and it’s tough. It a gives a glimpse of life in a poor Mexican barrio near San Diego.
We see it through the eyes of Danny, a mixed-race teenager trying to come to terms with his mixed up identity. His mom is blond and blue eyed, his dad is Mexican. He feels out of place at his white private school and in the poor neighborhood his dad grew up in. But his dad is gone. His mom is off in affluent San Franciso with her boyfriend. Danny’s left with his extended family, where he doesn’t quite fit.
We also see the neighborhood through Uno, another mixed race teen—black and Mexican—who also struggles to find his place.
Yes, every teen novel is about self identity. Who am I? What’s my place in this world? But it’s that much more acute for these characters caught between borders.
But Danny loves baseball. Unexpected friendship and the love of the game find a way through.
There’s a lot going on in this book. The questions of culture, race and identity are powerful.
At the same time, it reminds me of all the books on baseball I read as a boy (probably during the height of my baseball addiction, just after getting baseball wallpaper). Like Hang Tough, Paul Mather. Alfred Slote was the king of YA baseball stories. At some book sale I remember finding a signed copy of a Slote baseball book, inscribed to someone and dated 1981. I thought that was pretty cool.
I don’t remember much about Slote’s baseball stories. But the descriptions of the game were good. Mexican WhiteBoy doesn’t even include any games, but Matt de la Peña’s descriptions of Danny’s pitching are just as good.
The Dyamonde Daniel series by Nikki Grimes features an in-charge and lively girl name Dyamonde (pronounced “Diamond”) who is confident in who she is. They’re really short chapter books that can be read in one sitting.
The opening book, Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel, was about moving to a new place and making friends. It was simple and good.
The second book, Rich, was surprisingly sweet. A poetry contest is announced at school, and while Dyamonde isn’t interested (math is her subject), her friend Free thinks he can rhyme with the best of them. Dyamonde makes a new friend who is also interested in poetry, Damaris Dancer.
Damaris lives in a shelter after her mom lost her second job and couldn’t pay the rent. She embarrassed and trusts Dyamonde to keep her secret.
For some reason I keep coming across fiction stories about homelessness (like 8th Grade Super Zero) and I’ve been impressed at the way it’s presented with dignity and grace. It’s too easy to rely on stock characters, easy answers or some kind of savior complex.
But Dyamonde is a true friend to Damaris and it offers a powerful example.
Plus there’s some good poetry and a nod to poet Eloise Greenfield and her book Honey, I Love. I know nothing about the poet or the book, but it’s always fun when books point you to more books.
The Dreamer, written by Pam Muñoz Ryan and beautifully illustrated by Peter Sis, is the story of the childhood of poet Pablo Neruda. He was an absent-minded dreamer struggling with an authoritarian father.
It’s full of wonder, but it really feels like a mere introduction. I wanted more. And I should confess I’m not into poetry. I preferred the details on Neruda’s life than the excerpts of his poetry.
The end of the author’s note includes a powerful detail about General Pinochet’s soldiers ransacking Neruda’s home just months before his death. Neruda simply told the soldiers:
“Look around—there’s only one thing of danger for you here: poetry.”
There’s an entire story to the power of words in Neruda’s life, but this book barely touches on it. But I love Pam Muñoz Ryan’s comment about writing at the Festival of Faith and Writing:
“I read because it’s safe. I write because it’s dangerous.”
The Authoritarian & the Dreamer
Shifting gears, what most struck me about this story was the scatterbrained boy and the frustrated father. I saw myself in that father, pushing his son to stop dawdling, to hurry up, to focus.
Hopefully I’m nowhere near as authoritarian and rigid as Neruda’s father, forcing his son into the ocean until he learned how to swim and burning his writings.
But the frustration, the lack of patience, the quick dismissal—they feel too familiar.
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward is a brutal novel:
- Teen sex that might not be rape but isn’t exactly consensual
- Dog fights
- Teen pregnancy
- A mom dying in childbirth
- An overwhelmed, distant and alcoholic single father
- Rampant poverty
And then Katrina comes down and blows everything to hell.
It’s a tough read (good thing I didn’t read it; the audiobook was very well done). But it’s also got heart. It won the 2011 National Book Award and there is some light that shines through the darkness: the language was poetic, the 14-year-old pregnant narrator loved the Greek myth of Jason and Medea, and when the action did pick up it had a great pace and feel.
But getting through it all was tough.
Sometimes books are like that. Sometimes life is like that.
In Cardboard, the creator of Earthworm Jim (Doug TenNapel) gives us a graphic novel about cardboard creations that come to life. It’s full of heart and off-beat quips.
I’m slowly getting into comic books and graphic novels, thanks to Gene Luen Yang and G. Willow Wilson most recently, but also the longtime influence of Ben Edlund (The Tick!) and TenNapel.
One thing I’m loving about comics that I can also see being a big downside is the referential nature. Here’s a perfect example from Cardboard that I just loved:
Of course if you’re not down with Tolkien, you’ll be completely confused by the Lord of the Rings reference. But it’s kind of hilarious in the off-beat, quirky hero tone of Cardboard. Good stuff.