Saturday, May 29, 2010

Marcelo and me, in the real world

One thing about relying on the library for most of my reading material is that I hardly ever read books close to their release date. (Another thing is that I don't contribute to authors' royalties, but unfortunately it's not within my budget to buy as many books as I want. That's my real world.)

All that to say: Here's another belated response to a book that's gotten lots of attention elsewhere.

Marcelo in the Real World by Franciso X. Stork was on many reviewers' Best of 2009 lists and won the Schneider Family Book Award for 2010. Lots of people were disappointed it didn't win a Printz honor. Here's the publisher's description:
Marcelo Sandoval hears music that nobody else can hear — part of an autism-like condition that no doctor has been able to identify. But his father has never fully believed in the music or Marcelo's differences, and he challenges Marcelo to work in the mailroom of his law firm for the summer . . . to join "the real world."
Reminiscent of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in the intensity and purity of its voice, this extraordinary novel challenges the boundaries of autism. It is a love story, a legal drama, and a celebration of the music each of us hears inside.
Like so many others who have already written about this book, I liked it. I read most of it in one night -- that's a good sign right there. And I really liked Marcelo. One of the best characters I've encountered in a while. I felt protective enough of him quickly enough that when his father issues his ultimatum around page 20, I had trouble continuing. I didn't want Marcelo to be in any kind of peril. The other sympathetic characters worked for me, too. The minor characters in Vermont were especially strong.

Other things I liked:
  • the pacing of the book, which is slow and studied, like Marcelo's thought processes.
  • the fact that it deals with big issues, real moral dilemmas.
  • its insights into how having a very different kind of brain -- a different way of being in the world -- might feel.
  • observations that a naive narrator brings to the everyday world (Marcelo's use of the phrase "large talk" as the opposite of "small talk," for instance)
A couple of things bothered me. As usual for me, I was resistant when the tone got a bit didactic. Marcelo's visits with a rabbi to discuss religious issues fell into that category for me. And I worried a little about how Marcelo's (and his father's) repeated attempts to distinguish his condition from others on the autism spectrum might affect people's understanding of or empathy with people who function at a lower level. That concern was allayed somewhat by Marcelo worrying about the same thing, saying he didn't want to minimize their pain.

On balance, I found it a terrific book and recommend it. If there's anyone else out there who hasn't read it yet.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

There's always room

These two books came out within a few months of each other. I don't know if the publishers knew of the other book or were surprised by the coincidence, but they do go to the point that there is always room for more than one take on a subject.

How to Clean Your Room by Eileen Spinelli and illustrated by David Leonard is, as you would expect, a poet's take on the child's chore.
First, wade through the clutter of color like an artist. . . what a lovely mess. Next stop at the books teetering by the bed, tottering with words, worlds you have read about, pages you have danced in. . .
Spinelli's version (complete with flaps and other surprises) focuses on the dreams and memories a bedroom holds. Her room cleaning is more about stopping to live in the moment than about orderliness. The point, she says, is  "to feather-dust the corners of yourself slowly."

How to Clean Your Room in 10 Easy Steps by Jennifer Larue Huget and Edward Koren is far less reverential. Its humor comes from the practical advice of one non-neatnik to another. The first rule of room cleaning is "Always wait until your mother hollers, 'GET UP THERE AND CLEAN YOUR ROOM—NOW!' using all three of your names." And tips include things like, “Pizza crusts may be munched on if they're less than a month old.”

For the orderly parent, perhaps neither book encourages the level of clean that would satisfy the organization experts on Clean House. But both are good books with valid perspectives. I loved Spinelli's, with its more flattering take on the creative mess we live in around here, but know children who would love each one.

I'm glad the publishing world, and our bookshelves, have room for both.

At least until the next big round of cleaning.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Taking on hard topics

I stumbled on an interesting juxtaposition of books while browsing at the library a few days ago. I happened to pick up Sparrow Girl by Sara Pennypacker and illustrated by Yoko Tanaka.

It's a beautifully illustrated and poignant story that starts, "One day, not too long ago, war was declared in China." The war is against the sparrow population, which has been eating the wheat crops. People use firecrackers and gongs to scare the birds and keep them flying. Told from the perspective of Ming-Li, a girl who vows to save some of the birds, the plight of the exhausted sparrows is heart-rending. Neither the text nor the illustrations pull their punches: "By afternoon, the birds were falling at a terrible rate." When Ming-Li's brother says the birds are like raindrops, she says, "No, they are like teardrops. The sky is crying birds."

The story is based on events from 1958, when Mao Tse-Tung ordered a campaign on sparrows that had the unintended consequence of ruining the wheat crop because there were no birds to keep the locusts in check, causing a terrible famine.

By coincidence, I also read Always With You by Ruth Vander Zee and Ronald Himler.

Always With You  is the story of a young girl orphaned by the Vietnamese War. It shows four-year-old Kim struggling to adjust to life in the orphanage, clinging to her mother's last words for solace. It also tells an honest story, showing Kim hiding and frightened in the aftermath of the bombing that killed her mother, then weeping in bed while a foster mother tries to offer comfort.

In both of these books, difficult subjects are handled without flinching. They work because they stay close to a child's perspective and offer hope for survival. While they might be difficult for younger picture book readers, both are well suited for helping older children begin to come to grips with some of the world's stupidity. Because both of the events portrayed are safely in the past (though both within my lifetime), they may be more approachable for kids than stories of current events.

I congratulate the publishers (Hyperion and Eerdmans) for having the courage to bring us books that aren't easy to read.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Children's books and life lessons

One of my friends shared her copy of Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children's Book with our writing group this week. I'd heard about the book, but hadn't seen it. Anita Silvey, a former editor who has written and spoken widely about children's literature, asked more than 100 famous or accomplished people to write about a children's book that taught them something.

It was great fun to see which books people chose and why. There were some selections that made perfect sense to me and some that surprised me. And there were a few books I'd never heard of.

Katherine Paterson said that she learned a sense of wonder from The Secret Garden. Actress Julianne Moore said Little Women taught her that a woman can choose. Maurice Sendak and Chris van Allsburg both picked Harold and the Purple Crayon (perfect, right?).

I could go on and on about the delicious connections. Mordicai  Gerstein, of the Caldecott-winning The Man Who Walked Between The Towers, learned to change the world by making fun of it from The Bad Child's Book of Beasts. Steve Wozniak read Tom Swift and went on to help found Apple. Pediatrician and author Perri Klass learned about the power of observation from Harriet the Spy.

The book has descriptions and excerpts from each of the favorite books, so it's also a trip down memory lane for anyone who loves children's literature, and a reminder to read or re-read many great books.

What I like most, though, is that it captures what a huge impact a beloved book can have on a child -- no matter how powerful or creative or well-read the person goes on to become.

What book would you name as one that influenced you? I would never be able to pick just one.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Dream of Night

Congratulations to Heather Henson on the publication of Dream of Night, which releases today from Atheneum.
Once full of promise and life, now lost in the shadows of abuse. This is Dream of Night’s story—and it is also Shiloh’s. One is a Thoroughbred racehorse, the other a twelve-year-old foster child. By chance they both find themselves under the care of Jessalyn DiLima—a final stop for each before the state takes more drastic measures. If this doesn’t work out, the girl will be sent to a “residential facility” and the horse to a vet . . . for euthanizing.This is their last chance, so why are they both so resistant? And why can’t they see that Jessie’s life is not as easy as it seems? She fosters animals and children like them for a reason—she’s a little broken too. And, like Shiloh and Dream of Night, Jessie knows what it means to have lost nearly everything you love. A story of hope and healing, Dream of Night reminds us all that the most important bonds in life are never forged by force, and that the darkness of night will eventually give way to dawn.
I had the chance to read an advance copy and it's a wonderful story, told masterfully. It uses alternating points of view -- including that of the horse -- and all three voices are convincing. I wouldn't have thought anyone could pull off writing in the voice of an abused racehorse, but Heather manages it. As impressive as that is, though, the poignancy of Shiloh and Jess, each with their own pain and need, are the heart of this moving story.

For those of you in Cincinnati, she'll be signing books at The Blue Marble on Thursday.