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Oct/Nov 2007 Reviews & Interviews

An Extra Helping of Family Chaos

Reviewed by Colleen Mondor


Buy now from Amazon! Billed as a "family drama," Sara Ryan's The Rules for Hearts seems at first to be a coming-of-age story about high school graduate Battle, who sets off on her own to the big city the summer before starting college. Very quickly it becomes clear that Battle has lied to her parents and is meeting someone, although not who you would think for a teenage girl. The attraction for her is not romance, but a more powerful love. Battle is looking for her older brother Nick, who left home years before and has been largely absent from her life ever since. They have connected online and he invites her to stay in a house where he rents a room in Portland, Oregon. Battle gets accepted to college in the city and permission from her parents to head out west early. She thinks she is off on an adventure to reconnect with her sibling but really, she has no idea what awaits her.

There is a lot going on in Rules; events push Battle towards epiphanies she has no interest in making. Nick lives with a bohemian group with confusing attractions and relationships (some of which involve him). All of them are theater-obsessed to one degree or another. Battle gets caught up in the new Shakespeare production (all good) and distracted by lust (which might be more or less involved than she thinks it is). Through all of these confusions, and the nuts and bolts of getting a job and learning about Portland, she keeps finding herself confronted with more and more evidence of Nick's duplicity. He is not the older brother she knew growing up, either because he has changed or more simply, because she never saw his true self before.

Either choice is sobering and unsettling, but as much as she might hate it, Battle can't deny it. The question is whether or not she can navigate this new clarity of vision when it comes to her brother without hating him, or, even worse, hating herself.

Sometimes, families can really mess with your mind.

For GLBT readers in particular, The Rules for Hearts will be a reassuring read. The attraction Battle feels for her housemate Meryl has all the elements of teenage lust and while it diverts her from her a pending confrontation with Nick, it also provides a welcome (and sexy) second plot line. Nick's relationship with Meryl and another housemate, Charlie, is less clear and way more confusing. But that's also Nick—he doesn't do a single thing in a transparent way, even love. And so, while Battle puts her heart on a platter for Meryl, readers will not worry for a second about Nick; they will be busy aching for Battle and all she hopes for; they will ache for all she wants to happen that amazing summer.

In the end, I really loved this kid and I was so impressed by how she came through what was truly a baptism by fire.

Colby Rodowsky wrote a very unconventional family story, That Fernhill Summer, last year that managed to surprise me with what it wasn't about, while conveying a message about just how complicated being part of a family can get. With her new book, Ben and the Sudden Too-Big Family she further explores the definition of family, this time by looking at second marriages and adoption. There's no heavy angst here—no depression, anger or throwing of small breakables—but Rodowsky does give a thorough look into just how frustrating the blending process can be, even when everyone is trying their best. For the younger set (9-12 years old), this will be a dandy title and if you know a child in the midst of blending chaos, then really it's a must read.

Ben is eleven years old, fairly well adjusted and long accustomed to life with a single parent. His mother died when he was very young and Ben and his dad have adapted well. They get along, they work together and they know how to have fun. Life is good. When they meet Casey, she's a more than happy addition to their family. Ben is fine with Casey as stepmom material and she works pretty hard at making sure that no toes are stepped on or feelings hurt. So Casey, Ben and his dad, Mitch, are not the problem. In fact, if it was just the three of them then life would sail along pretty much as it always had before, if not even better. But Casey comes from a huge family—an overwhelming family—of the sort who get together for things like weddings and anniversaries. They all like Ben, they all want to get to know Ben better, they all (Ben thinks) want to consume him with kindness.

It can be a tad bit terrifying to be metaphorically swallowed by a large family.

So there's Ben and Casey and Mitch and Casey's insanely large family and then there is the baby—the Chinese baby that Casey was already in the long process of adopting when she and Mitch got married. Ben's life was small and made sense without all of these other people and now he's not sure what is good and what is bad anymore. He loves his family, but he doesn't quite know what to do with them—especially all the new aunts, uncles and cousins. All of it gets to be a bit too much when the family descends on their traditional beach vacation spot for a week-long celebration and Ben gets lost, literally, in who he is and who everyone else wants him to be. It takes some deep introspection to figure out just what is good about families, and what Ben can do to carve out his niche while surrounded by a lot of oversized personalities and some very big love.

With Ben, I think Rodowsky is carving out a nice little space for herself in an often overlooked part of the middle grade reading world. There are so many books (oh so many) about families in trouble (either from themselves or others), but a nice warmhearted story about a happy family is not always so easy to find. Ben and the Sudden Too-Big Family is a sweet read that will appeal to anyone who ever felt a bit lost in the family crowd. It's a lemonade kind of story—it makes you feel good afterwards in the best sort of way. Hopefully Rodowsky sees what she excels at and will continue to write these much-needed looks at families of all kinds in the future.

Loretta Ellsworth has written a new entry into a subgenre of young adult novels that directly relate to classic books. Her title, In Search of Mockingbird is ostensibly about teenage Erin embarking on a quest for find her literary hero, Harper Lee. But in the midst of a very long bus ride it becomes clear that really she is looking for a way to connect with her long-deceased mother (whose teenage self also admired Lee). Readers will suspect this from the beginning, especially when her father announces his intention to marry his longterm girlfriend, but the use of a bus ride as a voyage to self discovery is so original—and unexpected—that anyone who starts this lovely novel will fall for it in an instant. It's very quietly written but packs a most satisfying punch.

Erin is not typically the sort of girl to take her savings, buy a bus ticket and head out on a cross country trip, leaving only a note behind. But she is convinced that visiting Lee will give her some special insight into who her mother was. She sets out with a plan to not talk to anyone, to travel as fast as she can, and to contact her father only as a last resort. Right off the bat though she meets "Sedushia," an exotic dancer with a sad story that makes Erin feel like maybe she is not all alone in the world with her confusions. Soon enough she is turning to Mockingbird for advice on how to help her new friend and opening up on the purpose behind her journey. From Sedushia to Epp, an aspiring computer game designer, to a whole busload of helpful travelers, Erin finds herself opening up more and more about how upset she is over never knowing her mother and what she hopes will happen in Lee's hometown. Ultimately though, it becomes less about Lee and more about Erin's relationship with her father, and all the things he has to share about the mother she never knew.

In a lot of ways In Search of Mockingbird seems to be a novel about mothers and daughters, but I think the twist that Ellsworth has given her readers about the significance of the right book at the right time in anyone's life should not be overlooked. Erin connects with her mother most completely through the pages of the book they both love and the author they both admire. Basically, To Kill a Mockingbird is the bridge to her mother and by expressing this so well with Erin's story, Ellsworth's example will send many of her readers off on the search of titles that will apply to their own lives as well. The best sort of discovery for all of them would be Harper Lee's book itself—a classic well deserving of the attention that the talented Ellsworth has given it.

Theo is also looking for information on a parent, but in the case of Greetings From Planet Earth, the situation is heartbreakingly different. Set in the mid-1970s, author Barbara Kerley places Theo and his classmates right in the middle of the post-Vietnam era, and immerse them in some big questions about what kind of people the inhabitants of planet Earth are. The hook here is the launch of Voyager 2 and its mission to introduce alien species to the people of earth. Theo's class is given a similar assignment: answer the question, "Who are we?" It seems straightforward and many of his classmates answer it in fun and interesting ways. But Theo doesn't know who he is, because he's missing someone critical to that question; he's missing his father who went to Vietnam and never came home.

They do not talk about Theo's father in the house—ever. Theo pores over old photographs and tries to ask questions that will not upset his mother, but it takes little to set her off. As his teacher prompts the class to go deeper in their Voyager question—what do we do, how do we live; Theo begins to press for answers to his deep questions about his father. His grandmother gives him some letters and then he finds more of them hidden in his mother's bedroom. There are letters she never shared with him or his sister, letters that hint at why his father went away to war and what happened to him while he was there. In the end it is a Saturday adventure following his grandmother that leads to the biggest revelation of all and shows just how hard it can be to get answers those big questions, and how things can go wrong even when no one wants them to.

Kerley's book could not be more timely as it deals with issues of war and peace that the U.S. is only just now beginning to address with the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. The reason Theo's father goes missing is unlike any other I have read in a middle grade (or YA) novel and yet—if statistics about war veterans tell us anything — it is the sort of thing that should be written about far more often. Beyond that aspect of the novel however, I was particularly pleased to find a story that deals with the 1970s in a way that captures all the hopefulness and also lingering sadness that permeated that era. The seventies are often lost in the shuffle in historical novels (not quite long enough ago to be considered historic, yet too dated to be looked upon as contemporary). As Kerley so effectively illustrates, however, there is a wealth of experience from that time that directly relates to our own lives today. She has written a novel that shows all this, while focusing on a space-mad boy who loves building models and riding his bike. Greetings From Planet Earth is an irresistible package; I don't think this book has gotten nearly enough attention from readers but I hope that changes over time as it is discovered more and more. You couldn't ask for a better roadmap as to just where the 21st century is taking us.

Fans of Carolyn Mackler's Vegan Virgin Valentine will be delighted to know that Vivienne Valentine has returned in her new book, Guyaholic. I came to it without reading its predecessor and found that it stands on its own as a combination romance/road trip/coming-of-age novel quite well. What surprised me about reading some early reviews for Guyaholic is that "V" is considered a bit of a bad girl. I never got that—but then again, I always thought bad meant bitchy and didn't have a thing to do with sex. To me, V is just a girl scared to death of commitment and confused about her future. If she was a boy, none of this would be all that remarkable, (that double sexy standard rears its ugly head yet again), but "queen of meaningless hookups" is not exactly a title all the girls are clamoring for. The fact that Mackler makes V both sincere and empathetic, while also less than romantic, makes Guyaholic rather unusual in YA. This is a book where the girl gets laid and doesn't suffer severe emotional scarring. Her real problem is way worse than sex; it's all about her mother, and on that score, any teen will find V very easy to identify with.

Guyaholic charges ahead very quickly, from a hockey game where V gets injured, to a date with a cute good Samaritan, to graduation and another disappointment from her wayward vanished mother, to some freaking out about still dating the good Samaritan (his name is Sam), and then the fateful hookup with the old boyfriend which effectively sabotages the burgeoning relationship she has with her good guy. Of course you knew she was going to screw it up—she couldn't believe she had held out so long—but when V can't get over Sam in two minutes and even feels horribly guilty, well, then readers know she's going through a bit of a metamorphosis. Could it be that the ultimate "love ‘em and leave 'em" girl has actually fallen for a guy? Maybe….or maybe she is just really really sick and tired of being let down by her selfish mother. Time to leave her doting grandparents behind and hit the road for Texas in search of Mom and her latest boyfriend (a familial pattern does emerge here). V gets lost, finds another cute guy (the girl is a magnet or something) and has all sorts of personal revelatory moments that build up to her defining kiss-off moment with the parental unit. Sometimes, you just have to deal with the fact that not all parents should have been allowed to have children. Then it's up to our girl to decide just who she wants to be, now that she's no longer interested in pretending to be mom. Now she gets to start over and the question, of course, is if Sam will be part of that.

But I'm not going to give the ending away because it's what you wait for through the entire book and either way, by the last page you know V will be all right and that, more than anything, is what really matters.

I was quite pleased with the way Mackler put this story together and thank you—thank you!—for giving us a girl who has sex without being a cliché. There are so many facets to V's character that it will be easy for all sorts of readers—even virgins—to identify with her struggle. Guyaholic should be a fine read for all of the high school crowd, regardless of dating experience level.

Gemma Stone's problem, in the thoroughly delightful The Sweet, Terrible Glorious Year I Truly, Completely Lost It, is that her sister Debbie is getting married and has lost her freaking mind. We are talking a first-class candidate for that Bridezilla show here and Gemma and her parents are just along for the ride. Things get really bizarre when they meet the fiancé's relatives, a retired-military family that is so committed to all things war that they have an obstacle course in the backyard—which pretty much turns Gemma's father into shell of a man. (He falls into a pit—it's not pretty.) To top it off, nutty Debbie insists that her teenage sister be a flower girl, and the humiliation does not stop with that. (There is a bad outfit involved, an epically bad outfit.) Gemma is not happy and so she finds herself easily talked into trying out for the school play. It doesn't hurt that her crush is the one who does the talking, but it is still not a typical Gemma thing to do.

Then again, compared to the nightmare that is the all-day Bridal Fair, taking a chance on the The Tempest is absolute heaven.

Things get complicated when Raven, a classmate from the local family of terror and trouble, tries out for the play as well and ends up performing brilliantly. He clearly likes Gemma, but Gemma clearly likes Nick. As for Nick, well, his motives are purposely unclear. As the group begins immersing itself in all things Shakespeare, emotions run high and then Shanahan throws a startling curveball Gemma's way as she and Raven are rehearsing. It's a wholly unexpected plot twist and forces Gemma to take a long hard look at who she is and who she wants to be. In the middle of it all, of course, is the most bizarre wedding in the history of the world (the theme is animals that mate for life if that gives you a clue) and the juxtaposition of that life and the one she has glimpsed with Raven is huge. Gemma realizes—of course—that her family might be odd, but at least she can count on them. At least she knows they are on her side. But that's not the big revelation; the big moment is all hers and it is mighty sweet indeed.

Shanahan has crafted a book with Sweet, Terrible, Glorious Year that seems to be one thing (quirky family comedy) but turns out to be something else (intense coming-of-age story). Without the light-hearted moments with Debbie and all her chaos, the rest of the book would be too heavy, however, and the perfect balance between the two parts is what makes it such a pleasure to read. It doesn't hurt that the author manages to make The Tempest applicable to today's high school students. This book was a most pleasant surprise and perfect in particular for the ultra-confused years between thirteen and sixteen.

Finally, fourteen-year-old Joseph Calderaro has a most vexing problem in Rose Kent's Kimchi and Calamari. He has just been assigned a class project to write an essay about his ancestors. His family is Italian as far back as the eye can see, so it seems like the paper wouldn't be all that too difficult to write. The catch though is that Joseph is Korean, and was adopted by the Calderaros when he was just a baby. He knows only the barest facts about his birth mother and how he was found. Writing about his Italian heritage doesn't seem right, even though his parents insist that it is about who loves you and how you are raised as much as where you were born. Joseph wants to know more though—he wants to know who he really is. Frustrated while trying to talk to his parents about his sudden urge to find himself, he turns instead to history books about Korea and the Korean people. That's where he finds out about a real WWII Korean hero and decides to write his essay about him—and stretch the truth by making Sohn Kee Chung his biological grandfather which is an outright lie. Joseph has no clue how to respond to this assignment and so he panics, which isn't much of a surprise, but disappointingly realistic nonetheless.

Why can't we be better than we are in fiction?

Fortunately he comes clean very quickly to his parents and his teacher and although this means some kids who aren't really his friends make a lot of rude comments (this is middle school after all), the story moves past the Sohn Kee Chung lie and deeper into Joseph's search for self. He makes friends with a Korean classmate and begins to question what being a "real" Korean means and also reaches a higher understanding with his parents over the tricky issue of adoption and finding his birth mother. (One of my favorite parts of Kimchi and Calamari was Joseph's parents being alternately supportive and worried about his search. Their reactions to his questions were pitch-perfect throughout the text and a testament to Kent's ability to put her own thoughts as an adoptive parent into the story.)

Ultimately Joseph comes to terms with who he really is, who his friends are and even better, who the girl is that he should be asking to the formal dance. He learns that in all the ways that matter, he is as authentically Korean and Italian as he can be. He is Joseph Calderaro, and reading about his journey should be both fun and enlightening for all teens looking for some inner direction of their own.

 

The Rules for Hearts by Sara Ryan
Viking 2007
ISBN 978-670-05906-5
222 pages

Ben and the Sudden Too-Big Family by Colby Rodowsky
Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2007
ISBN 0-374-30658-3
128 pages

In Search of Mockingbird by Loretta Ellsworth
Henry Holt 2007
ISBN 0805072365
181 pages

Greetings From Planet Earth by Barbara Kerley
Scholastic 2007
ISBN 0-439-80203-2
246 pages

Guyaholic by Carolyn Mackler
Candlewick 2007
ISBN 076362537X
192 pages

The Sweet, Terrible, Glorious Year I Truly, Completely Lost It by Lisa Shanahan
Delacorte 2007
ISBN 0-385-73516-2
304 pages

Kimchi and Calamari by Rose Kent
Harper Collins 2007
ISBN 0-06-083769-3
220 pages

 

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