|Jul/Aug 2005 Book Reviews|
Front Street. 2005.
Ages 12 & Up
Every now and again I read a book that is so quirky and unusual that I'm not quite sure what to do with it when I am done. These are good books, enjoyable books, but also very difficult to categorize. Was it a mystery, a fantasy, a romance? Was that horror I found in there, was it family drama, was it simple schoolyard games? When I finished Judith Clarke's sublime Kalpana's Dream, I spent quite a bit of time thinking about what I had read. I didn't know how to write the review for this book, because it defies all simple assessments and classifications. The easiest thing to write, the obvious thing, is that it is good, Kalpana's Dream is a very very good book.
The plot seems simple at first. Neema is a new freshman more than a bit overwhelmed by the high school experience. She has all the typical questions and concerns of girls her age and also the growing worry over her English teacher, a notoriously tough instructor who hands out assignments that do the worst thing possible: they make her students think. Along with all these amusing teenage problems Neema is also questioning her place in the world, particularly as an Indian girl living in Australia. To make matters a bit more complicated her great grandmother, Kalpana, has suddenly decided it is time to come for a visit. This throws Neema's mother into a frenzy of confusion which would seem to make the book a fun and quirky family story. But then there is the assignment from Ms. Dallimore in which Neema and her classmates must answer the toughest question of all: Who Am I? They also wonder if Ms. Dallimore is dating Dracula (which seems surprisingly likely), and Neema finds herself spending time with the very desirable Gull Oliver, a boy from her past. Finally she must find a way to communicate with Kalapan, who only speaks Hindi but insists on speaking to Neema as if she understands her every word. It is all a lot more for a young freshman to deal with and a bit too much to accept, but she blunders on through every curve that is thrown her way until everything becomes clear. Then the ending drops down on the reader and author Clarke gives us all a nice little surprise that had me smiling for a very long time.
The cool thing about this book is the essay assignment, the demand that the students answer the question of personal identity. Clarke gives Neema and her classmates full reign with their answers and they cover a wide range of possibilities, each more unexpected than the last. She also makes Kalpana one of the warmest and most fascinating elderly characters I have encountered in fiction in a long time. And Ms. Dallimore, well, Ms. Dallimore is really too funny and her love life is hysterical. Ms. Dallimore's antics alone are worth the price of the book.
Kalpana's Dream was a revelation for me, a truly original book in the young adult field. I read a lot of good books, a lot of really great ones, but finding something original is not so easy. Judith Clarke has done something genre defying with this title and created a piece of work that is well worth the discerning reader's time. I'm still thinking about it, and that says something. For someone who reads as much as I do, that says a lot.
Naomi Shihab Nye.
Ages 12 & Up
When I reconsider myself as a teenager I'm not always so impressed by what I recall. I was a good kid, I joined clubs, and I cheered for the home team; I was in the marching band for God's sake. (Should I be proud of that or ashamed?) But I was more of a follower than anything else. I didn't come up with a lot of good ideas; I participated in other people's plans and goals. That doesn't make me very unusual; in fact I was probably more of a typical teen than anything else. But I get wistful sometimes when I think of those lost opportunities, those chances to be someone other than who I was. If you are brave and strong at fifteen, then what may you be when you are twenty, or thirty? What may you accomplish when you have a jumpstart from adolescence? What could possibly hold you back later?
But well, that was then and the closer I get to my twenty year high school reunion, the more distant a "then" it becomes. One of the reasons I so enjoy young adult fiction is because it often highlights teenagers that are very different from the girl that I was. More often than not they are characters I enjoy and would have liked to emulate. They are missed opportunities for the listless Colleen who went to the beach because there was nothing else to do; the Colleen who was so utterly bored for months on end. That girl wasted a lot of time. If she had known someone like Naomi Shihab Nye's heroine Florrie, then she would have found lots of things to do. If I had known a Florrie (or even better, tried to be like her), then I would have hit the ground running as soon I arrived in junior high.
Florrie has a thing for the past. She collects old postcards (something the two of us do have in common) and old stories but particularly loves old buildings. She is not interested in museums of architecture however, she wants the buildings of her town, San Antonio, to remain useful. Mostly it is the businesses they house that concern her. Florrie is preoccupied with the cafes and restaurants, clothing stores and record shops that remain independent and vital and thus provide a valuable source of uniqueness to any town. In other words, she hates chain stores and franchises and thinks they need to go.
Going Going is about Florrie's attempt to bring attention to the downside of national chains. Along with her friends and family she holds rallies, plots stunts and makes friends with news reporters as she sings her message of independence and preservation from one end of San Antonio to the other. There is also a boy who may or may not be great, and several very good friends who truly are wonderful. By and large Florrie and her group are one of the more unique sets of teens that I've come across in a while (Brent Hartinger's crew in The Geography Club comes to mind as close second.) They are not weird though, they are not bizarre. They are just teenagers that feel passionate about something and then actually try to act on that passion. It's invigorating to read about their adventures and inspiring as well. And although I may not be able to send this book winging back to 1984 and into the hands of a desultory sixteen year old who spends her time wishing something would happen while doing nothing to make anything happen, I can drive by Wal-Mart and seek out a local business I've never taken the time to get to know. Chains and franchises are not evil, but their threat to our individuality is real. Naomi Shihab Nye wonders if "Fifty years from now will our cities all look the same?" That's a scary thought for her and it should be for the rest of us as well. Read Going Going and see what Florrie has to say about such a predicament. Then take a lesson from the book and go make a difference.
Illustrated by Leo & Diane Dillon.
Between Heaven and Earth: Bird Tales From Around the World.
Gulliver Books. 2004.
All too often books of folktales for children end up dry and dull or, even worse carry a glaringly obvious politically correct message. They can be quite boring. My hopes for Between Heaven and Earth were rather high (in fact the only reason I even wanted to read the book in the first place) due to the author, Howard Norman. I recently read and very much enjoyed Norman's travel book about Nova Scotia, My Famous Evening, and I was intrigued to see what he would do within the realm of folklore. It didn't hurt to have the Dillons onboard as illustrators either, their work is gorgeous and always a pleasure to see.
So what is Between Heaven and Earth about? This collection of five bird tales from Australia, Norway, Sri Lanka, Matabeleland and China, was initially gathered by Norman during an International Folklore Workshop years before the book was published. The ultimate goal of this book was summed up by one of the workshop participants Adati Akura, who later wrote Norman and said, "I look forward to the book and hope it might deliver laughter, tears and wonderful thoughts about the wild birds all around us." The book delivers solidly on this attempt and also offers a unique way of looking at other cultures and locations around the world.
As the stories vary so dramatically in origin, it is not surprising that their content and language should be different as well. "The Troll and the Scarf Made of Crows" is a Norwegian tale about a young ice skater and a fearsome troll while "The Swan-Scholar's Great Student" is a Chinese tale about a young student, a telescope and a remarkable transformation. The other stories also refuse to fit any mold as they relate the adventures of a willful daughter, a village wracked with drought and a rather obnoxious young boy who learns a lesson about pride and bragging. All together they form a collection that is enjoyable to read and stunning to look at. To be honest this is not the sort of book I generally pick up as folklore is not an area of literature that I'm very familiar with. But after reading Norman's book I'm so impressed by how well the stories fit together and yet how original they still remain I'm inclined to look further into the genre. And although this book might look like a children's title from the cover, it is clear to me that any reader interested in world literature would enjoy it. I'm all about making the planet a little smaller these days, and delighted to find another wonderful way to accomplish that goal.
A Small Boat at the Bottom of the Sea.
Milkweed Editions. 2005.
Ages 10 & Up
In the middle of a lot of spy novels and copycat wizards, it was a bit of a surprise for me to discover John Thomson's very quiet yet powerful coming of age story, A Small Boat at the Bottom of the Sea. I have written before how difficult it is to find decent books for boys, and this is particularly true for boys in the middle grade years. I'll be honest, I read "boy books" when I was young and I loved the Three Investigators and Encyclopedia Brown (still do in fact) and nowadays I'm a big fan of Harry Potter, but there has to be something more than that. Girls can find thousands of books that lead them through every single second of childhood and adolescence (many of which are inane, but that's another story), boys however are not so lucky. And then everyone wonders why boys don't read.
Yeah, it's a real mystery.
Thomson's book is very quiet, very direct. It is the story of twelve year old Donovan Sanger and his summer in Pudget Sound with his aunt and uncle. Donovan is there because his Aunt Hattie is very ill and although his family is concerned, old arguments and disappointments lie between his father and Uncle Bix preventing a more direct adult involvement. Donovan is, as he explains, the family "emissary," and although he is reluctant to go away for his entire school vacation the attraction of leaving home, for whatever reason, is undeniable. And Donovan wants to know more about Uncle Bix, and why he went to prison so many years before.
The plot includes a number appealing points, from a sunken pleasure boat with a salvageable motor (that Donovan must dive down to more than once), to a 1963 Chris Craft waiting to be resurrected in Uncle Bix's backyard. (Don't get me started on what a treasure that is!) The woods are full of possibilities, the dock is a daily test of caution and courage and the revelations surrounding Uncle Bix's past are revealed one patient step at a time. Stuff happens in this book, it is just not what you would expect.
The boat is Donovan's big adventure at first but a mystery quickly develops surrounding an old friend of his uncle's, a man who is clearly a poor influence and vehemently distrusted by Aunt Hattie. He seems to be leading Uncle Bix down the wrong path, a dangerous path to self-destruction. Hattie is desperate to keep her husband safe and depends on Donovan to help. He ends up hiding behind a tombstone at night, facing down a bully more than once and toying with the idea of going to the police. It is all to save his uncle of course, but Donovan is not sure that he knows the whole story. Can the man who loves his aunt so much and is so dedicated to making something strong and beautiful out of a lost and broken boat be a bad man? Can Donovan be sure just who his Uncle Bix really is? As I said, this is a quiet book, a book about a boy searching for truth and lurching ahead into that mysterious world of manhood. It is all about asking questions and coming to conclusions and realizing that it doesn't hurt to face a bully when you have a big Crescent wrench in your hand. I think A Small Boat at the Bottom of the Sea would easily appeal to both boys and girls who love a good story and I recommend it for both. But I have to point out that it's a rare entry into the literary canon for boys. It is certainly a family drama but also includes some adventurous moments and a mystery whose solution carries grave consequences. It is a book in which a man's integrity comes into question and a boy's own instincts are proven to be invaluable. In the midst of everything loud and shiny and bright on the bookshelves, this is a quiet little gem. Here's hoping John Thomson gives us more treasures like it in the future.