There is a certain segment of the young adult genre that deals with acute family dramas—the kind of dramas that splinter parents from children or include a level of tragedy that can be very nearly permanently debilitating. These are the stories where young people must learn to overcome circumstance, and because adults are often absent or suffering as well, the teens are forced to make their way on their own. The worst thing that can happen for these types of books is if the author takes an after school special approach to the story and hammers some inane message down readers' throats at every turn.
I really hate it when that happens.
I've been making my way through a stack of family dramas lately, and tossing aside at will every single book that makes me want to reach through the pages and throttle the characters for crimes against literature ranging from acute stupidity to grossly obscene maudlin overtones. What follows is an overview of some outstanding titles that prove serious subjects can be tackled quite successfully in the YA world, and more importantly, that this is exactly where such topics belong.
With Julia's Kitchen, author Brenda Ferber set her sights on a very delicate subject and managed it with a lot more success than I would have thought possible. In the very beginning of the book, readers learn that while eleven-year old Cara is spending the night at a friend's house, her home is basically destroyed by a fire and her mother and younger sister are killed. The devastating loss not only has the predictable impact on Cara, her father and her grandparents, but it also serves to separate the two surviving members of the immediate family. Cara finds herself largely alone to deal with her grief as her father withdraws into a shell that only has room for work and sleep. In a new, unfamiliar apartment Cara ends up reluctantly turning to her mother's home-based baking business as a way to stay sane. The fact that she ends up enjoying it so much, and her father's response to the enterprise, are just two of the surprises that Ferber has in store for her readers.
I had a lot of trepidations about reading Julia's Kitchen—there was an enormous potential to be a dark and depressing book and I really didn't know if Ferber was going to be able to keep it from falling into cliché. Cara is a very well drawn character though, and her interactions with her family, her best friend Marlee and even the unusual school counselor, Mrs. Block, are all honest and "real" in the best sense of the word. Ultimately, this is a hopeful book, which seems impossible, but it's true. Bad things do happen in the world, and Ferber tackles one of the worst with Julia's Kitchen. But the book isn't just about the bad thing; it's about a whole lot more, and that makes it a wonderful read.
One thing that particularly impressed me about Julia is that Ferber does not shy away from the reasons Cara's mother and sister died. Decisions were made that night which made the fire far costlier than it needed to be and while the tendency is to forget the reasons and focus only on the aftermath, Ferber doesn't let Cara do that. She keeps asking how and why of everyone she knows until finally the facts behind the accident are completely revealed. While the truth hurts, and has clearly been tearing her father apart, Ferber understands that it is necessary for Cara to know. The author's refusal to take shortcuts and turn the story into an endless tear-jerker is part of what makes it stand out, and why it is so easy for me to recommend.
Pre-teen Rachel is also dealing with the loss of her mother, although in the case of Hugging the Rock, she has to accept that her parent has chosen to leave. Susan Taylor Brown tackles several issues with her novel-in-verse, not the least of which is how a child handles the sudden and stark realization that parents are not infallible—not by a long shot.
Sometimes they are sadly all too human, no matter how much their children might need them to be more.
Brown begins her story with the day that Rachel's mother left. In the succeeding short two-page chapters, she chronicles the young girl's struggle not only to get past her mother's abandonment, but also to form a relationship with her distant father. The more she tries to force her way into his life (and heart) the more things seem to go wrong. But just as everything starts to fall apart, most notably her schoolwork, she witnesses a breakthrough for her dad in their family counseling. At that moment, "the rock" crumbles and Rachel discovers just how much she needs the parent who stayed behind.
Rachel and Cara have a lot in common; they are both the kind of girls who ask questions, a lot of questions, and their pursuit of answers takes them into all kinds of corners of what family is and what it can be. Both authors do an excellent job of capturing the intricacies of the father/daughter relationship, but while Julia's Kitchen is about how to get in touch with your father, Hugging the Rock is about what happens after that first breakthrough conversation. As she drifts further from her mother (who is struggling with demons of her own), Rachel slowly discovers her father. In all the years of her mother taking center stage in their many family dramas, she never really knew him as anything other than an extension of the word parent. They have never had anything in common other than handling the unpredictable woman who filled both of their lives. And now that she's gone, there is nothing to do but figure each other out.
I really liked Hugging the Rock and the sensitive way that Brown handles a touchy subject. But beyond the mother's psychological disorders, it is the realistic way that Rachel and her father connect that melted my heart. This is a sweet story about a very small family finding their way in a new and imperfect world. It's not changing the world, unless you are one little girl and her father. For them, this is a book about everything and for readers it's a lovely glimpse into what makes a family something special.
On the most obvious level Sue Corbett's Free Baseball is a story about 11-year-old Felix and his adventures as a bat boy with the minor league (emphasis on minor) ball team, The Miracle. Felix is like a lot of other boys his age: baseball crazy and chafing under the rules of single parent mother. The major difference in his life though is that Felix's father plays ball for the Cuban National Team and Felix has not seen him since he was a baby.
Corbett takes the familiar sports setting and turns it on his head as Felix goes looking among the members and staff of The Miracle for information about his father. He doesn't know the questions he wants answered, he just knows that he needs to ask; he needs to start conversations about the man named Claudio de la Portillo and see what other ballplayers might be able to tell him. As answers begin to roll in and revelations appear about why Felix and his mother are in Miami and Claudio is still in Cuba, the story takes some sudden and unexpected turns. Baseball becomes just something that Felix and his absent father have in common but it is not at all the point of the story and it is certainly not the most significant part of the boy's life.
There are some moments in the story where things fall into place a little too perfectly, but then again, for Felix life has been complicated and disappointing enough and he seems due for a "miracle" or two. (Sorry—I couldn't resist that.) What I really liked about the Free Baseball though, was how the search for his father led Felix in so many unexpected and unplanned directions and allowed him to make discoveries on his own that had been denied him by well-meaning adults. I also appreciated the very full character that his mother turned out to be, and how she came to understand that protecting Felix was not the best way to be a good parent. Following the theme of the other two books, adults are not infallible in Felix's world; they make mistakes and, very importantly in this story, are willing to admit them. Perhaps best of all though, Felix is just a likeable kid—he's a kid who has always wanted to know more and finally works up the courage to do something proactive about his life. I admire anyone willing to take a chance to find the truth and what Felix accomplishes in his quest makes for very good reading (and should certainly not be directed only to baseball fans, although this might just be the title that gets reluctant sports fiends to read).
In Something Invisible 11-year old Jake has a fairly stable family life that is suddenly upset when his mother and her long time live-in boyfriend celebrate the birth of a new baby. Although Jake has never known his biological father, Daisy's arrival causes him to question his relationship with his "Dad" and his place in the new family unit. The situation gets even more intense when the couple decides to marry, sending Jake into a panic about whether or not he will have the same last name as everyone else and, more importantly, if they will still want him as he is the only one who is "different".
So far, this is all fairly predictable for a kid dealing with a new parental situation (and a new half-sibling) but Parkinson has a lot more to send Jake's way and how he gets along with his stepfather (who is great) is only a small part of this story.
Because he is a bit uncertain about life at home, Jake turns more and more often to his new friend Stella and her riotous family, punctuated by a number of younger sisters, all of whom tag along whenever Stella leaves the house. This happy crew seems to be everything that Jake is longing for, although he is the first to admit that most of the problems at his house seem to stem from his own uncertainties. He just doesn't know what he wants—whether he really wants to find his father or fully commit to the man who, for all intents and purposes, is his father. In the midst of this confusion and questioning, Jake is out one day with his baby sister and inadvertently takes part in a rapid chain of events that ends in tragedy for Stella's family. That is when he finally grasps what really matters, and also learns to appreciate, on every level, the family that he has had all along.
There were a lot of things about Jake that I loved, not the least of which was his dream to become a fish painter. In fact it was while reading Something Invisible that I realized that all the children in these books about difficult circumstances have their hearts fixed on something beyond themselves—whether it is a love of fish, baseball or baking. (Or even space and dogs, but more on those later.) Jake clings to his artistic goal in the face of all other distractions and the support his family and friends give him on his dream goes a long way towards helping him heal when the something bad happens. Jake is a boy who loves soccer and fish—he is, in other words, a most amazing and impressive child. The fact that he is loved and supported for all of who he is proves that he has the best sort of family. It just takes him a little while to figure that out, and also to understand just what family means in the first place.
Something Invisible is one of those quiet little books that can sometimes run under the radar and get lost by most readers. Don't let it slip you by, it's a real winner. (And whoever designed this book cover deserves major kudos—it's one of the best I've seen in ages.)
After reading Parkinson's book I was struck by how a child's ability to cope is so closely tied to what they believe about themselves. In the face of sudden tragedy, and the impossibility of accepting that tragedy, adults may soldier on or sink into denial or play a thousand different games of might-have-been and should-have-been. But children, even teenagers, do not know how to be that cynical just yet. The perfect case in point is found in Iain Lawrence's new book, Gemini Summer. Danny Rivers has made me believe in hope about a lot of things, but mostly that a hope will find you, even when you don't expect it, even when you don't even want it.
But first I need to tell you about the book.
Danny is like a like a lot of other kids in the small town of Hog's Hollow. He spends his time dodging the neighborhood bully, struggling to pay attention in school and pleading with his mother for a dog. His older brother Beau has it all a bit easier; he fits in better and he knows what he wants to do with the rest of his life—be an astronaut just like his hero Gus Grissom. Their lives should just go along in a fairly predictable manner, with a flighty, Scarlett O'Hara-adoring mother and a father who thinks the occasional burger and root beer solves everything. Basically this is the traditional American (or Canadian like Lawrence) family, circa 1964. And then something goes wrong, horribly and suddenly wrong. And everything Danny ever thought he knew for sure about his life is gone forever. He has to find a new life and dreams for himself and getting there is a lot harder then he ever could have imagined.
I have a serious soft spot for any book that wraps its plot around the space program, and especially one that celebrates in some small way the wonderful astronaut Gus Grissom. Danny needs a hero so badly that it seems perfectly right that he should reach for the one his brother believes in so much. By the time Danny goes looking for Grissom, he has quite a story to tell about himself, Beau and a dog named Rocket. In fact Danny has the kind of story that we adults can hardly ever believe; it takes a person who has seen how small the world truly is to even consider that Danny's miracle might be true. From orbit Grissom has seen it all and that vision has changed him in a way that the rest of can only imagine. "You see the whole world as a miracle," he tells Danny. "That's what I'm saying. You see there's more to it all than any one person can ever understand."
Why do we always have to handle ourselves so maturely, I wonder? Why do we always have to put all of our questions about how and why away and just carry on? In fact, why do we have to grow up at all, if it isn't going to make the world any easier to understand? Better to keep seeing it as a mystery, a mystery that we have to consider for the rest of our lives. Better to see it as someplace that begs the question, "Why?"
There was a lot about Gemini Summer that made me fall in love with it. Lawrence has a true gift for writing in the voice of a young boy and has crafted in Danny Rivers a truly honest and gripping portrayal of a kid who is desperate to heal his aching heart, desperate in much that same way as Jake and Cara and Rachel and Felix. Each of these children is tired of being told the same answers or worse, ignored when their questions are asked. They want to know more than the adults in their lives are telling them and they are willing to take all manner of risks in search of necessary truths. They might be young, but they are wise beyond their years. Their stories have a lot to offer readers and will certainly enrich the lives of all they come in contact with.
Julia's Kitchen by Brenda A. Ferber
Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2006
Hugging the Rock by Susan Taylor Brown
Tricycle Press 2006
Free Baseball by Sue Corbett
Something Invisible by Siobhan Parkinson
Roaring Brook 2006
Gemini Summer by Iain Lawrence
Delacorte Press 2006
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