Friday, October 26, 2012

Travel with Me Through Time for: My Pick of the Week

My first reaction on completing this book was awe. It's not easy to pull off sci-fi for middle grade readers – at least, not that they can read to themselves; the potential for confusion in the face of complicated story lines and leaps of readerly faith seems extremely high. And in retrospect, I think what makes When You Reach Me so successful is the fact that it actually doesn't come off as sci-fi at all for most of its chapters. Rather, it's an engaging tale with a vividly (and tenderly) rendered heroine that has a lot of the trappings of a mystery.

Ada read it first, in fits and starts because certain parts she found so "creepy" she wasn't sure she could go on (I remember having that same reaction at her age, reading Hardy Boys mysteries at bedtime: shutting a book in terror and vowing never to pick it up again; re-poening it minutes later; shutting it; opening it; and finally, triumphantly, making my way to the dénouement). But go on she did. Toward the end she could be heard muttering across the apartment: "Oooooh, that makes sense now. I get it, I get it, it's all coming together!" And when I finished it, I had the same delighted reaction. 

When I realized this morning that I'd managed to pick a book this week that hadn't been written over 40 years ago, I was mightily pleased with myself. Until I realized, it takes place in the '70s, on the Upper West Side. So my quest to choose a thoroughly contemporary, non-urban middle grade novel that both Ada and I love remains unfulfilled. Not that I care, if you don't.

Friday, October 19, 2012

(Trumpet Trill Please): Book Pick of the Week

Characters that are at once noble, flawed and hilarious – HOW DOES E.B. WHITE DO IT? This is what I wondered as I re-read Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little as an adult. And it's what I wondered in spades this summer as I read yet another classic:

The story of a swan born mute, it chronicles young hero Louis's attempts to make money to pay for the trumpet his vain, endearing father has stolen to be his voice. He triumphs, of course, in more ways than one – love, friendship, monetary gain. But I'm not sure the story would be nearly as appealing to kids if it weren't also humorous. E.B. White was a master of cheerful, casual dialog that is full of sentiment, never cloying, and laugh-out-loud funny. "I've got a trumpet, I've got a slate, I've got a chalk pencil; now I've got a medal," says Louis at one point. "I'm beginning to look like a hippie." When she got to that line, Ada snorted milk out of her nose.

As with Anastasia Krupnick, I was late getting to this book, too. I started it as a read-aloud; halfway through, Ada commandeered it to read to herself because I couldn't read it to her fast enough – or at all, say, while I was driving the car. She's re-reading it now. Which, of course, is praise of the highest order.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Today I'm trying something new. For an indefinite period of time (read: until I run out of stamina, interest, or opinions), I will be posting a Book of the Week pick here in the newsletter. The picks will be for middle grade readers to read themselves, or in a few notable instances, to have read to them - still (and I hope, forever) a favorite family occurrence at our house.

What inspired this decision was the dearth of interesting "Just Right" leveled books in the bins in my daughter's classroom. As the school year began, Ada was bringing home books she'd read already (not a bad thing, in and of itself, if you really WANT to re-read a certain book), as well as books she was distinctly hostile towards reading. So, with her teacher's blessing, I started trolling library shelves for stories that were gripping, just the right amount of challenging, and fun. A few people have asked for the list I started to compile. But not all these books are created equal and frankly, I just can't resist putting my two cents in. I'm sure there will be dissenters out there. Go ahead and dissent - and let me know about it! Meanwhile, I'm kicking off the picks with:

I'm embarrassed that I'd never read the work of fellow-journalist Lois Lowry before – I mean, she's written, what, something like 40 books and won zillions of awards. Nevertheless, ANASTASIA KRUPNIK – a recommendation from Ada's teacher – was an amazing way to begin to get acquainted with her books. I snatched it off the library pile before Ada got to it and read it straight through. It is, quite simply, a book about almost everything; at least, almost everything that's important to a girl of almost any age. Further explanation would only sound bland. The best books have a way of defying tidy accounting.

I was afraid that part of what I loved about it was the style of writing – so distinctly of the '70s and my own urban childhood – and that Ada wouldn't share my enthusiasm for it. She read half of it in one sitting last night, barely looking up to grunt when I announced that dinner was ready. It's the kind of book I wish were still written for grownups: hopeful, exploring the grey areas that make up our existence, direct. It's still in print after 35 years, so you can order a copy from your local bookseller. Alternately, the one pictured above will be back at our neighborhood library, probably by tomorrow.