Greenglass House, Kate Milford

Is there anything better than a warm vacation in the dark of winter? Yes – a warm vacation in the dark of winter with a really excellent book (obviously.) But don’t worry, I’m not going to brag about taking a holiday. Even when I know I have one coming, or just got back, I loathe reading about someone else’s trip while I’m forced to convince myself to venture out into the rain or snow. I think it’s human nature – no matter how kind a person may be – to loathe the good fortune of others when it comes to time off. Or maybe it’s just that I’m a particularly awful person, but now that I’m home, I plan to comfort myself with the knowledge that none of us really want to hear about (or, God forbid, see pictures) of someone else’s week away. I will spare you that, and instead focus on the kind of pleasure we can all enjoy – the sweet satisfaction that comes from reading a fantastic book.

I bought Greenglass House on a whim as a Christmas gift for my mother. It was advertised on Amazon (undoubtedly because I have a book buying problem, and that site knows exactly how weak I am), and after reading the first few pages, I was hooked and ordered it immediately. When I got to my parents’ house in December and unwrapped it, I was delighted by the beautiful cover and the feel of the particular paper used. I’m not a publishing expert, but there’s something about the paper stock in hardcover middle grade novels that immediately brings me a deep sense of joy. It was physically painful to have to wrap it up again and give it away on Christmas morning, regardless of the fact that my parents long ago taught me that the gifts I loved dearly were the ones most worth giving away.

Thankfully, my mother is the best sort of person to give books to because she immediately senses the giver’s reluctance and offers to share it back again (after she’s read it, of course – she’s not a saint). She sent it back to me a week before my vacation, promising me that I would love it, and of course, she was right.

There was something about this book that I found…magical. Every time I picked it up, I was swept back into the very sweetest parts of my childhood – those hours spent buried in books, as well as those lost in exploration of the ramshackle thirteen room parsonage we lived in for many years. Milton managed to perfectly capture that thrill of discovery, the wonder of childhood that transforms the ordinary into the exceptional. As I was reading, I ached to go back in time, to climb into deep, dirty closets and find, not a project to organize, but the key to another world.

When I was young, of course, there were plenty of days when I was bored, anxious to grow up and go off on real adventures, and fortunately, as an adult, I’ve tried not to let that younger self down. What I didn’t understand then though, was what those grown up adventures would cost me. Riding on the coattails of joy at discovering new places, there came an understanding of reality that forced shut some of the doors of my imagination forever. Milton’s novel pried open some of those doors again, if only an inch, to remind me of the great and glittering adventures that still exist at home when I bother to look with fresh eyes.

 

For more about Kate Milton, head over here.

My Most Excellent Year: A novel of love, Mary Poppins, and Fenway Park, Steve Kluger

I had about a hundred things I was supposed to be doing this weekend, and rereading this book was not on the list. The problem was, by about four o’clock on Sunday, I was in such an irritable mood that all I wanted was an old friend.

Unfortunately, my oldest friends live thousands of miles away, and my dear friends within driving distance have marathon training runs, children’s birthday parties and new babies (or boyfriends) to keep their dance cards full. And as much as I cherish my husband (he is a wonderful and very patient man!), I could tell this mood was not going to improve even in his company. I decided to hit up my own private stacks and rediscovered one of my all-time favorite MG/YA novels.

I reread the whole thing in less than twelve hours, and it was just as perfect as I remembered. It’s told from the perspective of three seniors looking back at their freshman year of high school in Boston, and honestly, it just has everything I could ever want from a book like this: effortless diversity across race, orientation, and ability; passionate integration of interests covering topics as broad as baseball to musical theatre to political activism; beautiful, believable friendships; and atypically structured, loving families.

This is the kind of book I wish made it onto the curriculum for required reading in schools. Without being preachy or overly moralistic, it promotes resilient, realistic characters any student could be proud to emulate. It’s almost enough to make me want to rewind and take a second stab at being fourteen (almost).

 

For more about Steve Kluger, head over here.

Kali and the Geekettes, Ellie Greene

I rarely read books intended for a younger MG audience, but Greene is my yoga instructor and also studying to get her PhD in…I want to say Biology…so when she asked me to check out a couple of her books, I said sure. Actually, I think I said something along the lines of, “Really? Can’t you leave something for the rest of us to be good at?” That sass earned the whole class quite a long “break” in Dragon, although I’m sure if I asked her, she would claim complete innocence on the matter. She’s sneaky that way.

In all honesty, she’s an incredibly sweet, overachieving woman, and although I suspect this book might be a bit on the young side for most of my readers, it’s definitely one I would want to put on the shelves in classrooms. Green’s protagonist is, like her, a scientist, and I found it incredibly refreshing to read about a young girl interested in science written from an inside perspective. Many of my friends are scientists and engineers, but they don’t write fiction, so characters with their interests are not always written as well as they could be. Greene uses her own knowledge of the field to make the character come alive for me.

Whenever Kali went on about the constellations or discussed an experiment in her honor’s chemistry class, I thought, this must be what it’s like to be great in this subject! It’s Greene’s passion, and as a result, Kali lights up whenever she gets to discuss her favorite subject. In fact, Kali seemed like the kind of kid I would want to hang out with when I was that age – smart, funny, and yes, curious about boys.

Admittedly, I have a soft spot for books about smart girls who are also interested in dating. I enjoy a character who can excel in astronomy or physics but also struggles with what to say to a cute boy in class. It speaks to a truth I can relate to, and it’s one of the things I liked to read about when I was that age. Sometimes it’s wonderful to read about a girl saving the world; other times, I just want to read about a girl who learns how to save herself. One is not necessarily better than another, especially for a young reader.

Kali makes a few extremely poor choices when it comes to boys and to her friends, but then, most teenagers do. (Noticeably, none of these impact her academic efforts, which are clearly of utmost importance to her.) The smart ones learn from those mistakes and strive to change something in themselves as a result. They take risks, even knowing that the inherent definition of risk implies occasional failure. Adolescence is all about the growth that comes from that cycle of risk-taking, failure, and success. It was lovely to read a book that approached this idea and made choosing do to the right thing, and occasionally the risky one, look so appealing.

Enchanted; Hero (Books 1 and 2 of The Woodcutter Sisters), Alethea Kontis

November has officially swallowed me up. Between NaNoWriMo, Ten to One, publicizing the new book and helping my sister-in-law with her wedding, my free time has seriously dwindled. Somehow, however, I found time to read not one but two of Kontis’ Woodcutter Sister books. And I really wish I had a third…

Not that I have time to read another one – certainly not when I have so many other more pressing projects I absolutely have to be working on – but if Kontis magically put out a new book tomorrow, I would find a way to squeeze it in.

Shoulders squared, feet apart, and tailbone centered, Saturday lifted the wooden practice sword before her. “Again.”

Velius laughed at her. Saturday scowled. There wasn’t a speck of dirt on her instructor; no dirt would be brave enough to mar his perfect fey beauty. Nor did he seem fatigued. She hated him a little more for that.

“Let’s take a break,” he said.

“I don’t need a break.”

“I do.”

Lies. He was calling her weak. The insult only made her angrier. “No, you don’t.”

Velius lifted his head to the sky and prayed to yet another god. Temperance, maybe, or Patience. Was there a God of Arguments You’ve Lost Twenty Times Before and Were About to Have Again? If so, Saturday bet on that one. (pg 2, Hero)

Kontis writes the kind of books I would have adored at twelve. Apparently not much has changed. Just as I needed a break from algebra and French grammar lessons back then, I still crave that peaceful feeling that comes from reading novels like these when I’m drowning in deadlines.

The love stories here are simple and predictable, yes, but that’s okay because the books aren’t about romance. They’re about Kontis’ young heroines figuring out how they fit into their family, and into the world. Along the way, they do happen to meet some sweet young men who are fall head over heels in love with them and are perfectly happy to be supportive of being, well, support. These guys enjoy the pleasures that comes from being partners (and occasionally sidekicks); since I know plenty of men just like this, I was tickled to see them appear on the page in more than one guise.

What I especially loved about these books (besides the author’s spot-on sense of humor) was that the women – not only the protagonists, but every woman encountered – had power. These women altered destinies; the men were mostly around to be loving and helpful (or pawns…sometimes they made excellent pawns). A few of her women were selfless, and some were wicked, but Kontis also wrote characters who fell along the spectrum in between.

Given that these books are aimed at a younger audience, I especially appreciated that fact. I read all sorts of trash when I was a kid, but I gravitated toward stories about competent, tough, questing women who also fell in love. I was a romantic, always, but I often wanted more from the female characters written for me. I read stories about two-dimensional women because my choices were limited. All I had access to was a single, small library, so it felt special to find something that fit my favorite niche. It turns out, it still does.

Of course, these days, I not only want stories about kick-ass ladies, I also long for fun books like these with a little more diversity. Where are the adventure romances about non straight/white/young characters? When I find books like Kontis’, that hit so many of my happiness buttons, it really does make me crave more. But why can’t I have the treat I love in other flavors?! It’s National Novel Writing Month, so I can only hope some of you are busy crafting what I seek – not books about issues, but stories that capture powerful, relatable, exciting protagonists who are more like us and less like the fairy tale characters Hollywood has cursed us with.

In case you aren’t writing your own but want to point me in the right direction, I’m looking for books to read in December with interesting, underrepresented narrators. Bonus points for humor, fantasy and/or YA.

 

For more about Alethea Kontis, head over here.

 

Zombie Baseball Beatdown, Paulo Bacigalupi

Happy Halloween everyone! And by “everyone,” I mean those of you who celebrate Halloween. For the rest of you, Happy Thursday! It’s almost the weekend, and my brother’s birthday is tomorrow…and oh yeah, National Novel Writing Month kicks off. Tomorrow. Huh. That came up quickly. Thank goodness today is Halloween so I can drown my problems in bite sized candy bars! (Tomorrow I’ll be doing the same thing, but all the candy will be marked down eighty percent, so that will be something special.)

I’m actually not big into Halloween. I’ve never liked costumes, and I hate being scared, so the only thing this day has going for it is the candy. Don’t get me wrong – I do really enjoy free candy, but even that’s less exciting as an adult. I can go buy candy whenever I want, and I don’t have to wear a wig or a hula skirt or whatever to get it. As a child, I always just latched onto the biggest group of trick-or-treaters I could find so I could hide in the back and score treats on their enthusiasm. (That’s a pro-tip right there, so if you have a child who loves candy but finds it difficult to break the “don’t talk to strangers” rule, I highly recommend this method.) Even though I don’t get particularly excited about October 31, I did want to give you all a fantastic quasi-horror story to enjoy when you come down off that sugar rush, and thankfully for all of us, Bacigalupi delivers in spades.

I’ve actually owned his first novel, The Windup Girl for quite a while but have never gotten around to it. When I read his Big Idea post on Whatever about his foray into middle grade fiction while I was traveling in September, I decided not to wait around. Sure, other people were giving him crap about branching out to try something new, but I wasn’t tied to his other books. I had no reason not to like this novel, and, as it turns out, about a dozen reasons to find it utterly delightful.

I highly recommend you scroll up and click on the link to his Big Idea post because I actually think Bacigalupi can sell this book to you better than I can. I’m so worried about spoiling it (and I really don’t want to spoil it for you) that I keep writing and deleting a list of the things I love about it. I can’t decide what information you should have to convince you to run right out and buy a copy (or twenty, if you happen to teach fourth through seventh grade – and yes, I do think it would appeal to that wide a range of readers, not to mention adults, who would be crazy not to enjoy Bacigalupi’s approach to the zombie apocalypse), so I’m going to share the one paragraph from his post that sold this book to me:

Ultimately, it turns out that whether I’m writing novels for adults or for middle school zombie enthusiasts, my themes and agendas still sneak into my stories. It was probably inevitable that my zombie apocalypse would come oozing out of the local meatpacking plant, with its overuse of antibiotics and strange feed supplements and questionable government oversight. And of course, once you’re writing about industrial meat, you can’t help but write about the workers who are often exploited by the meatpacking industry. One thing leads to another, and before you know it, a story about bashing zombies with baseball bats becomes a story about food safety and corporate greed, immigration policy and race in America. (excerpted from The Big Idea: Paolo Bacigalupi at whatever.scalzi.com)

I mean, come on – it has something for everyone! Kids, baseball lovers (and baseball haters, incidentally), zombie fans, vegetarians, political junkies…and I’m actually none of these (well, I do love the Rockies, but I’d never read a book about baseball by choice, so that hardly counts), and I still thought this book was freaking fantastic. I’m already hounding my library to get more copies because it’s just that good. Seriously. It grossed me out, and I teared up on at least three separate occasions, but mostly, I laughed and cheered and generally felt a sense of awesome that can’t be denied.

But, you know, I’m not going to twist your arm. If you’re not into it, that’s…cool. I still have this bowl of candy to help see me through the dark times, and when I come out on the other side of…well, today, it will be November. I’ll be trying to write three thousand words a day. I won’t have time for your rejection of zombies, people! Nope. I won’t have time for anything but pretending you love what I love, so you may as well just give in and love this book now.

 

For more about Paulo Bacigalupi, head over here.

Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell

Do you ever read a book, or trip over it, really, and when you stand up it’s a day later and you can’t concentrate on any of the other things you thought you loved even though you can’t fully understand why? And somehow, that tripping hazard is gone, finished, but you’d rather it not be, and then you just laugh because the protagonist is a fangirl and it’s so unbelievably appropriate to feel this way that there’s nothing to do but laugh and gnash your teeth and wonder why your mouth tastes sort metallic and stale.

I’d never even heard of this book or this author, and her name is Rainbow, so I was all set to be annoyed, but then I couldn’t be because it was so loving and perfect and I’d never read anything else quite like it. Because yeah, a lot of my friends are Fans with a capital everything, and they were reading fic before the internet was even really a thing. They used to print out reams of it and share back and forth, awake all night long because otherwise one might accidentally spoiler the other, and I never understood it, but that’s because I was always busy writing my own fic in my head.

I just didn’t realize that’s what it was. The stories were always there after I finished a great book or movie, or if a show I watched disappointed me; they crowded into my head, waiting to be twisted around to something better. I didn’t know it made me a fangirl until maybe a year ago. Then I finally admitted it, but I felt like I’d come to the party so late that all I do was stand in the corner and watch other people do this thing better than me. It was like being back in a junior high gym class, but this time the jocks didn’t care; it was all about the sparkliest nerds loving each other, and I still felt as invisible as I was back then. New clique, and cliques still weren’t my thing.

I’ve always been more of a drifter, keeping the stories to myself, straying from the group because groups are loud and hard and exhausting. It’s easier to just have the stories and to have friends who tell me about their groups without my ever having to meet them. I like it that way, even though, yes of course I’m jealous, sometimes, that I wasn’t made in the right shape to fit into groups, but we can’t have everything and when it comes down to it, I’d rather have the stories.

And when I saw this book, I thought, she’ll never get it right. It will be a stereotype, and the girl will be forced to completely change for anyone to like her. She’ll have to give up living in one world to be a part of another, but then she doesn’t, and it made my heart so happy that I couldn’t do anything else but write this.  Because this book is sweet, and it’s funny, and I love how Rowell know that it really isn’t impossible to get the best of both worlds, even if it takes some juggling to get there.

 

For more about Rainbow Rowell, who has become my special unicorn of happiness in just twenty-four hours, click here.

Wonder, RJ Palacio

It’s been a good long time since I’ve read a middle-grade novel I would recommend as highly as I would Wonder. This is one of those books, though, that I want to see in every school library and classroom. I want it to be on required reading lists for fourth, fifth and sixth graders. I want to be sure that it’s one of those stories that gets talked about and remembered by young readers, so for the many of you out there in the position to make that happen – get on it!

Maybe I’m crazy, and there are actually hundreds of incredible books written for children that age, but back in the day, I scrounged for anything out of the ordinary and mostly ended up with formulaic novels featuring blonde, shiny protagonists. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with blonde, shiny protagonists. They have a right to the same amount of shelf space as anyone else. The problem is, most people are not blond or shiny – even fewer are both – and yet books are absolutely chock-full of peppy, winsome people with unrealistic issues.

Tell me the truth: have you ever asked a person what one time he or she would never choose to relive? I have, on a number of occasions, and the answer is always the same. Junior high. Those three or four years in between the innocence of elementary education and the ignorance of high school are no man’s land. The kids experiencing them just want to get out alive, and those of us who have made the journey look back with a shudder of relief. Back then, I had a face (with braces, and glasses, and some horrific bangs) that only a mother could love. I think I most closely resembled one of the troll doll key chains I insisted on carrying around, and my personality did not make up for the fact that I was also chubby and uncoordinated.

Do you know why? It’s because children that age are short-sighted,  insecure, and frightened – even the nice ones! Even the ones who turn their homework assignments in on time and win trophies in soccer! Even the ones with tidy handwriting and perfect attendance! The beginning of puberty just kicks itself up into a tizzy and turns pleasant children into sullen, explosive, sneaky preteens. And guess what? We still have to love them in this phase, and part of my definition of love is finding books that make kids going through tough times feel better.

Wonder is one of those books. It’s written from the perspective of five people, although the central character is August Pullman, a ten-year old boy born with an incredibly rare combination of genetic disorders that lead to his having a painfully deformed face.  The story winds its way through his first year attending school after having been home-schooled for years;  while the fifth grade is difficult for everyone, this bright, kind child has been dealt a particularly rough hand, and his problems are the type that cannot be hidden from prying, judgmental eyes.

(from the perspective of Justin, August’s older sister Olivia’s boyfriend):

i can’t sleep tonight. my head is full of thoughts that won’t turn off. lines from my monologues. elements of the periodic table that i’m supposed to be memorizing. theorems i’m supposed to be understanding. olivia. auggie.

miranda’s words keep coming back: the universe was not kind to auggie pullman. i’m thinking about that a lot and everything it means. she’s right about that. the universe was not kind to auggie pullman.

what did that little kid ever do to deserve his sentence? what did the parents do? or olivia? she once mentioned that some doctor told her parents that the odds of someone getting the same combination of syndromes that came together to make auggie’s face were like one in four million. so doesn’t that make the universe a giant lottery, then? you purchase a ticket when you’re born. and it’s all just random whether you get a good ticket or a bad ticket. it’s all just luck.

my head swirls on this, but then softer thoughts soothe, like a flatted third on a major chord. no, no, it’s not all random, if it really was all random, the universe would abandon us completely. and the universe doesn’t. it takes care of its most fragile creations in ways we can’t see. like with parents who adore you blindly. and a big sister who feels guilty for being human over you. and a little gravelly-voiced kid whose friends have left him over you. and even a pink-haired girl who carries your picture in her wallet. maybe it is a lottery, but the universe makes it all even out in the end. the universe takes care of all its birds. (loc 2580)

The universe takes care of all its birds. It doesn’t always feel that way to me, but I still the love of the idea of it. Palacio writes characters who are painful and real, but not without hope. They aren’t nearly as blonde or shiny as many fictional children are, and yet they have untapped reserves of resilience and compassion.  Hope, resilience, and compassion are the best gifts I could conceivably imagine giving a child, so when I find them woven into a beautiful story, I can’t help but want to put a copy in every kid’s hands…

 

For more about RJ Palacio, head this way.