What the World Needs Now: More Cynthia Lord Books

Great news!  I can’t blog about my favorite middle grade books of 2012!  My role as Cybils judge is officially underway; I have to keep my ’12 opinions under wrap.  What’s so great about that?  It gives me a chance to share favorite books published before 2012– I’m so backed up!  I know Christmas is over, but I’m making a last ditch effort at my 12 Days of Books initiative.  For the Third Day of Books, I present Cynthia Lord and her 2006 novel RULES (Scholastic).

Warning:  Cindy Lord is one of my personal heroes.   That’s what’s taken me so long to write about her work.  I mean, she’s been on my list since I started Feeding the Flashlight over two years ago, but how to write about her without coming off like a complete gushing idiot?  Well I can’t, so let’s just get over it and move on.

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A more perfect cover has yet to be made for a middle grade novel.

From Amazon:  Twelve-year-old Catherine just wants a normal life. Which is near impossible when you have a brother with autism and a family that revolves around his disability. She’s spent years trying to teach David the rules from “a peach is not a funny-looking apple” to “keep your pants on in public”—in order to head off David’s embarrassing behaviors.
But the summer Catherine meets Jason, a surprising, new sort-of friend, and Kristi, the next-door friend she’s always wished for, it’s her own shocking behavior that turns everything upside down and forces her to ask: What is normal?

First off, I know something about what it is to have a son with autism, as Cindy does.  And I know what it’s like to try your best to raise him alongside his typically-functioning sister, while also doing your best to raise her, which Cindy also knows.  It can be very frustrating for everyone.  The rewards parents of kids with autism feel for each tiny step of progress, well, those rewards are often lost on the typical sibling, who’d pretty much rather melt into the wallpaper than have to be seen with her brother anywhere, but especially anywhere that her peer group might be.  What pushes Cindy into my Circle of Heroes is that she took that thing— the setback of a devastating diagnosis, the heartbreak of any parent, the day-in, day-out challenge of autism– and turned it into RULES, the beautiful story of a girl learning to accept her brother’s differences.  When my daughter finished reading it (the first time), she said, “Mom, it’s like Cynthia Lord wrote that book just for me.”  Seriously, I get a case of wet-eye just thinking about it.

RULES feels like a gift to me, too.  Part of the challenge of having a child with significant autism is the acceptance.  It doesn’t matter if you are the parent or the sibling, the grandparent.  This kid is not going to follow the path you thought. Which means your life isn’t either.  Captain of your own destiny?  I think not.  In the story, Catherine learns to accept there are things she cannot change about her brother, and I’d wager that’s something Cindy learned from her own son, just as I have learned from mine.  Some things are bigger than us and any plans, or rules, we can make.  The fact that Cindy could share her wisdom with such clarity while living in the thick of it all is a true marvel to me.

In the end, RULES celebrates and honors families that face autism every day, bringing them into daylight for the droves of kids that may otherwise never consider what such a life is like.  For that alone, RULES’ numerous awards are more than well-earned.  I mean, forget Newbery medals– we’re talking angel’s wings here.  But, it’s also a book that encourages empathy for all sorts of differences.  It invites readers to question the importance of popularity and to define true friendship.  Right about now, doesn’t that just sound like what the world needs?

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Are you kidding me?? Another gorgeous cover for Cindy’s second novel TOUCH BLUE (Scholastic, 2010).  Indeed, another gorgeous read.

The First Day of Books– The Partridge: ONE FOR THE MURPHYS

When I read ONE FOR THE MURPHYS by Lynda Mullaly Hunt (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin 2012), I laughed and cried, cried and laughed.  I should mention that I’m not really a crier.  When a writer can create a character that is equal parts sorrow and humor bound tightly as one– as Hunt does with Carley– it’s time to sit up and pay attention.  Somehow, through the keen eyes of our young narrator, we’re about to learn some penetrating truths.

OnefortheMurphys_low-ResONE FOR THE MURPHYS is a story about everyday heroes– adult heroes and kid heroes.  Carley is a 12-year-old girl forced into foster care when her mother is beaten to the point of hospitalization by a sleazy boyfriend.  The appalling scene is relived in Carley’s mind only in small bursts.  Hunt strikes a carefully balanced tone in its depiction, keeping it appropriate for the target audience.  While Carley struggles with deep issues of self-worth, she uses pride and humor as her coat of armor.  She’s not letting anybody in.

Enter the Murphys, a fully functional family with happy parents and kids.  Through the patience and unconditional love shown to her by Mrs. Murphy, Carley slowly comes to believe she may be worthy of such attention. In short, Carley learns to love the Murphys as she learns to love herself.  Every person matters.

THE MURPHYS is my partridge because so many people I have known use humor as their defense against painful circumstances– though perhaps less dramatic ones than Carley’s. Growing into the ability to be vulnerable, to trust, and to believe in one’s self, makes for a powerful, universal story, one Hunt masters with the perfect blend of heartache and Irish winks.  Though kids who’ve seen some misfortune like Carley’s may find particular solace in her story, this book is equally  appropriate for any child ready to see a world bigger than her own.

I can’t wait for more work by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.

Yay! I’m a Cybils Judge!

The Cybils Award is a book award given by a coalition of children’s and teen’s book bloggers, and about the coolest thing that happened to me last month is that I was selected to be a middle grade judge. Me!  Yippee!  To be welcomed into this group of uber-bloggers is a real honor.  I mean, listen to this quote from their website:

The Cybils have only two criteria: literary merit and kid appeal. We don’t think those two values have to collide. There are books we want kids to read and books kids can’t resist. Somewhere in the middle, they meet. 

 That’s exactly the same criteria I use when blogging here!  *Pause for elated sigh*  I spend so much time reading and discussing children’s books with my students, school community, my husband (a grade five teacher), and my daughter (a fifth grader), I am thrilled to join a group of fellow-minded bloggers who command a national audience. I feel like this:

Read more about Cybils here.  Want to nominate a book?  Click here. (You have until Oct.15.) Want to see the list of books already nominated?  Click here.

As a Round 2 Panelist, I don’t really start my role until after the big list becomes a short list (January 1), but the fun has begun!

Rapid Fire Thursday: Boy Book Picks

They can’t put it down. Dan Gutman’s THE GENIUS FILES

I know it’s not right to judge a book by its cover, but hey, it’s summer.  I compiled several covers here intended to entice boys in summer mode to pick up a great read.  This is no small feat!   (Why do I hear the voice of Richard Attenborough from PLANET EARTH… “And here, we have a glimpse of the rarest sort:  Settled beneath the shade of a large tree, we see an eight-year-old human male engaged in the act of reading a book…”)  May many of these– or just one– snag your boy.

A Midsummer Night’s Read

Charlotte autographs her THE ACCIDENTAL ADVENTURES OF INDIA McALLISTER for the girls.

My friends, I have had a long hibernation from blogging, but it is not because I haven’t been reading.  In fact it’s midsummer, which means I’m midway through teaching my summer reading groups, which means, of course, that I’ve got a slew of new books for your favorite 8-12’s.  I’m most excited to share The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister, by Charlotte Agell, for a whole bunch of reasons.  One of them is that when I contacted Charlotte to let her know who I was and told her I had thirteen girls reading her book, she said she’d love to meet them in person.  And she did!  (See photos.)  Meeting or no, let me tell you why I love this book:  it is so honest.  It is honest about life, it is honest about age ten, it is honest about the way adventures are usually accidental, not planned.

The character India McAllister is a plucky, adventure-seeking fourth grader growing up in a quiet Maine town.  Her family situation is anything but conventional.  She is adopted from China (not India), and wishes she knew more Chinese people– heck, any Chinese people.   Her mom is an artist who is loving but flakey, sometimes forgetting to make dinner, and proudly displaying a plaster cast of her breast in the living room.  India’s parents are divorced, and her father now lives with Richard.  Richard is just in the way, as far as India is concerned, and takes up too much of her father’s attention.  India’s best friend is a boy, and some kids at school think this is weird.

Okay, people, I know at least one alarm went off in your head in reading that description.  If not an alarm, then at least the popping up of your eyebrows.  If it weren’t for the masterful handling of the content– completely un-exploitive and utterly, well, honest– I could understand that.  But this book made the ALA Top Ten Rainbow List for 2011 as well as the Bank Street College of Education’s 2011 Best Children’s Books List for a reason, and my guess on that reason?  India McAllister deals with difficult realities facing children today without overdramatizing them.

Let’s talk about Richard.  To India, a fourth grader, it is not foremost in her mind that her dad lives with a man.  The thing that bugs her about Richard is the same thing that bugs lots of kids about their parents’ love interests.  This person is an intruder and potential rival.  A ten-year-old doesn’t think sexually, so the fact Richard is male is unimportant.  Jealousy is an all-inclusive emotion.  India wouldn’t be any more or less jealous if her father’s lover was female.  I’d wager any of India’s readers who are themselves children of divorce can relate to her feelings.  In this way, Charlotte Agell quietly promotes tolerance by getting at the universal root  emotion, rather than getting hung up on who is what gender.  Other readers may connect more immediately, having gay parents themselves.  Still more may just recognize a friend or classmate’s family in India’s situation.  Same-sex couples are no longer invisible, and I love that Charlotte lets fiction reflect this reality in a politically neutral way.  The children can make up their own minds.  Or, they may not even pick up on it!  I’m not sure my own daughter did, but that may be because she has known same-sex parents and just thinks this is one more kind of family.  A brave new world.

Shall I discuss the breast?  I cracked right up when I read this part of the story.  It comes when India is longing for a mom with a more traditional job, citing the breast on the living room shelf as a reason.  The why behind the breast? India’s mom is a breast cancer survivor, and she made the cast right before the surgery– as a sort of homage to loss and strength.  Honest.  Charlotte brings up something sad that kids hear about.  Three out of thirteen of my students shared stories of moms, grandmothers they’d never met, and aunts who’d had breast cancer.  Who else writes about this in middle grade fiction and manages not to have it be a major plot point?  It’s brilliant.

And, children adopted by parents of different ethnic backgrounds, Charlotte is thinking of you, too.  Giving you a voice without making your other-ness define you (or define the plot of this book).  When one student of Asian descent (not adopted) told Charlotte at our meeting she could relate to how India wished for more people who looked like her in her town, a little round of applause sounded in my heart.

Yet, somehow, The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister is not an issues book.  It is a delightful story of a girl searching for adventure and never quite finding it.  A failed UFO sighting attempt.  A trumped-up whodunnit mystery around a purse that was simply lost.  A mysterious stranger playing a saxophone who turned out to be…a stranger playing a saxophone.  And then the accidental adventure itself, where India gets lost in the woods.  This book is not tightly plotted, and to me that’s what made it the most honest of all.  Being ten doesn’t have rising action, a climax, and resolution.  It’s just a series of adventures, large and small.  I cannot wait to read more of India’s.  Book Two is on the way (release date TBA).  Meanwhile, India has a blog of her own.

Charlotte explains she includes sad things in her books so kids who experience them in real life don't feel so alone.

A reader comments on India's spying tree, where she hides to eavesdrop on a pesky classmate.

Charlotte shows us her drawing pen of choice, inspiring us with its simplicity.

Topics in the story prompt the readers to share their own experiences.


Carl Hiaasen Keeps Them (and Us) White-knuckled

Chapter One is a short story in and of itself.   A brilliant one.  We’re in middle school biology class at a mediocre private day school in Florida, taught by the tyrannical Mrs. Starch– who, Hiaasen alerts us in sentence one, will mysteriously disappear the next day.  But today, she’s twirling her Ticonderoga #2 pencil in a way that inspires fear among her students.  Mrs. Starch is a take-no-prisoners, polyester-pant-suit-clad biology zealot, who “wears her dyed blond hair piled to one side of her head, like a sand dune.”  She takes pleasure in grilling students on assigned reading and humiliating those who fail to answer correctly.  Her target today is Smoke, the Truman School’s taciturn loner who, BTW, has a track record with pyromania. Suffice it to say he hasn’t done the reading, and what ensues is a tension fraught face-off, a bullfight performed in front of an otherwise law abiding class of kids.  The incident, shared with us via the main character Nick, is horrifying both because the teacher finds it so easy to ruthlessly bait a student and because Smoke fumes (excuse the pun) with a dangerous anger unfit for a middle schooler.  I won’t tell how it ends, but I will say I actually gasped I was so surprised. Gasped– no kidding.

Smoke doesn’t show up for the Biology field trip to the Black Vine Swamp the next day.  Mrs. Starch disappears at the end of it.  Was the piercing cry from the woods everyone heard a rare Florida panther, or something more sinister?   Is it Smoke stalking Mrs. Starch?   The half-hearted investigation put forth by Truman’s headmaster turns up nothing. Nick and his friend Marta, unsatisfied with the adults’ handling of the mystery, take it upon themselves to solve it.  It’s a wild ride filled with vivid characters and pierced with heartbreaking realism (Nick’s Iraqi War veteran father, Smoke’s broken home).  Nick and Marta manage not only to find Mrs. Starch and prove Smoke’s innocence, but uncover an illegal oil drilling scheme threatening the Black Vine Swamp and the endangered Florida panther.

Carl Hiaasen has won multiple awards for his books and frequents the NYT Bestseller List, so I may not be introducing you to anything new here.  But if you and your favorite ‘tween don’t know him yet, it’s time.  Hiaasen writes “eco-thrillers”–  books in which empowered kids bring greedy, crooked, defilers of the natural world to justice.  He’s a satirist at heart, and like the best of them he manages to walk the tightrope between the ridiculous and the painfully true, entertaining us all the while. It’s the kind of writing usually reserved for adult audiences.  True, Scat, with its layered, fast-paced plot and multifaceted characters, is best suited to a 10+ audience, but it reminds us of how keen an eye young people have for seeing hypocrisy, and how sometimes it takes clear-eyed, youthful idealism to combat it.

Other books for kids by Hiaasen:  Newbery Award Winner Hoot, and Flush, both highly recommended.

http://www.carlhiaasen.com/young.html

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