Irresistible Books for Young Readers and Me
from Chel Avery
It used to be my ambition to author books for older children and young adults. It seemed to me that the best, most cutting edge and exciting literature was aimed at that market. I was curious about the people who wrote such books, and I read interviews with all my favorite authors.
I remember in particular the cranky response of one such author when he was presented with a rather clichéd question. He was asked, “Why do you think your books are so popular for adults? Is it because you write for children of all ages?”
The author (I wish I could remember who it was) shot back: “I certainly do not! I write for adults of all ages.” I say to him: “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
I still believe that the best books for this age group will also be satisfying to adults. My tastes in fiction have not changed much since I was 14. I like mystery and intrigue. I like singular, opinionated, questioning characters. I think the best stories contain a slightly disturbing element - they challenge my complacency or make me uneasy in areas where I have been certain. I have no sympathy with vampires.
A couple months ago, I decided to look at the “youth market” books we are carrying at QuakerBooks and find the ones that most speak to me as an adult, the ones I would recommend to my peers as well as to my nieces. I asked Graham and Jerimy for recommendations, and a little while later, Jerimy dumped thirty-six books on my desk and told me to take my pick.
How to cull through such a pile to pick out the best? Well, I didn’t finish reading the whole stack, so I don’t know if the following titles are the best, but they are very, very good. My method was to take home a book every night and start reading it on the train ride home. At the end of the hour-long ride, if I could bear to stop reading, I did. If I just had to keep reading, if the book was irresistible, then I continued. Many interesting and well-written books did not survive the end-of-ride test. Following are the ones I simply could not let go of.
Not the End of the World by Geraldine McCaughrean. This is the story of the voyage of the Ark as told by one of its unrecorded characters, Noah’s young daughter, Timna. Life on a vessel crowded with all species of hungry animals, endless rain, insufficient and moldering food would have been a tough struggle for survival. Weeks of isolation, poor nutrition, the pleas of the drowning, and secret doubts about the Divine plan might have driven its inhabitants a bit mad. This is a family drama with emphasis on the experiences of the women and younger passengers, telling a hard but ultimately inspirational story about courage and caring, as well as offering a new interpretation of the story told in Genesis chapters 6-8.
Darby by Jonathon Scott Fuqua. Young Darby lives in rural South Carolina. She has two best friends, Beth in town, who like Darby is white, and Evette, an African American girl whose tenant family lives on Darby’s family farmland. In the 1920s, racism and racial injustice are woven throughout the life of the community. Darby is like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird?sometimes she takes the racism for granted, sometimes she is oblivious to it, sometimes she is shocked, and occasionally she objects. I do not remember ever reading a work of fiction for any age in which so much of the nuance and complexity of race relations are portrayed, gently but relentlessly. Local events get ugly and Darby eventually voices a viewpoint by writing a column for her local newspaper. She doesn’t fully understand the risks of her public stand at a time when the Klan is gaining momentum, but the newspaper editor and her parents do, and their ambivalence is depicted and justified, as events unwind. I think the conclusion of this book may be a little too rosy for its material, but as I was reading the story, I kept asking myself, “How on earth can the author find a way to end this book?” I commend Fuqua for writing a story for which such a question could haunt me.
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. Eleven-year-old Miranda makes her way in the streets of a New York City neighborhood where troubling events take place. This is partly a story of friendship, of learning how to be a friend, and of learning to recognize friendship when it happens unexpectedly. But it is also a mystery. Miranda finds enigmatic notes in unlikely places asking her to write a letter to an unknown person who will travel from the future to save a life. Madeleine L’Engle’s classic children’s book Wrinkle in Time sets the stage for time travel, as Miranda and her friends debate the possibilities of tesseract.
The Reinvention of Edison Thomas by Jacqueline Houtman. This is the only book I selected written from the viewpoint of a male character. Why is that? I wonder. Eddy is a young boy somewhere on the autism spectrum. He goes to school and lives a normal life in many ways, but he doesn’t quite fit in. He doesn’t “read” people well, so he often can’t distinguish between kindness and sarcasm or figure out who his real friends are. He is fascinated by science and gadgets, but overwhelmed by the smell of tuna fish. The adults in his life are mostly sympathetic, but often don’t understand what is going on with him or why he acts the way he does. What was most fascinating to me about this book was not the plot?although it held my interest?but seeing the world through Eddy’s eyes. Eddy is depicted as different, but not as disabled or lesser, and he plugs along in his own way with a little help from his true friends. I don’t like recommending books for young readers because of what they “teach,” but I do think this book might be especially appreciated by siblings or friends of children with Asberger disorder.
Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson takes place in New York City in 1776. The war for American independence is underway, but young Isabel has more personal problems to worry about. She has been sold to a Tory couple who treat her with disdain and work her hard. British forces occupy the city, and Isabel is asked to help spy for the rebels. Whom should she support?those fighting for American independence, but not for the independence of slaves like herself, or the British, who oppose enslavement, but who impose other kinds of oppression? Hardship and danger prompt Isabel to pursue her own freedom in her own way. (Anderson, a Quaker author and winner of multiple literary awards for her YA books, has written a sequel to Chains titled Forge. I expect to love it when I read it.)
May these or other books bring you delight in the days ahead, Chel
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by Deborah Cadbury
A book we love is just out in paperback! In 2000 Cadbury's was the world's largest confectionary company. But before long it faced a threat to its very survival, and the chocolate wars culminated in a multi-billion pound showdown pitting independence and Quaker tradition against the cut-throat tactics of a corporate leviathan. Featuring a colorful cast of savvy entrepreneurs, brilliant eccentrics, and resourceful visionaries, Chocolate Wars is the story of a uniquely alluring product and of the evolution, for better and worse, of modern business.
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