How the Other Half Lives

When Christmas Comes Again: The World War I Diary of Simone Spencer (Dear America series) – Beth Seidel Levine, Scholastic, 2002

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The Dear America series from Scholastic is a constant source of both repetition and surprises. (see my earlier articles here and here) Each fictional diary records the thoughts and experiences of a girl living through a critical time in American history.  The literary quality varies, and so does the level of sensitivity to such inescapable realities as class, race, and religion.  The heroines may not all be feminist by modern standards, but they consistently admire qualities in girls and women which were not necessarily prized at the times in which the novels take place: independence, physical and emotional strength, questioning of authority. The heroine of when Christmas Comes Again, by Beth Seidel Levinelearns to appreciate the fact that her life has been governed by what today would be termed privilege.  Yet the historical background of the story, and the appealing lack of self-consciousness which characterizes Simone’s diary, elevate the novel above the predictable formula of personal growth.

Simone is a society girl in love with New York City, at least the New York City that she knows.  Living in a mansion where the cook is her “friend,” strolling through Central Park, attending an elite girl’s school, she can barely imagine a different life, although the reality of American involvement in Europe’s World War begins to affect her plans.  Simone also has a role model for difference within her own family.  Her affluent American father had met her working-class French mother in the bakery which Simone’s maman’s family then owned in Paris. While Simone’s mother eagerly embraced her married life among the New York elite, she insisted upon owning her own millinery shop to avoid boredom and dependence.  (This particular detail of the story strikes me as less than realistic.). Simone’s parents are far more supportive than those of her peers in understanding that she needs to find her own path.

When nursing and volunteer work fail to fulfill Simone’s need to combine service with adventure, she uses her fluency in French to join the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps as a telephone operator near the front lines in France.  (At least, she believes that she has joined the army.  The book’s historical afterward points out that the women who enlisted in this selective program were actually not considered to be veterans entitled to honors or pensions after the War.). Her brother, Will, is also a soldier, and Simone ships out ready for the experience and new identity she is seeking.  A warm friendship with a working-class girl from Boston begins to open her eyes to inequality, while falling in love with Sam Cates from New York City’s impoverished Lower East Side fully transforms her self-satisfied beliefs into empathy:

Do you know what kind of conditions other people live in, Simone? Do you know       what it’s like to work in a factory twelve hours a day and then come home to a one-room apartment that you share with five or six other people? And I think you must honestly believe that you are adored by ‘the help,’ when they laugh at you the moment you leave the room.

Obviously, Simone’s answer to every one of Sam’s rhetorical questions would have to be “no.” Yet the reader also understands her frustration at his moral self-righteousness, and her eloquent self-defense.  The meeting between Simone and Sam may be more fraught than the fairy tale encounter between her own parents, but everyone in the novel survives wounds, physical and emotional, to move forward after the War.

Simone Spencer and Sam Cates: who would have thought it possible? Dear America offers series historical fiction that sometimes transcends the ordinary.

 

“She Is Who She Is”

Ho’onani: Hula Warrior – Heather Gale and Mika Song, Tundra Books, 2019

Hula cover

The tough and endearing hero of this unusual picture book is a gender nonconforming young person who wants nothing more than to be a strong individual within traditional Hawaiian culture.  Ho’onani Kamai’s story is based on the same one explored in the documentary film, A Place in the Middle, but here it comes to life in a different genre.  Children, and adults reading with them, will learn about Ho’onani’s commitment to the ideal of becoming a māhū, a person embodying qualities usually thought of as being either male or female. Heather Gale’s emphatic words express Ho’onani’s strengths in the face of opposition, and Mika Song’s eloquent pictures show the same message in a concrete way.  This is a book about an important social issue, but it is not only about that issue.  The story is also about personal conviction, and the need for support from everyone in the community.

The first fact readers learn about Ho’onani is that she refuses to conform to a single gender identity.  The second is that her parents are proud of her, stating quite naturally that “She is who she is!” and “She does what she wants.”  Ho’onani is excited about the teacher’s announcement that male students, “kānē,” will audition for a performance of traditional hula chants. Although Ho’onani is considered a “wahine,” female, this will not be an obstacle to participation.  Ho’onani’s family is divided about her insistence on trying out, with an embarrassed sister, Kana, trying to undermine the bravery necessary to be different: “Kana rolled her eyes. ‘Really?’” is enough to introduce doubt to the scene.

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Ho’onani’s most important role model is the teacher Kumu Hina, based on an actual Hawaiian transgender activist.  Ho’onani stands quietly in the doorway, watching as the teacher evaluates the posture and the “warrior strength” of the young performers, who appear as a group to be somewhat less convincing than the “wahine” challenging their control.

Hulka arm test

One boy is slimmer and smaller, and another looks tentatively towards his teacher, anxiously waiting for his turn.  They are not villains, just insecure kids afraid of losing their place in the gender hierarchy. Returning home, Ho’onani tests her own physical and spiritual abilities; author and illustrator capture this process in a remarkable picture and words.

Hula volcano

Ho’onani understands on a very deep level that her performance will require “patience and practice.”  The inside of her house becomes part of Hawaii’s magnificent natural setting, with a volcano erupting in the background as Ho’onani becomes part of the scene, “Hands dragging across her face, arms reaching for the sky.”  Her ukulele lays quietly on the couch, and the family pictures on an end table remind readers how both nature and culture are part of Ho’onani’s identity.

Hula teacher

Every child needs that moment of affirmation when her resolve might weaken.  Kumu Hina is the realistic yet comforting adult who reminds Ho’onani that not everyone shares her humanistic ideal, and that less enlightened adults may respond with fear: “She said that some might not appreciate a wahine leading their sons up on stage.”  Kumu Hina’s honesty is enough to help Ho’onani clarify her own beliefs and call upon her courage.  Readers will thrill to the simplicity of Ho’onani’s credo: “’If someone wants to leave,’ she said, ‘that is their problem.’” The boys filing past in the background, and the empty pair of flip-flops left in the hallway, are pale and weak in comparison to Ho’onani’s profound sense of self as a hula warrior.

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In Ho’onani: Hula Warrior, Ho’onani is not surrounded by bullies, nor even by terrified bystanders. Instead, the hero of the story is a young person who becomes immovable in her recognition that the world has a place for her and that she will take it, helped by those who share her faith in herself.  The beautiful particularities of its Hawaiian setting are unique, but the message of being a warrior for acceptance and inclusion will resonate with everyone.

 

Confederate Diary Tells All

When Will This Cruel War Be Over?: The Civil War Diary of Emma Simpson, Gordonsville, Virginia, 1864 (Dear America Series) – Barry Denenberg, Scholastic, 1996

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No, it doesn’t actually tell all. It can’t, because, like the other books in the uneven but valuable Dear America series (I recently wrote about another by the same author), the story is told from the perspective of a girl keeping a diary.  She is the daughter of a Confederate officer and his wife, living on a spacious plantation served by enslaved people, to whom she refers throughout the book as either “servants” or “negroes.” It is doubtful that such a fictional account would be published by Scholastic today, which led me to think about the differences between a character’s perspective and an author’s, and how this book insidiously blurs the space between the two, although I am certain it was not the author’s intention to do so.

Reading primary sources is a key part of studying history.  In learning about the institution of slavery, the Civil War, and the horrible consequences of Reconstruction’s collapse, letters and diaries by those who supported an economy based on human chattel are crucial.  One example of a real woman’s diary is that of Mary Boykin Chestnut, (1823-1886), who chronicled life on a real plantation through her role as wife, slave owner, and author.  Censoring her work would by refusing to include it in school curricula would be a missed opportunity to understand the complexities of American history.  Yet When Will This Cruel War Be Over? is not a historical document, but a novel for middle grade and young adult readers.  The author’s choices are deliberate, presumably governed by literary standards, but also by the purpose of the series, which is to illuminate history in an engaging way.

Emma believes that she and her family, as well as their whole way of life, have been unjustly and cruelly wrecked by rampaging Yankees, who seek only to destroy their property and liberate their slaves.  Emma is thankful that at least some of her “servants” are unswervingly loyal, and would no sooner think of abandoning their beloved masters than she or parents who think of disciplining them harshly.  Emma’s father, she writes, has always believed that physically harming slaves is not immoral, but an error of management techniques—except in the few circumstances where there is no other choice.  There are numerous references in the diary to other enslaved people living on the land of less unenlightened planters, who stubbornly refuse to recognize that their servitude is for their own good.

What would I expect of a book that is based on the perspective of a young woman born into a society based on a racial hierarchy in which enslaved people have to rights and no humanity? Would it be more truthful to artificially insert phrases which imply that such a character would empathize with her “servants,” and come to realize that her entire life is predicate on depriving others of their most basic human rights?  That, in a sense, would be more misleading to young readers than this book.  Would it be possible, then, to offer hints in the narrative that not everyone accepts her belief, that the phrase “When will this cruel war be over” is hideously ironic?  Possibly.  The author implicitly acknowledges this possibility by having some characters, less empathic than Emma’s parents, state that even bad abolitionists believe that black people are inherently inferior.  Emma expresses some skepticism about this assertion.  Her own mother runs a “school” for enslaved children on their plantation; Emma never seems to question what the purpose of their education is in a world of endless, inherited, status as human property.  Most troubling is the fact that the “Historical Note” at the end of the book does nothing to correct the impression that Emma’s beliefs, although virtually inescapable for someone of her social and economic class, are contradicted by history.  “The North and the South were two very different regions,” and “Abolitionists, an extreme but vocal minority in the North, wanted to abolish slavery wherever it existed,” are completely misleading and inadequate at contextualizing Emma’s record.

This book could be usefully compared to actual historical sources, in order to generate a discussion about the racial and class fault lines in our history.  Censorship is not the answer. Emma is not an adult.  She did not create the economy which enabled her family’s wealth and privilege. Her self-pitying and heartfelt fictional diary is rooted in historical realities over which she initially had no control. However, reading When Will This Cruel War Be Over?  today without attention to the true nature of those realities and the real nature of its cruelty should be unthinkable.

 

 

Every Dog Has its Wonderful Day

Miss Moon: Wise Words from a Dog Governess – Janet Hill, Tundra Books, 2016

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When we meet Miss Moon, she is confidently driving her green roadster, seated on the right side, as she is taking a position as dog governess on an island off the French coast.  Hat box, stuffed bunny, and other supplies are ready and waiting, as she prepares to become the Mary Poppins of canines.

 

 

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If you are already familiar with Janet Hill’s later feline version of this challenge, you know that her lush artwork and aphoristic text are appealing to both adults and children.  Miss Moon is elegant, calm, and flexible, the perfect teacher for dogs or people.  Even one lesson, let alone twenty plus a class photo of graduates, is as reading a bedtime story to a group of really large dogs, and an owl listening quietly from the window.

 

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Some of Miss Moon’s lessons are simple. “Never stop learning,” accompanied by dogs in spectacles, promotes knowledge through only the most basic of technologies. While the dogs are not facing the blackboard, we can assume they did earlier, before we entered the picture. Now they are looking straight out at us, as Miss Moons records something in her notebook, her arm affectionately around on of her students.  Another dog holds a pen in his mouth.  The whole scene is a bit like a Dutch interior, with apple, flowers, and tape dispenser strategically placed to convey scholarship.  Kids who are not familiar with art history will love the fact that the dogs are more cooperative in school than they themselves are.

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Some lessons are a bit more cryptic.  “Respect the property of others” seems obvious enough, but paired with a picture of Miss Moon pointing out some funny graffiti on a beautiful equestrian portrait, we might ask exactly what is going on among her pupils? Again, children will see a small pug dog wearing a beret and seated next to an artist’s palette, looking embarrassed as his governess points out that he has failed to respect someone else’s belongings.  Not only that, he thinks he is an artist, but he defaced a work of art! It is Miss Moon’s job to point out the contradictions here. The expression on her face is serious, but not unforgiving.

 

 

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“Lesson Nine” features a bicycle-built-for- two or more, as a purposeful Miss Moon, wearing a modern helmet and steampunk goggles, transports her charges, all of whom are wearing protective headgear.  “The impossible can become possible with a little creativity” is more of an incentive than a rule.  Although Miss Moon is depicted holding a book in many of the chapters, she knows when to put it down and embrace the outdoors.  Similarly, “Lesson Fourteen” is more of a fulfillment of Miss Moon’s philosophy than a necessary rule.  Who among her pupils would not automatically “Always give the warmest of welcomes?” They rush towards her, and it’s not only because of her shopping bags full of food.  Miss Moon, in her long green button front dress and crisp white collar, her stunning red hair, is the image of quiet authority. Young readers can spot a true mentor when they see one, even in the pages of a book.  Parents and caregivers will appreciate Hill’s ability to capture complex values in the briefest of lessons.  I am sure the fun will continue when she returns to an educational setting in her next book.

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Remember Pearl Harbor

Early Sunday Morning: The Pearl Harbor Diary of Amber Billows (Dear America series) – Barry  Denenberg, Scholastic, 2001

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Some of you may remember fondly the Dear America series of historical novels published by Scholastic between 1996 and 2004, or their reissue, along with some new books. Each was initially published in hard back with a ribbon marker; the covers did not list the author’s name.  The authors, in fact, included several well-known middle grade and young adult novelists.  Barry Denenberg wrote several, including Early Sunday Morning, an account of the Japanese surprise attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii.  Amber Billows’ father is a journalist, and her family is abruptly relocated to Oahu, unaware of the impending disaster.  Like other books in the series, it both follows a formula and, yet, pushes the boundaries of that successful formula.

Each Dear America book takes the form of diary entries, so the reader experiences the young heroine’s life through her young, unreliable narrative voice.  A background section fills in the historical facts, along with photographs or drawings from the period.  The girl telling her own story is often as unaware of its significance as the reader; this encourages empathy and identification with the story.  Amber Billows is not completely likeable; nor is her family.  At times I was taken aback by the risks the author took in creating a strongly opinionated mom, whose tough exterior sometimes seems to conceal a tough interior, as well.  She makes it clear that the dinner parties at which she is obligated to officiate to support her husband’s career are something of a trial to her.  Mom really hates isolationists!  “She especially hates Charles Lindbergh, even though the rest of the world loves him.”  Given Lindbergh’s odious political views, of which many Americans are unaware, this was really refreshing in a children’s book.

The Dear America series represents a kind of transition between middle grade and young adult fiction.  The diary entries themselves are often simple and unsophisticated, yet the content may be aimed more at older readers.  Early Sunday Morning has many references to alcohol consumption by adults. Realistically, Amber explains how her father deliberately uses it to get his unsuspecting guests to loosen up and talk, while he himself maintains control by sticking to seltzer.  Amber accepts this technique in a rather adult way, as part of her father’s unusual job, the same job which demands that she pick up and leave every school to attend and acclimate herself to a different one.  No wonder she is skeptical about the desirability of making friends. She seems to survive by assimilating the values which her parents, both dedicated and devoted to their children, have communicated to her through their loving, but inevitably imperfect, parenting.

When the naval base is attacked, Amber’s mother, a nurse, immediately rushes to the hospital to tend to critically wounded men, whose injuries are described in frightening detail.  Amber joins her mom; the level of responsibility which she is permitted to assume seems somewhat atypical, but serves to dramatize the terror which engulfs the lives of everyone on the island.  One moment which I found dissonant was Amber’s mother’s encounter in the hospital with a severely injured officer, who had earlier roused her ire with his refusal to understand the nature of the Japanese threat.  Amber observes her mother’s reaction to this man, previously an object of her contempt, but now a pitiful victim: “When she looked down at Lieutenant Lockhart, her expression was difficult to decipher.  It was disdainful and sympathetic at the same time.”  “Disdainful” is not usually an emotion associated with a nurse tending to a patient in her own country’s military; here is where Denenberg challenges the formula to allow for bitterness and anger.  After all, this character is the same one who deliberately served scalding hot soup to guests she particularly disliked.

Part of the series involves a fictional “Epilogue,” where the author has the chance to neatly assign fates to the book’s characters.  Without discouraging potential readers of Early Sunday Morning, some of the lives don’t end up walking on the sunny side of the street.  Young readers unfamiliar with the War years may internalize, if only briefly, the popular song’s lyrics, which reminded Americans that “History in every century/Records an act that lives forevermore/We’ll recall, as into line we fall/The thing that happened on Hawaii’s shore.” (lyrics by Don Reid)

 

Portrait of the Artist as a Young…?

Great Dog – Davide Cali and Miguel Tanco, Tundra Books, 2018

Great dog cover

Every child comes into the world with great expectations, not his own, but his parents.  In Davide Cali and Miguel Tanco’s Great Dog readers empathize with the small and sensitive young creature, as well as the bigger, but still caring, older person who lays out the ambitious possibilities for the future.  We all have a mental list of family portraits; here it is a literal one, set out in a picture gallery of accomplished ancestors for a kid who just wants to be himself.  Embedded in the story is a surprise ending, suggesting that parental acceptance may be broader than expected. great dog-gallery

The protagonist’s tall and distinguished canine father is almost haughtily proud of his family’s distinctions.  His face may be shaggy with fur, but his elegantly tailored jacket and dignified pose make him a tough act to follow.  Not to mention all those talented relatives, including Angus the police dog apprehending robbers and Aunt Doris, the brave firefighter. (It’s interesting how this aristocratic-appearing dog had some truly working-class roots.) “’What about me?’” the young animal asks anxiously, only to be reassured that “My dad has no doubt about it. ‘No matter what,’ he says, ‘you will be a GREAT dog!’” Those all capital letters could not be more certain, nor more off-putting.

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great dog 4-candy  great dog 3-teacher

If first responders are not his son’s primary choice of role model, there are also Uncle Tibor the marathon runner, Aunt Frida the artist, and Uncle Scooter the teacher.  Uncle Scooter seems less intimidating, if only because his classroom is a chaotic scene of students riding bicycles and cutting one another’s hair in apparent disregard of their instructor. With every possibility offered by this proud parent, we feel a little more uneasy.

What if his son is not teacher, or artist, or even astronaut material? Every child has had moments of doubt about his parent’s unconditional love, and this father’s almost overbearing assurance only increases our suspicions that his fatherhood might be a little too tied up in his own pride, perhaps even some of those unfulfilled dreams that hover in the background of every parent-child relationship.

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The simple understatement of the text conveys both the son’s insecurity and the father’s confidence. Tanco’s delightful pictures of apparently European city life recall both classic children’s book illustration and the fantastic scenes of a child’s imagination.  Whether a little dog helplessly but calmly shot out of cannon in the circus, or a beret-wearing dog artist delicately posed on a ladder, the images erase boundaries between plausible and make-believe, exactly the way that these two elements blend in a child’s mind. Tanco’s signature detailed buildings and rooms are a joyful mixture of nostalgia and realism. (It’s a good thing those Dalmatians are there to put out the flames in the windows!) Fans of Tango’s equally distinguished Count on Me will want to look for the same vintage radio posed on a bureau in both books.

 

This Land Was His Land

The Golden Thread: A Song for Pete Seeger – Colin Meloy and Nikki McClure, Balzer + Bray, 2018

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It’s time to teach your kids about making music and fighting fascism.  Colin Meloy sets the scene by bringing folk music and activist legend Pete Seeger into the world of mythic rhyme:

HAMMER BRINGER!
RIVER SINGER!
SAILOR, SOLDIER,
LEAN BELL RINGER

This is not a full-scale biography of Singer, but a heartfelt poem built from the inspiration which Colin Meloy, songwriter and singer for The Decemberists, has felt as a presence in his own life.  Young readers will learn a great deal about Seeger’s courage and purpose in using songs to preach justice and promote equality throughout his country.

The book has a wonderful tone of anachronism, expecting families reading it together to recognize that fascism, wage slavery, capitalism, communist, and blacklist, were once words in everyday use in the United States. Of course, the threats, and the solutions, which they once loudly labeled, are still all too real.  Meloy and artist Nikki McClure immerse readers in a poetic and visual world of the past that still has resonance today.  Incantatory lines introduce key stages of Seeger’s career, from his musical family, his marriage to Toshi Ohta and his Cold War trials, to his involvement in the Civil Rights and environmentalist movements.  The golden thread of the title actually refers to a song which Seeger both wrote and performed, although that Meloy does not explicitly mention that link. Instead, the author and illustrator both use it as a metaphor for Seeger’s connection of peoples and causes in one principled mission:

Pete’s thread stretched long, it bridged generations
Through Depressions, Recessions, and high celebrations
He followed it doggedly, and with all of his heart
He wove it and drove it into his own art.

The lines are packed with a sense of Seeger’s bravery, and his status as “A hero to all in this young mighty nation.”  Yet the language emphasizes his persistence and humanity more than any superior attributes, as he “doggedly” followed his own deep convictions to join Americans through song.

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The harmony between text and pictures is as lovely as that in a Weavers’ song.  In a detailed “Artist’s Note,” McClure describes how she created her pictures out of black and gold paper cutouts, and also that she had used historical research to produce her images of “boats, people, signs, factories…banjo frets.”  Many pages include multiple scenes and figures; the Weavers perform for a live audience, while the facing page depicts a turntable and record albums, and a winding gold ribbon includes a line from their hit song, “Goodnight, Irene.”  (Meloy reports that the song was a surprising number one on the charts, but its flipside, a rendition of the Israeli “Tzena, Tzena,”also became a hugely popular success.)

Seeger’s complex political history is necessarily simplified, while still accurately representing the scope of the causes that he championed, and the repercussions he suffered under McCarthyism.  Meloy’s brief description of Seeger’s early family life neglects to mention that his family was highly educated and solidly upper-middle class.  This is less important, however, than one serious misstatement of Seeger’s beliefs:

In World War Two
—–What’s a pacifist to do?
Armed with a banjo, he followed along
To keep soldiers in cheer by singing ‘em songs.

PeteSeeger and eleanor

Seeger was not a pacifist, nor was he a conscientious objector who requested non-combat duties in the U.S. military, in which he served from 1942-45.  As a Communist, he had initially supported non-intervention in Europe’s war, until Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.  He served both in the States and in the Pacific, but his assignment as a musician was not based on a choice to avoid combat.

Clearly, Seeger’s long life and career proved that he preferred resolution of conflict through peaceful means whenever possible, but he loudly and clearly supported the fight to defeat fascism in Europe and Asia during the War.

The Golden Thread: A Song for Pete Seeger ties together, in words, and images, the interwoven strands of Seeger’s life and legacy. It is a beautiful tribute, “A shining magic thing/That bounded up our little imperfect world.”

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Road Map to Maybe

The Map from Here to There Emery Lord, Bloomsbury YA, 2020

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The Map from Here to There is a quiet, reflective novel about a teenager’s road from somewhere, a family and friends with whom she is imperfectly happy, to somewhere else, the unknown endpoint of life after high school.  It is full of all the indecision and insecurity of life itself, and specifically of the tensions in a romance which may be only one moment of many as the protagonist, seventeen-year- old Paige Hancock, tries to figure out her future.  Young adult readers will see themselves in a cast of characters undergoing ordinary dilemmas, which seem extraordinary to them at the time.

 

There are many qualities to like about this book.  The narrative builds slowly, accurately mirroring the way in which Paige experiences the day-to-day consistent realities and the gradually accruing changes which make the last year of high school unsettling.  Her parents are separated, but approaching a reconciliation, and she has a more unusual emotional wound as well, having lost her first boyfriend in a tragic accident.  Paige is fragile, but also determined, after a summer program at NYU, to pursue a career in screenwriting.  Determination, however, is relative, as she is becoming more ambivalently attached to Max, finding herself in a relationship which is rewarding and compromising at the same time, since it the potential to derail her commitment to choosing the best college program for her ambitious plans.

Unlike the case in some popular YA novels, Paige’s life is not one of unremitting tragedy, although it has tragedy within it.  Her friends are supportive, if sometimes as inclined as Paige to allow insecurity and disappointment to overtake them.  Her parents are subject to financial as well as psychological limitations, but they love her, and she can rely on that anchor even when life seems overwhelming.  College admissions is part of the difficult equation, one in which distant adults are determined to throw a wrench into kids’ lives.  Paige summarizes that part of adolescence in one acerbic and funny pair of sentences: “When people called it ‘the sting of rejection,’ they weren’t kidding.  It actually stung, like a slapped sunburn.’” If the reader occasionally expects a simple resolution to Paige’s confusion and potential heartbreak, the author refuses to offer one.  Instead, there are many maybes, as Paige thinks about her own responsibility to cope with difficulty, when to rely on her instincts, and when to ask for help. As she relates life to her summer improv class, she summarizes that “I’d learned to say yes, and.

Paige is never at a loss for a good metaphor. Watching a performance at the local theater where she has worked as an intern, she sums up her recognition that there is no definite conclusion to her journey:

During the Sunday matinee…I watched with a calm deep in my bones.  It was the feeling of a plane’s descent, of the steering wheel nudged toward the last highway exit. The distinct feeling of being almost there.

The Map from Here to There assumes that young adults are intelligent and ambivalent, eager to map out a life but hesitant to finalize plans, and receptive to reading about someone who has been there and survived.

 

 

Uneasy Lies the Head That Wears a Crown

King Mouse – Cary Fagan and Dena Seiferling, Tundra Books, 2019

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A hungry mouse searches in the grass and spies something shiny.  “It was a tiny crown…It was a perfect fit.” Or was it?  Cary Fagan’s witty and sweet fable, with delicate graphite and digitally colored images by Dena Seiferling, answers that question. Young readers will exult with the improbably small monarch; even a huge bear bows down to him.

 

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Later, they will share the bear’s sadness at being left out of the picture.  Finally, they will come to appreciate Henry IV’s frustrated realization that being king has marked disadvantages. Fagan deftly avoids moralizing; he suggests, in simple language which young children will understand, that privilege has its pitfalls and friends don’t care about hierarchies.

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The first lesson the mouse learns is about the inauthenticity of animals who are drawn to his crown, not to him. They’re sycophants, the type anyone who has seen people fawning over young royals in British tabloids.  “’A king at last!’, said the tortoise.”  Apparently, he has spent his life waiting for an opportunity to gather seeds for someone wearing a crown.  A fox gets the brilliant idea that monarchs don’t live by seeds alone, and decides that they must amuse the king by putting on a play.  Seiferling’s picture of the mouse seated on a turtle watching the exaggerated drama conveys his loneliness. Even with his back to the reader, we know that this is not his idea of a good time. (image)

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Then everyone starts finding crowns in the grass, and, before you know it, everyone is a king or queen.  “’Long live me,’ sang the fox,” in a sharp statement of recognition about what happens when people with no motive but selfish gain get power.  Adults will smile in recognition of this fact, but the book builds tension for children, who learn along with its characters why shiny headgear means nothing.  When the mouse offers his friend the bear a wreath of dandelions, the logic of Fagan’s story becomes complete.

From beginning to end, he has contrasted the misleading appeal of the crowns to the natural beauty of flowers, a sunset, and a friend who likes you for who you are.  The fact that the bear had reluctantly participated in the other animals’ toadying behavior just makes his final moment of self-awareness that much more meaningful.  Children who have sometimes followed the leader will find validation of the wish to break away and be themselves.  The quiet, almost Zen, subtlety of the book’s words and images helps children to understand the value of independence. Grown-ups, too.

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Bad Dreams

Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, A Young Adult Adaptation – Sam Quinones, Bloomsbury, 2019

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In his 2016 book, Dreamland, journalist Sam Quinones investigated the many causes, as well as the many bad actors and countless tragic victims, of the opiate epidemic that has since become the subject of even more damning revelations.  Now, Bloomsbury has issued Quinones’s adaptation for young adults, and it fills the need for carefully presented and analyzed information about this national disaster, one which often engulfs teens.  It is gripping and horrifying, without glamorizing addiction, striking a difficult balance between engaging and warning young adults.

Quinones’s chronicle involves “daily exposure to the worst of human nature,” and he carefully builds his story to specify how, when, and why this fact sadly manifests itself in the addiction crisis.  Brief historical background material explains the origins of heroin in nineteenth-century German laboratories, and then relates the changing medical applications of opiates, some based on misinformation, but, later, on the deliberate manipulation and lies of pharmaceutical companies, specifically Purdue Pharma.  Quinones crucially breaks down each link in the chain of manufacturing, promoting, and delivering deadly drugs to customers desperate to find them.  He compares the supply and demand chain to a corporate power structure where each aspect; manufacturing, marketing, advertising, delivery; are coordinated to produce maximum efficiency and profits.

Quinones does not offer easy excuses. His condemnation of drug companies’ moral detachment in the pursuit of money is understated and matter-of-fact in tone.  Readers learn, for example, how the results of a 1980 study implying that opiates were safe in a hospital setting were deliberately falsified by Purdue Pharma to assuage doctors who were initially skeptical about the safety of opiate painkillers. However, some of those doctors themselves were reluctant to believe the accumulating evidence that the medicines which they were broadly prescribing were leading to a public health nightmare.  Several steps beyond that in the chain of responsibility were the health care providers who knowingly participated in addicting their patients in order to easily make huge sums of money, which the honest practice of medicine would never have allowed them to do. Adults reading this type of material may be disillusioned; teens may be devastated.  Quinones provides a “Discussion Guide,” and “Resources” related to the issue.

Quinones presents a bleak picture of the impoverished Mexican communities where some of the drug dealers become involved in their trade.  He does not patronize them by simply ascribing their choices to lack of economic opportunity, although that lack is brutally obvious in his story.  Like everyone else in the book, they are responsible, although the calculated objectives of pharmaceutical executives who are easily able to pay millions of dollars in fines and avoid prison time is clearly the focus on the author’s contempt.  As one bereaved mother accuses them, “You are…nothing more than a large corporate drug cartel.”

The young adult adaptation of Dreamland is a book that parents should read along with their teens. It is also well-suited to high school social studies course reading and discussion.