There are a lot of books that I review only on Amazon. Sometimes if I love the book, I'll post the review here too. And sometimes if I read a book that particularly concerns me, then I post it here too. Recently, I read a book, The Year of the Book by Andrea Cheng, that falls in that latter category.
I've been pondering what to write about this book since I read it a week and a half ago. It is definitely "realistic" fiction. I suspect many girls will like this book, but I haven't been able to get my daughter to pick it up and read it. There are some books that I require her to read since we homeschool, but this isn't going to be one of those books.
When we read books, we read them for a lot of reasons. Gladys Hunt says that reading books helps children learn to savor life. It helps them notice what is "seen, heard, and experienced" (Honey for a Child's Heart p. 21) Books help give children a sense of security (p.22 from the same book) that they are not alone and helps them by encouraging that they can whether storms and failures.
So, I'm left with the question--how does this book impart these things?
For children who are in public or private school, it would definitely give 3rd-5th grade girls the sense that they are not alone in the angst of friendship among girls that age. Or in their struggles of being embarrassed of their parents and families. This book is the story of Anna Wang and her journey through her 4th grade year basically without friends and her struggles with her family. I do think that books like this can plant that idea in kids' heads who don't already feel that way and that isn't a good thing--the idea that they should be embarrassed of their parents or siblings. I am aware that the expression of this embarrassment in this book is mild compared to a lot of contemporary books written for this age group. But, then I look for resolution. What are the lessons learned by the reader by the end of the story? There are implied potential topics of conversation like the friend who's parents separate. The separation and its impacts are alluded to but not explained. How does the main character's attitude toward her family change? Does it? A little, I suppose, but not a lot. She seems to come to a neutral place of feeling towards her family--but not a place of appreciation. As for how she feels about friends... well, that's complicated. I still didn't like the main character at the end of the story. She bugged me. Her attitudes made me sad. I watch my daughter (who is this age) and listen as she tells me that I'm the best mom ever (I'm not, by the way--I'm a very imperfect mom, but I try to love my kids well). I watch as she learns to accept when someone does or doesn't want to play with her. She is learning to play with the kids that do want to play with her rather than the ones that don't. We talk about it. But, I don't see it spreading to the rest of our family life the way it does in this story. We have a rule in our house with my 3 kids that no one can say "you can't play" (the idea came from a wonderful book by Vivian Paley that I read when I was getting my teaching degree).
I know our culture considers many facets of childhood to be unavoidable rights of passage--but I'm just not so sure that they are. Carol Gilligan wrote a book a few years ago about adolescent girls based on research that she did. From what I remember, her basic conclusion was that in middle school girls say a lot of things out loud in an attempt to figure out what is appropriate to say and what isn't--also to figure out what they can get away with and what they can't (manipulation). A decade ago, this was true of middle school girls. Today I believe this is true of elementary age girls because of the influence of television and what they see acted out before their eyes (and how tv show characters treat each other). This book reminds me of that idea.
I was just like Anna. I had all the girls turn against me when I was in elementary school and again in middle school. Perhaps that is why this book was particularly painful for me to read and I am very sensitive to the themes of this book. When I think of my daughter and what she would take from it, I am left with the realization that it would only make her sad rather than encouraged--even at the end of the book. She will often comment to me about how the kids treat each other in books. She picks up on the nuances.
This afternoon I went with my kids and my mom to our local library. It was interesting to me to talk with the children's librarian. I encountered the same ideas that I found when I was teaching and that I have found librarians often have. The ideas are these: All books are okay to read 1) if they get kids reading and 2) if you talk about them to help them understand what they don't understand. As a teacher, I believed these ideas wholeheartedly. And then I became a parent... and my whole perspective changed. I wrote recently of the "Now/Later idea" rather than the "yes/no", but both ideas are still based on the idea that not all books are appropriate for children of all ages to read. Just as it would not have been okay for my children to hear the conversation in the adult section of the library on something that isn't even appropriate for me to write here, I don't believe that all books are appropriate or edifying for all ages. Sometimes it isn't even that a book is necessarily "bad", but that there are better books to read--that are encouraging and uplifting and better written. It is a always a good idea to choose the "better" books over the "just fine" books. Why eat a candy bar when there's homemade pie in the refrigerator?
As I said earlier, I'm sure that many children will enjoy this book--it's just not the right one for my family.
And now it's time for me to go to sleep...
Please note that I received a complimentary copy of this book for review from the publisher.