Monday, January 19, 2015

Two YA/Middle School Fiction Books Worth Reading

Wow.  I feel like I just ate at a fine restaurant that served me a superb meal!  I just finished reading Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan.  It is a new book that is going to be coming out in February.  This book was quite a surprise for me.  I haven't read the author's previous books, but was intrigued by this book description.  I have struggled to find contemporary fiction that I feel comfortable assigning to my teenage daughter for her homeschooling.  Periodically, I have been lucky enough to find a few treasures... The Friendship Doll, Flipped, Paper Things (which I'm going to write about later in this post), the Vine Basket by Josanne LaValley... and now I can add this book to the list.

Echo begins with a little boy who gets lost in the woods and encounters three sisters.  Magic and
music are interwoven in a way that creates wonder.  As I read this book, I found myself unsure of what was going to happen next.  There were multiple cliffhangers over the course of the book that you are left to ponder for a time.  I don't want to spoil anything, but only say that the ending does leave you feel like you've finished dessert after a wonderful meal.

I am going to have my daughter read this in 9th or possibly 8th grade.  While the reading grade level is only probably a 5th or 6th grade level, the topics addressed are weighty concerns of the world.  I know that my 6th grade daughter would be overwhelmed with sadness by this book and would find it difficult to process.  But, it is worth processing, so I plan to wait until she is older to have her read it.  Many adults might disagree with me about the age that this book is appropriate for, but I don't want my children to have to bear the weight of the world and the sadness all at once.  It is my job as a their mom to love them well--and to help them understand the world.  The majority of this book is set in the 1930s and 1940s. Because I think parents and teachers need to be aware, here are the topics that are dealt with:  one character is ostracized because of his looks and epilepsy and the Nazis methods of purifying the German people during the 1930s are outlined and fleshed out; one character faces abuse, abandonment, and sacrifice for family; and one character faces prejudice and segregation during WWII...  I have noticed that when prejudice and segregation are addressed in fiction for youth, it is usually addressing the segregation of African Americans in regard to school and in the South. This book addresses prejudice and segregation from history that I wasn't aware of.  I grew up in one of the cities part of the story is set in and yet I wasn't aware of its history.  I researched it after reading this book and found what the author portrayed in the story to be true to history.

There is a great deal of sadness in the story these pages hold, yet there is hope, too and the strength of the hearts of the main characters.  I believe children with sensitive hearts will be deeply affected by this book if they read it--which is important to be aware of.  As a Christian, an important discussion with my children as they read this book and afterwards is about where our hope comes from and why we hope.  There are some difficult questions to be pondered with this book.  What do we do when life is hard?  Do we expect life to be easy?  Is life easy?  Did God promise us an easy life?  How can we cope with the challenges we will face in the future?  (ie. what hope can we cling to)  What challenges have they faced or people in their family or their friends?  What I discovered with my own children is that they don't even realize some of the things they've tackled in their lives and had to deal with.  I believe it's important for children to realize that no one's life is easy and that their lives won't be easy either--but that God will always be with them.  God is not explicitly talked about in this story, but we read to make sense of life and sometimes realizing that others don't have a reason for their hope helps us see our own reason--that Jesus died on the cross for our sins and that God loves us.

I loved this book.  The writing drew me in and held me there until I turned the last page.  But, this is also a book that parents should read and talk with their children about.  I don't think it should be read by a student on their own without anyone to process it with.

The second contemporary book I am glad to have discovered is Paper Things by Jennifer Richard Jacobson.  I think this book is appropriate for 6th/7th graders.  

A quick Summary:

The story starts out with Ari and Gage leaving the home of Janna, their guardian. Janna had never been married or had kids before she became their guardian. Gage chafed against her rules and chose to leave with Ari when he turned 19. Ari and Gage's mother had died four years earlier. When they leave, Gage discovers that it's a lot harder on their own than Gage expected. The story follows them as they figure out how to be homeless and how to stay together without a permanent home.

I do love this book, but not because it's one that I'd read for "enjoyment". It's eye opening and very appropriate for this age group. There isn't any cussing or anything inappropriate that I'd have any concerns about my children reading. I grew up on the west coast of the us in a warm climate where there were many homeless people. I was shocked to realize that many adults and children on the east coast and in the north are not aware of the difficulties homeless people face because they don't see them. (ie. in a survey from a few years ago, there were 52,000 homeless people in Long Beach, CA compared to 1,400 in Pittsburgh, PA). Interestingly, this story is set in Maine, an extremely cold place. The author is from Maine, so that is why I assume she set the story there.

Why I'm going to have my 6th grade daughter read this book... I want her to be aware of the world and sensitive to the feelings of others. I don't want her to ever talk of homelessness as an "ideal" way to live as I heard one 20 year old woman say to me a year ago. The young woman was very ignorant (simply unaware), in my opinion, and did not understand the difficulties of living without a permanent home. Those difficulties are made plain in this book.

But, I also want to discuss with her Janna and Ari's relationship and how some adults treat children. I have noticed this with my own children that many adults do not know how to relate to children or they see them as a burden. They expect children not to be clumsy, not to make noise, and not to be... well, children. Spoiler sort of--Janna acknowledges later in the book that she didn't know how to be a parent when she became their guardian. I thought the author handled this really well. But, it's worth a discussion. I have had many adults give me dirty looks (or my children) though they are very well behaved most of the time, but periodically have their moments. As a parent, I've had to work on not taking it personally. And as a parent, the way Janna lived through Ari made me sad. Her stuff was off limits. Her apartment had to be just so. I've known parents like this. I've known grandparents like this. It doesn't make kids feel loved. And Ari and Gage didn't feel loved. There's a neat reconciliation and healing from this at the end and that is something I appreciated at the end of the book. The kids grow, but so do the adults--in a way that isn't disrespectful of them.  

There is one mention that I do think parents should be aware of in the book.  There wasn't any cussing in the book, but I do remember one scene when a young woman and man ask Ari to leave Gage's girlfriends' room in her apartment so they can have the room to themselves and Ari realizes her books are in there and knows she shouldn't go get them.  Nothing is explicitly explained or detailed about what was going on in the room.  

Children are also not supposed to have to handle all the burdens adults do and sometimes I think we even expose them to too much when they are young. But, this book is very appropriate for sixth and seventh graders. It deals with the topic of homelessness in a way that I think they will be able to understand. My daughter probably won't when she first reads it, but will after we discuss it. I've noticed that many of the details we notice as adults can get missed by younger readers and I want to help her see some of the details I suspect she will miss and their significance.

I do want to mention my only additional thoughts.
#1 The story is set in Maine. But, it's a fictional place in Maine. The difficulty is in creating a realistic place without it being real. The story felt a lot more like it was set in a larger city that has more dangerous areas. We spend a week every summer in Maine and I kept picturing the story not in Maine, but in New York, or even Massachussetts.
#2 As children of a soldier who died in Afghanistan, Ari and Gage would have had benefits--educational benefits for Gage and financial ones for Ari. If someone is homeless and trying to get up on their feet, these benefits can be of significant help. Janna would have also been receiving benefits for them and from social security as their guardian.

I am thankful to have read both of these books and I would recommend them as good solid reading for adults as well.  I will continue to search for books that I feel are appropriate for my children as they make their way through their teenage years, being sensitive to their hearts and what they're able to handle--giving them time to grow and develop.  I don't want to hide the world from them.  I want to help them understand the world they live in, but I don't want them to get crushed by the sadness of the world we live in either.  There needs to be a balance.  When I heard about a fourth grade GATE class several years ago which read five books over the course of the year, four of which were about death and dying...  I was shocked.  I think that children need to read a variety of books--  fantasy, realistic fiction, adventure, science fiction, mystery, historical fiction, biography...  But, that's another discussion for another day...


becky.onelittle said...

I'm excited to look at these books myself. Being from the SE I hardly ever saw homelessness till I was an adult. It shocks me. What shocks me even more is the number of homeless here in Alaska where the weather is inhospitable for most of the year. It's a hard topic for my kids to understand and equally hard for me to explain.

Anne said...

Wow. I wouldn't have expected that in Alaska either! It surprised me that Paper Things was set in Maine (we go on vacation there) so I looked up the county she set the story in and there are several homeless shelters there.

Did you ever read Flipped? I'd love to know what you and your daughter thought of it if you did :)

becky.onelittle said...

I have read Flipped. I haven't shown it to Micaela. It was cute and fairly innocent, but it had some objectionable parts to me. Number one is the name of the brothers' band- we don't use that kind of language and I'd hate to introduce that in my home as something people think is humorous, or the thought that using that type of language for shock value is esteemed by their peers. Number two is the whole premise. I loved it, but this girl flips at age 7- my daughter is nearly 13 and could care less about the thought of boys. I would hate for her to think that falling in love at age 7 is normal (it isn't presented to be in the book- but lets just say a preoccupation with boys at a grammar age which is represented in the book) or that she is abnormal because as a teen she isn't interested. Only two kids male or female in my kids' circle of friends has expressed any interest in the opposite sex. Maybe it's just our demographic- "unsocialized homeschoolers," but really I was never interested in boys till I was 16 or 17 so I'm not sure it's that common. If she had boy crazy friends or if she herself were mildly interested I might read it with her. It has a really good lesson about our relationships with others, so maybe I'll just save it for when we're in that stage.

Anne said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts about Flipped! I do have friends who's girls are interested in boys and a few who's boys are interested in girls in Elementary School. I wasn't that way and my girls aren't either, but when I read it with Autumn, I'm going to talk with her about how some girls feel that way, but not everyone does. The bigger things I'm going to focus on are the relationships she has with her family and the relationships amidst the boy's family. One thing that has been eyeopening for Autumn is to see how other families operate so much differently than ours. She can't imagine not talking to me the way most teen fiction (and tween fiction) portrays kids not talking to their parents. I get very concerned about planting ideas (and words) like you. I think I was so surprised at how this book was able to show a young girl mature in a way that other books hadn't conveyed to me before. And another big thing for me is that although I am teaching my kids to respect all adults, one of the challenges I'm finding with my oldest is helping her know that it's also okay to say no when she disagrees with an adult. The scene where both families eat dinner was a really great example of this for me--of how teens and kids can disagree with adults respectfully.