Monday, July 21, 2014

Summer Reads for Big and Small People

Last night was a really strange one in our house. Emma is still in California, and the two younger girls slept over at a friend's house. So the only kids home were the two boys. It was so quiet it was almost unsettling. Tonight everyone but Emma will be home, plus Gabe will have a friend staying over, so it will be more like normal with a full house.

I only have a little more than two weeks before I start back to work, so I am holding on tightly to summer. Unfortunately, the summer weather seems to have deserted us. I went out for a run this morning and it was downright cold. I hate to even say it, but the air felt fall-like. I am hoping this is just a brief cold front, but August is fast approaching, and I've got a bad feeling about things! People everywhere else are still roasting, so today I am going to review not one, but two summer books. One is an early chapter book for 7-10 year olds, and the other is a young adult book.  

"The Year of the Book" is a very short, easy-reading book that I bought for my library because it was a special value book from Junior Library Guild (JLG's books are all great). I also really liked the cover, and this book qualifies for my effort to incorporate more multi-cultural books into the collection.

In this story, we meet Anna, an American-born Chinese fourth-grader, who has recently been jilted by her best friend. She is a little embarrassed of her Mom, who is a nursing student with imperfect English skills. To make matters worse, she also cleans an elderly shut-in's apartment to help make ends meet. Anna tries to keep this information from her friends, thinking they will judge her. Anna struggles with Chinese school on Saturday, because her understanding of the language isn't as good as the other kids'. It's at Chinese school where she meets Camille, with whom she has a lot in common, and who helps ease the sting of her friend's betrayal.

She is a quiet girl who likes to sew and often feels that she doesn't fit in. She takes comfort in reading, hence the title of the book. When the former best friend, Laura, discovers that hanging with the popular crowd is not all it's cracked up to be, Anna is cautious about letting her back in. But when Laura's family goes through some domestic difficulties, it is Anna's Mom who steps in to help out, and their friendship becomes stronger.

I took this book home for the summer because it was a new book that I hadn't read, and it hasn't been checked out much. I always feel that if I've personally read a book and can give a first-hand opinion, I am more able to encourage kids to read it. This book was such a pleasant surprise, and I wish I had brought home it's sequel, "The Year of the Baby," in which Anna gets a new baby brother. I will definitely be pushing this book with kids who are early chapter book readers.

Now for a delicious YA read:

I read "My Life Next Door" in spring of 2013, and loved it so much that I went out and bought it, so that I will be able to re-read it every year. To me, this debut novel by Huntley Fitzpatrick is the perfect summer read. Even though this could be categorized as a "summer romance," it is not at all frilly; there is more here than meets the eye. It addresses serious and relevant teen issues, like cheating in school, drugs, drunk driving, and dirty politics. Well, I don't know how relevant dirty politics is to most teens, but it is definitely a serious issue.

Samantha Reed is one of those girls who has it all, or at least appears to. She is beautiful and wealthy, but her mother has kept her grounded. She is not noticeably spoiled, and is expected to hold down two jobs in the summer. She also has a guilty secret; for years she has spied on her next door neighbors, the Garrett's, curious about their large, loud, messy family, so different from her own. One night she is surprised by one of the Garrett boys, Jase, who climbs her trellis and changes her life irrevocably. A passionate summer romance ensues, but Jase and Sam are both such basically good-natured and decent people that it quickly becomes clear that their relationship has staying power.

There are side stories that complicate their relationship. Sam's mother, an up and coming politician, does not approve of Jase or his family. The sleazy political handler who is managing her campaign manages to insinuate himself into their lives. Sam discovers some unpleasant facts about her best friend, Nan. Meanwhile, Nan's twin brother, Tim, who has been spiraling downward, makes a decision to get himself straight and becomes a steadier and truer friend than Nan ever was. Finally, there is an "event" that changes everything for all the characters involved. Of course I won't tell you what it is, but it's a doozy! This event causes Jase, who has up to that point been almost too good to be true, to show his human frailties. This just makes his character more appealing, though, because it shows that he is for real. I figure pretty much every teenage girl who ever reads this book will end up hoping for a Jase of their own, and if he happens to live next door, even better!

The thing that makes this book so great for me, is that Jase and Sam are just so likeable you can't help but root for them. Some of the minor characters, such as the afore-mentioned Tim, and Jase's younger siblings, are fresh and funny, and deserving of books of their own. Jase's brother, George, memorably gives Samantha the nickname "Sailor Supergirl," and tells Sam that she should move in with Jase because "he doesn't pee the bed." Incidentally, I've heard that Fitzpatrick is writing a follow-up that features Tim as the protagonist. I'll be looking out for it.

To me, one of the hallmarks of a good book is how long the characters stay in my head, and several weeks after finishing this, I was still thinking a lot about Samantha and Jase. When I re-read it late this spring (twice), it did the same thing for me. The writer in me has given me the habit of underlining all my favorite lines (if I own the book!), and I have to mention my favorite in this book. This is Sam talking about her childhood, and her image-obsessed single mom:

"The lullaby of my childhood was my mom running the vacuum cleaner, making perfectly symmetrical lines in our beige living room carpet . . . she'd turn on the machine as Tracy and I were eating breakfast, then slowly follow us to the door as we pulled on our coats and backpacks. Then she'd back up, eliminating our trail of footprints, and her own, until we were outside." This line really resonated with me, and made me think about the "music" of my own childhood, and what that might be. I've come up with the sound of the ever-present wind blowing though the trees in my hometown, and the creak of the woodstove doors as my Dad stoked the fire late at night. What is the music of your childhood? Comments welcomed!

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