Friday, July 25, 2008

In Which the Gentle Librarian Manages to Read Manga: With the Light by Keiko Tobe

I've never been very open to manga. I'm not fond of the artistic style, for one thing. I have a particular distaste for those big, sentimental manga eyes. To me they look hokey, like something you'd see painted on black velvet at Honest Ed's, or on the kind of Hallmark card I liked when I was about six. I also find the manga back-to-front orientation difficult to follow. Anyway. With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child by Keiko Tobe was involving enough to break through my resistance.

With the Light is fiction, but is based upon extensive research on autism and interviews with families of autistic children. It follows a new mother, Sachiko, from the birth of her son Hiraku until his early elementary school years. Lots of little details make this story come to life. Tobe shows us Sachiko's growing unease with her child's peculiarities and difficult behavior, her husband's blame and rejection of them both, and Sachiko's growing depression caused by her son's lack of emotional attachment to her. Sachiko is a strong and determined mother, and the story of how she heals her family and learns to understand her child and eventually consider herself blessed is very sweet and somewhat humbling. The meticulous planning and organization it takes to run Hiraku's life is truly daunting, and Tobe shows it to us again and again. When his elementary school plans a track and field day, for example, Hiraku's parents and educators begin preparing weeks beforehand. Hiraku is shown photos and videos of previous track meets, given his mouse costume to wear beforehand, and acclimatized to the sounds he will hear. The school switches from shots to hand signals to mark the beginning of each race to accomodate Hiraku's discomfort with loud noises. It is only with this slow building up of routine and high level of community involvement that Hikaru can participate in this special event without distress.

What I liked about this book was how it showed the initially separate worlds of an autistic child and his parents converge through persistence and understanding. The baby who strained away from his mother when she tries to hold him eventually becomes a child who lays flowers at her feet when he senses her sadness, even though he is still unable to make eye contact. The parents who drove themselves crazy trying to tell their child how to behave are happy to later discover that he beomes cooperative when they use picture cards and hand signals to supplement their words. Building up a loving connection is a slow process in the family of a child with autism, but when it comes, each moment is savoured.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Click by Every YA Author Going

"Ten bestselling, award-winning authors unite for a novel of brilliant writing, global adventure, and constant surprise."

I had Click on my desk for quite a while before I read it. I felt kind of torn--the concept was interesting--10 chapters, each one by a different author--but somehow I was still dubious. The authors just didn't seem that compatible--what do David Almond and Nick Hornby have in common, after all? Or Margo Lanagan and Roddy Doyle? Besides all being brilliant. But, unlike collaborations like Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist by Levithan and Cohn, where the writers are kind of similar to begin with (and friends to boot), these writers are all brilliantly, um, individual. I just didn't see how it would all hang together.

Well, it does. It helps that each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character (one character is repeated three times, but by the time that happens, I was happily in the flow of things). The differences between the narrative styles of each chapter, and even the genres (from magic realism to war story to speculative fiction to....) end up being one of the book's pleasures. Rather than rudely jolting, these differences end up being playful, and the chapters reference each other so cleverly that the whole book begins to seem like a lively game of catch between the writers. You can see the sparks of inspiration start to fly. And really, in what other novel can you read something like:

"There we were, Mum and me at the water's edge. Like Gee said, it was like I was something washed up by the sea, like Mum was reaching out to help me up, to help me to be born. I saw how seaweedy my hair truly was, how sealy my skin was. Then I looked away, looked back again, but it was true. A fin was growing at my back. Narrow, pale, half formed, like it was just half grown, but it was a fin."

and then, a few chapters later:

"Now, two years later, Vincent still had two main claims to fame. He was the eejit who'd once spent seventeen hours on a hospital trolley, looking like he was trying to climb up his own bum..."

All royalties from Click are being donated by the authors to Amnesty International.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Lenny's Space by Kate Banks

"All of my friends, all one of them, died."

This is a book I ended up liking quite a bit. Lenny is a boy with mild autistic-like behaviors (he is never named or diagnosed with a condition in this book) who is super-smart and incredibly socially awkward. He's interesting though. The book is told from his point of view in short chapters that sometimes seem abrupt, mirroring Lenny's attention span. You really get inside his head, and see the logic in what to others seems like bizarre, spastic behavior.

Although Lenny can't really relate to the other kids in his class, he makes a friend in the playground. Van is another mechanically inclined kid who, we discover, has leukemia. Through his friendship with Van and his weekly visits to the school counsellor, Lenny comes closer to being able to express himself in ways others can understand. I found Lenny's journey convincing and memorable.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Bittersweet Reality: Sweethearts by Sara Zarr

The charming, iced-cookie cover makes this look like innocuous chick-lit. A light, romantic tale. Happy ending, naturally. Anyone would be taken in. Even I, having read Zarr's previous and very gritty teen novel Story of a Girl, was naive enough to start this at work on my morning break. Big mistake. I ended up reading it all through my lunch hour, obsessively taking it out to the reference desk in the afternoon so I could discreetly peruse it between doing my paid work (I hardly ever do that--really) and then finishing it up in the staff room over dinner while great big fat tears rolled uncontrollably down my cheeks. As I sat next to our security guard and tried to hide my face with a blanket.

Well, I get it now. Sara Zarr is just not light and fluffy. I won't be fooled again, even if they cover the whole darned book in pink icing. Next book she puts out, I'll read in PRIVATE.

Sweethearts is decidedly bittersweet. It's the story of two childhood friends, Jennifer and Cameron. Their understanding of each other is unusually deep, since each of them is suffering at the hands of a parent, Jennifer from neglect and Cameron from abuse. They are both children who have faced the dark side of life, and they provide each other with comfort and recognition. As friends, they love each other with a love that sustains them through every painful and unfair thing they have to go through, each insult to their souls that they are powerless to stop, since, after all, they are just kids. They are also witness to each other's suffering. Especially on one terrible day, Jennifer's ninth birthday, when Cameron takes her to his house to give her a present he has made, and Cameron's sociopathic father turns on them both. Jennifer manages to escape, but Cameron does not, and neither one is able to talk about it for years.

One day Cameron vanishes and Jennifer is led to believe he has died. Her grief is intense and she never forgets him. As the years go on she remakes herself with a steely discipline and by high school she is thin, has a boyfriend, and is in with the popular crowd. Her mother has remarried and her home is more stable. She has expectations of university. She has even renamed herself.

Then on her seventeenth birthday, Cameron leaves a card in her mailbox. He had not, after all, died. He has come back to find her. And reconnecting proves difficult and painful, but more real than anything she has done for years.

I think about how there are certain people who come into your life, and leave a mark.

My roommate asks me if I'm in love with Cameron and I say no, not in love. I start to tell her that I do love him, but stop myself before it comes out. It takes some thinking, years of it, in fact. I know I said it to him that night, and I still wonder if he heard me, but as I get older I think--can it really be love if we don't talk that much, don't see each other? Isn't love something that happens between people who spend time together and know each other's faults and take care of each other? Still, by the time I've had my share of boyfriends, I discover that even the ones I truly love never bring on the same kind of feeling I get when I think about Cameron. In the end, I decide that the mark we've left on each other is the colour and shape of love. That's the unfinished business between us.

Because love, love is never finished.

It circles and circles, the memories out of order and not always complete. There's one I always come back to: me and Cameron Quick, lying on the ground in an aspen grove on a golden fall day, the aspen leaves clattering and quaking the way they do. Cameron turning to me, reaching out a small and dirty hand, which I take and do not let go.

This wonderful, subtle story is so rich and layered and yet not one word seems superfluous. Everything Zarr writes about springs right to life before you...Cameron's creepy, sadistic father, the two kids who can understand but can't save each other, the forced nature of Jennifer's relationships with everyone but Cameron, the grown-up Cameron's itinerant, lost quality. The kind of friendship that becomes so deep and all-absorbing it starts to feel like couplehood is absolutely captured here. I got drawn into Jennifer and Cameron's story so quickly, and had trouble coming out at the other end. I really, really wanted them to stay together.

Darn realistic endings. Sniff.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Neil Gaiman Loves It, and I Do Too: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

"My name is Marcus Yallow. I was tortured by my country..."

And really, what's not to love? Another wicked cool book that assumes teens are not allergic to ideas. Ideas about ethics and politics and the use of torture to combat terrorism. Ideas about freedom, social responsibility, political protest. Even ideas about community-friendly city planning, for crying out loud. Now I thought I'd seen it all, but this is the first teen fiction I've ever read that manages to talk about hackers, Jack Kerouac, and Toronto's very own Jane Jacobs, and make it all fit together.

Cory Doctorow, famous for, among other things, his blog Boing Boing and his adult science fiction work, is actually a Canadian. Surprised me, because this book is so very convincingly set in San Francisco, USA, in the very near future (read: tomorrow, maybe). Very convincingly. I had no problem at all believing that any of it could happen. In fact, bits of it already have.

Cory's book hangs on the question: what if a terrorist bombed a major landmark in a major city in the United States of America and killed a lot of Americans? (See what I mean? already happened....) And what if the American government, in the aftermath, became a wee bit paranoid/ national-security-obsessed (just stretch your imagination here)? And what if, say, the people enforcing national security were either too dumb, too lazy or too rigid to distinguish between a dissident and a terrorist? And believed that terrorists could be treated with a whole other set of rules? (you can see where Doctorow is going with this). Who would be left to stand up for good old American freedom?

Well. The teen hackers, obviously.

Little Brother opens with Marcus Yallow and his three best friends all skipping school to play Harajuku Fun Madness. While they are squabbling with another team about who gets to pick up a clue they have arrived at simultaneously, the bomb hits. In the mass hysteria that ensues, Marcus's friend Darryl is badly wounded and Marcus flags down a car for help. It turns out to be an unmarked military jeep, and booted and rifled soldiers hop out, grab all four kids, handcuff them, tie sacks around their heads and haul them into the jeep. From where they are hauled onto a boat. And then jail cells. And then interrogation chambers. Where they are kept for a few nightmarish days, and then released, under threat of death if they ever speak of their experience to anyone.

But rebel Marcus has no intention of letting things lie, especially since his friend Darryl is still "disappeared". He uses his immense computer knowledge, creativity, leadership and patriotism to challenge and expose the DHS in ways they never dreamed of. The resulting ride is scary, ingenious, creepy, thrilling. Lots of people get hurt, including Marcus. And boy, by the time we're done reading, do we ever distrust anyone who finds it expedient to breach civil liberties in times of national crisis.

If I have any criticism of this book, it is that each time Marcus thinks up another way to screw Big Brother, Doctorow has to explain the mechanics of it to us luddites. I ended up just kind of glancing over these sections, since they probably would have driven me crazy if I had really tried to understand them. They just served to reinforce my opinion that Marcus is a genius in nerd clothing.