Sunday, October 30, 2011

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

"He turned and walked out of the room to prepare for his trip.  I stood up and closed the door and sat on the edge of the bed feeling very different from myself. Maybe I felt like a city before it was invaded.  Or a ship before it sank.  Or happiness before it turned into sadness.  I couldn't say exactly.  But something was about to change in me." 

I've never had the privilege of seeing Jack Gantos speak in person, but a colleague of mine has, and when I asked her about the experience the first thing she said was  "He's not an ordinary person."  Gantos, the author of the Rotten Ralph books for young readers, the extraordinary prison memoir Hole In My Life, and the Joey Pigza chapter book series about a boy going through school and life with ADHD,  has built a distinguished career  writing about people and situations that are at least a little off-beat.  I have no problem believing that he's not an ordinary person.  What I didn't realize up until now was how unusual his life circumstances have been, as well.  For instance, remember his teen book Love Curse of the Rumbaughs, about the sixty-something siblings whose love for their mother was so obsessive that upon her death they taxidermied her body and kept it in their home?  I thought Gantos had been watching Psycho a few too many times,  but it turns out that that's a true story.  The Rumbaughs are maternal relatives of Gantos, and they actually did taxidermy their dead Mom.   No wonder his tone has at times been referred to as "gothic".

But there's so much more depth to Gantos as a writer than his quirky appreciation for the the outliers of society.  He's a man of intelligence and intellectual passion, and of long-practiced observation, and of humour.  His strengths are all on display in his latest middle-school book, Dead End In Norvelt, which is largely based on events in his own childhood.

Jack grew up in the historic town of Norvelt, Pennsylvania, a model community created during the Depression by Eleanor Roosevelt, whose idealistic presence in this book looms large.  Roosevelt (after whom the town is named) planned Novelt and similar communities to be self-sufficient, running on a barter system rather than cash, with large lots for people to grow food for their families. His mother makes sure she raises enough corn each year to share with the town elderly.  But by the time Jack is born, the principles the community was founded on have begun to erode.

"'Why'd you offer him fruit and pickles?' I asked, and looked up at her face which didn't look so bright and cheery. 'Doctors cost money.'
'You shouldn't be embarrassed,' Mom said, knowing that I was.  'Money can mean a lot of different things.  When I was a kid we traded for everything.  Nobody had any cash.  If you wanted your house built, you helped someone build theirs, and then they would turn around and help you build yours. It was the same with everything.  I'd give you eggs and you'd pay me in milk.'
'I don't think it works that way now,' I remarked.  'If he fixed my nose I don't think he'd want me to do brain surgery on him.'"

In the spirit of neighbour helping neighbour, Jack's mother farms him out one summer to assist Miss Volker, the elderly town nurse, who is now too arthritic to write obituaries (which she sees as a "final medical report" for the dying original town inhabitants).  Miss Volker's obituaries are amazingly detailed and personal, and deliberately stuffed with both local and world history. Gradually, as Jack and Miss Volker share a number of unlikely and sometimes hilarious adventures, her passion for history and its importance starts making a lot of sense to Jack, as well as to us.

Here's the snappy publisher-produced book trailer:

And here, courtesy of the Library of Congress, is a rather long but informative talk by Gantos about his career in general and Dead End In Norvelt in particular.  

I'll leave you with an endorsement by Jon Scieszka, uber-famous writer, founder of the Guys Read foundation, and the U.S. National Ambassador for Young People's Literature:

"Nobody can tell a story like Jack Gantos can.  And this is a story like no other.  It's funny.  It's thoughtful.  It's history. It's weird.  But you don't need me to attempt to describe it.  Get in there and start reading Gantos."

Monday, October 17, 2011

Slog's Dad by David Almond, Illustrated by Dave McKean

 "'They can hack your body into a hundred bits,' he'd say, 'But they cannot hack your soul.'"  

It's difficult to imagine the audience for this moody, unusual story.  In a way it's a typical David Almond book--mysterious, earthy, otherworldly, a little unsettling, a little wonderful.  Almond's body of work is mostly composed of  chapter books for the 8-12 age group, and although this story is much shorter and heavily illustrated I couldn't imagine giving it to a child younger than eight.  In fact, I think Dave McKean's illustrations ramp up the creepy/sad qualities to the tale (although those are certainly not the only moods they evoke).  I would say that with Slog's Dad, Almond and McKean have together created a highly original work of art for children who are mature enough to handle some emotional ambiguity.

For those of you who don't know David Almond, he's an internationally recognized  British writer who has won the Whitbread Award twice, the Carnegie Medal once and has been awarded the very prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Medal by IBBY International  for his lifetime achievement.  His first novel, Skellig, has been adapted into a radio play by the BBC and into an Opera which was reviewed as  "mysterious, eerie and enthralling" by the Guardian.  For those of you who are not familiar with Dave McKean, well, what can I say?  Go read The Graveyard Book, or Coraline, or The Wolves in the Walls.   He's an artist/photographer/illustrator whose work tends to be matched with writing that has a certain fantastical quality. The pairing of these two here is very powerful.  McKean digs into the rich emotion of Almond's story and allows us to slow down and linger over the complexity of it.

Slog's Dad is told from the point of view of Davie, whose friend Slog's father has just died of a slow, devouring illness which robbed him of his legs before it robbed him of life.   Slog's Dad promised on his deathbed that he would return for a visit in the spring.  Slog believes his father's promise implicitly, but Davie is more practical.  For Davie, dead is dead.  So when Slog sees a dirty, apparently homeless man sitting on a bench in the springtime, he believes it is his father come for the promised visit.  Davie, and we as readers, resist seeing the miracle.

"Slog looked that happy as I walked towards them.  He was leaning on the bloke and the bloke was leaning back on the bench grinning at the sky.  Slog made a fist and face of joy when he saw me.
'It's Dad, Davie!' he said.  'See?  I told you.'
I stood in front of them.
'You remember Davie, Dad,' said Slog.
The bloke looked at me.  He looked nothing like the Joe Mickley I used to know.  His face was filthy but it was smooth and his eyes were shining bright.
....'He looks a bit different,' said Slog.  'But that's just cos he's been...'
'Transfigured,' said the bloke.
'Aye,' said Slog.  'Transfigured.  Can I show him your legs, Dad?'

Slog's Dad is about grief, hope, and, possibly,  resurrection.  It's also about love and how tenderly it can be bestowed upon even the most humble of us.

"Once I stood with Mam at the window and watched Mrs. Mickley stroke her husband's head and gently kiss his cheek.
'She's telling him he's going to get better,' said Mam.
We saw the smile growing on Joe Mickley's face.
'That's love,' said Mam.  'True love.'"

But Almond's vision of love and resurrection isn't typical.  Cold looks, glittering eyes, twisted faces and the stink of garbage mingle uneasily with the image of a man who's gone to heaven.  Almond makes it difficult for the reader to make the leap of identification from Davie's closed, doubting heart to Slog's open, accepting one.  Even once we believe, we are left questioning:  what manner of miracle is this?  I love the ambiguity and full emotion of this story.  I love how this short book made me think and feel and re-read. There's a lot of depth in this murky, marvellous tale.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Bronxwood by Coe Booth

" He get a little smile on his face, like he laughing at me or something. 'I'm saying, if you don't like it at Cal place no more, you got a room right here. It's all set up for you.  You could be laying in that bed tonight.  But you ain't moving back in here 'less you ask me if you could.  That way, both of us is gonna know the reason you back living with me is 'cause you wasn't man enough to make it on your own.'
I don't get this guy.  He losing it for real.
'There's only gonna be one man in this house, Ty.  And that man ain't you.'"
Boy, would I ever hate to be Tyrell.  Things were bad enough when his family was living in a shelter, his Dad was in jail and his immature, do-nothing Mom was pressuring him to be the "man" of the family (in other words, steal or sell drugs to support her and his younger brother Troy).  Talk about a role reversal--aren't mothers supposed to want to keep their kids out of trouble?   In Bronxwood, Coe Booth returns to the characters she brought to such vivid life in her debut novel, but adds a twist--Tyrell's brother is in foster care, Tyrell himself is sharing a small apartment with his friend Cal, and his father is being released from jail and is returning to take charge of his dislocated family.  The thing is, Tyrell has grown up a lot in the past year,  and his father doesn't want to know about it.  He wants things back to the way they were before, and Tyrell no longer fits into his family's life.

Coe Booth excels at so many things, but I think she conveys two things really well in this book.  One is the sense of pressure that Tyrell feels, the way everyone expects something of him that he's not sure he wants to give.  This is a kid without a lot of great options, and he knows it.  His friends are drug dealers, one girl he's eyeing wants him to spend money on her that he doesn't have, and the girl he cares about even more is being groomed by a sexual predator.  He's good at being a DJ but he can't afford his own equipment.  He loves his brother but the foster mother in charge doesn't want him visiting.  If Tyrell feels that no one has his back, it's probably because no one does.  How can he become the man he wants to be with so much working against him?

I've read lots of books which put young people into dilemmas like this, only to bring in a responsible adult at the end to save the day.  But not Booth.  She keeps it real.  No one's swooping in to help.

Coe Booth's second triumph here is in showing Tyrell finally facing his father as an adult.  I think the primary relationship in Bronxwood is between Tyrell and his father,  and their relationship is pretty complex.  Tyrell's Dad is very much a my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy, and if he feels disrespected, he doesn't hesitate to get violent.  Tyrell wants to confront his father with the consequences of his jail time, and he's frustrated by how unrepentant his father is.   What Tyrell wants from his father, he's never going to get.  At least Tyrell has  reached the point where he can begin to separate himself from his father's bad choices.  Although Tyrell isn't out of the woods yet,  I think that's a sign of hope.

Read You Should: The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger

"The big question:  Is Origami Yoda real?
Well, of course he's real.  I mean, he's a real finger puppet made out of a real piece of paper.
But I mean:  Is he REAL?  Does he really know things?  Can he see the future? Does he use the Force?
Or is he just a hoax that fooled a whole bunch of us at McQuarrie Middle School?"

I'm kind of bummed that I wasn't the one who thought of writing a story about a Yoda finger puppet who dispenses sage advice from the hand of a grade 6 boy.   With a genius premise like that, the book would practically write itself!   And I mean, it's not like I don't have lots of practice in Yoda-speak, living with an eight-year-old Clone Wars expert like I do.  (He even has a Yoda t-shirt that says "Read you must!"  No kidding.)

If you like the Wimpy Kid funny-chapter-book-with-sketches format,  you'll like Origami Yoda too. I think the reading level is slightly lower than the Wimpy Kid books, actually,  but it's just as visually entertaining.  The main character is Tommy, who creates a casebook around whether Origami Yoda's advice is accurate or misleading so he can decide whether or not to ask Sara to dance at the school Fun Night like Origami Yoda told him to.  Harvey is the skeptic who  Does Not Believe and scribbles his Unbeliever comments all over the casebook.  Dwight is the creator and voice of Origami Yoda. His friends don't think much of his intellect, which is why they kind of think Origami Yoda might be for real.  How could Dwight possibly come up with advice that actually works?

The sequel to  Origami Yoda has just come out and it's called...wait for it...Darth Paper Strikes Back.  I've just put it in Ewan's and my to-read pile.  Origami Yoda comes with instructions on how to make your very own Yoda finger puppet.  I am totally psyched!

And, just for fun, here's a hilarious commercial starring Darth Vader and "The Force".

May the Force be with you, friends!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Now Is The Time For Running by Michael Williams

"What is worse than the sound of wood against the bones of your brother?  I cannot think of anything worse than that."
This book just plain broke my heart. It's a powerful, hard story out of Zimbabwe and South Africa, but for me  the location faded away after a while because the characters and events  grabbed my attention so forcefully.   This is the kind of book I think of when people talk about literature's power to make us understand "the other", because really, what could be more different from my life than the experience of a homeless teen refugee whose one link to "normalcy" is his love of  soccer?  But anyone who understands not belonging,  or the strength of the love you can feel for someone you need to protect, or the way hope and fear can heighten and fuse together for people in desperate conditions will completely get this book.

Now Is The Time For Running is the story of Deo, who must flee his native village in Zimbabwe with his older brother Innocent when soldiers come to town and slaughter everyone in the name of the President.

"I am Commander Jesus.  I am one of the president's men.  I was once a leader of the Five Brigade.  The president has sent me here because he is unhappy with how you voted in the election.  Most of you know that this country was won by the barrel of the gun.  There are some among you who fought in the war of liberation.  I see it in your eyes.  You know who you are, and you should be ashamed of your neighbors.  You know what sacrifices were made for the freedom we now enjoy.  Should we now let it go at the stroke of a pen?  Should one just write an X and let the country go just like that?  You voted wrongly at the election.  You were not thinking straight.  That is why the president sent me here."

Deo and Innocent escape the carnage with their lives, and are the only ones in their village to do so.  But the soldiers may return, and they must not be found.  Where to go?  Their mother had a friend in the police force of  a nearby city, but even he cannot help them--when they flee to Captain Washington's home, the soldiers are there too.  Captain Washington tells them that they must escape to South Africa.  Maybe they will be able to find their father there.  The journey is insanely dangerous, and when they finally arrive,  they find that the safe haven they have been running to is less welcoming than they could ever have imagined.

Sometimes I think it's harder to read certain types of stories as an adult than as a child, for all that children are supposed to be more sensitive.  Children are also more comforted by the happy ending.  But as an adult, I know how the numbers break down--the number of children in the world who are refugees or survivors of political violence  (lots) versus the numbers of teen refugees who are plucked off the streets and chosen to participate in the Street Soccer World Cup (precious few).  I'm not saying the ending felt fake, exactly.  It just felt a little desperate, like it was worked in because nothing that might more realistically happen is going to repair the damage that has been done to lives we have come to care about.   The three young men who provided Williams with background interviews for this book are still homeless and are currently living "on the streets of Cape Town, under highways, and wherever they can find shelter.".  Their lives are the reality behind the fiction.

I haven't even mentioned the crux of the story, that Innocent is intellectually challenged and subject to seizures and obsessive-compulsive behavior.  He's a prime target for bullying at the best of times, and not exactly easy to smuggle around.

"I once had a brother.  His name was Innocent.  He was a very special person and he was my best friend."

This is a great book.  Read it when you're feeling strong.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

God as a Teenage Boy: There Is No Dog by Meg Rosoff

"The truth of this could not be denied.  Bob had created the world and then simply lost interest.  Since his second week of employment, he'd passed the time sleeping and playing with his wangle, while managing to ignore the existence of his creations entirely.

And was this an excuse for him to be rained with curses and loathing from all mankind?  Oh no.  Because here was the clever bit:  Bob had designed the entire race of murderers, martyrs and thugs with a built-in propensity to worship him.  You had to admire the kid.  Thick as two lemons, but with flashes of brilliance so intense a person could go blind looking at him."

Anthony McGowan's Guardian review of Rosoff's latest novel suggests that "there isn't another young adult novel like There Is No Dog", and goes on to compare Rosoff's writing with Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark and Kurt Vonnegut (for "intellectual playfulness").  What There Is No Dog reminded me of was the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series;    There Is No Dog is more grounded (it takes place mostly on earth, not on alien spacecraft) and more emotionally nuanced (the Hitchhiker's Guide, as I recall, is pretty much a straight-up parody).  But the books share the same kind of goofy absurdist take on a some of mankind's most vexed questions (Hitchhiker contemplates the meaning of life, while Dog takes a good hard look at the world and extrapolates the nature of God).

So, God.  He's a teenage boy, name of Bob.  He got the job of Creator of Earth because his wacko mother won it for him in a poker game. ("Bob's credentials (non-existent) did not impress.  But the general sense of exhaustion and indifference was such that no one could really be bothered to argue.")  He's sloppy, lazy, immature, whiny, lacking in compassion or responsibility.  He's lustier than the Rolling Stones in heat and prone to falling in and out of love dramatically and dangerously.

'Mr B remembered another girl, another time, with the face of an angel and the sweetest manners, a child's soft mouth and an expression open and trusting as a lamb.  She had seen Bob for what he was, and loved him anyway.  Mr B removed his spectacles, hoping to erase the vision in his head.  That romance had ended with floods, tornadoes, plague, earthquakes and the girl's execution for heresy, a few weeks before her fourteenth birthday.  By special order of Pope Urban II.  

And, just our luck, this loser has gone and created man in his own image, "which anyone could see was one big fat recipe for disaster."  

Earth's only saving grace is that Mr. B, God's  administrative assistant, does care about earth and its creatures and tries his damndest to straighten out Bob's messes.  (Right now he's dealing with the biblically-proportioned floods caused by Bob's trying to seduce a young girl named Lucy.)  But Mr. B is nearing the end of his rope and has applied for a transfer.  Who will look after creation now?

Although There Is No Dog sounds like it could be desperately cynical, in the end it isn't.  Despite God's blunderings, miracles unexpectedly occur and death is cheated, at least for the moment.  People have hope, and it doesn't feel empty. And it may turn out that our slacker of a God can be overthrown....

Nothing is finally resolved in this book, but then again, that's life, isn't it?