This is the second in the trilogy of posts on what I’m watching, reading, and listening to. I may make this a regular, periodic feature.
I teach a college-level children’s literature course, so I read a lot of children’s books, and I have no reason to be ashamed of that. Most of the below list of books I’ve finished or started within the past week are children’s or YA (young adult, technically a subcategory of children’s lit).
- Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. I mentioned this YA novel in my recent post about World War 2 stories. It’s about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustlav (an overcrowded ship that was evacuating civilians, many of whom were not ethnic Germans, from nearly-defeated Germany in 1945), the largest maritime disaster of the 20th century. I think being informed about this little-known event is important, but I was disappointed with the book. Sepetys was too ambitious in trying to write in the voices of four very different adolescents, some of which voices succeed more than others. In particular, I became increasingly annoyed over the course of the book with the voice of Emilia, a character with whom readers are clearly meant to sympathize. I think part of the problem was the too-precious voice of the audiobook narrator, but beyond that, the character was overly dreamy and seemed strangely unmoved by the horrors that had occurred in her young life. Several of her overwrought similes made me cringe. In contrast, the most successful voice belonged to Alfred, the probably sociopathic young Nazi sailor. I occasionally felt sorry for him in his delusions, but I mostly felt disgusted–as the author wanted me to feel–by his racism and cowardice. But the most effective scenes in the book were the minimalist, objective descriptions of the human and inanimate flotsam that floated by the protagonists during the long, freezing night after the sinking. These scenes were actually more powerful than similar scenes in Titanic (to the extent that you can compare a book with a movie), but the rest of the book was a disappointment–to me, anyway. Apparently not to people on Goodreads.
- And now for a book with a wonderful narrative voice: Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis. I reread this book over the weekend because I’ll be teaching it this fall, and I chose it because the protagonist, who tells the story in first person, is an absolute delight. He reminds me of Huckleberry Finn in that he’s an at-risk youth in pretty dire circumstances, yet he shows his resilience by finding the humor in everything. I laughed out loud at several of his flights of imagination, like when he tries to drive a car (he can’t) to escape a man he suspects of being a vampire, or when he pretends his mop is the submarine in “20,000 Leaks under the Sea”–“10,000 leaks stopped, only 10,000 more to go!” The hilarious, genuine voice of Bud–along with the fact that readers are learning unobtrusive lessons about the Great Depression, labor unions, and the Jim Crow era–is probably why this book won the Newbery Medal.
- A Ring of Endless Light by Madeline L’Engle. I’ll probably finish this one tonight. I read An Austin Family Christmas every Christmas as a child, so I’m enjoying reading about Vicky and her family (and Mr. Rochester the Great Dane) now that they are all a little older. It took me a little while to get used to the dialogue–it seemed stilted at first, but I eventually realized that these are just really thoughtful and articulate people. This isn’t a fantasy in the sense of A Wrinkle in Time, but Vicky’s dolphin communication project hovers at the line between science and magic (to quote a Thor movie). The rest of the novel, though, is firmly realistic. It’s about death, family, growing up, dating–it’s pretty weighty. But Vicky’s subtle faith and strong support system make it a hopeful story.
- Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. This is a book that breaks textual convention (it includes blank pages, photos, cross-hatching, etc.) in an attempt to articulate the inarticulable–death and, more specifically, the deaths of thousands of people (represented by one man) on September 11, 2001. In keeping with this theme, I won’t say a lot about this book, but I will say that it’s a great example of the principle that having a child narrator (even a successfully authentic one like Oskar in this book) does not make a book a children’s book.
Let me know if you have opinions about any of these books. Next week, I’ll be back with music I’m listening to.