Books for kids on life, death, sexual awakening, sexual abuse, death, the Holocaust, and the Taliban. Farrar, Straus and Giroux offers kids startling alternatives to Harry Potter this Christmas.
PopMatters Books Editor
"There is no use trying," said Alice, "one can't believe impossible things." believe impossible things."
"I dare say you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
-- Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Does anyone really believe that guff about Harry Potter "getting kids reading"? Such a statement makes it sound as if, pre-Potter, the kids had all gone Fahrenheit 451 and resisted reading for fear of severe punishment until awoken by the Little Magician That Could. The story goes something like this: One day, eight years ago, kids around the world who'd never so much as cracked a book were so enchanted by J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone that suddenly they became addicts, reading and rereading the author's multi-sequels -- all three million pages of them -- with excitement and haste. Well, conspicuous about that theory is the lack of follow-up phenomenons. Where has the Potter trail led this new generation of lustful bibliophiles? Some of them, it's fair to say, ran to Lemony Snicket, and others to Artemis Fowl, but no other book has drawn the kids like Potter. Unless they're all reading The Da Vinci Code, which they may well be. Still, isn't it more apt to say that Harry Potter has gotten kids to read ... Harry Potter?
Actually, a little research into what kids are currently reading (or, what their parents are buying for them) indicates that the reason no single book has engulfed a generation like Harry Potter is because book-buying dough is being spread among a range of titles, all within the fantasy genre. I'm a little distressed at this. I can get behind big, fat Hobbit-ish fantasy books filling the under-eight bestseller lists, but the young adult lists? The 13 and ups want dragons and magic? What about high school and rumbles and sex? All the stuff kids are faced with in their real lives every day?
When I was in the young adult bracket, Robert Cormier was passed around the sixth grade classroom and discussed in secret. It wasn't witchcraft our parents were concerned about us reading -- it was brutal violence and masturbation. And, to be honest, they weren't particularly concerned at all. Especially in my case -- Cormier, after all, led me to Larry Watson, who led me to Steinbeck, who, in turn, led me to Wallace Stegner, John Updike, and eventually, to Tom Robbins. My mum was, like the Potter-mums, just glad I was reading. It wasn't until I found Vonnegut that she freaked out in delight and started to engage me in conversations about chaos theory and time travel. She also handed me a beat-up copy of Donleavy's The Ginger Man as if handing over the Ark of the Covenant.
The major difference I can see between kids reading then and kids reading now is that we regularly genre-switched. Many of us read The Hobbit, but we also read The Outsiders and The Pigman and, even though he wasn't exactly considered young adult, Stephen King. The current abundance of fantasy floating around the bestseller list suggests that young adult readers have forgotten S.E. Hinton, and would much rather reading about wizards and gossiping girls. Glance at the kids' bestseller lists and you'll find the usual suspects: Potter, Snicket, and Fowl. Alongside are the new movie tie-in Narnia books, Christopher Paolini's Eragon, Emily Rodda's Deltora, Diana Wynn Jones, and the list goes on. It's a plague of dragons.
Not that there's anything really wrong with dragons, they're just everywhere, and they've swallowed the grit and the drama of literary teenage reality. Harry Potter has become the symbol of kid-reading, and while his supporters will find all manner of reasons that he most certainly should be that symbol, I'm hard pressed to believe his battles with Voldemort are more enlightening to the ways of the 20th century teen's social order than Hinton's books, or Cormier's.
You wouldn't think it was the big a deal -- kids read what they like and, at the moment, like Robosapien and Bratz, this is what they like at this moment. Quality and educational reasoning be damned. But check this out: Amazon.com's ages 9-12 recommendations list is crammed with fantasy -- and the only non-fantasy books there are by Carl Hiassen and Bill O'Reilly, of all people. The teens lists don't fair a whole lot better -- of the top ten selling books for teens, only one is non-fantasy. One! And that's Ann Brashares's Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, which, arguably, has its own fantastical elements.
Analogies and allegories aren't enough to genuinely assist kids in their growth, are they? Where are the books about real life, real love, real struggle? There are a couple scattered about with "it-girl", "boy-snatching" themes, but they don't count. Believe it or not, the first teenage non-it-girl, non-fantasy, futuristic, supernatural, or sci-fi book on the Amazon's bestseller list as of November 25 is Stephen Chbosky's perennial teen bible, The Perks of Being a Wallflower at number 48. It's one of alarmingly few such books: Anne Frank is at 50, Jane Austen is at 72 and 80, Camus is at 79, Carson McCullers is at 91, Watership Down is at 98. (Fahrenheit 451 comes in at number 37, but it, like Austen, Camus, McCullers, and Richard Adams, is more than likely a school assigned text.)
No Cormier anywhere to be found -- not even a dog-eared copy of Cujo. Only Judy Blume from my own formative years remains, with Are You There God, It's me Margaret? at 94. If it had been Forever, I may have had some faith restored that kids wanted to read about their flawed and fabulous counterparts rather than glittery, wizardly, dragon-like versions. (The Chocolate War by the way, 2005's most challenged book, sits comfortably at around number 24,000.) And it's not just kid lit. USA Today recently reported that Harry's minions have moved on to George R.R. Martin and Robert Jordan, creating significant sales leaps for adult fantasy. In the article, titled "Potter cast a spell over entire genre", Tor founder Tom Doherty is quoted as saying that when readers engage fantasy, they say: "In this world, I'll suspend disbelief, and good will triumph, and the good guys will win."
That may be true, but what's the lesson? How does that keep kids grounded, show them that the good guys don't always win, but that they do sometimes, and even though life can be severe, it doesn't mean we can't learn from these severities? Perhaps I'm just bitter that Harry Potter, no matter how hard he tries, simply doesn't thrill me, and yet, everyone else seems to be having so much fun with him.
Which brings me to my point. If you're not a fantasy-phile, and want some realism in your reading diet (or your kids' reading diets), the good people at Farrar, Straus and Giroux have taken it upon themselves to send into school libraries some informative and well-written books on the secret lives of post-9/11 young people. The latter half of the year, especially, has seen some truly exquisite books released. Kids can read about real life issues -- they can be educated and entertained. This isn't a love letter to the publisher -- they're not the only ones taking that important step forward in bringing kid-lit into the new millennium (hell, into the previous millennium) -- so much as a pat on the back for keeping kid-lit real.
In no particular order, here are some of FSG's best books for kids -- keep them in mind for stocking stuffers, too.
by David Klass
Klass, author of the exceptional You Don't Know Me has created an affecting story of a young boy -- Jeff -- forced to come to terms with a series of shifts in his home life when his older brother, sent to prison for murder, is released on a technicality. The disruption caused by Troy's initial conviction repeats itself as he attempts -- badly -- to slot back into regular family life. Jeff struggles with Troy's return -- so much so that, when a friend goes missing, he becomes convinced of his brother's involvement. Klass is uninhibited and courageous in the roads he leads Jeff down. His story is a tough read, even for an adult, because of its truthful explorations of teenage self-involvement, self-esteem, and paranoia. There's some great stuff in here, too, on the relationships between kids, parents, and teachers.
by Gabrielle Zevin
This one would win a place on this list due to its cover alone: a stunning image of a snow globe containing a luxury ocean liner -- the perfect metaphor for the major issues the small book contains. Yet another story from the point of view of a dead person, Elsewhere lifts one of its main plot contrivances from The Confessions of Max Tivoli, in which main character Lizzie Hall (in heaven) ages backwards in preparation for a return to Earth. There are also shades of The Lovely Bones here, but if you can overlook those the book is perfect for every teenage girl who's ever felt adrift on Teen Sea. Lizzie, dead at 15 following a hit and run accident, must engage in shaping life experiences while getting younger -- she falls in love, develops tight bonds with her friends and her grandmother, and, most importantly, she learns to forgive. But she can't access this knowledge as she matures. Instead, she's forced to wait, to forget, and to begin again at her rebirth. The message here is clear -- even at 15, with the potential for so much life ahead, do your best, live your life, and understand that 15 won't last forever.
by Will Weaver
This book is a shift in direction for Will Weaver, author of the acclaimed Billy Baggs series of baseball books, and the futuristic Memory Boy. This one is so grounded in reality -- 1960s reality -- that the gasoline smell in 16-year-old Paul's nose reeks from the pages. Paul's a kid from a strictly religious family, discovering life and love with his first job at a roadside gas station. Instead of the cows on his family's farm, inexperienced Paul finds himself dealing with a semi-cool boss, chump-y co-worker, sex-crazed customers, and a family of hippies destined to teach him about spiritedness and freedom. Although it does get slightly preachy towards the end when Paul visits a religious camp, the book's point is still made -- at Paul's heart, he's one of the family, but he shouldn't close himself off to the outside world (or "the public", as his mum calls it). The great thing about this book is Paul's sharp development. Weaver has a superb ear for dialogue (an exchange between Paul and a grumpy barber is particularly fine) and he resists making stock characters out of Paul's new acquaintances. In a way, this story resembles those fantasy parables -- boy is thrown into strange new world and must adjust without losing his core identity.
What Erika Wants
by Bruce Clements
This one is particularly interesting because of its narrative structure. Teenage Erika, trapped in the middle of a custody dispute, is the book's focus, but only half the story is delivered from her point of view. The other half comes via her successful and smart lawyer, Jean. The effect here is to demonstrate just how separate the child and adult worlds are, and how much perception and misconception within these worlds can impact a child's development. For instance, it's compelling and disturbing to view Erika's parents through Erika's eyes, and then, so differently, through Jean's. Bruce Clements has been writing for teens since the 1970s, and while Erika's voice sometimes feels dated, the author succeeds in creating a mostly believable modern teenage girl with social anxiety and a near debilitating need for acceptance. This is a good one for the relationship between Erika and Jean, with a clear message that parental love needn't hinge on blood alone.
Under the Persimmon Tree
by Suzanne Fisher Staples
This is a beautiful, wrenching story of two women enduring the war in Iraq. Alternating chapters tell two stories -- that of Nasrat, an American woman and Islamic convert teaching children in Pakistan, and Najmah, struggling to find a safe place following the Taliban conscription of her father and brother, and the air raid deaths of her mother and younger brother. A book for young readers, this one refuses to pull punches: "[We] pass the bodies of people who were shot down as they ran to take cover," Staples writes as Najmah. "I peer closely at the them to see whether I recognize them, but I do not. I don't feel anything about them at all -- only a curiosity about who they are and where they come from." Poetically written and well-structured, Under the Persimmon Tree chronicles these women as they strive to understand the events of the war, and, eventually, come to trust each other.
Strong at the Heart
by Carolyn Lehman
Strong at the Heart is one of the highlights of the FSG catalogue. Edited by Carolyn Lehman, the book features nine in-their-own-words stories from survivors of sexual abuse across a range of communities -- rich, poor, black, white, Native American, and Latino. The most compelling thing about the book is its honesty -- nothing is watered down or censored. In many instances, the survivors discuss their assaults in detail. The reader's anguish, however, at hearing of Jonathan's abuse by his priest, or Kelly's rape at the hands of a kidnapper, is necessary in understanding the book's function -- that from these depths, strong, confident, committed people can emerge. Many of the storytellers here are now involved in creating foundations and safe havens for victims and survivors. The final 15 pages of the book provide details on help centers, activist organizations, fiction, and non-fiction books on sexual abuse, and a range of other helpful names and addresses for people requiring further information.
First French Kiss and Other Traumas
by Adam Bagdasarian
Bagdasarian's book is a shift in direction from the others documented here. This one, though at times quite emotional, is gently hilarious. It's the story of the author's school years, a period leading to his famed songwriter father's death Ross (The Alvin Show creator, Ross Bagdasarian), and his eventual move from the family home. Bagdasarian ties in notions of family and home and what they mean to an adolescent, as well as school, girls, best friends, little league, and camp. The chapters alternate between first, third, and second person narration, which draws the reader close to Adam's character (named Will, here) during the funny times, and allows us to step back, as Will does, during the sadder times. Here's "Will" on the brink of major fourth grade popularity: "Somewhere inside me I know that 10-year-old boys were not supposed to spend their recess circling oak trees in search of four leaf clovers". And fearing his father, in another room, has passed: "You go to your bathroom, look at yourself in the mirror and discover that you have that same funny look on your face that your mother had on hers. You get down on your knees and ask God please not to let your father be dead. This time you are praying for real." It's a little bit Christmas Story in some place -- that "Popularity" chapter, in particular -- which, of course, only adds to its appeal. I adored this book, and bawled in recognition most of the way through it.
by Isaac Millman
Saving the best for last. Millman's book is a treasure, and every single kid in the whole world should own it. A large-sized, illustrated book, Hidden Child, is Isaac Millman's autobiographical story of his experiences during World War II. Beginning with his happy childhood in Paris in 1938, Millman recounts his father's capture by the Germans, his eventual arrest with his mother, and her heart-wrenching decision to send him off with strangers committed to hiding Jewish children in hospitals in order to keep them safe. Surviving brutality and finding empowerment from some of those loving strangers, Millman finds himself, at the book's close, happy, healthy, and bound for the United States, albeit alone. The book features a number of Millman's collage drawings as he illustrates his European journey. The colors are bright, the pictures subtly realistic and beautiful to look at. The book is sad, funny, exciting -- it's a history book, an art book, and an affecting autobiography that unnerves and calms at the same time. Another story of survival and will and spirit, this one is really an accomplishment.
Other titles that showcase FSG's wide-ranging subjects include Kazumi Yumoto's The Friends, drawing solid comparisons between adolescence in Japan and the US; Kate Banks's Amici del Cuore is about an enduring friendship in Italy; and Valerie Hobbs's Defiance, the story of a young boy undergoing cancer treatment. Not to be outdone, though, in case it's dragons and wizards and fantasy tales your kids yearn for, FSG will release Dreamhunter: Book One of the Dreamhunter Duet next March. If this list is anything to go by, it should be a cracker.