An Absolute Wonder of a Book

Have you ever felt like a bunch of independent things were coming together to take you in a single direction?  I have. Weird, isn’t it?  

Sometime this last fall, Amazon and the New York Times started mentioning “Wonder” as one of the middle-grade books of the moment.  “Something special,” they said. Its blue-and-white cover was prominently displayed on the shelves of my local bookstore. Now, these entities know a fair amount about books but I don’t like being told what to read and bookstores always say they have something special when they want to grab more of my money. Then my sister (the teacher) insisted I had to read Wonder because of its narrative style   By the time literary agents Jaida Temperly and Danielle Barthel cited Wonder as one of the stories middle-grade writers and readers should know, I was ready to surrender.  I can resist a fair amount of hype but this felt more like directives from a superior force, pushing me toward the future. 
And they were right.  Wonder is not just a book kids love reading right now, it’s one they will love to read for years. It’s a book many parents will love.  It’s an absolute wonder of a book.
The heart of Wonder is Auggie Pullman, a boy who redefines what “ordinary” “different” and “extraordinary” mean through his story.  On the one hand, he’s just one more kid who lives in upper Manhattan.  He’s got parents, a sibling, a dog, and a serious addiction to Star Wars.  Auggie is smarter than some but not a prodigy.  Nevertheless, he stands out in every crowd because a genetic disorder has altered his face. That disorder distracts strangers so they don’t see the terrific kid behind the face. And he is a terrific kid.  Even his older sister says as much.
Although the central story in Wonder is Auggie’s, another great thing about the book is how he impacts the lives of kids closest to him, especially his sister, Olivia.  We see how she loves and cares for her brother and accepts his needs often come first; we also see (in the reverse of most sibling relationships) how this elder sister longs for her own place in the sun, where she’s not identified and defined by her relationship to Auggie. We see her guilt over these reasonable feelings and how she faces the truth of her own genetic inheritance.  We see how Auggie’s not the only brave kid on the page.
Wonder is that most magnificent thing, a fictional story that realistically captures the human spirit.  While Auggie is the central character, most of the rest of Wonder’s cast can’t be dismissed as mere heroes and villains. The other characters are people who can make mistakes and are just doing the best they can.  And the kids in the book tell their stories in the way that kids talk, with pop culture references and without extra words.  No wonder literary agents are holding this book up as a model.  It’s a terrific example of “show, don’t tell.”  
So yes, this book is a Wonder, and incredibly well-named.  It’s won a bunch of prizes, is now the first of a series and the basis for a movie that’s coming soon.  And it’s as good as everyone says. When a story worth telling is told so well so it opens hearts, the buzz you hear about it isn’t hype.  It’s the trumpet of destiny.

Are you good at solving Puzzles?

Reynard “Rennie” Muldoon is. He’s one of those kids who does the crossword in ink, solves algebra problems in his head and tends to have few friends his own age.  Well, the other kids think he’s strange. And he’s an orphan, to boot.  So it’s good that he has a talent for Puzzles.  A talent that could change his life.
Rennie Muldoon is the central character in The Mysterious Benedict Society, one of those stories, like Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate events or James and the Giant Peach, that belong in the “Plucky Orphan” genre.  Once again, kind and decent children are thrown onto the dubious mercies of the world with tasks that would defeat most adults.  Once again there’s a picturesque, almost Dickensian quality to the narrative.   The plus in this book (besides its marvellous story) is what makes Rennie Muldoon important.   The tale is chock-full of puzzles.

Rennie answers an ad for “Gifted Children looking for Special Opportunities” and is subjected to a series of tests that range from the usual time and speed math problems I never figured out to staged exams of his character and resourcefulness.  By including the problems, the reader gets the fun of solving the puzzles as well as getting pulled into the story.  
By the end of the day, he’s learned few children don’t meet the qualifications and that there’s more than one way to solve problems. While Rennie applies logic and reasoning to questions, Sticky Washington has an eidetic memory and can recall the answers he’s read.  Kate Weatherall is braver than either boy and creates “outside the box” solutions to problems that would stump both of the boys.  To this trio is added a fourth, Constance Contraire, a child as stubborn as she is smart. Instead of responding directly to a query, Constance challenges the authority of every examiner with rhyming, impertinent poems.  It’s not as easy to like grumpy, impatient Constance but the trio respects her mind.  And so does the mysterious Mr Benedict.
The Author, not Mr Benedict.
Orphans need a mentor to appreciate them and give them room to grow.  Mr Benedict takes his place in a pantheon of loving, flawed mentors with Glenda the Good and the great Dumbledore.  Like these, he can advise and worry about the children he sends into danger but he cannot rescue them from their ultimate moments of peril.  Here, the children must rely on their own abilities or the friendships they’ve developed between each other.  And here is where the talent for solving puzzles comes in very handy.
If you have a middle-grader handy (aged between 9-12) over the next few days, and you want a story to love and share, try The Mysterious Benedict Society for some read-aloud fun.  Or you could read the book yourself if you really like solving puzzles.

Mr. K and the A, B, Cs of reading

My Friend, Mandy
My friend Mandy reads lots of books.  Well, most of my friends like to read but Mandy reads more than most.  And she worries about accidentally embarrassing someone who reads less than she does when she admits how much she reads. She has a good heart that way. But having audited more than my share of competitions about “who reads the most”, I’ve learned to shy away from those conversations. Like Mandy, I think a person’s literacy level can’t be determined by the number of books they’ve read, but I also think that level is based on more than pages and the reading difficulty are involved.  For that, I still turn to Mr K’s A-B-Cs of reading.
Mr K was one of my high-school English teachers and one of the more popular instructors in school. Funny, intelligent and a bit daring, he escorted herds of reluctant adolescents through the thickets of 20th Century American Literature and he gave very reasonable tests.  As a matter of fact, the students in his classes got to choose which of his tests they’d take.
It was a pretty simple concept.  For every assigned book, Mr K had three essay options, designated “A”, “B” and “C” and each student wrote a response based on one of those options. The grade might meet but never exceed the letter assigned to the response and the options went something like this:

A – Describe the literary significance of this book, based on its techniques, the lessons it teaches and its continuing impact on contemporary, everyday life.

B – Describe, by listing the symbols and themes in the work, the points the author was trying to make.

C – Tell the story of the book. 

Mr K said his questions were designed to show how much we took away from each book.  A “C” answer would show that we’d read the story but a “B” answer revealed we’d thought about what we read.  An “A” grade was only possible if we’d read the story, thought about it and then applied the story’s lessons to our own lives. Earning an”A” under that standard does a book justice but it can’t happen by simply auditing the words.
That’s one reason I re-read certain books.  In the seventh grade, I read “Jane Eyre” thoroughly enough to repeat the plot but I couldn’t identify its themes, motifs and symbols.  It took time and several more re-reads (plus a passel of literature classes) before I realised the nature of Jane’s quest for acceptance and a balance between her earthly and spiritual values.  It took me even longer to figure out the way she resolved some questions helped me face similar issues myself. (I’m just grateful Providence spared me from having a mad woman in my own attic. Too much is too much.)  
The thing is, I don’t think many people read books according to Mr K’s formula although I believe, they should. An author who takes the time and trouble to create thoughtful literature deserves thoughtful readers. The Close, Deep reading Mr K recommended creates a far richer experience, one I know my friend Mandy enjoys.  But those who measure their sense of self-worth by the number of books they’ve perused are more interested in finishing a book than understanding what they’ve read. It’s kind of sad in a way; they speed through the mechanics of reading and miss the best parts of the story.
So, if you have books to read over this holiday season, I hope you enjoy every page. Take your time and savour them, like a well-prepared meal or a work of art.  See which of the A-B-C standards you meet and if re-reading the book will raise your grade.  Reading is a journey to be enjoyed, not a race to be run.  That’s the gospel according to me and Mr K.  

Winter Country

Like all our other seasons, Winter came a bit early this year.
Just between you and me, the South doesn’t handle Winter all that well. This is the sun-belt, where central air and sunglasses are more than accessories. Our winters often hold off until January and some years they don’t show up at all. Instead of a frozen wasteland, we get a dormant rainy outdoors explored only by aficionados of the hunt.  The rest of us curl up with a book and a drink until it’s time to replant the garden.
But not this year.  This year we’re going to get winter and it’s going to be downright cold.

A sure sign of winter – smoke
coming from the fireplace
The South becomes a different place in winter; more like the spot they wrote about decades ago. Although most Southerners are not tied to the land like they were in previous centuries, weather becomes an important factor to us during these three months of the year.  Our houses are not heated the way New England homes are and bitter cold can sometimes seep indoors.  Bereft of their gardens, our houses seem to pull in on themselves these days, like a freezing man huddles inside his parka. The surrounding verdant landscape reverts to a more somber palette.
Still, I love the look of winter in the South with its subdued shades of brown, grey and green.   I cannot look at our winter landscape without thinking of Kenneth Grahame‘s Wind in the Willows.

“The country lay bare and entirely leafless around him, and he thought that he had never seen so far and so intimately into the insides of things as on that winter day when Nature was deep in her annual slumber and seemed to have kicked the clothes off. Copses, dells, quarries and all hidden places, which had been mysterious mines for exploration in leafy summer, now exposed themselves and their secrets pathetically, and seemed to ask him to overlook their shabby poverty for a while, till they could riot in rich masquerade as before, and trick and entice him with the old deceptions. It was pitiful in a way, and yet cheering– even exhilarating. He was glad that he liked the country undecorated, hard, and stripped of its finery. He had got down to the bare bones of it, and they were fine and strong and simple.” 

Stripped of the usual covering of kudzu and leaves, here is our essential country: strong, simple and not totally without colour.   Every December, our neighbour’s unpruned shrub decks itself in scarlet berries as if sprouted just for the holiday.  The pine trees grow like weeds from the rusty clay earth.  Even the layers of sedimentary rock expose their striated beauty. This is our home, without artifice.  The earth we cling to is strong.
Yes, Spring will return in just a few months with its riot of flowers and birdsong.  I’ll be there to welcome it.  But in the meantime, let me cherish winter, with its long, dark nights and silent, peace-filled earth.  This season has its beauty as well.

Something Nasty in the Nursery: Gothic Children’s Fiction

The books we loved and cherished as kids say a lot about us as adults.  Any grown woman who remembers Ramona Quimby or Katie John fondly probably has an independent streak.  The boys who grew up reading Robert A. Heinlein’s Science Fiction for kids grew up to be men with an interest in science.  But what do you say to the kids who fell for The Graveyard Book, Lemony Snicket’s series and The Mysterious Benedict Society?  Welcome to the World of Gothic Literature, kiddies; your crypt is right this way?

I hope not because Gothic doesn’t always equate to horror or an obsession with death.  What it promises is a spooky atmosphere where anything could happen.  The decrepit old cottage may turn out to be as wholesome as milk, the confining hills may be nothing but hills, but at first glance, every setting borders on the extreme.  The castle isn’t a castle, but a ruin, the land isn’t boggy and cold, it’s a moor where you might get stuck and sink to your doom.  Doom is a big concept in Gothic Lit. as is the idea of all things extreme.  The heroes are usually resourceful and brave, their adventures are perilous and great and the villains….oh, the villains are the best in the world.  They’re smart and evil and deliciously mean…Voldemort and Hannibal Lecter level mean.
Okay, so why do kids and former kids enjoy these quirky stories so much?  First, because they seem (to us) so old fashioned.  The genre is about 250 years old, not as decrepit as other categories of literature, but to us, it seems downright quaint. A gothic story can kick up shades of the past without a bustle or hairpin in sight.  And because these are old-fashioned stories, we half-way know what to expect.

These are the stories from our old nursery rhymes where girls with curls can be very, very good or they might be completely horrid. Gone is the modern preoccupation with ennui and moral ambiguity. Whether characters in Gothic tales are “good” or “bad”, they are who they are with a vengeance.  And we appreciate that, especially when we are young.

So we love the extremes, we love the fantastic atmosphere and we love the clarity in the characters.  Does that make it a good choice for bedtime reading?  I’d say that depends on the kid.  Like every other literary genre, this one has its fans and its foes.  Give it to the child with too little interest and you’ll end up with a bored, angry kid.  If you give it to the one with too much imagination, be prepared for a few nightmares.  But don’t be surprised if even the nightmare sufferer clamours for more of these thrilling, atmospheric books.  Whatever else you can say about “Goth”, the stories are fun to read.