Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Family Intact

Erin McCahan in Grand Haven, MI
It is rare in young adult fiction to find a family that gets along well, in which an author portrays teens with parents who respect them and allow them autonomy. Erin McCahan paints such a family portrait in Love and Other Foreign Words.

Josie Sheridan likes routine, predictability, consistency, and she dislikes surprises. Yet everything is changing. Her sister Kate is getting married, and Josie does not approve. Josie must work hard to do the things that come naturally to others. She practices the signature hug for her volleyball team (at home, in private) so that she can belong, but then everyone wants a "Josie hug," which was not the goal she sought.

Josie's father really "gets" her, and provides some much-needed compassion for his youngest daughter. But he also knows when to draw the line, when to point out that she's in the wrong. And he does it in such a way that she must do some soul-searching. He does not make anything easy for her, because he knows she likes to--even needs to--puzzle things out.

So often novels aimed at teens explore the rift between parent and child once he or she enters adolescence. Here's a novel in which the parents give their teen space to become the person she's yearning to become. They trust her and have faith in her, even when she's acting badly. Maybe it's because she's the third of three children. Maybe they've learned with their first two that their children have to figure it out for themselves, but this mother and father have an approach that works.

Josie's mother and father know that along with their daughter's genius come some social challenges, and they are there to guide her, but they also know she must learn from her own missteps. Yes, the friendship, the portrayal of sister relationships, and the awakening of romance are terrific, but the strong, loving relationship between Josie and her parents may be most memorable of all.

Friday, June 20, 2014

A Map of Time

"To her infinite mortification, Sophia had no internal clock," thinks 13-year-old Sophia Tims, the heroine of S.E. Grove's debut novel, The Glass Sentence. The author examines the nature of time and memory in terms that an 8- and 9-year-old can understand. Children know how chores seem to last forever, and a great hours-long neighborhood game of stickball flashes by. Sophia's way of coping may well inspire readers' own methods of time trekking.

Sophia finds her lack of internal clock mortifying because her uncle is the world's finest cartologist, able to make and read maps from all eras. Ever since the Great Disruption, time has settled differently in different parts of the world. Her parents (who disappeared 10 years ago on an expedition) also possess a keen sense of time. But for Sophia, hours can go by undetected, and she also has trouble gauging the time that's lapsed between events.

She copes by creating elaborate accordion-style calendars. She marks all of the important things that happen on that date. At a glance, she can see when something of significance to her occurred, and how much time has gone by since then.

Think of the applications for a child reader. What fun to browse a variety of calendars and for a child to experiment with the tracking method that works best for him or her. They can use the traditional month-at-a-glance calendar, a week-long track, or a daily calendar; tape them together vertically or horizontally; enlarge it on a photocopier or shrink it down. They can draw pictures on each day to indicate someone new they've met, a family reunion, a baby-sitting job or a work shift. It can be as simple or as sophisticated as they want it to be.

If they already use a journal, Sophia's tracking system might spark other ideas of what to include--drawings, collage, scraps of paper. Sophia's way of coping with her "mortification" is not so different from Chuck Close's 10-foot-long illustrated map of Lewis and Clark's expedition in Chuck Close: Face Book, his strategy for learning history in school. Readers may be inspired by Sophia to create a timeline of their own lives that (literally) unfolds, a map of time and events of significance chiefly to its maker.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Keeping Track

Byron Barton

In My Bus by Byron Barton, Joe the driver keeps track of which passengers--a mix of cats and dogs--board and depart from his bus. Children can follow along and see exactly how many cats and dogs are traveling at any given time.

Barton keeps the dogs on one side of the bus and the cats on the other, for easy tallying. He never explicitly states "1 dog + 4 dogs = 5 dogs," but mentally children take note of how many are on the bus. It's a brilliant way to make young readers aware that they sort out and sum up the things in their world all the time.

There are four people in a child's family, let's say. Two have arrived at the dinner table; we're waiting for two more. One clears the dishes after the meal; three are still seated at the table. There's no fancy addition or subtraction; it's a simple way to be mindful of what's going on around them.

Byron gives children other things to look at, too--a boat, a plane, a train. And at the end of My Bus, the first dog passenger that boarded the bus leaves with Joe the driver: "I drive one dog home. My dog! Bow wow." (And for cat lovers, one cat ends the book: "Meow.") Satisfying in every way.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Wishing to Be Found

From Hide and Seek Harry: Around the House

The hippo star of Hide and Seek Harry: Around the House by Kenny Harrison does not know that he can be seen. His girth permits him few true hiding places. Harry's approach is much like the child who plays peek-a-boo: Because the toddler covers his eyes and cannot see you, he believes that you cannot see him.

But the other question is, does Harry know that he can be seen? "Harry likes to hide... but he loves to be found!" says the text. Like Harry, the child playing hide-and-seek wants most to be found. Peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek at this age are about being safe, separating momentarily (with no real risk of getting "lost") and then being reunited with the parent, grandparent, older sibling, or caregiver. It's the first dipping of toes into the ocean of independence.

Through Harry, Kenny Harrison taps into this complex mix of feelings in the simplest of ways. Does the hippo choose a hiding place because he thinks he's truly hidden? Or does Harry want to be found? Does it matter? In the end, Harry comes home to his best friends, the boy and girl narrators.