Friday, May 28, 2010

Going It Alone

White Cat by Holly Black is all about the experience of adolescence as a solo journey. All of the members of Cassel Sharpe’s family were born with a gift; each is a curse worker who can alter memories or dreams or life itself. Cassel doesn’t understand why he doesn’t have the gift. He doesn’t fit in with his peers (because of his family’s heritage—curse-working was banned in 1929) nor does he feel that he belongs in his family. Adolescence is all about questioning. Why is my body changing? What do I believe? Where do I belong? It is during this period—when you feel entirely alone—that you discover who you are, what you enjoy, what is uniquely yours.

The best YA authors explore this central experience of adolescence in new and interesting ways, as Holly Black does here. She answers none of these questions, but raises them in a fictional context and from different perspectives to allow teens to examine these questions for themselves. Cassel’s family tells him that he killed Lila Zacharov, but this makes no sense to him. He loved Lila. Something also seems off about his memories of the night that he supposedly killed her. And he’s been having strange dreams about a white cat. Little by little his instinct to investigate these nagging questions leads him to discover that his family is not telling the truth. Are they protecting him? Or themselves? He feels betrayed by them.

What do you do when you feel alone? You search for the answers yourself, and you begin to take responsibility for your life. This is the transition to adulthood, and while Holly Black constructs a framework of magic, the feelings and the experiences are real.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Connecting Past and Present

Rick Riordan has zeroed in on my two favorite topics when I was in school: Greek myths (with his Percy Jackson and the Olympians series) and ancient Egypt (with the launch of his Kane Chronicles series earlier this month, The Red Pyramid).

In Mrs. Hecker’s seventh-grade English class I remember really locking onto the Greek myths. I had always been fascinated by them, but there’s something about the Greek gods that speaks to that point of embarkation into puberty. Perhaps it’s the adolescent behavior of many of them. Anyway, I guess you could say I never really stopped focusing on Greek mythology because I did my senior thesis in college on James Joyce’s Ulysses (which also led me back to Homer’s The Odyssey).

Some of you are likely too young to remember when the contents of Tutankhamun's tomb first traveled around the country. Again, I believe I was in junior high when King Tut came through Chicago, a mere 3-hour drive from Kalamazoo, my hometown. For the first time, all the things I’d read about and the photos I’d seen in National Geographic were sitting there in front of me in three dimensions. That made an enormous impression on me. But what I hadn’t known before reading Rick Riordan’s Kane Chronicles was the depth of influence of what was called The House of Life--the ancient school of Egyptian magic.

The House of Life earned its name because the practicing magicians were healers (through the spells they cast), and they also staved off curses and thus protected Egypt's Pharaohs. For all of us who believe that words and books can create entire worlds and spark new philosophies, there’s a precedent for that in the House of Life as well. The ancient Egyptians believed that hieroglyphs themselves created magic. As Rick Riordan put it in a recent interview:

“The ancient Egyptians considered all writing magic. They had to be careful: if they created the word ‘cat,’ they had to deface it slightly, because they believed they could create a cat. The idea was that the ultimate form of magic was to speak and the world began. You see that influence in the Gospel of John: ‘In the beginning was the Word.’ All these ancient cultures dovetail, and they were all forming and evolving at the same time.”

It’s both awe-inspiring and humbling to think about how far-reaching our roots go. To think of America, almost two-and-a-half centuries old, with seeds planted half a world away and thousands of years old makes the planet seem a bit smaller, doesn’t it? Like Carter and Sadie, the sibling protagonists of Riordan’s new series, we begin to see portals to the past all over the place.

Friday, May 14, 2010

A Sense of Wonder

Zig and Wikki in Something Ate My Homework by Nadja Spiegelman, illustrated by Trade Loeffler, perfectly captures the sense of wonder that a close encounter with the natural world can inspire in us—and especially in children. Every morning I take my dog, Molly, for a long walk (unless there’s a downpour or a blizzard). Part of the week we spend in the city, and part of the week in New Jersey, where my husband and I share a cabin in the foothills of the Appalachian Trail. One spring morning last year, Molly and I came upon a bear cub, not 10 yards away. My first thought was, “This creature is magnificent!” The bear was on all fours, and we were slightly behind it (thankfully) so I couldn’t see how large it was, tip to toe, but I thought, “Wow!” It was the first time I’d ever seen a bear in the wild, and there really are no words to describe being in the presence of such a powerful, beautiful beast.

My next thought was, “Where is its mother?” Because of course I’d read many times, in both fact and fiction (Jean Craighead George’s novels leap to mind), how protective mother bears are of their cubs. Molly had not yet spied the bear (whew!), and did not bark. There was a small stone wall on the left side of the street, where the bear was, and I began to steer us to that side, so we’d be obscured from the bear’s view. He (or she) continued across the street seemingly oblivious to our presence and went on through the trees and onto a neighbor’s property. I began singing—as a camper in my Girl Scout days, I was told to make noise in bear territory so the animals wouldn’t be startled. We made it home with no further bear spotting.

A few days later, I was in the post office, and bumped into a neighbor couple (not the ones whose property the bear had entered). The husband asked me if I’d seen a bear recently, and I told him about my encounter while walking Molly. “Oh, that’s not a cub,” said the wife. “He’s at least a year old and looking for territory to claim for his own.” That explained why there was no mother.

Clearly that experience has stayed with me, and I will likely never forget it. Bears are much larger than the fly, dragonfly, toad and raccoon that Zig and Wikki encounter, but every time we get an opportunity to observe another living thing up close, we get a chance to stop and reflect on what an amazing thing life is. To watch a dragonfly dip its lovely wings close to a pond’s surface or observe the concentration of a raccoon when it’s stalking its prey (or trying to get into a garbage can, as I witnessed many times growing up in Michigan) is to be reminded of the majesty in life’s small moments.

I can think of no better way to engender in children a sense of wonder and an appreciation of nature than through direct experience and careful observation. Children are quick to realize the commonalities between us and all living things, and to feel a sense of duty in preserving the world around them.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Singing Lifts the Soul

Nothing takes the edge off a long car ride like a singalong. Last week, my two-year-old niece, Maggie, was petering out near the end of a three-hour–plus drive, and we started singing If You’re Happy and You Know It! How I wish we’d had Jane Cabrera’s board book with us! Suzie, Maggie’s mother, and I quickly ran out of verses. (You may remember Suzie from the Musical Literacy blog.) We could only remember the “clap your hands” and “stamp your feet” verses, and Maggie was strapped into her car seat, so we were trying to come up with verses she could do in her confined state.

As the saying goes, “Desperation is the mother of invention,” so we started making up verses (and of course, repeating them—thank goodness toddlers love to repeat things). Maggie’s favorite was “touch your nose.” We repeated that verse a lot. You know how you always think of the perfect line hours after a conversation takes place? Well, since then I’ve thought of “wiggle your ears” and “go snap, snap” (with your fingers). But the point is, there are myriad opportunities to add verses.

That’s what I enjoyed most about Jane Cabrera’s version of the song. She spices it up with humor, with the chimp clapping, the elephant stamping its very large feet, and the giraffe nodding its head at the end of a very looong neck. If we’d had Cabrera's book in our “backseat library,” we may still have run out of verses, but we would have had a much longer stretch without a repeat (more important to the adults than the toddler). It’s nearly impossible to come away from this song without feeling uplifted and energized. Altogether now, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!”