Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Price of Belonging

So much of adolescence involves discovering and defining who you are in opposition to everyone else. Do you honor the things that make you unique? Or bury them in order to be who you think others want you to be?

In The Space Between Trees by Katie Williams, someone whom 16-year-old Evie once counted as a friend has been murdered. In her loss and grief, she becomes drawn to someone she would not normally spend time with, bad girl Hadley, who makes hate lists and hangs out with people she doesn’t like but whom she can control. Evie finds herself becoming more deeply tied to Hadley and doesn’t see a way to extricate herself.

Your teen will be caught up in the mystery and wind up identifying with Evie’s feeling--if not the outer trappings of her situation. It’s a beautifully written book that explores how a series of small decisions and a wish for companionship lead Evie further from herself. And who among us has not had experience with that?

Friday, September 17, 2010

School Daze

It doesn’t matter how great most of your teachers are or how much you like your subjects. Every student knows what a bad day feels like.

In School!: Adventures at the Harvey N. Trouble Elementary School by Kate McMullan, inspired and illustrated by George Booth, the author and artist make high comedy out of that cold hard fact. Certain things annoy us and happen every day exactly the same way, over and over again. Your child’s bus driver may not drive into a ditch every day, but he or she may say the exact same cloying thing every morning, or pull up in the wrong spot every day, or center the door directly above a giant mud puddle.

Certainly we can all remember the substitute teacher saga – everyone wants to get one over on the sub. It’s a free-for-all. Hence McMullan and Booth’s twist about having a non-boring sub carrying a briefcase makes more of an impact. The pun in every character’s name only makes the recognizable ticks and quirks more fun.

I recently got to hear Lizz Winstead speak at the BlogHer conference here in New York City this summer. Winstead is the co-creator and former head writer on The Daily Show, and an audience member asked her what she thought of a story on that asserted The Daily Show had an underrepresented number of women writers. Winstead defended the show’s hiring practices saying, “It’s not a woman thing, it’s a nerd thing,” and that in order to write for The Daily Show you have to be a “media-consumer extraordinaire, historian and satirist.”

School makes me think of that combination. The confluence of the experiences of Kate McMullan as a former fourth-grade classroom teacher and longtime author of children’s books, and of George Booth as a seasoned New Yorker cartoonist and satirist, makes their combined take on life in the halls of a frenetic public school a wildly successful send-up. No matter how your child’s school year is going, he or she will be highly entertained by this ode to school days.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Marking a Difficult Milestone

As a New Yorker, there’s a part of me that would like to be able to think of September 11 as another day in my favorite season in the city. But it’s not just any autumn day. And this year, with the controversy surrounding the building of the Muslim community center downtown, the event does not seem like it happened nine years ago. It feels very fresh and raw.

So how do we talk about the events of that day with our young people? Especially those who were either not yet born or too young to remember? Do we try to shield them from it? How can we when the images are so powerful and prevalent? 14 Cows for America by Carmen Deedy and Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah, makes an ideal choice to address these questions because of its language and simplicity.

In the book, Kimeli has been studying in America to become a doctor, and he returns to meet with the elders of his Maasai tribe. He describes the events of 9/11 to villagers in Kenya who were not there, in words that a child can comprehend:

Buildings so tall they can touch the sky?

Fires so hot they can melt iron?

Smoke and dust so thick they can block out the sun?

Kimeli requests from the elders that he be able to give his only cow, Enkarûs, to the Americans, to help them heal. And the elders respond by also giving a gift to the Americans. Fourteen cows in all. They do not ship the cows to America—it is a spiritual gift. They guard the cows for the Americans, and the herd grows in number. As Kimeli Naiyomah says in an endnote in the book, “These sacred, healing cows can never be slaughtered.”

If you and your child were to travel to Kenya, you could visit these cows--your cows--guarded by the Maasai, growing in number.