I’m starting a new “preteen” tag with this post because my son Nicholas, as he approaches his eleventh birthday, has started to ask for “more young-adult-type books” and has been appreciating most of what we’ve been finding for him, including a book I picked up used and read aloud to him without having read it myself–a potentially risky move, but it worked out fine. (Don’t miss the book reviews Nicholas wrote last month!) My recent reading includes books I’ve read to myself, a book I read to him before his dad and I switched who’s doing the bedtime reading, and books I’ve been reading over and over again to 19-month-old Lydia.
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
This novella, translated from Japanese, is a sweet and perceptive story of two Generation X college students who have more in common than the narrator, Mikage, initially realizes. She doesn’t understand why Yoichi is being so kind to her after the death of the grandmother who raised her–they are only acquaintances, and he already has a girlfriend–but by giving Yoichi a chance, Mikage finds something she didn’t know she needed and eventually is able to help him in return. The prose is so vivid and absorbing that I felt like the story was happening right this minute, until Yoichi walked in with a new word processor–the book was published in 1988! Taking that into consideration makes Mikage’s acceptance of Yoichi’s transgendered mother all the more interesting. Mikage and Yoichi’s relationship and working-out of their futures, combined with the very Japanese details of their daily lives, made Kitchen just the kind of parallel-world experience I was looking for when I picked up a book from Japan.
The book also includes “Moonlight Shadow”, a short story with some similar themes but a more magical style. It was a little too heavy on the wistfulness, and some ideas were repeated too many times, but I liked the way it reminded me of Japanese folktales about mysterious young ladies who turn out to be something else in disguise.
Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life by Wendy Mass
I grabbed this to read to Nicholas because he liked A Mango-Shaped Space by the same author (see my review) and because the back-cover description interested me. Jeremy Fink is approaching his thirteenth birthday when his gift from his father arrives in the mail–but his father died when he was eight! The gift is a beautiful wooden box which promises to contain The Meaning of Life but is locked with four locks, and it is accompanied by a letter from his father’s attorney regretting that he somehow lost the keys. Jeremy and his best friend Lizzy embark on a frantic quest to find the four keys before Jeremy’s birthday. In the process, they get caught doing something highly suspicious and are punished with community service, which takes them in many interesting directions. What seemed to be a very improbable chain of events turns out to be explained to my satisfaction, so that both the mystery and the ultimate lesson are pretty good.
Some of the writing was awkward but not as obviously or gratingly so as A Mango-Shaped Space, so I liked this book much more than that one. The only thing that really bothered me about this book was the role of Lizzy’s first period: It caused her recurring episodes of incapacitating pain, over the course of almost a week, whenever it was convenient for the plot! Although Lizzy was happy and excited about it anyway, Jeremy’s reaction was to act very awkward and confused both to her and to the reader. I don’t mind at all if my fifth-grader reads stories in which characters of either sex experience puberty, but I don’t like seeing it presented so negatively or seeing a boy character act so weird about menstruation (and never change his attitude)–the story suddenly seemed about 50 years out of date, and the over-use of Lizzy’s period as a plot device was kind of an “every nauseated female must be pregnant!!” move.
Still, I enjoyed the couple of weeks when I spent half an hour every night inside the mind of a teenage boy, and I really appreciated that his friendship with the girl who’s lived next-door since they were toddlers remained a friendship instead of turning into They Realized They Were In Love. I had no idea how closely this story would parallel the slightly-older, much-higher-tension, much-better-written teenage-boy-narrated present-tense novel I was about to read to myself.
Paper Towns by John Green
WOW. This twisty mystery was so amazing that I can’t believe my luck at picking up this and A Kiss Before Dying (reviewed here) and The Distant Hours (reviewed here) all in the same year! Paper Towns is a young-adult novel, but its plot is more than complex enough to keep an adult, experienced mystery reader on the edge of her seat. Bizarre and subtle clues! Running around in the middle of the night acting crazy! Complicated teenagers who Feel Ways About Stuff but also think a lot! Abandoned buildings! Witty banter! Crazy road trip! This book is packed with fun stuff yet maintains a mood of puzzled urgency that makes it very hard to put down.
Quentin is a geeky high school senior who has lived next-door to Margo Roth Spiegelman since they both were two years old, but over time they drifted from being playmates to barely interacting, although he’s always felt fascinated by her. One night she turns up at his window demanding that he accompany her on an hours-long, meticulously-planned adventure of revenge and… and… there’s something else she’s trying to tell him, but what does she mean exactly? The next day, Margo has vanished. Quentin isn’t sure what to do, but as the clues start coming, he can’t help looking for her, even if she doesn’t want to be found.
The ending was a bit heavy on explanation–it’s great that nothing was left hanging, but it would be better to unfold more of the explanations in action instead of dialogue. Still, I loved this book and look forward to reading it again someday.
(Will I let my almost-11-year-old who wants to read young-adult books read this one? I’m willing, but I’ve warned him that it’s kind of scary. I’m more concerned about that than Quentin’s sexy thoughts, which aren’t too extreme in my opinion, but parents definitely should pre-read this book before offering it to kids under, say, 15 or 16. It was Nicholas who informed me that Paper Towns was made into a movie, released this year. He wants to watch the movie with me. I read a synopsis of it, and it sounds to me like the plot changes made in the film adaptation are not good ones, so I really want him to read the book first so that he can fully appreciate the suspense! If you have seen the movie but not read the book, especially if you thought the movie was not that great, read the book!!)
Wendy Mass should read John Green to learn how to write in first-person present tense without sounding so clunky. I’m not sure I can explain how it’s done, but reading Quentin’s narration right after Jeremy’s made the difference very striking.
A Very Big Bunny by Marisabina Russo
This is Lydia’s favorite from the bag full of picture books I checked out of the library to entertain her on our Thanksgiving road trip. I liked it, too! Amelia is a humanoid rabbit who is unusually tall and heavy for her age. The other bunnies in first grade won’t play with her because of her awkward size, so she spends recess standing alone by the fence, thinking about things. One day a new bunny joins the class; Susannah is very small for her age. The other bunnies reject her, too, so she tries to hang out with Amelia–but Amelia is accustomed to being alone with her thoughts and sure she couldn’t have anything in common with such a puny bunny. Susannah wins her over with a strategy that protects both of them from humiliation on class-picture day.
Having been an unusually tall child who tended to spend recess thinking alone, and being still the fond owner of a lanky stuffed rabbit named Amelia, I found much to enjoy in this story. The colorful illustrations are very appealing.
Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen
Wait, maybe this one is Lydia’s favorite! She’s still asking for both of them: “Yarn? Where Yarn? Read Bunny!” and we may have to check them out of the library again.
In a town of snow and soot, Annabelle finds a mysterious box of beautiful colored yarn. She knits sweaters for herself and her dog, but there’s still extra yarn, so when the other kids are jealous, she knits them sweaters, too. There’s still extra yarn. Sweaters for everyone! Sweaters for animals! Sweaters for inanimate objects! “Things began to change in that little town.” Eventually a bad guy tries to steal the magical yarn, but it doesn’t work out for him.
Old MacDonald Had an Apartment House by Judi Barrett, illustrated by Ron Barrett
I checked out this book from my school library in first grade and loved it so much I hid it behind the couch in an attempt to keep enjoying it forever–and I was such a well-behaved child, this must be a really great book! I was thrilled to see it in our local library when Nicholas was young, and of course I checked it out again for Lydia, who also liked it very much.
Old MacDonald is the superintendent of an apartment building with a tiny, urban yard filled with ugly hedge and a fountain. His wife grows a tomato plant in a pot in their basement apartment, but it isn’t getting enough light, so he cuts down the hedge. Then they plant the tomato plant outside. Then they turn the fountain into a self-watering pea planter. Then a tenant moves out, and they plant vegetables in her apartment and mushrooms in the closet. Other tenants get upset with the carrots growing through the ceiling and cows mooing through the walls, so they move out and are replaced with farm…until the landlord finds out! Detailed illustrations make this story both hilarious and fascinating. (But I returned it on time like a good citizen. We can borrow it again later.)
On Meadowview Street by Henry Cole
Caroline and her parents move to Meadowview Street, in a suburban neighborhood of identical houses with huge bare lawns. As her father begins to mow the lawn for the first time, Caroline notices a wildflower growing in the grass and sets up a small “preserve” which her dad agrees not to mow. Over time, she spots more flowers and expands the preserve, and while hanging around there she begins to see wildlife. They plant a tree…build a birdhouse…sell the lawnmower…build a pond, and pretty soon their yard is a lovely meadow! The neighbors begin converting their yards, too.
This charmingly illustrated picture book teaches an important lesson very gently. I also like the way Caroline and her dad work together–even though his initial reaction to her flower is, “Hmph.” (Lydia likes to point out each picture of the dad and say, “Hmph.”) Her mom evidently has other things going on and appears in the story only to arrange acquisition of a tree and take some photos–a refreshing counterpoint to the many children’s books in which mothers are important but fathers are invisible.
The Pigeon Needs a Bath! by Mo Willems
This gift from the cousins is a big hit with Lydia! The pigeon makes a bunch of excuses about why he doesn’t need a bath, finally grudgingly agrees, makes umpteen adjustments before he gets into the tub, and ultimately adores his bathing experience for TEN HOURS. Fun to read aloud with expression!
Then Again, Maybe I Won’t by Judy Blume
Daniel and I both loved this book when we were preteens because it’s a very frank account of a boy’s experiences with puberty and emerging sexual feelings, but it’s not just about that. Tony also is struggling with his family’s sudden wealth and the changes that brings to their lifestyle and family dynamics. He also makes friends with his neighbor Joel but doesn’t know how to handle Joel’s shoplifting, cruelty to maids and waitresses, and other questionable behavior. He also has complicated feelings about his oldest brother, who died in the Vietnam War. He also has a mysterious new health problem. When Nicholas wanted a more teenagery book to read to himself, this was one of the first that came to mind! (I didn’t actually read it, myself, in the past month, but I’ve read it probably 20 times, so I remember it very well.) This is a great book for initiating discussion of all sorts of specific issues and also of the general feeling that becoming a teenager is confusing and complicated but really very interesting.
Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach
This history/overview of sex research is not overwhelmingly thorough, but it’s extremely entertaining and taught me a few interesting facts which I might bring up in conversation at the right sort of parties. The author managed to land herself a book deal in which she not only got to think and read about sex for months but also got to visit Egypt, Taiwan, Denmark, and other places to learn about the latest in artificial insemination, female arousal studies, impotence treatment, and more. She also delves into the history of not only Kinsey and Masters & Johnson but also earlier sex researchers I’d never heard about.
I have to mention that I somehow got away with reading most of this book while commuting by bus, and even though I occasionally snorted with laughter, nobody around me ever asked what I was reading, and if words like “electroejaculator” caught anyone’s attention and they started reading over my shoulder, they were extremely discreet about it!
Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr., and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey
I loved this book when I was in elementary school, so when I saw a used copy I thought I’d read it to Nicholas. He didn’t like it! It seemed very dated to him (well, it is–published in 1947 about events that happened between 1904 and 1924) and he thought their father sounded annoying rather than fun, at least in the first chapter. So I read it to myself.
Frank Bunker Gilbreth, Sr., and his wife Lillian Moller Gilbreth were efficiency experts who decided on their wedding night that they would have twelve children, six boys and six girls–and they did! This memoir written by two of their children tells anecdotes of their family life. Yes, it’s dated, but much of it is very funny, and some of it really makes you think. As soon as I get a chance, I’m eager to see what the Internet can tell me about the adult lives of the eleven surviving children (the one who died as a child is kind of glossed over by the book, which is a bit creepy and sad–they actually didn’t have twelve children alive all at the same time) and about the system of Therbligs that the Gilbreths invented to explain the series of motions involved in a task.