Next week, I’ll be starting a new job! That’s great news in general, but it means I only have two days left to savor my daily bus ride with my four-year-old Lydia, bringing her home from preschool. My new job’s location makes it too difficult and time-consuming for me to get to Lydia’s school by bus, so her father will be picking her up as well as taking her to school. I’m really going to miss our special times sharing chapter books that I read aloud while we wait for the bus and ride on the bus! But we’ll still be reading at bedtime….
And I can’t complain about the location overall: My new commute is just long enough for me to enjoy some reading to myself! I’ll be traveling in the opposite direction from most rush-hour traffic, so I expect to be able to get a seat on the bus and enjoy my book.
Here are two books I read to myself, and two that I read to Lydia, in the past month:
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
I had a hard time reading this novel about a daughter named Lydia who drowns on my daughter Lydia’s birthday—but I’m glad that I did! This is an excellent story of how the members of a family can fail to see one another’s true selves because of the things they want to believe about each other.
Lydia Lee was a 16-year-old honor student, the treasured middle child of a Chinese-American father and a white mother living in a tiny college town in Ohio in 1977. Her mother eagerly encouraged her to become a doctor. Her father eagerly encouraged her to be popular, friendly, and beautiful. Her older brother knew her better than anyone else—but he didn’t know the truth about her relationship with the boy down the street. Her little sister, fond of hiding quietly under tables and of looking out the window at night, knew more than anyone thought she did. But nobody knew the whole truth about why Lydia rowed a boat out onto the lake in the middle of the night.
This book is very engaging without the tense, manipulative tactics so common in “suspense” novels. All the main characters are very real and complex people who come to understand one another better but still never know everything.
Lucky Us by Amy Bloom
The best thing I can say about this book is that it depicts one of the most interesting family constellations I’ve ever encountered. Eva spends her childhood, just before World War II, living with her mother; her father visits weekly. Then her father’s wife dies, and her mother takes her to her father’s home and departs, never to be seen again. Eva and her half-sister Iris eventually run away to Hollywood, but then their father catches up to them, and they end up living in Great Neck, New York, with a gay make-up artist, their father’s African-American girlfriend, Iris’s girlfriend, and a little boy they kidnap from an orphanage. Then everybody else dies or leaves, so Eva raises the boy and earns a living telling fortunes.
Eva is the protagonist and does express some opinions, yet she never quite seems to be a real person. She’s more like a witness to and victim of other people’s lives than an active participant. A lot of the book is made up of letters from Europe written to Eva, who doesn’t respond.
The cover illustration of this edition depicts a zebra standing on the back of a lion standing on a tightrope on some other world with a view of Earth in the distance. That did not happen in the story, but a lot of other things did, but I ended up not really caring about any of it.
Rabbit & Robot and Ribbit by Cece Bell
This is my favorite from our current bag of library books. It’s an “easy reader” that takes about ten minutes to read aloud. We previously read another of the Rabbit & Robot series that was entertaining, but this one also addresses a number of interesting issues.
Rabbit drops by the home of his friend Robot and is miffed that Robot dares to have another friend, a frog named Ribbit. Is it okay to have multiple friends? What can we do about jealous feelings?
Robot’s circuitry enables him to understand what Ribbit says, but to Rabbit it all sounds like “ribbit.” How can a bilingual person be fair to a friend who only knows one language? What can we do when we don’t get the joke and feel left out? Is a person who doesn’t speak English less worthy of friendship? What if we need to communicate in an emergency?
Robot made popcorn with flies in it to please his guest Ribbit. How can we be polite when someone is eating something we think is disgusting?
Ribbit thinks Rabbit is cute and keeps staring at him. How can we react to such unwelcome attention?
As they attempt to play together, both Ribbit and Rabbit want to portray television character Cowboy Jack Rabbit. Does a boy rabbit have more of a right to take a male rabbit role than a girl frog does?
The rival friends overheat Robot’s emotion decoder and have to reboot him. Rabbit panics (hilariously) while Ribbit figures out that this problem can be solved by reading English–but when she tries to tell Rabbit, he can’t understand her accent because he’s not trying. Finally, they cooperate and revive Robot together.
Ramona and Her Father by Beverly Cleary
I chose this book to read to Lydia because she’d enjoyed others in the series, but as we read I realized what a perfect choice it was for this stage in her life! Ramona’s father is looking for a job, worried that it’s taking so long to find one, worried about money, and grouchy–but he has more time for Ramona than usual, and they both can enjoy that. Ramona’s older sister Beezus is becoming a teenager and is often in a bad mood–but sometimes she’s really helpful with Ramona’s projects. Ramona is seven years old while Lydia is only four, and Lydia was coping with an unemployed mother and teenage brother, but many of Ramona’s feelings and experiences were very relatable.
Like all the Ramona Quimby books, this one combines funny stories with complicated feelings about real-life situations. The part Lydia asked to hear again and again was the two-chapter story of how a family argument over why the cat ate their jack-o’-lantern in the middle of the night leads to Ramona’s campaign to make her father quit smoking. Of course, this gave us an opportunity to discuss why some people keep smoking when they know it’s bad for them, and we also talked about how Ramona’s family takes for granted that her father smokes at the dining table and asks Ramona to bring him the ashtray! (The book was written in 1975, when I was a child, so I’ve been able to tell my children that it was indeed considered normal in those days for adults to smoke indoors with children in the room! It seems shocking now.)
My favorite moment in this book is Ramona’s resilience when she comes home from what she considers to be an achievement, and her family is unimpressed:
She stood dripping on the linoleum a moment, expecting hurt feelings to take over, perhaps even to make her cry a little so her family would be sorry they had been mean to her. To her wonder, no heavy feeling weighed her down, no sad expression came to her face, no tears. She simply stood there, cold, dripping, and feeling good.
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