Sunday, February 12, 2012

Review: Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. King

Everyone treats Lucky Linderman like he's crazy since he proposed this for a social studies project: poll the students in the freshman class to see how they would kill themselves. But Lucky's not suicidal. He's just sick of being bullied by Nader McMillan, whose been torturing him since they were seven. And Lucky's not crazy, either. He just dreams about rescuing his grandfather from a POW camp in Vietnam. And then wakes up with bits of the jungle in his bed.

Lucky explains all of this while he's on an impromptu vacation to his Uncle's house in Arizona. His mom takes him there after Nader attacks him at the town pool and Lucky's father, as usual, shrugs it off.

The pace of the book is unusual. It's never boring but I didn't have a strong sense of where it was going. In fact, that's making it hard to write a summary, because I don't know where to stop. There are so many important things to talk about, but many of them aren't revealed until the novel is pretty well developed. This is compounded by the fact that Lucky doesn't exactly tell the story in order. I also couldn't tell which characters were going to be the good guys and the bad guys (with the exception of Nader who was a total villain). But together, this made it all more real.

Another thing I liked about the book is that the author never cops out. There's no it-was-all-a-dream and no bullies-are-just-misunderstood. The bad stuff is bad. And it's real. Including the things that happen in Lucky's dreams. They may not be real in the strictest sense of the word, but they're not just a delusion either. Without ever explaining it, the author shows that Lucky is truly connecting with his grandfather--who he's never met--in his dreaming life. I liked this so much, I think, partly because I was so burnt by Going Bovine, which didn't seem at all real at the end.

And speaking of real, the characters in this book are so real, that I'm still trying to decide if I like one of them. Maybe that's not so weird, but I can't think of this ever having happened before. Usually I know how I feel about characters, and usually I think I know how the author wants me to feel about a character. But with Ginny, I'm still veeeeeeeery conflicted. And before I explain further, I just have to point out that Ginny doesn't even talk to Lucky until page 131. How often is a significant character introduced halfway through the book? Cool.

Anyway, Ginny is a slightly older, fantastically attractive hair model Lucky meets in Arizona. Her parents treat her like a paycheck, so she sneaks out after dark to practice the Vagina Monologues with her butch friends. Lucky thinks she's fantastic, but I didn't dig the way she dragged him around like a lovesick puppy. I thought she got off on his attention, and I wasn't sure the Vagina Monologues were really about being free: I thought they were about rebelling against her parents.

And then there's this really weird scene in which Ginny is letting Lucky "practice" kissing her, while telling him that the first time a girl has sex is "pretty much never romantic." She warns Lucky: "So don't put any high expectations on it. Just try to get through it without hurting anyone ... Guys hate being out of control. And they hate emotions. And they hate feeling let down. So try not to take it out on the girl." She keeps insisting that Lucky has never thought about this stuff and that he needs to think about this stuff so he doesn't end up like "a date rapist or something." This is in between kissing him and telling him it means nothing.

Perhaps now you can see why I don't like Ginny. And I realize it's unfair for me to assume that Ginny is speaking for the author here, but I feel this authorial presence, this message coming through the prose. It's the only moment in the book where I was really aware that a woman had written it. Hmmmmm. I think I don't like it because there's no counterargument. Ginny makes these really negative statements about guys, and Lucky seems to accept them. No one else in the novel speaks up for guys. The only men in the novel are passive (Lucky's dad) or philandering (Lucky's uncle). Lucky himself is pretty wonderful, and maybe that's enough. But Lucky's been through so much crap that Ginny delivering this speech to him, of all people, seems harsh.

But another cool thing is that even though it's becoming clear that I don't like Ginny at all, that in no way diminishes my love of the book. If anything, it increases it. I love books that make me feel something, and this one definitely got to me. There's so much more I could say, but I'm going to stop and return it to the library so someone else can read it instead. I need more people I can talk to about it. It's definitely a conversation-starter.

Review: Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin

Are you suspicious of literary devices in children’s books? I guess I am.

What it's all about

I just finished Breaking Stalin’s Nose, and I am sincerely impressed. It’s the story of a little boy whose father is arrested the night before the boy is supposed to join the “Young Pioneers,” which are sort of like Stalinist boy scouts. Raised to be a good Communist, the boy is sure there’s been some mistake and that Stalin will fix everything in time for the induction ceremony.

The reader senses the truth from the beginning: that the boy is now truly alone. Not only will his father never return, but the other adults in his life will turn away from him. Even his kindly aunt fears that taking him in will brand her as a traitor, too.

However, what makes this book a true thriller is that our protagonist, Sergei, as well as two other outcast boys in his class, take matters into their own hands. They don’t wait for the adults to save the day. When the nose is broken off of a statue of Stalin in the school hallway—an “unspeakably monstrous crime,” according to the principal—each boy uses the act of vandalism to carry out a small rebellion.

I loved this book. Some people have said children would need a basic understanding of Russian history to appreciate it, but I completely disagree. The narrator may live in Stalinist Russia, but he doesn’t understand it. We discover the true, twisted nature of the regime along with Sergei. And you don’t need to understand the politics to appreciate the message about figuring out right and wrong for yourself.

Why I mention literary devices

There was just one scene that I questioned: it’s when Sergei has a dream sequence or hallucination or something in which Stalin’s nose appears, dressed in uniform with little arms and legs, smoking a pipe and telling a disturbing story.

Right before Sergei has this vision or whatever (he’s in a Biology lab, so maybe there are fumes?), he overhears a literature professor talking to students about a story called “The Nose.” I’ve never read the story, but apparently, it’s about a nose that dresses up in a uniform and starts giving orders. The moral of the story is that we can’t let other people (particularly not noses dressed in uniform) tell us what is right and wrong.

Breaking Stalin’s Nose makes use of literary devices—an unreliable narrator, heavy symbolism, allusions to other literature, dream sequences—that are familiar to me in adult literature. But I’m not used to seeing them in children’s books. There’s a particularly interesting contrast between Sergei’s voice—a perfect 9-year-old voice, in my opinion—and the intrusion of the Literature professor’s explanation.

Here’s Sergei:

“I hear teacher’s voices, feet marching to an accordion, chalk knocking against blackboard, someone practicing a bugle. Everyone is learning to be useful to our country. Everyone is marching toward Communism, everyone but me.”

Here’s the literature professor:

“What ‘The Nose’ so vividly demonstrates … is that when we blindly believe in someone else’s idea of what is right or wrong for us as individuals, sooner or later our refusal to make our own choices could lead to the collapse of the entire political system.”

Now, that’s the point of the whole novel, encapsulated pretty succinctly, but the passage is still more abstract than the storytelling in the rest of the book. Why is this explanation inserted? Is it an homage to Russian literature? Is it supposed to settle in the reader’s unconscious until the day when he or she can understand it? Does it enhance the story in some ineffable way, whether the reader understands it or not?

This brings me to a larger question about literary devices in general: do they work best when we notice them or when we don’t notice them? Are they like special effects in movies—as soon as you notice them it un-suspends your disbelief and ruins the story? Or are we more aware when we’re reading that the story is a construct—because we are constructing it as we read—in which case we enjoy the way literary devices take us behind the scenes?

When I was in high school I looooooooooved noticing literary devices because it made me feel like I was cracking the code of great novels. As I got older, I was much more likely to roll my eyes and say, just tell me a story, author. I think that’s partly because of what’s happened in literary criticism—we’ve veered away from deconstruction and are back to comparing literature to reality and discussing how things in the real world are portrayed in novels.

The verdict

To bring it back to Breaking Stalin’s Nose, I feel like the author indulged a little with the Nose sequence. It’s like the radio addresses in Atlas Shrugged but not as bad. I think whether children understand it or not, it will take them out of the story, because it’s so obviously laden with meaning and unlikely to happen in real life.

However, I can think of one reason why the author may have intended to knock the reader back to reality: to make the reader reflect on his or her own life. Maybe the author wanted to go timeless for a minute, to stop the story and make his larger point so you would get the message that this isn’t just about Stalinist Russia, it’s about all people having to sort out right and wrong for themselves.

Or maybe not. Either way, I’ve read it and I’m a believer: this is a great novel for children. Twists and turns. Bold acts of rebellion. Expressive illustrations. Glittering city setting. Cold hard truth. No Deus Ex Machina. That’s how I like my historical fiction.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

And now for some eco-criticism

A recent study found that award-winning picture books today portray man-made environments twice as often as natural environments. I know, it sounds like a bad thing, but part of me loves it. As a librarian in an urban environment, I've always felt like there was a bias towards farms and woodlands in children's books. Turns out I'm wrong!

I was introduced to this study by a blog post that does a pretty good job of putting it in context, challenging the study's conclusion that "today’s generation of children are not being socialized, at least through this source, toward an understanding and appreciation of the natural world and the place of humans within it."

I've seen this kind of literary criticism before: studying the portrayal of the natural environment the way you might study the portrayal of women or minorities or people with some kind of "otherness." I'm not sure I buy the natural environment as an "other," although I do think it would be interesting to study its portrayal. I guess I don't think those two categories--natural and man-made--are that helpful.

Some of my favorite books for teaching children about natural phenomena feature "built" environments--Peter Brown's Curious Garden, Addie Boswell's (or should I say Eric Velasquez's) Rain Stomper, G. Brian Karas's Village Garage. I just handed two of those three to a kindergarten teacher who was doing a unit on weather.

So I'll keep looking for a better model for analyzing the role of the environment in children's books. Although there's lots of personification of the setting in books for kids, I don't think treating the natural world as a character is the way to go.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Review: Jefferson's Sons by Kimberly Brubaker-Bradley

I really wish I had liked Jefferson's Sons by Kimberly Brubaker-Bradley. It focuses on such an intriguing bit of history, and yet I feel like some of the untold stories were even more interesting than the told ones.

The novel follows three boys who live in slavery at Monticello. Two of them are the sons of Thomas Jefferson by Sally Hemmings, and from the moment they are born, Sally is planning their future as free men.

The boys' parentage is an open secret, and one thing that struck me was how nice everyone is about it. None of the other slaves seem to mind that Sally Hemmings' children will be set free when the turn 18 while everyone else is property forever. I mean, they mind, but it doesn't create any distance between them and the Hemmings. In addition to being nicey-nice, the adults are very into explaining things to the kids, and other bloggers have been bothered by these modern-sounding conversations.

I didn't mind the conversations so much, but I was disappointed by the novel. Here's why: not much happens. There's the obligatory whipping scene, the boys get violin lessons, a slave gets sold to another family, and lots of fancy dinners get served. Plenty of chapters have this feeling of impending doom, but they tend to conclude suddenly without anything particularly bad happening. If I were trying to convince a child to read this book, I wouldn't know what to tell them.

I'm interested in books that complicate our mental picture of slavery. I think of the images that have stayed with me since I learned about slavery in school--the diagram of a ship with slaves packed in like sardines, that famous photograph of the scars on a former slave's back--they tell important stories. But I'm almost used to those stories. And there are so many other stories. Hearing a new one reminds me that, yes, slavery was really that bad. That crazy. That complicated. Is it important to be reminded? It feels important.

So this novel tells one of those "other" stories: the story of kids who walked the line between black and white. But like I said, not much happens. I want to know more about Sally Hemmings' life in Paris, where she was paid like a servant instead of treated like a slave. I want to know more about the experiences of Sally Hemmings' children when they leave the plantation and learn to "be white."

But it occurs to me that those would be YA novels. It's damn hard to write a children's book about slavery. For one thing, you have to be delicate about the sex and violence of slavery, which feels like cheating. For another thing, childhood is a narrow window in which to tell a sweeping story. This is one area in which Brubaker-Bradley comes up with a clever solution: she cycles through three different protagonists. As one boy reaches his teen years, she switches perspectives, telling the next part of the story from a younger boy's perspective.

So I applaud Brubaker-Bradley for telling the story that so intrigued her and I hope it inspires others. I'm glad the book is getting good reviews in Horn Book and that it's championed by Elizabeth Bird. But I can't say I'll be recommending it to a lot of kids at my library.