Sunday, August 25, 2013

Seeing Red, Alice, Sean Rosen, Better Nate Than Ever, and first award prediction of the year

Another round-up of good recent reads:

Seeing Red, by Katherine Erskine. I'm surprised I haven't heard more about this one, out in October. Katherine Erskine's writing process seems to involve putting a character in a tough situation, finding several ways to make the situation tougher, and then challenging the character to do the right thing. In this case, Red, who lives in 1972 Virginia, has just lost his father and is desperately against his mother's plan to take the family back to her home state of Ohio. That desperation makes him willing to do anything (he thinks) to prevent the sale of their land, but that "anything" turns out to include using race. Red gets caught up in things he doesn't believe in, and ends up a reluctant participant in a scene that amounts to kids playing at KKK-type activities. There's no permanent physical damage, but the images are frightening nonetheless, and I admire Erskine's willingness to show how a generally sympathetic character can be driven to do something evil, and then to stick with that character through the fallout. This is upper-middle-grade, and I think I would've been ready for it around 11 or 12.

On a very different note, several omnibuses of Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Alice books have recently come my way, so I've been catching up on my Alice in preparation for upcoming series finale. I'm sure I'll have more to say once I've finished the series, but oh, Alice, I'm glad you're there in all your sometimes ridiculous and didactic glory.

I Represent Sean Rosen is a fun and silly middle-grade novel about a kid who has a cool idea for Hollywood, but no idea how Hollywood works. Think of him as a slightly more successful Timmy Failure, and though it's not quite semi-graphic, parts of it are written in screenplay form, which breaks up the text. Between that, the humor, and the Hollywood connection, this could be a great light read for readers on the reluctant side. I'll very likely recommend it the next time a parent begs me for "something that isn't Wimpy Kid" (while I praise Wimpy Kid as a gateway series).

Better Nate Than Ever is another story about a kid with grand showbiz dreams, one who sneaks off to New York to try out for a Broadway musical. I did a lot of you're thirteen and innocent and practically penniless and alone in New York, you brave idiot panicking for the poor kid, but I also did a lot of nodding. Because this is a middle-grade novel about a boy who's getting teased about maybe being gay, and who isn't quite sure whether he is or not, but who is reassured to see same-sex couples walking around openly in New York. With the exception of the graphic novel Drama, I haven't seen this topic covered at length for an audience younger than YA. (Books showing gay parents and other adults are a valuable thing, but they're a different thing from this.) I have thoughts, lots of them, about how children's lit as a whole portrays boys with nontraditionally male interests, but that's a topic for another post (probably in the near future). For now, I'll just say that this is one of the types, though not the only type, of book I'd like to see more of.

The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata shows a family of Japanese-American migrant workers. Summer, age 12, has a lot to put up with, beginning with a prickly grandmother whom I kept wanting to shake. There's a lot of humor and a lot of originality in this one - how many novels have main characters obsessed with bug spray because they've just recovered from malaria? A great glimpse into the modern migrant working culture, which I hadn't known much about, and also a great story.

Finally, if Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane doesn't win an Alex Award, I'll eat a bug. (There are, like, chocolate grasshoppers or something to get me out of this if I need it, right?)

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