Sunday, November 17, 2013

Barbara Park was here

I just saw that Barbara Park passed away on Friday at age 66. Most of the memories this news brings up are a little vague because they reside deep in childhood, but I have a clear memory of the unathletic narrator of Skinnybones (Alex, Google reminds me) realizing that the Most Improved Player Award wasn't much of a compliment. That combination of a character's self-awareness and his willingness to call adults on their BS, at least privately for the reader's benefit, stuck with me. I love first-person novels, especially the kind about underdogs, especially the kind with a good bit of snark. Skinnybones was a second-grade read, before I encountered Peter Hatcher or Kristy Thomas and friends or many of the other narrators who would make me laugh while making me feel trusted. Now that I think about it, it may have been my first extended experience with first-person narration. In any case, I'm still hooked.

By the time I saw Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus in the library, I was just about aged out of its target audience, but that never stopped me, especially if I recognized the name of an author I liked. I have a clear memory of raising my hand to make a point in class; I don't remember what that point was, but I remember it started, "I just read a book called Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus, and..." My venerable fourth-grade teacher thought that was pretty funny, and so did my classmates. I'd sort of forgotten how silly the title sounded, though, because I'd just read the book and I was completely with Junie B., even at the parts where I felt smarter than her (I was, after all, four years older).

Mick Harte Was Here, a few years after that, was not what I expected. Again, I'd picked the book up because it was by an author whose work had made me laugh. It turned out that Mick was the brother of narrator Phoebe, and he had just died in a bike accident. There were still plenty of funny moments, mostly involving Phoebe's memories of Mick, but I found that the sadness didn't bother me once I'd gotten used to the idea that this was a sad book (with a wear-your-helmet message). Like the snark in Skinnybones, the tougher topics in Mick Harte made me feel trusted.

Barbara Park wasn't a flashy author. She didn't come up much in grad school, and in bookselling she mostly comes up in debates about whether ungrammatical Junie B. should be unleashed upon impressionable young minds. But I suspect Barbara quietly had more influence than I realized. I'm glad she was here.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

In which I get really excited about something being kinda no big deal

I haven't read House of Hades,









I learned last night from Twitter that Nico, a boy character in the Heroes of Olympus series, is revealed to have a crush on Percy Jackson. The book has been out since October 8th, and it's been very much on the radar as the latest in what's arguably the most popular middle-grade series out there (not that Wimpy Kid's having terribly hard luck). I've now seen several online references to this particular plot point, but I've seen them all in the past twenty-four hours. I don't claim to have seen every response out there, but my sense is that this very mainstream book has been out there for a month without becoming known as a "gay book." As an astute commenter said on my last post, "we should be normalizing queerness so that it's not 'inappropriate' for younger readers." That's exactly what Rick Riordan has done here. A boy has a crush on another boy just as he might on a girl, and he's understandably conflicted about it (the world doesn't necessarily make it easy), but there's nothing graphic or "dirty" about it.

With previous middle-grade titles, I've felt some need to mention the presence of homosexuality to parents shopping for particularly young readers, simply because that presence has been somewhat unusual and unexpected, and it's reasonable for parents to want to be prepared if questions come up. But I feel this book may be a turning point. Nico's existence makes the presence of gay characters in middle-grade much less unusual, much less noteworthy.

Thank you, Rick Riordan.