My Louisiana Sky
Kimberly Willis Holt (J Fiction)
Tiger Ann Parker was six when she realized that her momma wasn’t like other mothers—acting more like a younger sibling than a parent—and her father was no better, often described as “slow” by the men he worked with at the nursery. Tiger hated to admit it, but she felt embarrassed by her parents and often wished that her mother was more like her stylish and independent Aunt Dorie Kay. If she was, then maybe Tiger could make friends with the girls in her class. Maybe Tiger could finally fit in. Tiger’s wish may be coming true when she’s given the chance to leave her small town of Saitter and begin a new life in Baton Rouge. But is starting over really the answer that Tiger is looking for?
This is the second book by Kimberly Willis Holt that I’ve read, the first being When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, and Holt again delighted me with a cast of unforgettable characters and an immersive story. My Louisiana Sky is another period book, but this one takes place during the 1950s when the country was divided by segregation and people with developmental disorders were often institutionalized. Mirroring Zachary, Holt’s down-home and folksy writing is front and center and instantly draws the reader to her characters and pulls you into their quaint and intimate world. The story is told from twelve-year-old Tiger’s point of view and what really compelled me—apart from its strong themes of acceptance and family—was how the script was flipped a bit. Most books that deal with the subject of developmental disabilities for this age often afflicts either a sibling or a friend of the main character. For Holt to strip Tiger’s familial stability by having not one but both of her parents dealing with varying degrees of mental challenges gives the story an entirely unique perspective and instills an overall sense of aloneness for Tiger. Combine that with her having to deal with the common adolescent fare of self-esteem, body issues, and self-confidence and you can’t really fault Tiger for wanting to leave everything she knows and loves behind for a chance to simply be a twelve-year old girl for a while.
There are so many positive lessons to be learned from this book, but the reader who is fighting against circumstances beyond their control and struggling to be accepted by their peers is going to feel the deep connection to Tiger Ann Parker. Most of us can remember wanting to be part of a clique and recalling the sting when confronted with rejection. We feel Tiger’s anguish when she cries out, “It’s not fair. I didn’t do anything to them,” and appreciate the wisdom of Granny’s words when she tells Tiger, “Perhaps those girls don’t deserve your friendship.” It’s true when they say that it’s not what we have in life, but who we have in our life that matters. For Tiger, all she needed was a best friend who loved baseball, a father who had a talent for listening to the earth, and a mother who loved to dance in between the sheets drying on the clothesline under a bright, blue Louisiana sky.
* Book cover image attributed to: www.goodreads.com
Pat Schmatz (Young Adult Fiction)
“One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish.” Might as well be, “One fish, two fish, Travis is a stupid fish.” At least that’s what they all say…well, what one person says, but he is a VERY influential person. Travis Roberts is the new kid in the eighth grade. The only thing keeping him in school was his dog, Rosco, and now that he’s gone, what’s the point? He’ll always be stupid. He’ll always be a bluefish. But then Travis meets Vida (her public calls her “Velveeta”) and Bradley Whistler (who is THE smartest kid EVER) and Mr. McQueen, his reading teacher. Up until this point, everything that Travis cared about was gone. Maybe now he has a reason to begin caring again…even if he is just a bluefish.
Pat Schmatz serves up an awkwardly accurate and often humorous portrayal of adolescence through three flawed and endearing misfits—all longing to fit in and wanting to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Our three protagonists are no longer a child and not quite an adult, and Bluefish shows us the mask each wears to cover up their insecurities and shortcomings. From the brainiac to the class clown to the strong, silent type, Schmatz successfully encapsulates the complicated world of teenagers and the tangled and convoluted roadmap that directs their everyday lives and dictates their emotions.
Bluefish is more than a story of friendship and middle school survival, it’s a story of how one person has the power to change the very course of our life: a kid who finds and hands back your stolen shoe; a girl who invites you to sit with her at lunch; or a teacher who volunteers his or her time to tutor you before school. Thank you, Ms. Schmatz, for reminding us of the importance of not giving up on our friends, and—more importantly—not giving up on ourselves. You have shown us that being a bluefish really isn’t so bad and can actually be a rather remarkable thing after all.
*Book cover image attributed to www.barnesandnoble.com
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Swim to Me
Betsy Carter (Adult Fiction)
Delores Walker can vividly recall the moment her mother dropped her into the shallow end of a lake. She was just two, but she remembers the water’s temperature, plunging into its depths, and struggling to resurface. It was heaven. Twelve years later, she travels to Weeki Wachee Springs in Florida with her mother and father. It’s 1970 and the mermaids of Weeki Wachee perform a tribute to Apollo 11. They spin, twirl, dive, and glide, and Delores is fascinated and enthralled by these amazing creatures in the water. Now at sixteen, she boards a Greyhound bus to Florida with a suitcase, a handful of silver dollars, a letter from Weeki Wachee, and a dream of being a mermaid.
This book is a loving tribute to those wonderfully glorious quirky, kitschy, and sometimes tacky roadside attractions that are a part of our rich and unique history and culture. I totally immersed myself in this novel and loved reading about these aquatic darlings and their lives both in and out of the tank. Carter ensures a well-rounded story by giving equal attention to Delores; her struggling and self-absorbed mother, Gail; and her absentee and apathetic father, Roy. By offering readers a deeper insight into each of these characters separately, we gain a clearer understanding of their own personal thoughts, feelings, and struggles.
More than a loving wink and nod to days gone by, Swim to Me is a book about endings and new beginnings; about not being defined or confined by your present situation; and about taking what’s given to you and making the absolute most of it.
* Book cover image attributed to http://www.goodreads.com
The Summer of the Swans
Betsy Byars (Juvenile Fiction)
Fourteen-year old Sara Godfrey is having the worst summer of her life. She hates her orange sneakers, she has the biggest feet in school, and don’t even mention her nose. “I just feel like nothing,” she tells her sister. But all that changes when her ten-year old brother, Charlie, goes missing. Suddenly, Sara realizes what is truly important and what really matters.
Sara not only struggles with her own adolescent issues, but is dealing with an absentee father, meddling aunt, and a brother suffering from a mental impairment. Byars accurately captures and conveys the angst, anger, and anxiety that most teens endure and provides readers with a realistic sense of Sara’s desperate desire to fit in, to be liked, and to be accepted. More than just a coming-of-age book, The Summer of the Swans also provides an insight into Charlie’s mind and reveals his own desire for stability and security. Byars shows us how love requires no words and perhaps is more accurately spoken not through the mouth, but by the heart.