All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven (YA)

All the Bright Places

All the Bright Places

Jennifer Niven (Young Adult Fiction)

“Is today a good day to die?”  Theodore Finch asks himself this question in the morning, during third period, and at supper.  He also counts the days that he is Awake.  Awake is good and safe and where he needs to be.  Violet Markey counts the days until graduation.  When she can begin a new life away from Bartlett, Indiana and the pain she feels every day since her sister died.  Both Finch and Violet are counting, but what they didn’t count on was meeting on the ledge at the top of the high school bell tower.  They didn’t count on wandering around their state discovering out-of-the-way landmarks and attractions.  Most of all, they didn’t count on falling in love.

All the Bright Places gives readers a gritty and honest look into bipolar disorder.  Told in alternating narratives by Finch and Violet, we experience bullying, loss, domestic abuse, suicide, and mental illness.  With so many disturbing and difficult topics, it is a testament to Niven that readers are given a story filled with laughter, love, and hope.  Through two fractured and flawed main characters, we see teenagers struggling to understand their place in the world and determined—despite all odds—to make their mark within it.

Young Adult Me liked the star-crossed relationship between Finch and Violet.  He was the Yin to her Yang and the two complemented one another well.  Finch’s fearlessness in approaching Violet about her loss enabled her to break free from her psychological prison and regain her independence.  Violet, in turn, acted as a compass giving Finch direction and much-needed stability.  However, Adult Me really had a problem with Finch’s family and how they chose to deal with his manic depression.  It seemed too easy and convenient to chalk up his behavior as quirky and weird and, “Oh, that’s just Finch.”  When he disappears for days, they dismiss it as, “He does that sometimes.”  This cavalier attitude seems a bit apathetic for a family already put through the wringer with divorce…and a nasty one at that.  During weekly visits with the Finch patriarch, it’s obvious that Finch’s condition is hereditary and one would think that his mother would be hesitant to turn a blind eye a second time around.  But in the end, Young Adult Me just told Adult Me to stop overthinking things and enjoy the story…so I did.

Niven gives us a raw and poignant story about two teens drowning in their own pools of mental anguish and personal guilt.  Whether by luck or fate, they find each other and extend the healing lifelines of forgiveness, acceptance, and love to each other.  Through them, we see that it is possible for life to go on no matter how impossible or improbable it may seem at the time.  Throughout their story, Finch and Violet express their need to feel relevant, their desire to matter, and their wish to be remembered.  By seeking out the hidden treasures within their own state (a backyard roller coaster, a shoe tree, or a book mobile park), the two begin to uncover their own self-worth that eventually allows a violet to bloom and a finch to fly.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.target.com

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The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate (J)

The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan

Katherine Applegate (Juvenile Fiction)

“I just thought of a story,” I say.  “Is it a made-up story or a true one?” Ruby asks.  “True,” I say.  “I hope.”  Ruby leans against the bars.  Her eyes hold the pale moon in them, the way a still pond holds stars.  “Once upon a time,” I say, “there was a baby elephant.  She was smart and brave, and she needed to go to a place called a zoo.”  “What’s a zoo?” Ruby asks.  “A zoo, Ruby, is a place where humans make amends.  A good zoo is a place where humans care for animals and keep them safe.”  “Did the baby elephant get to the zoo?” Ruby asks softly.  I don’t answer right away.  “Yes,” I say at last.  “How did she get there?” Ruby asks.  “She had a friend,” I say.  “A friend who made a promise.”

Ivan is known by many names that humans have given him: The Freeway Gorilla, The Ape at Exit 8, Mighty Silverback, and The One and Only Ivan.  But really, Ivan isn’t any of those.  He’s just Ivan who spends his days (9,876 and counting) at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade.  Ivan is great at counting, but the thing he loves to do more than anything else is draw.  His drawings sell for $20 in the gift shop ($25 framed) and so he spends his days drawing, counting, and observing until a baby elephant named Ruby joins the Big Top Mall.  Ruby is shy and scared and Ivan soon realizes that he must make good on a promise he made to a friend in order to keep Ruby safe.  A promise that he’s not sure how he’ll keep, but he knows he must find a way.  Whatever that might be.

Winner of the 2013 Newbery Medal, The One and Only Ivan was inspired by a real gorilla named Ivan who spent almost three decades in a circus-themed mall in Washington state before his eventual relocation to Zoo Atlanta.  In this heartwarming and touching story, Applegate gives us a hero who is kind, strong, and loyal.  Despite being four-hundred pounds of pure power, Ivan is a main character full of self-doubt, humility, and opinions…lots and lots of opinions:  poodles are parasites, humans speak too much, and there is absolutely no excuse for chimps.

Throughout her story, Applegate gives us glimpses of kindness, cruelty, desperation, remorse, selflessness, hope, and love.  It is a tale of loyalty, bravery, and ingenuity and shows us how far we are willing to go in order to keep a promise to a friend.  Narrated by Ivan and written in simple, concise sentences that manage to convey a wide range of thoughts and feelings, we get to experience the lonely and isolated world of caged animals and their longing to see the sky, touch the grass, feel the wind, and taste a bit of freedom.  After reading this book, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll never look at a circus (with animals) in the same way again.  At least I hope so.

The One and Only Ivan has so many valuable lessons to share with readers young and old alike: the honor of keeping your word, the importance of finding your inner strength, and the impact that a small act of kindness possesses.  Above all, this book shows us that you don’t have to have much in common with someone in order to extend a bit of comfort and hope.  Ivan shows us this through his friendship with Stella, an elderly elephant.  “We don’t have much in common, but we have enough.  We are huge and alone, and we both love yogurt raisins.”  Author, speaker, and businessman Stephen Covey once said, “Strength lies in differences, not in similarities.”  How wonderful life could be if we were able to take a lesson from an opinionated silverback and an aged pachyderm.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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Rascal by Sterling North (J Biography)

Rascal

Rascal

Sterling North (Juvenile Biography)

One pleasant afternoon in 1918, eleven-year-old Sterling North, along with his Saint Bernard, Wowser, and friend, Oscar Sunderland, were in Wentworth’s woods.  There, in the hollow base of a rotten stump, hid a mother raccoon and her litter of four kits.  Angered and frightened by Wowser’s intrusive digging, mother and kits darted to safety, but not before Oscar was able to capture one of the kits in his knit cap.  On that May 15th day, young Sterling had no idea that this incident would mark the beginning a very unusual and special friendship.  A friendship filled with irresistibly shiny things, strawberry pop, sweet corn, music, crayfish, and a no-good rotten bully by the name of Slammy Stillman.  The next twelve months would be a year that young Sterling would never forget.

Rascal received a Newbery Honor in 1964 and is Sterling North’s memories of growing up in southern Wisconsin from May 1918 to April 1919.  It would be a time marked with his brother, Herschel, serving in World War I, Armistice Day, and the Spanish influenza, which claimed more lives in his beloved town of Edgerton (referred to as Brailsford Junction in this book) than the war.  North was the youngest of four children.  His father was a successful landowner and his mother died when North was only seven.  In Rascal, North describes a time when front doors were never locked, neighbors looked after one another, family and good health were your most prized possessions, and all it took to make young Sterling North the happiest boy in the world were his bike, his pet raccoon sitting in the front basket, and the wind in your face as you barrel down a hill at top speed.

Some reviewers of North’s biography call it a story about friendship while others say it is a journey dealing with loss.  I found it to be more a love letter written to two mothers:  Sterling’s own beloved mother, Sarah, and Mother Nature herself.  North is exactingly detailed when he describes the beauty and splendor of wildlife, the complexities of the various plants, and the science behind selecting the perfect bait when fishing.  Younger readers may find these sections a bit tedious (as they’re probably more anxious to read about Rascal than river trout), but it is a clear reflection of the awe and respect that North has for the world around him and how these observations directly connect him with a mother that he barely had time to know.  He sees his mother in every bud and hears her voice with every new discovery.  Mother Nature is, in effect, his own mother reaching out and embracing him and these moments are truly heartwarming and comforting.

During the Christmas of 1918, Sterling’s Aunt Lillie asked him what profession he was thinking about pursuing.  After discounting his desire to become a doctor, his aunt suggested that a writer might be a more suitable choice, as his mother might have wished this vocation for him.  After Sterling questioned her about it, she explained, “And then you could put it all down…the way it is now…case weather, the fog, the lantern light…and the voices of the men—hear them—coming in for breakfast.  You could keep it just like this forever.”  Lucky for us, young Sterling listened to his aunt and by doing so, allowed readers to keep him, Rascal, and Brailsford Junction, just like this, forever as well.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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Hoot by Carl Hiaasen (J)

Hoot

Hoot

Carl Hiaasen (Juvenile Fiction)

It’s tough always being “the new kid”.  It’s even tougher when there is a bully involved, but the day that Dana Matherson mashed Roy Eberhardt’s face against the school bus window was perhaps the greatest stroke of luck since Alexander Graham Bell spilled acid on his leg.  For it was at that exact moment that Roy saw the mysterious running boy bolting past the bus.  He was wearing no shoes and carrying no backpack or books.  What was he running from?  Where was he going?  And why wasn’t he wearing any shoes?  Turns out, that wasn’t the only mystery in the sleepy little town of Coconut Cove, Florida.  Someone is trying to prevent the newest Mother Paula’s All-American Pancake House from being built.  Between burrowing owls, alligators, sparkly-tailed snakes, fake farts, and nightly pranks, perhaps Coconut Cove isn’t so sleepy after all.

Carl Hiaasen’s Hoot was awarded a Newbery Honor in 2003.  He gives us two mysteries in one: a strange running boy and a vandal thwarting the efforts of a big-time corporation.  The story is witty, fast-paced, and full of heart.  Our hero, Roy, is likeable and full of moxie.  For a kid who just wants to get through the school day unnoticed, he makes it a point to stand out from the crowd.  From taking on the school bully to striking up an unusual friendship with Beatrice Leep, an elite soccer star, Roy quickly makes a name for himself and becomes the unlikeliest of heroes.

Hoot is more than just a story about friendship and courage.  It is a David-versus-Goliath story as environmentalism goes head-to-head with capitalism.  It’s burrowing owls against big bucks and a group of average kids willing to go to great lengths in order to protect something far more valuable than a building or a brand.  In addition, we are introduced to a rather unseemly group of adults: an opportunistic officer, a nasty vice-principal, crooked politicians, a vile stepmother, greedy corporate heads, and so on.  Luckily, there are a few adults in the book who haven’t sold their soul to the devil, but the spotlight is really on Roy, Beatrice, and our mysterious running boy, which proves that good things do come in small packages.

American writer and poet Suzy Kassem wrote, “Stand up for what is right, even if you stand alone.”  Carl Hiaasen gives readers a story about defending the weakest among us—the helpless and vulnerable who either lack the voice to speak up or the courage to stand up.  He provides instances showing people doing good in order to curry favor or to get ahead, but it’s the instances where good is done simply because it is the right thing to do that proves to be the truest measure of a person.  Hiaasen illustrates this through a new kid, a mysterious running boy, and a soccer star—three unlikely friends who wouldn’t give up despite the odds and showed that every life is precious and worth preserving.  That, dear friends, is something we should all give a hoot about.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.target.com

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Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe. by Bette Greene (J)

Philip Hall Likes Me I Reckon Maybe

Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe.

Bette Greene (Juvenile Fiction)

 There are a few things that Elizabeth “Beth” Lorraine Lambert cannot stand: being cheated, allergies, being told she can’t do something because she’s a girl, and giving that low-down dumb bum of a polecat Philip Hall the satisfaction of beating her at anything.  Truth be told, Beth is smart—really, really smart—but when it comes to Philip Hall, she can be kind of a dumb bum, too.  But Philip is the cutest boy at J. T. Williams School and with that dimpled smile…does it really hurt if Beth lets him win at a few things every now and then?

Haven’t most of us, at one time or another, happily played the part of “chump” when it comes to being noticed or liked by someone that we felt was a bit out of our league?  Whether that someone was too good looking, too popular, too smart, too athletic, or just too…well…too.  For one reason or another, we sacrifice self-respect for the opportunity to just be around that person.  Well, our young Beth Lambert is no different, but the good news is, she knows it and better still, she realizes that the long-term rewards that come with being yourself greatly outweigh the temporary benefits of being around someone who’s not even seeing the real you, but rather a lesser, compromised version of you.

I’m always drawn to books that feature plucky female protagonists: Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables), Dovey Coe (Dovey Coe), Fern Arable (Charlotte’s Web) and Francie Nolan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) are just a few of my favorites.  Girls and young ladies who have a mind of their own and will not yield to societal norms or expectations.  They prove to be intelligent, loyal, resilient, principled, and brave.  Beth Lambert is one such girl who not only stands up to turkey thieves and an unscrupulous store owner, but also to her own insecurities that tell her that she has to be inferior in order to gain and keep a friendship.  Lucky for us, she realizes the error of her ways and evolves into the kind of young lady that she was meant to be.

Bette Greene shows us the power of believing in ourselves and the gift that comes when someone we respect and admire has faith in us.  Beth received such support from her doctor and the few words of encouragement that he offered her allowed Beth to see the possibilities that awaited her and to explore the opportunities that she thought were well out of her reach.  I enjoyed Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe. and cheered as our Beth evolved from being a pleaser to an assertive and confident girl that anyone would fall in love with.  Even a low-down dumb bum of a polecat like Philip Hall.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.scholastic.com

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Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

Tuesdays with Morrie

Tuesdays with Morrie

Mitch Albom (Adult Memoir)

 It was to be professor Morrie Schwartz’s final class.  A class with no grades, no textbooks, and no final exam.  Weekly oral exams were required and a long paper on what was learned was expected (a kiss good-bye earned an extra credit).  The subject would be The Meaning of Life and the class would cover such topics as family, work, aging, forgiveness, love, and death.  It would last fourteen weeks (fourteen Tuesdays to be exact), be held after breakfast, and would have just one pupil—a former student by the name of Mitch Albom who had lost his way somehow.  Thanks to Ted Koppel, Mitch found his way again because he had found Morrie Schwartz.

Tuesdays with Morrie reminded me of John Gunther’s 1949 memoir Death Be Not Proud.  Both were a celebration of life and showed us what true courage, grace, peace, and humility look like.  Mitch Albom provides us with an honest, candid, and raw account of his beloved professor’s last weeks on earth as he battles and eventually succumbs to the ravages of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease.  His account of his time with Morrie is heartbreaking and humorous, tragic and hopeful, and gives us a precious glimpse into the life of a man who accepted his fate with dignity and generosity.  By openly sharing his steady decline with Albom and by conducting several interviews on national television, Morrie cast modesty and privacy aside with the hope that those touched by his story may cherish the time that they have been given and re-evaluate what was truly most important in life.

Throughout his memoir, Albom blesses us with many of Morrie’s aphorisms: “Do the kinds of things that come from the heart.”; “Love each other or perish.”; “Death ends a life, not a relationship.”; and his last one, “Don’t let go too soon, but don’t hang on too long.”  Albom’s story of his former professor and friend is bittersweet because we know how the story is going to end.  With each turn of the page, we understand that we’re getting closer to Morrie’s final day and although we hope that never turning another page might mean that Morrie could somehow avoid death, we know that isn’t possible and that his fate has already been determined and carried out.

Tuesdays with Morrie explores humanity and what it means to be a part of humankind.  Although published in 1997, Morrie’s insights and observations ring just as true today as they did almost twenty-five years ago.  Back then, while society was caught up with Princess Diana, John F. Kennedy, Jr., and the trial of O. J. Simpson, Morrie said to Albom, “The culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves.  And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it.”  How unfortunate that this is just as relevant today as it was nearly a quarter of a century ago.

In his final weeks, scores of Morrie’s former students traveled domestically and internationally for the chance to visit their favorite professor one final time.  Morrie knew, better than anyone, that the role of educator carries a tremendous amount of responsibility and influence.  In death, as I imagine it was true in life, Morrie gave each one of his visitors his undivided attention and made them feel like they were the most important thing in the world.  He made everyone feel important, special, and loved.  That was Morrie’s legacy and his hope for the future.  That everyone would feel good about themselves.

At one time or another, we’ve all had a favorite teacher, camp counselor, or coach who had a profound impact on the way we wanted to model ourselves as adults.  They encouraged, supported, and challenged us and their influence will always be a part of us.  But what we often fail to realize, and what Albom reminds us of, is the effect that we—as students, campers, or athletes—have had on their lives as well.  The gestures of appreciation, the thirst for knowledge, the desire to please is just as important and meaningful.  It’s a fragile circle that can be strengthened with a simple “Thank You” or weakened with a harsh word.  But through Morrie and Mitch, we’re shown just how joyful this unique bond and relationship can be and even though graduations and retirements come and go, the learning—the loving—never stops.  As Morrie said, “The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love, and to let it come in.”  Well said, Professor.  Class dismissed.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio by Lloyd Alexander (J Fantasy)

The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio

The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio

Lloyd Alexander (Juvenile Fantasy)

 If you were to ask Evariste what he thought of his nephew, Carlo Chuchio, he would say that the lad was nothing more than a thankless, dimwitted daydreamer.  A “chooch”.  And perhaps he was right.  Having an uncle who was an importer, Carlo spent his days loitering at the docks and imagining places waiting to be visited and explored—places far beyond his home in Magenta.  Adventure, as fate would have it, was a lot closer than Carlo had imagined for when he happened upon a bookseller in the market, he was offered a book of fantastic tales.  Stories of magic carpets and genies in lamps and caves filled with treasure.  But this particular book didn’t just contain wondrous stories, it also hid a map with the most intriguing and irresistible two words that Carlo could ever imagine: “Royal Treasury”.  Soon, Carlo would be embarking on a journey that involved an unlikely set of traveling companions…all heading to Cathai and the fabled “Road of Golden Dreams”.

Lloyd Alexander takes readers on a magical journey filled with suspense, danger, mishaps, missteps, humor, and romance.  Although there’s no flying carpet or bottled genie, there is plenty to delight and entertain readers of any age.  At the heart of this story is young Carlo Chuchio, a dreamer filled with integrity who would not let his desire to be held in high regard outweigh his need to do the right thing.  He soon realizes the burden of having a conscience, but the blessing that comes with listening to it.

Along Carlo’s journey, he meets up with a delightful set of companions.  Baksheesh, a camel-puller, proves to be an invaluable adviser and is always ready with a fast line or two in order to escape trouble…or work.  There’s quiet and observant Salamon, who is childlike in his eagerness, curiosity, and joy when discovering something new.  Then there’s Sira, who is not what she appears to be.  She bears a tragic past and although her heart is filled with vengeance and heartache, perhaps there’s still a bit of room left for love.  Together, the group encounters ruffians, warlords, a dream merchant, a painter, rivaling tribes, armies, a horse master, and perhaps the most repugnant of them all, a storyteller.  While encountering danger and death at almost every turn, our ragtag troupe reminds us that it is often cunning and cleverness that have a sharper edge and can cut just as deep as any saber or tulwar.

Of all the characters in this book, it is Salamon who is perhaps my favorite.  He is a kind and gentle man of few words, but when he does offer up some advice or wisdom, they are balm to the soul.  When Carlo was unsure about what his future held, Salamon replied, “What remains to be seen is always the most interesting.”  And when Carlo was telling Salamon about his quest for treasure, Salamon came up with a gem of his own: “As if a fortune could make up for the bother of gaining it.  No, no, my lad: The journey is the treasure.”

The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio teaches us so many lessons: not to judge a book by its cover, the virtues found by putting your faith in the untrustworthy, or the comfort gained from seeking hope amongst the impossible.  But above all, Lloyd Alexander gives us a wonderful and exciting story about a boy who discovers all the possibilities and treasure that the world has to offer all because one day, he seized upon the remarkable opportunity to open up a book.  How much richer can you possibly get?

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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Onion John by Joseph Krumgold (J)

Onion John

Onion John

Joseph Krumgold (Juvenile Fiction)

Twelve-year-old Andy Rusch is a junior to his father’s senior and that carries a lot of weight and responsibility.  Seems that Andy’s father has big plans for him: working for General Magneto this summer, studying at MIT, being an engineer, and maybe one day going to the moon!  But all Andy wants to do is work in the family’s hardware store, play baseball, and hang out with his best friend, Onion John.  Not many people can understand Onion John, but Andy does.  Onion John is a beloved fixture in the small town of Serenity, New Jersey.  He lives a simple life in his stacked-stone house filled with bathtubs and has his own ideas about how to make apples grow bigger or how to make it rain.  Onion John’s fanciful ways clash with Andy’s father who wants his son to be practical and realistic.  But how can a boy possibly choose between his best friend and his father?  And what happens when your best friend starts to become friends with your father?  Up until that point, the worst thing that had ever happened was when Eechee Ries was pulled from the pond and worked over by the Pulmotor.

Joseph Krumgold was the first writer to have been awarded the Newbery Medal twice.  The first was for his 1954 novel …and now Miguel (which I read and really enjoyed) and he did it again in 1960 with this book.  If written today, Onion John would still hold the same strong themes of standing up for what you believe in, being true to yourself, and accepting people for who they are and not for who you would like them to be.  However, if you were pitching a story about a twelve-year-old boy befriending an unintelligible adult male who lives on the outskirts of town in a stone house today, it would clearly be a hard sell and, in all honesty, tend to come off as a bit creepy.  But in 1959, it was simply a story about an unlikely friendship and the virtues of believing in yourself.

In addition to the strong bond Andy builds with Onion John—which eventually spills over and affects his relationship with his father—there is the project that the entire town adopts for the benefit of their most cherished citizen…Onion John.  This is Krumgold providing a social commentary on how society tries to fit everyone into a convenient box and does so under the pretext of personal betterment.  He makes you challenge the nature of charity and poses the question: “When is doing good not really good?”  The people of Serenity wanted to do something very magnanimous for Onion John with the assumption that their efforts would make his life happier, easier, and better.  But one man’s heaven is another man’s hell and those subtleties tend to get in the way all for the sake of benevolence.

Joseph Krumgold packs so many wonderful lessons and moments in this book that it’s hard to choose just one to highlight for this review: Andy’s coming of age, Andy challenging his father, the town’s collective awakening, Andy’s father’s personal redemption, Andy’s deepening bond with his father.  These are all worth further discussion, but I chose one that particularly resonated with me and that was Onion John’s ability to listen.  How often are we talking to someone who is busy texting or reading or cleaning or something-ing and you’ll pause only to have them say, “Go ahead.  I’m listening.”  With Onion John, he would stop everything in order to let you know that at that moment, you were the singular, most important thing in the world.  There was absolutely nothing more important in life at that moment than you.  As Andy described, “One thing about Onion John, whatever he was doing, if someone came along he was always ready to stop and talk things over.”  What a rare quality it is to find someone who is able to put life on pause in order to afford another human being the courtesy of their undivided attention.  American journalist and author Krista Tippett wrote, “Listening is about being present, not just about being quiet.”  Perhaps that is why only Andy could understand Onion John and no one else could.  He was present.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all learn how to listen like that?

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt (J Fantasy)

Tuck Everlasting

Tuck Everlasting

Natalie Babbitt (Juvenile Fantasy)

Winnie did not believe in fairy tales.  She had never longed for a magic wand, did not expect to marry a prince, and was scornful—most of the time—of her grandmother’s elves.  So now she sat, mouth open, wide-eyed, not knowing what to make of this extraordinary story.  It couldn’t—not a bit of it—be true.  And yet…

Ten-year-old Winnie Foster lives with her father, mother, and grandmother in Treegap.  They were the first family in the area and laid proud claim to Treegap wood and the touch-me-not cottage that laid on its outskirts.  She was the only child in the household and, on this particular day, she was bored.  And hot.  And it’s only the first week in August.  After being pecked at by both her mother and grandmother, Winnie ventures outside to seek solitude.  But peace won’t be hers that day for a man in a yellow suit comes up to the iron fence and is looking for a family.  He also has a particular interest in their wood.  Winnie has never ventured outside the fence let alone into the wood.  Maybe she can find some solitude there.  And who knows?  Maybe she’ll find something interesting.

Written in 1975, Tuck Everlasting has sold over 5 million copies and is considered a modern classic in children’s literature.  It’s the story of the Tuck family—father and mother (Angus and Mae), and brothers Miles and Jesse—who drink from a spring in Treegap wood and inadvertently discover immortality.  They’ve been able to keep their secret safe until a chance encounter with Winnie Foster threatens everything they’ve been concealing.  Tuck Everlasting is folkloric in nature and woven with bits of fantasy, drama, and a touch romance.  It’s written for ages 10 and up and its broad-based themes of sacrifice, friendship, loyalty, love, and family ensures a very wide appeal.

Babbitt delivers a detailed and beautifully told story that is rich in symbolism.  Watch for the toad that pops up throughout various points in Winnie’s story.  He’s more than just a convenient friend and marks notable shifts in Winnie’s maturity.  There are also numerous mentions of imprisonment or feeling trapped.  At one point, Winnie recalls a verse from an old poem (Richard Lovelace’s 1642 poem “To Althea, from Prison”) which goes, “Stone walls do not a prison make, / Nor iron bars a cage.”  Winnie feels imprisoned by her mother and grandmother (and the literal iron bars that surround her yard) while the Tucks are prisoners of time itself.  Both are trapped, but Winnie alone has any future chance of escape.

Tuck Everlasting was a quick read packed with moral lessons and questions (Would you want to live forever?).  The only criticism I had was that the ending felt forced and rushed.  Babbitt spent such an inordinate amount of time painting this detailed image of the wood and the Tucks into our minds, that the end fell a little flat.  This was one of those stories that an additional twenty pages might have helped give a more ample and satisfying conclusion rather than a one- to two-page condensed summary that wrapped everything up.  It just left this wonderful journey feeling incomplete and inadequate.

In closing, I will repeat a bit of wisdom that Miles imparted to Winnie, “People got to do something useful if they’re going to take up space in the world.”  During my limited time of taking up space in this world, it is my hope that my reviews and insights provide you with something useful and perhaps even help you discover a book and a story that will stay in your heart forever.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.target.com

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Tracks by Jim Black

Tracks

Tracks

Jim Black (Adult Fiction)

It’s 1968 in the small town of Archer City, Texas.  Fifteen-year-old Jim and his friends, Charles and Gary, are freshmen in high school and the world is suddenly full of hope and possibility…and broken hearts, broken noses, and a few bruised egos.  Yes, life is good until strange things begin to happen.  There are reports of livestock being found mutilated just outside of town and rumors of satanic cults and aliens begin swirling around faster than a Texas dust storm.  Every nerve in town is raw and on edge and that could only mean one thing: the time is absolutely ripe for Jim, Charles, and Gary to pull off a prank worthy of the ages.

Tracks is the sequel to Jim Black’s delightful and humorous semi-autobiographical River Season.  I was gifted my copy of Tracks by the author himself (who also kindly signed it) who mailed it to me after reading my review of his first book and noting that I was looking for a copy of his sequel.  I must say, I was a bit apprehensive when I started reading Tracks.  Would it capture the same magic and nostalgia as its predecessor?  What if I didn’t like it?  How can I tell an author, who personally sent me a copy of his book, that it fell a little flat and then afterwards, how would I be able to fake my own death?  I shouldn’t have worried because Tracks captures the same heart, soul, and humanity that originally endeared me to three teenaged lads in a small Texas town.

Like Black, I grew up in a small, southern town.  During the 1970s, my town had a population of only 646 and I remember the barbershop with the lighted barber’s pole, the diner, the hardware store, post office, service station, bank, library, and courthouse that stood along Main Street.  Black’s novel isn’t just a story about the special bond of friendship and how family goes way beyond blood, it’s a sentimental and tender journey back to a time when after a fight or a bad date, all it took to set the world right again was a fried fruit pie and a flavored Coke with your best friends sitting beside you in the corner booth.  A time when you walked into the diner and all you had to be asked was, “The usual?”  A time when your mom served you Malt-O-Meal for breakfast, you played Parcheesi with your grandmother on Sunday, and you sat around the television set watching Bonanza at night.  It was a time when friendship meant that someone always had your back and was ready to offer up a hand or a shoulder when needed.  It’s a story about life and everything that goes with it: humor and heartbreak, hope and disappointment, pitfalls and promises.  It’s the uncertainty and the adventure that makes life worth living and a story that each of us writes for ourselves with every breath we take.

I will never be able to thank Jim Black enough for his kindness and generosity for sending me Tracks (he sent me a second book which I will be reading and reviewing in the very near future).  I read because I love getting lost in a story and I write because it is what God gifted me to do.  When the two meet and happen to come across an appreciative eye, it makes life all the more sweet.

Ben Franklin once said, “If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”  With the help of his two best friends in the world, Jim Black was able to accomplish both.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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