A Corner of the Universe by Ann M. Martin (YA)

A Corner of the Universe

Ann M. Martin (YA Fiction)

Hattie Owen lives in the third largest house in the small town of Millerton. Her grandparents live in the second largest. But unlike her Nana and Papa’s house, Hattie’s house isn’t filled with fancy furniture. It’s filled with boarders. Hattie doesn’t mind living with people who aren’t her family. What she does mind is living with secrets—one big secret especially. Hattie is about to find out that her mother has a younger brother, which means that she has another uncle. An uncle who, until recently, had been attending a “school” for the mentally disabled, but will now be moving back to Millerton to live with Nana and Papa.  Even though Hattie’s Uncle Adam is family, she realizes that she knows more about her parents’ boarders than her own flesh and blood, which begs the question, “If a person is kept a secret, is he real?” Hattie Owen is about to find out.

A 2003 Newbery Honor book, A Corner of the Universe covers so many complex and complicated topics, it’s really difficult to choose where to begin. Based on events in her own life, Ann M. Martin explores mental illness and the effects it has on both the individual and those around them. Twenty-year-old Adam Mercer, displaying symptoms of autism and schizophrenia, is seen as quirky, unpredictable, temperamental, and largely high-spirited by his twelve-year-old niece. However, as is the case with diseases of the brain, it only takes a minor deviation from a structured routine or an ill-delivered repudiation or rejection to set off a downward spiral of uncontrollable outbursts and dangerous reactions. Through Hattie’s lens, Adam is a person being denied fun and freedom by her controlling and rigid grandmother. Through Nana’s eyes, Adam is a child who requires constant supervision and well-defined boundaries. In reality, Adam is a little of both.

A Corner of the Universe is recommended for grades 5-8, and I certainly would not recommend this book to any reader younger than this. With topics of mental illness and suicide, as well as a few sexually implicit situations and some mild profanity, this is clearly meant for young adult readers—although the themes of acceptance, tolerance, inclusion, and kindness transcend all age groups. Martin gives us a perfect look into an imperfect world and shows us the devastation of living with guilt and regret, as well as the unintended consequences that follow seemingly good yet naïve intentions.

Hattie often said that she and her Uncle Adam had a lot in common. That they both felt like outsiders—always on the outside looking in. Hattie once told her uncle that she felt like she was a visiting alien to which Adam replied, “And aliens don’t belong anywhere except in their own little corners of the universe.” Sadly, it’s so easy to misjudge people who don’t fit into a preconceived category or check a certain box. What’s even sadder is the ease with which we tend to discount these same people—forgetting that they too have thoughts, feelings, hopes, and dreams. Although both Hattie and Adam often felt unwanted and out of place, both were able to find an unexpected friend in one another and for a brief moment, they were able to turn their corner of the universe into a very accepting, forgiving, and happy place.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Princess Academy by Shannon Hale (J Fantasy)

Princess Academy

Shannon Hale (J Fantasy)

It was the last trading of the season and Miri was ready. At fourteen, she was very small for her age and not allowed to do the one thing she wished to do—work in the quarry. But one way or another, she would make her father proud and would get that stingy lowlander to give up more than he wanted. That would bring a smile to her father’s face and being useful would bring a smile to hers. But along with the traders came a painted blue carriage that carried word from the king—a prophecy that the future princess of Danland resided in Miri’s own Mount Eskel. All girls aged twelve to seventeen would go to an academy for one year’s training before the prince would select his bride and young Miri was to be among them. Could little Miri, too useless to even work in the quarry alongside her fellow mountain folk, EVER be considered worthy of a prince? She’ll have a year to find out.

Hale delivers a masterful and brilliant story of class and privilege and explores the problems associated with stereotypes and prejudices. Set against the backdrop of a chiseled mountainscape and a secret language stored deep inside the mountain’s linder stone, Princess Academy is the story of a young girl’s desire for acceptance while remaining true to herself and all that she holds dear. Recipient of the 2006 Newbery Honor Book award, Princess Academy shows us courage and the consequences that come with standing up to unfairness and protecting the most vulnerable among us.

There are so many valuable lessons in this book, especially for young girls who feel unnecessarily driven to be wittier or prettier or smarter than their peers. Miri understood the toxicity behind this kind of competition when she said, “I don’t like the feeling in competition with everybody to be seen and liked by Prince Steffan.” And it was Miri’s friend, Esa, who so wisely suggested, “We should make a pact. We’ll be happy for whomever he chooses, no jealousy or meanness.” Although written in 2005, these lessons still hold true today. There are so many empowering quotes about lifting each other up without tearing one another down or how a candle loses nothing by lighting another candle. Hale, through a “useless” girl who had very modest dreams, shows us the power for standing up for what is right and never turning your back on a friend.

I love Miri Larendaughter and have added her to my growing list of favorite fictional heroines. Besides her tenacity and courage and goodness, I believe it is her ability to lighten even the darkest places or the direst of circumstances that stands out the most to me. Prince Steffan said it best during his conversation with Miri when he said, “I would pay a deal of gold to have your talent of making other people smile.” In this age of competing for likes and followers, attention and approval, I hope we all remember how much value a simple act of kindness—especially a smile—is worth.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.betterworldbooks.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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