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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A Moment Comes by Jennifer Bradbury (YA Historical Fiction)

A Moment Comes

A Moment Comes

Jennifer Bradbury (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

“Safe.  I think about the word as we continue walking.  What does safe mean anymore?  I wonder if I’ll ever feel safe again.  I wandered these markets and streets freely just a few years ago.  And then I grew up.”

Tariq is Muslim born and raised in India.  He is eighteen and aspires to study at Oxford.  It is what Daadaa—his grandfather—dreamed for him and he will do anything to make it a reality.  Anupreet is Sikh and nearly sixteen years old.  She’s beautiful despite the scar that runs from her eye to her cheek.  It’s healing, but will always be there, just like the memory of that horrible day when she acquired it.  Margaret is sixteen and from London.  Her father was sent to Jalandhar to work for the boundary award.  His job is to help break India into pieces so that Muslims can have their own separate state.  She knows why her mother made her come here…to restore her virtue, make her “respectable” again.  Although she’s not sure how this hot, sticky, and loud place will be able to accomplish that.  It’s June 1947 and the worlds of these three teenagers are about to come together and their journey will take them to what history would later refer to as the Partition of India of 1947.

Books, like Bradbury’s, that are based on actual world history play such an important part in the lives of our younger population.  Historical Fiction is not only a way to educate, but to offer an all-important perspective.  In A Moment Comes, we are given three very different yet relatable young adults: each offering his or her own point of view about what is happening to them, their family, and the world around them.  Bradbury largely avoids stereotypes and instead offers up an honest landscape about a country being torn apart from the inside.

The Partition of India of 1947 began after the Second World War.  Lacking the sufficient resources to control its greatest asset, Britain exited India after three hundred years of British rule and partitioned the country into two independent nation states: India (with its Hindu majority) and Pakistan (with their Muslim majority).  It marked one of the greatest migrations in human history and resulted in more than fifteen million people losing their homes and between one to two million people losing their lives.  Bradbury is exceptionally careful not to choose sides and paint one party as “good” or another as “bad”.  Instead, she lays out three lives told through three alternating points of view and allows the reader to form his or her own judgments and opinions.  The story is fast-paced, harrowing, poignant, and bitter.  But in the end, Bradbury offers up some much-needed hope.  It’s faint and so very uncertain, but she places it there nonetheless so that we—along with Tariq, Anupreet, and Margaret—can grab it and hold onto it as tight as we can.

A Moment Comes reminds us that history is more than just words on a page.  Rather, it’s people who breathe, dream, hope, bleed, and die.  People who have risen above their own limitations in order to do something remarkable or historic or even heroic.  And just like history is more than just printed words, maps are more than just lines.  They are traditions and cultures and religions.  Bradbury summed this up perfectly through Margaret when she said, “Lines are funny things. They make us feel safe—at least for a while—knowing where we end and something or someone else begins.  But they can also make us want, can make us bitter, wanting what lies on the other side of the line.  But whether it’s a border on a map or a boundary between two people, the lines are still only lines.  Still something someone made up, decided on.  They’re not even real, but so long as everyone agrees to play along, they work fine.  But how can lines of a map tell a piece of land what to be any more than lines between one person and another can pretend to be what makes them different?”  In the end, Tariq, Anupreet, and Margaret were all able to let go of their own prejudices and realize that they themselves aren’t so very different from one another…regardless of what the lines might say.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes (J)

The Hundred Dresses

The Hundred Dresses

Eleanor Estes (Juvenile Fiction)

How did it all start?  Maddie wasn’t quite sure, but then she remembers.  It started with a girl, Wanda Petronski, who lives on Boggins Heights with her dad and brother.  Wanda comes to school every day in the same faded blue dress that doesn’t seem to hang right.  She’s quiet and sits in the far corner of the classroom.  Nobody seems to pay her much mind, except that her last name is silly and hard to pronounce.  She’s practically invisible until that one day when Wanda wanted so desperately to be a part of the group.  So hungry for companionship and inclusion.  That one day when the other girls were talking about dresses and Wanda said, “I got a hundred dresses home.”  Who knew that that one single sentence would have such an effect…not just on Wanda, but on so many more.

Oftentimes, a book or story acts as a balm—more for the author than the reader.  It is a last-ditch effort of making things right…of righting a wrong.  R.J. Palacio accomplished this through her wonderful and poignant book The Wonder, a novel about a boy with Treacher Collins Syndrome (TCS) where bones and facial tissues develop abnormally.  She says that the inspiration for her book came after a chance encounter with a little girl in an ice cream store.  In “A Letter to Readers”, Estes’s daughter, Helena, says that her mother’s inspiration came from a classmate who was much like Wanda.  An immigrant shunned by her peers and longing to fit in and be liked.  Her mother, like Maddie, realized too late that complacency is just as bad as participation and that popularity should never be achieved at the expense of another.

The Hundred Dresses won a Newberry Honor in 1945 and has never been out of print since.  There is a very good reason for this.  Although it is a mere 80 pages, Eleanor Estes makes every sentence reverberate within our very heart and soul and Louis Slobodkin’s beautiful illustrations give this heartfelt story a vibrant beauty and grace.  This is a story that should be shared and discussed with readers of all ages.  It reminds us of the power of words and the heart’s amazing capacity to find and offer forgiveness.  Children find it difficult to remove the target from someone else’s back for they know all too well that there is a very good chance that the target will find a new home upon their own.  It takes a tremendous amount of courage to stand up for what is right.  Only later in life do we realize that sometimes the only thing worse than living with shame, is living with regret.  In this age of bullying and intolerance, the lessons learned from The Hundred Dresses are still as relevant and important today as they were in 1944.  Gratefully, we have Wanda and Maddie who remind us that it is never too late to say, “I’m sorry” and more importantly, “I forgive you.”

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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