Okay for Now, by Gary D. Schmidt
In Schmidt’s latest novel for middle school readers, eighth-grader Doug Swieteck has many cards stacked against him. He’s got a mean older brother and a liability for a father. He’s just moved to a new school. He can’t read. He gets in fights. The principal is after him. The coach hates him. He doesn’t have a decent coat or a warm pair of shoes. His mother is sad and long-suffering.
Yet the satisfaction in this story comes not from the bad guys getting their due. Instead, the satisfaction is much deeper and broader—it comes from the reassurance that the inner self is always and truly free. In Doug’s story, this deliverance is aided by the kindness of strangers and by the gift of fine art. In author Gary Schmidt’s capable hands, its light shines right out of the pages of the book, making every day look like a fresh new spring day.
The fine art in this story is a book of John James Audubon’s Birds of America that Doug finds in the local library. Each chapter in Okay for Now is faced with a different plate from this book, and in each chapter, Doug uses that plate to further understand his world—this bird was falling and there wasn’t a single thing in the world that cared at all (the Arctic Tern) and that’s what the picture was about: meeting, even though you might be headed in different directions (The Forked-Tailed Petrel). A librarian—one of the kind strangers in this book—sees Doug’s interest in this book and encourages him to make his own drawings of the plates. The librarian’s critical analysis of these plates and the part they play in Doug’s story make a good reading experience into a sublime one.
I highly recommend this wonderful book for middle school kids of both genders and for adults who like a good story.
The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht
A girl comes of age during the Bosnian War and its aftermath. She then becomes a doctor in a desire to help her country recover. On a trip to deliver inoculations to orphanages, she learns of her grandfather’s death. Through her memories of her grandfather and his stories, a story of Bosnian conflict and culture emerge. By the end, the reader will not be able to pass a quiz on the conflict, but the reader will have been there, on the ground and among the people.
Obreht is a storyteller — come sit by me here and I’ll tell you a story. type of a storyteller. The main two stories here are about the tiger’s wife and the deathless man. Interspersed are full, rich stories of more characters–Luka the butcher, Darisa the Bear, the apothecary, as well as chair-riveting stories like the narrator’s journey to the “crossroads.” Her writing is lean, vivid, and masterful.
This is a good book for an experienced teen reader for several reasons. The author herself is young–twenty-one when she began the novel–and her voice, though as assured as that of a seasoned writer, is that of a young person. Though her plot is not linear, experience teen readers will fall into her rich storytelling. And finally, she is a very creative and skilled writer–teens will enjoy feeling they have not read anything like this book before while recognizing its exceptional worth.
Revolution, by Jennifer Donnelly
Jennifer Donnelly has written a book in an authentic teen voice in the tradition of Holden Caulfield that is highly educational, both about music and about the French Revolution. The narrator is a teen girl in her last year at a prestigious New York prep school. She has recently suffered a family tragedy and is tormented by what she views as her responsibility for that tragedy. Her often absent father whisks her away to Paris, thinking it would be good for her to get away.
In Paris, Andi discovers an old diary hidden in a secret compartment in a centuries-old guitar case. She has in her hands the guitar and the diary of another teen girl who lived during the French Revolution. Though all Andi can think of is leaving Paris and her father, as she slowly reads this diary she gets drawn further and further into the life of Alexandrine, her eighteenth century counterpart, until she is, in fact, there on the streets of revolutionary Paris. Even for readers new to the story of the French Revolution, Donnelly’s account is thorough and illuminating.
The second major theme of this story is music, specifically, the tradition of music that passes from the earliest classic composers all the way down through modern rap music. Andi is a serious musician; in fact, her music is all that keeps her together for most of the novel. Her musings on styles and compositions throughout this story should be of great interest to any teen interested in music.
Teens of both genders, both young and old, will like this book. It is history, it is music, and it is the pursuit of personal strength in the face of the worst of odds.
Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick
Yes, this is a page-turning thriller centered on a fourteen-year-old boy and a really, really bad guy who threatens him and his sister and has quite likely taken the life of both his parents. And on a Colt Single Action Army, 1873 model revolver. The setting: a lone cabin across a frozen lake from a hard scrabble mining town in the bitter cold of the artic north.
But it is also a story about the gifts parents give their children to help them survive when they are on their own. In this case, Sig’s parents gave him very different gifts: his father gave him knowledge of the real world so that Sig could be able to survive whatever harshness he might encounter; his mother gave him a concern for the health of his own inner spirit so that his soul could survive the same. As it turns out, Sig will draw on both of his parents’ gifts to create a third option when his choice becomes to take a life or lose his own.
As such, this novel reads ninety percent thriller and ten percent fable. In fact, by the end, I was somewhat reminded of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Written, of course, for young adults of today. Though this story features a male protagonist and a revolver, I think both genders would enjoy it from middle school on up. However, the bad guy is convincingly bad–his violence explicit and his sexual predation implied–which makes it more appropriate for the older, better-read teens.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
After his family barely survived the Malawi famine of 2000, William Kamkwamba’s father could no longer send his only son and oldest child to school. Previously, William had learned how to read in his native language and had learned a little English. Not content to accept a future of subsistence farming and with a curiosity about how things worked, William began frequenting the village library which was stocked with old textbooks donated by the United States. He checked out books on science and physics, learning more English as he uncovered the information he sought.
Frequenting junk yards and raising suspicions of his sanity, William put together the knowledge he gleaned from books with bits of this and bits of that and lo!!! He ended up with a windmill that generated enough electricity to light up his family’s extremely modest home.
Hard to believe, perhaps, that such a story would make me weep, not out of sadness, but simply out of joy to be alive, but this one did. It is not because William’s striving and his success is so heartwarming, but because of the way he and his co-writer tell his story. The young boy of this story leads the reader through the hard, hard work of the farm, heart-breaking tragedy, youthful antics, and iron-hard yearning to a bright place that extends way beyond this boy and this place with a voice that is consistently modest and tender.
Besides being a compelling read, a page-turner almost, this story would be of great interest for any boy or girl who likes to tinker, to invent, to make things that work. I am not the least bit mechanically oriented, so much of Kamkwamba’s descriptions of his constructions were way beyond my understanding–but kids who are fascinated by mechanics will understand it and be inspired. I am recommending this book for experienced readers from middle school on up.
The Wolves of Andover by Kathleen Kent
In Kent’s earlier book, Heretic’s Daughter a young girl loses her mother to the notorious witch trials. Her father has a mysterious past–in this book we learn what that was.
The Wolves of Andover is about two different kinds of wolves–the wild ones and the human ones. Settlers in New England in the seventeenth century contended with many natural hazards–wild animals, smallpox, weather, crop failure, to name a few. But author Kathleen Kent uses her gift of vivid detail to make clear that the hazards from fellow humans were much more dangerous in the struggle to survive.
This story ties English history with Colonial history. The two of course were closely entwined during this period, a fact that does not come through in much of the American history taught in classrooms. Thomas Morgan, the man with the mysterious past in The Heretic’s Daughter, was involved in the English Civil War in which the king of England, Charles I, lost his head. The reader and the young woman who becomes his wife (and the accused witch in The Heretic’s Daughter), slowly uncover the part he played…the description that Martha eventually writes down is stunning and totally believable, even as a fictionalized account.
There is much violence, vividly depicted, in this book. It is definitely for mature readers. The history may be harder to follow for teen readers than Kent’s earlier book, simply because it is much more unfamiliar territory than the Salem witch trials. But if a teen reader liked The Heretic’s Daughter, I wholeheartedly recommend this book. By the end, the history becomes very clear and the reader gains a vivid perspective of the interconnectedness of England and its American colonies.
I loved both these books. But I love this period and place in history–I have a deep question in my psyche about why we left England and came here–so reading historical fiction as good as this is a treat I only yearn for more of.
The Bride’s Farewell by Meg Rosoff
Set in rural nineteenth century England, this book relates the story of girl on the cusp of womanhood who gets a good look at the pre-ordained life spreading out in front of her and makes the decision to run–with her horse and her uninvited misfit of an adopted younger brother who has reasons of his own to run. She makes the choice to suffer hardships, as long as they are of her own making, rather than be less than what she thinks she can be. And suffer she does; though a reader might expect reward to come from all the suffering, this book does not take the expected turns–this young woman who wants to control her own destiny learns the difference between when she owes her attentiveness to others in her life and when she does not. She has to become ever stronger.
The Bride’s Farewell is a good book for high school girls. It is of a reading level that middle school girls can handle, but though there is no graphically inappropriate content for younger girls, there are themes underlying the main one of making one’s own way in a difficult world that are fairly mature, like the importance of knowing when a man will be a good one to trust your heart to. It has the added attraction of having lots of horse lore in it, thus also making it appealing to lovers of horses.
This is a well-written story that is compelling and fun to read. It is of value to young women on the cusp of their mature lives. It delivers both good entertainment and worthy illuminations–the kind of book I like to recommend.