Sunday, April 29, 2012

Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen

Auden doesn’t sleep at night. She’s been an insomniac since before her parents separated, when she used to listen to them fighting in the room across the hall. There’s a 24-hour diner near her house that she spends the late night to early morning at, reading textbooks and catching up on homework. Homework is really all Auden knows. She uses it like a bubble to keep her separated from all of the things that other people her age are doing, the ones that she doesn’t know how to break into. But when her brother Hollis sends her a tacky picture frame (framing a picture of himself) from Europe, where he’s been backpacking for nearly two years, something changes. Auden reads the caption at the bottom – “THE BEST OF TIMES” – and decides to spend the summer living with her dad, his new wife Heidi, and their newborn, Thisbe, at a beach town called Colby for the summer.

Auden doesn’t know what she was expecting, but it isn’t Heidi looking different from her usual, put-together self sinking into postpartum depression, or her absent dad who’s already distancing himself from his new daughter by immersing himself in writing a new book. At night Auden listens to the wave machine Heidi uses to put Thisbe to sleep and notes, “So I was there, in a beachfront house, listening to a fake ocean, and this just seemed to sum up everything that was wrong with the situation from start to finish.”

She starts working for Heidi’s boutique and finds herself right in the middle of a normal, teenage summer that she’s always avoided. A really great sidebar of the plot is a focus on biking – Colby’s bike shop is a main geographical locations highlighted by the novel. And it’s through biking that Auden meets Eli, almost twenty, who used to bike competitively with his best friend Abe. Eli encourages Auden to set out on a quest to reclaim the childhood that she never had since she was pushed right into schoolwork and academics by her professor parents. Following Eli and Auden through these events is so much fun, but underlain by the fact that their quest happens only at night, since both have trouble sleeping. While Auden is still dealing with her parents’ divorce, Eli is dealing with Abe’s death. They form a friendship more than a relationship at first, focusing on keeping one another company during the long hours that they usually spend alone.

The question at the center of the novel is whether people can really change, or if they’re stuck in the rigid, inflexible boxes that they make for themselves. Auden’s interested in the patterns in her family, and is unaware that she follows the same ones, trapping herself in the academic, alienated loop that her mother and father live day to day. She watches her dad slide into the same flawed relationship he had with her mom, and notes,

“If he’d kept himself apart from the rest of the world, these things would have been just quirky annoyances, nothing more. But that was just the thing. He did involve other people. He reached out, drew them close. He made children with them, who then also could not separate themselves, whether they were babies or almost adults. You couldn’t just pick and choose at will when someone depended on you, or loved you.”

Auden doesn’t realize that she’s already trapped in a pattern, and even though Eli tries to show her that she can step outside of that particular way of living at any time she wants to just by changing a few things about herself, it isn’t as simple as choosing to change.

There are so many times that you want to cheer Auden on for showing that it is possible to step out of your comfort zone and change. Because the question about people changing doesn’t just apply to her father – whether he can stay in his new marriage with Heidi and Thisbe – but it applies to herself, too. Auden’s preoccupation with change seems like it’s externally motivated, but looking for evidence of change in other people seems to convince her that it’s possible for her to change also. And the cheering comes with a lot of setbacks and stepping backwards, but Auden was one of the first protagonists in a while where she genuinely surprised me as a reader by some of her actions. Hooking up with Jake, a guy she doesn’t even know when she moves to Colby. Showing up at the bike park without knowing anybody. Standing up for herself at a house party thrown by Eli’s ex-girlfriend. Auden is actually a surprising protagonist, which is something about Sarah Dessen’s novels that makes them work so well. Her protagonists are real, surprising, and flawed.

Even the cast of supporting characters are round and dynamic, flawed and interesting. Maggie was my favorite, filled with a lot of surprises of her own, and throwaway lines like this one that made me snort-laugh every once and a while: “I was in the bathroom. The walls are so thin there! I sometimes can’t even pee if anyone’s in the kitchen.”

My sister has every single Sarah Dessen book, and when I’m looking for something really fun to read, with a good story, and strong characters, I always ask to borrow one. Her books are basically a genre of their own. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Story of Us by Deb Caletti

Cricket and her family are staying at Bluff House on Bishop Rock for a weeklong wedding. It’s one the west coast, not far from Seattle, and Cricket says, “Well, if there was actually going to be a wedding, Bluff House on Bishop Rock was a beautiful place for one. Set up on the edge of the cliff, the house was all white, with three levels of wraparound decks, and a rambling boardwalk leading to the beach.” The wedding that will hopefully happen is between Cricket’s mom and a man named Dan Jax, but Cricket’s mom has a tendency to leave her husbands-to-be at the Sea-Tac Airport at the last minute to avoid getting married altogether. Her mom’s complicated relationship with relationships has affected Cricket, too, as she describes the different men that her mom has lived with, the blending of separate families, the arrival of stepsiblings, and a whole lot of complication.

There are several threads of story in the book, all of which intersect in order to tell the story of Cricket’s family, and Cricket’s sort-of-ex-boyfriend who she emails regularly from Bishop Rock.  On a self-imposed break, her relationship with Janssen, her brother Ben’s best friend, is on hold. Even though he has been a part of Cricket’s life and family for almost ten years – since they moved into the house down the road from his – his absence at the wedding is necessary while Cricket sorts out her feelings. Her regular emails to Janssen tell “The Story of Us”; she details how they met, how they fell in love, and where things fell apart. Cricket’s difficult relationship with her father is revealed through these emails, since Janssen was present for one very important and frightening visit from Cricket’s father that he stepped in the middle of. Cricket explains,

“I love my father, but it’s a complicated love. He can be great, really great, and then he’s suddenly a storm slowly building, a storm that finally tosses lawn furniture and garbage cans, knocks trees down onto roofs. Dan was a regular, calm sky. You kept looking up there, and, yeah, it was still blue and still blue.”

But her father is not the only man that her mom has lived with, and Cricket spends a good deal of time talking about the changes that came with her mother’s relationships, including gaining a stepsister and stepbrother:

“Blending was a great idea, yeah, but Olivia and Scotty didn’t care about school and ate junk food for breakfast, and on the weekends they’d stay in their pajamas in front of the TV until the day got dark again. We did care about school; we ate Cheerios, not Skittles, in the morning; and on the weekends we’d go to a baseball game of Ben’s and come home only to find them in the same place as when we’d left. You can use whatever words you want, but I knew they weren’t my brother and sister.”

Now, with Dan Jax in the picture, Ben and Cricket are about to gain two new stepsiblings, eighteen-year-old Hailey and fifteen-year-old Amy, who are both fairly opposed to their father’s second marriage. As family collects and gathers at Bishop Rock, tension is pulled in with it, and Cricket just holds on to hope that her mom and Dan can make it through the week. All of the family members allow Caletti to really play with character, and you’ll find some of the most dynamic, funny, nuanced, sympathetic, and incredibly dislikeable characters in The Story of Us. There are exchanges and dialogue that really should not be missed, and small observations that Caletti sneaks in when you’re not expecting them. Two of my favorite:

“Have you ever accidentally put your slippers on the wrong feet? Your feet know in a second without looking that there’s been a mistake.”

“We’d take our shoes off, and you’d tell me my toes looked like a row of old men standing together. Old men, waiting at a bus stop.”

Underlying all of this is a thread that follows Jupiter, Cricket’s dog, as Cricket, Ben, and their mom remember different points of Jupiter’s life that have impacted their own. Cricket talks about small, meaningful moments that explain so much about having a dog as part of a family. While Ben and Cricket used to pack up their weekend bags to visit their dad, Cricket would hear her mom talking to Jupiter: “‘What are we going to do this weekend, huh, girl?’ Mom would ask her as we packed our bags. ‘Slumber party, you and me?’” Jupiter is along for the wedding, trying to get along with Cruiser, Dan’s dog, and Jupiter’s presence means an excuse for Cricket to get out of the house and take her for a walk when things get too stressful.

Caletti’s books usually focus on teenagers right at the cusp of adulthood: about to leave home, family, and familiarity. Her protagonists seem to fall between seventeen and eighteen; Cricket is eighteen in this book, but her brother and Janssen are twenty, raising the character age slightly past where it usually sits in her books. Leaving home and moving away is important to all of the characters here. Caletti’s The Nature of Jade ended by talking about how it was possible to balance family and going away, but the pull of staying is even more present in The Story of Us, especially when Cricket and Ash talk one night:

“You know what happened to me? You spend the last years of high school dying to get away, right? But somewhere in there it hits you. It gets real.”
“I know,” I said.
“The, what, pieces of you that you’re leaving.”
I stared at him. That was it exactly. Exactly. No one hat put it that simply before. That rightly. I nodded.
“Don’t tell anyone I said that,” Ash said.
“Don’t tell anyone I said that,” I said.
“For some reason no one says these things. You’re not supposed to talk about that part. Why is that? It’s wrong to love your family? The place you live? It’s your home. It’s all who you are.”

The Story of Us is another beautifully written book by Caletti that gets relationships, families, and the pieces that make them up so right. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Paper Towns by John Green

Quentin has been in love with Margo Roth Spiegelman since their parents moved next door to one another in Central Florida.* Quentin’s narrative begins by remembering Margo from when she was nine-years-old, when “she wore white shorts and a pink T-shirt that featured a green dragon breathing a fire of orange glitter. It is difficult to explain how awesome I found this T-shirt at the time.” Margo wore the dragon t-shirt on the morning that she and Quentin found a dead body in their neighborhood. After asking around, Margo finds out that the man that they found out was thirty-six-year-old Robert Joyner, and that he committed suicide because of an impending divorce. Even though Quentin tries to explain, “Lots of people get divorces and don’t kill themselves,” Margo sees it differently, and she tells Quentin, “Maybe all the strings inside him broke.” The first few pages of the book, and their varying views on death and suicide, explain a lot about Quentin and Margo, and why they don’t speak throughout almost all of high school. They don’t reconnect until one random night a few weeks before graduation when Margo climbs through Quentin’s bedroom window and asks for a favor.

Quentin agrees to go with Margo, “borrowing” his mom’s minivan to drive through Central Orlando, following Margo’s step-by-step plan that begins at a Publix grocery store:

“Now, I’m not sure what you’re supposed to say to the checkout woman at twelve-thirty in the morning when you put thirteen pounds of catfish, Veet, the fat-daddy-size tub of Vaseline, a six-pack of Mountain Dew, a can of blue spray paint, and a dozen tulips on the conveyor belt. But here’s what I said: ‘This isn’t so weird as it looks.’”

After their night together, Quentin believes that things have changed: he’s going to go to school, Margo’s going to come back into his life, and they won’t go back to ignoring each other again. Instead, Margo disappears. And even though she’s run away before, Quentin knows that this time seems different, and more final.

But a detective who has been involved with Margo’s disappearances before tells Quentin that she leaves clues behind that would guide her parents to where she’s run to; they just usually can’t decipher them. For example, she left the letters “M-I-S-S-“ in her alphabet soup before she disappeared to Mississippi. Quentin is determined to find her, and believes Margo has left a series of intricate clues that are for him, starting with a Woody Guthrie poster taped to the window facing Quentin’s bedroom.

Forming the background of Quentin’s self-imposed mystery is the end of high school, prom, and graduation. Balancing the frantic can’t-turn-back of both of these events – Margo’s disappearance and the nearing end of high school – isn’t that difficult for Quentin, who, already, is not really a fan of everything that comes with graduation. He explains, “It was a well-known fact that I was opposed to prom. Absolutely nothing about any of it appealed to me – not slow dancing, not fast dancing, not the dresses, and definitely not the rented tuxedo. Renting a tuxedo seemed to me an excellent way to contract some hideous disease from its previous tenant, and I did not aspire to become the world’s only virgin with pubic lice.”

Finding Margo becomes more important than all of that, even though his friends, Radar and Ben, eventually get swept up into the occasion. And some of the exchanges between Quentin, Radar, and Ben definitely highlight the humorous side of Green’s writing, that are so worth it to find scattered throughout the novel.

Still, even with the dueling events at the heart of the novel, Paper Towns looks at the way that people can become abstracted, fictionalized ideas of who they really are. It’s similar in this way to Green’s Looking For Alaska, as in both novels Green’s male protagonists become fascinated by a larger-than-life female character, too big to pin down, to date, or to really know. In Paper Towns Margo gets turned into an idea, and even though Quentin thinks that he is deconstructing his idea of her as he follows Margo’s clues, he is really just searching to create new ideas and new Margos that are more tactile than the one he couldn’t know. John Green’s nuanced, pop-culture heavy, philosophical writing, makes all of his books so worth reading. He uses Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” as a poetic and philosophical guide for Quentin, and it also becomes a text that holds clues to Margo’s disappearance. All of the separate threads of Paper Towns culminate in beautiful writing, particularly at the end where Green writes,

“Maybe it’s more like you said before, all of us being cracked open. Like, each of us starts out as a watertight vessel. And these things happen – these people leave us, or don’t love us, or don’t get us, or we don’t get them, and we lose and fail and hurt one another. And the vessel starts to crack open in places.”

* The geography is one of the reasons that I loved this book. In the acknowledgments of Paper Towns, John Green thanks his parents and adds, “I never thought I would say this, but: thank you for raising me in Florida.” I graduated from high school in Florida right in the geography where Green’s novel is set, and sometimes for me reading a book where I know the place well enough to recognize neighborhoods and streets when they are named in books makes me want to keep reading even more. 

Monday, April 16, 2012

Tesseracts Fifteen: A Case of Quite Curious Tales edited by Julie Czerneda and Susan MacGregor

Tesseracts Fifteen: A Case of Quite Curious Tales, the fifteenth anthology in the Tesseracts series highlighting Canadian science fiction and fantasy, focuses on YA as an organizing factor for twenty-seven short stories and poems. Interestingly, the collection begins with a defense of young adult literature, of showing the importance of housing fantastical content in a “younger” category. But the editors discuss that YA literature doesn’t necessarily mean a younger audience: it means complex writing, careful and believable character development, with a touch of the curiosity of fantasy. As Susan MacGregor, a co-editor of the collection notes, “Excellent writing is excellent writing, in no matter what genre it finds itself.” Young adult literature opens up the category of fantasy, and creating an anthology of “crossover literature” generates a larger audience of adolescents, young adults, and adults within the fantasy genre, furthering the reach of the Tesseracts collections.

The range of form, style, and content in this anthology covers first person, third person, poetry, journal entries, historical, futuristic, and present timelines. And each story contains a teenage/adolescent protagonist, creating a range of topics and situations for characters to work with that exist outside of the adult fantasy genre, even if many of the tropes and archetypes might remain the same.

E.L. Chen’s “A Safety of Crowds” begins the collection, a look at celebrity, social networking, and identity. Chen uses Jenna Crow as the figure to explain the hyper-connection available through technology, where,

“That night, a young man will raise his phone to identify the cute redhead dancing in front of the stage and see Jenna Crow superimposed on the screen, headphones held up to her ear and nodding in time to the music. He’ll record a video, geotag it and post it online – and for the next few days the club will be packed with people eager for a glimpse of the ghost-Jenna spinning for a party in a mirror world that only exists in people’s phones.”

Chen also crafts a unique and supernatural story, layering fantasy with a critique and observation of connection and connectivity through technology. T.S. Eliot makes an appearance (or, his poetry does), as connection is also shown to be transferred through reading and writing.

Amanda Sun and Nicole Luiken look at two fantastical tropes present in many stories in this genre, and their young, empathetic, dynamic protagonists carry these far. Sun’s “Fragile Things,” introduces Alex, a boy who lives on a farm where his daily chores include feeding and taking care of a unicorn. It has the feel of Peter S. Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place at times, reflective and necessary. Luiken’s “Feral” is about Chloe, a fifteen-year-old werewolf who is the only one of her friends who has not yet made the “Change.” It examines young adulthood and the inevitable transition from adolescence to adulthood that is marked by the ability to “Change,” grow, and develop, in this case, facilitated through transformation into a werewolf.

Katrina Nicholson’s “A+ Brain” reflects on similar issues brought up by Scott Westerfeld’s The Uglies series, where teenagers are able to get surgery that irrevocably transitions them out of adolescence. When the protagonist upgrades from a C- brain to an A+ one, “ becomes the Harvard Political Review, becomes NASA’s Hubble Telescope Page, becomes National Public Radio.” Robert Runte’s “Split Decision” introduces my favorite protagonist in this collection, and uses an interview-like/first person style to re-tell the story of a sci-fi event that happens at school. The protagonist’s voice is immediate and believable, beginning the story by talking about the lockdown at the middle school,

“Mr. Shakey? Oh, sorry. Mr. Sheckley, the principal. But we call him “Mr. Shakey,” because sometimes his judgment is kind of off. Like, that has to be the lamest code phrase ever. I mean, I ask you: if you’re in the school intent on a killing rampage and you hear ‘drop everything and water the plants’ over the PA, wouldn’t you at least suspect that that means, ‘go into lockdown?’”

At a time when fantasy novels for young adults are widely read and hugely successful – Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Inkheart, Eragon, Divergent – a collection of YA short stories* in the fantasy genre** – and a Canadian collection particularly*** – makes a space for the growing category of YA fantasy. Each story is accompanied by an author bio, allowing Canadian readers to become familiar with the writers expanding and developing the fantastical genre today.

* Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd was edited by Holly Black, and pulls short stories from John Green, Libba Bray, David Leviathan, Sara Zarr, and Garth Nix (and graphic novel writer/artist Bryan Lee O’Mally provides illustrations).
** A new collection of YA fantasy short stories, Zombies vs. Unicorns was also edited by Holly Black, and its authors are international – Libba Bray, Margo Lanagan, and Scott Westerfeld, for example.
*** Peter Carver edited a collection of Canadian YA short stories called Close Ups, which included more realistic material from authors such as Tim Wynne-Jones, Budge Wilson, Martha Brooks, Sarah Ellis, Kathy Stinson, and Linda Holeman. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Martyn Pig by Kevin Brooks

Martyn Pig’s not worried about his name anymore, but he kind of understands that readers might be:

“Yeah, I know. Don’t worry about it. It doesn’t bother me anymore. I’m used to it. Mind you, there was a time when nothing else seemed to matter. My name made my life unbearable. Martyn Pig. Why? Why did I have to put up with it? The startled looks, the sneers and sniggers, the snorts, the never-ending pig jokes, day in, day out, over and over again.”

But Martyn explains that people can get used to anything, and in his case, he ends up having a whole lot more to worry about than “the constant dread of having to announce [himself].”

Martyn’s biggest problem is his dad. He’s abusive, but Martyn has learned to lie about what life is really like at home – when he goes to the hospital with a broken wrist he tells the doctor that he fell off his bike. He knows what happens if a social worker comes by the house, if his dad loses the benefit checks that he receives to take care of his son. Martyn takes care of the tenuous situation at home carefully, including taking a first aid course that helps him determine whether or not his dad is “dead or just dead drunk” most nights.

That all changes one night, when in a roundabout way, Martyn explains how his love of Sherlock Holmes kills his dad. He says,

“Do you see what I mean now, about The Complete Illustrated Sherlock Holmes? If I’d never been given it for my birthday, if I’d never read it, then I’d never have fallen in love with murder mysteries. And if I’d never fallen in love with murder mysteries then I wouldn’t have been watching Inspector Morse on the television. And if I hadn’t been watching Inspector Morse on the television, Dad wouldn’t have been sitting there shouting “Lewis! Lew-is! Lew-is!” like a madman and I wouldn’t have got annoyed and I wouldn’t have told him to shut up and he wouldn’t have tried to bash my head in and I wouldn’t have shoved him in the back and he wouldn’t have hit his head against the fireplace and died.”

Martyn immediately begins worrying about what is going to happen now that he’s underage and without a parent or guardian. And, afraid that he’ll be sent with a relative that he doesn’t even know, he decides to hold off on calling the police. And then he finds his dad’s PIN number and bankcard along with a letter that states £30,000 pounds has just been deposited into the account. After a few days, he realizes that nothing has really changed, except for the fact that he his dad’s body is still in the house. Martyn decides to proceed as normal, and cover up the fact that his dad is dead.

It’s a plan that is quickly complicated and changed, and Martyn stops being the only person aware of his dad’s death. Voluntarily, he brings Alex into the fold, a teenage girl that he’s just met, and involuntarily, a teenage boy named Dean. Martyn tries to cover up the mystery he has created using the skills that he’s learned from the detective books that he reads. But unlike those books, he’s still right in the middle of the mystery, trying to cover up his tracks and deal with the “witnesses” who are now part of his life. It’s a different mystery story – the reader knows what happened, a witness to Martyn’s altercation with his dad – but it’s how Martyn covers his tracks that creates the “what next? what next?” of the mystery genre. The book is told in first person, and it makes for such an immediate read. Kevin Brooks writes an excellent YA mystery, just from the point of view of the person on the opposite side of a crime. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Pigman by Paul Zindel

The Pigman was published in 1968, but it’s one of those YA books like The Outsiders or Catcher in the Rye or A Separate Peace that kind of retains everything relevant about it, a direct style that doesn’t seem so much like a classic even fifty years later. In The Pigman, teenage protagonists John and Lorraine hold telephone marathons, calling up houses as a joke and pretending to be an organization, a charity, or some made up imaginary person. They explain what they do in the first few pages by way of talking about the Marshmallow Kid, a social outcast ever since he got caught stealing a bag of marshmallows from the grocery store. Lorraine explains,

“Anyway, [the Marshmallow Kid’s] the one who started cheating in the telephone marathons we were having. After Dennis had rung up that staggering record about having his nose bitten off, Norton started getting smart, and when it was his turn to pick out a phone number, he’d peek a little and try to make his finger land on a woman’s number rather than a man’s. You could always make a woman talk twice as long as a man. I used to ignore it because in his case it didn’t matter whom he spoke to on the phone. They all hung up.”

Lorraine ends up peeking herself and chooses a number off of Howard Avenue, a street just a couple of blocks away from her house. She ends up getting Mr. Angelo Pignati who “sounded like such a nice old man, but terribly lonely. He was just dying to talk.” He agrees to donate money to the made up “Lorraine and John Fund” and right away Lorraine and John start feeling bad about taking advantage of an old man that they got on the phone. When they go over to his house to collect the money, he invites them in, and reveals the reason that they dub him “The Pigman” – he has a room filled with pig figurines and

“It was a real dump except for the table and shelves at the far end of it. The table had pigs all over it. And the shelves had pigs all over them. There were pigs all over the place. It was ridiculous. I never saw so many pigs. I don’t mean the live kind; these were phony pigs. There were glass pigs and clay pigs and marble pigs.”

What begins as a joke – calling up the Pigman as part of a telephone marathon – continues as a nuanced game, as Lorraine and John visit the Mr. Pignati regularly, spending time at his house, taking him to the zoo, and the department store. The uncomfortable nature of their relationship is revealed by their unwillingness to always let the Pigman buy them wine and snacks and expensive meals at restaurants, and while their relationship is more than the game that it starts out as, it remains tinged with an imbalance. When strangers ask John and Lorraine if they are the Pigman’s son and daughter, both notice the Pigman’s face fall when they admit that they are not. Seeing his distress, Lorraine amends her answer by saying, “I’m his niece.”

Both John and Lorraine are high school sophomores, and the novel alternates from both of their perspectives as they tell the story of the Pigman. Both come from homes and family situations that are less than ideal, and it becomes clear that while the Pigman isn’t exactly normal himself, he does offer both of them a stable second home. Lorraine’s mother’s “got a real hang-up about men and boys” and, as a live-in nurse, “borrows” food from her client’s pantry. She is suspicious of Lorraine’s friendship with John, and monitors their conversations on the phone. John’s dad “the Bore” isn’t a whole lot better. While on the phone Lorraine asks him,

            “What’s all that yelling in the background?”
            “It’s just the Bore.”
            “What did you do now?”
He raised his voice. “They’re trying to accuse me of gluing the telephone lock. They don’t trust me around here.”

But it runs deeper than that, as John’s perspective in the novel shows his home life, where his older brother Kenny is venerated while John is put down and ignored. His dad always “got a big kick out of it when I was about ten years old, and I’d go around emptying all the beer glasses lying around the house.” But the disconnect between John and his brother is even there, as he says, “It was about the only thing I ever did that got any attention. My brother was the one everybody really liked – Kenny, the smart college kid. The only thing I did better than him was drink beer.” The Pigman gives Lorraine and John a reprieve from family, and opens up his house to both of them.

Things fall apart slowly, and then all at once. It’s a quiet book that hits you all at once with its small moments – of Lorraine dressing up in Mr. Pignati’s wife’s clothing, of John leaving a lit cigarette between the fingers of a department store mannequin, of the Pigman feeding animals at the zoo. It was published more than fifty years ago, but it’s so relevant and gets the voices of John and Lorraine so right through their relationship with a stranger, especially as they skate on their roller skates in the department store, the three of them in a line and

“All John was doing was opening his arms and in his own way saying: ‘Look at me, world! Look at my life and energy and how glad I am to be alive!’ We must have looked just like three monkeys. The Pigman, John, and me – three funny little monkeys.”

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

I had a thing for animal-character books when I was younger, something that has sort of continued (the “Talking Animals Movies” category will sometimes be recommended by Netflix). Redwall by Brain Jacques, Kenneth Oppel’s Silverwing, David Clement-Davies’ Fire-Bringer, and Kate diCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux were all some of my favorite books. But Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath, published in 2008, took that category to an entire other level and showed just how much exceptional writing is happening in books for adolescents and young adults (and the fact that the book is illustrated by David Small, whose memoir Stitches is an incredible book, shows how exceptional art is also present in books for adolescents and young adults). Appelt followed this book for adolescents (she has a slew of picture books written for younger readers) with Keeper a book about a blue moon, mermaids, BD (Best Dog), and a seagull called Captain. It’s a whimsical, beautiful book that drops the reader right into the story, and together, both books show Appelt to be one of the best writers for children right now.

The Underneath begins with the lines, “There is nothing lonelier than a cat who has been loved, at least for a while, and then abandoned on the side of the road. A small calico cat. Her family, the one she lived with, has left her in this old and forgotten forest, the forest where the rain is soaking into her soft fur.” The calico cat is about to have kittens, a daughter named Sabine, and a son named Puck, and she searches for a place that she can go to rest.

The cat meets with a dog named Ranger, an old hound chained out front of a house, who sings songs in blues and jazz, mournful and aching with a sound that “sounded exactly how she [the calico cat] felt.” Ranger invites the cat to live in “The Underneath,” the dark space beneath the porch where she will not be found. Ranger belongs to Gar-Face, an old man who grew up steeped in hatred, who left home at an early age, and collected cruelty. The author warns the reader,

“For twenty-five years, while the old loblolly pine shed its branches and bark into the Little Sorrowful Creek and watched them drift toward the sea, Gar Face had roamed this hidden forest. Here, underneath the canopy of the watching willow and birches and ash. Over this past quarter century, the years have softened the old pine. No so Gar Face. Do not cross his angry path. Do not.”

Ranger’s hard life under Gar Face is told in remarkable detail, including the bullet still lodged in his leg from when his owner shot him. When Gar face discovers the cat and kittens under the porch, he sets a chain of events in motion that carry the novel to its conclusion.

And beyond these intersecting stories is something very old, buried in a jar underneath the ground, that is waking up again.

Appelt tells the story of the old hound, the calico cat, and two small kittens in this lyrical, poetic novel. The refrain of “Stay in the Underneath. You’ll be safe in the Underneath” echoes throughout, as the animals are caught between overwhelming love and hate, and navigate the space between.