Friday, November 20, 2009

Kids Say the Darndest Things

The novels in this booklist include literary masterpieces, winners of Pulitzer Prizes, Booker Prizes, National Book Awards, classics that have withstood the test of time. They also all feature narrators who are a bit unexpected. These narrators are precocious and mischievous. They have early bedtimes. They hate vegetables. And most importantly, they ask “Why?” That’s because these narrators are children. Children, after all, have decidedly original points of view. They notice more than we give them credit for, they understand more than we think, and they’re still capable of remarkable flights of fancy and imagination. Those qualities make children excellent storytellers, even when an adult author is really pulling the strings behind the pages. Children see the world in a different way, and the results are book with refreshing changes of pace and original points of view. After all, you’re never too young to tell a good story.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, 2006, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, originally published 1960 (Fiction Classics)

Maycomb is a small, old, slow-moving town. Not much happens until the summer tomboy Scout Finch is six years old. That’s the summer Scout and her brother Jem make friends with visiting neighbor boy Dill, and that leads to the idea of getting reclusive Boo Radley out of his house, and then there’s the case Scout’s lawyer father fights tooth and nail for, the case of a black man accused of the rape of a white woman. Forget reading To Kill a Mockingbird in your high school English classes. This is an adult novel too, written for an adult audience, the winner of a Pulitzer Prize and one of just about everybody’s favorite books. Not only is it a literary classic chock-full of themes of prejudice, judgment, and tolerance, but it’s a damn good story. These are unforgettable characters—Atticus Finch, equally compassionate as a lawyer and as father; irascible Dill and his inventive games; Calpurnia the motherly, no-nonsense maid; the poor, ignorant Ewell family; the secluded, elusive Radley family. Author Harper Lee, who only wrote this one book, treats the time and place (southern Alabama in the 1930s) with a realism that shows racism and class divisions as a way of life, and allows her little narrator to challenge that lifestyle. Because Scout—a boyishly charming girl clinging to her slangy speech and her scruffy overalls—is determined to understand why grown-ups think and act the way they do, and her simple curiosity and innocent demands for the truth just might be enough to change a few adult minds along the way.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, 2008, Puffin Classics, originally published 1884 (Fiction Classics)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is another story of racism in the Deep South, this time in the 1840s--the granddaddy of To Kill a Mockingbird, if you will. Huck Finn is a boy who, as the son of the town drunk, is allowed to live far from the reaches of polite society. This means that he’s free to do whatever he wants—fish in the river, sleep in the woods, answer to no one. When a wealthy widow decides to adopt him, Huck gives it his best shot and tries to mend his ways, even though the widow’s misguided kindness is almost more than he can bear. But when his unsavory father shows up again, Huck knows it’s time to hit the road—or in his case, the river, the mighty Mississippi that flows to freedom. And joining Huck in an even more desperate bid for an even more tangible freedom is Jim, a runaway slave who has no choice but to pin his hopes on a mere boy who, even if he is poor and “uncivilized,” is still the product of a society that sees very strongly in terms of black and white. Huck and Jim’s journey by raft downriver brings surprises for both of them—after encounters with crafty kings, feuding families, slave-hunters, and shipwrecks, it’s impossible to remain unchanged no matter how deeply the rules of their society are ingrained. Huck Finn’s story was written over one-hundred years ago; the language (particularly where race is concerned) is true to its time and has spurred non-stop controversy over the years. Author Mark Twain’s depictions of slavery, poverty, superstition, and ignorance reveal all the injustices of the pre-Civil War south, but Huck’s gradual realizations and understandings—not to mention his utterly original down-to-earth, literal, take-it-as-it-comes, comic observations—have made The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a relevant, important, and completely entertaining work of literature.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, 2003, Doubleday Books (Literary Fiction/ Mystery)

At fifteen years old, narrator Christopher Boone may be pushing the boundaries of childhood. But Christopher is also autistic, which means he’s even more socially awkward and emotionally distant than the average kid on the verge of adolescence. Christopher screams when he’s touched, refuses to eat brown or yellow foods, and takes everything at its face value. But he also copes extremely well (usually by doing math problems to relax) and when he is falsely accused of murdering his neighbor’s dog, Christopher’s supposed disability proves to be the best deductive tool of all. Armed with his innate (and at times obsessive) sense of logic, Christopher writes a book in order to solve the case. The result is a sparkling clear account of Christopher’s life, from his parents’ failed marriage to his own compulsions to the mysteries of his neighborhood to real insights into this boy’s unusual and unique view of the world. Christopher may not be able to understand anyone else’s emotions, but readers will feel very strongly about this truly authentic, even ground-breaking child narrator and his story.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley, 2009, Delacorte Press (Historical Fiction/ Mystery)

Eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce is not the most loveable child. She’s sly, secretive, crafty, and her favorite hobby is concocting poisons in the upstairs laboratory of her old manor home. But Flavia is still more than capable of winning the hearts of her readers, armed as she is with an extensive vocabulary, a passion for chemistry, a knack for picking locks, and a childish confidence fostered by an unflappable determination. This means that when a dead bird with a postage stamp stuck through its beak is found on the doorstep, and a murdered man is found in the cucumber patch, Flavia is able to rise to the occasion like no detective, young or old, we’ve ever met before. Set in a small English village in the 1950s, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is peppered with characters who meet the standards of the classic mystery while adding their own bit of dash and pep to the story—the stoically amused police inspector, the devoted gardener with a mysterious past, the gossipy no-nonsense cook. Then there’s Flavia’s family—a deceased mother whose presence still lingers, a passive father who is most devoted to his stamp collection, and a pair of older sisters who cling to their own interests as obsessively as Flavia clings to her chemistry beakers and flasks. This is author Alan Bradley’s first book, and besides winning the prestigious Canadian Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is, we’re delighted to learn, only the first in a planned series of mysteries that’s set to star this highly original girl sleuth.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathon Safran Foer, 2005, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books (Literary Fiction)

In his bestselling debut novel Everything is Illuminated, author Jonathon Safran Foer told a tragic-comic tale about a dark period—World War II and the Holocaust. In his follow-up bestseller Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Foer does the same with a tragedy from the more recent past. His new hero, Oskar Schell, is the nine-year-old son of a man who died in the September 11th attacks at the World Trade Center. Struggling with his loss, Oskar maintains an offbeat sense of humor and an insatiable curiosity. When he finds a mysterious key in an envelope labeled “Black” in his father’s closet, Oskar sets out on a journey through New York City to interview every person with that last name—all 262 of them. As Oskar meets quirky character after quirky character, his story merges with those of his grandparents—his clinging, hoping grandmother who lives across the street and his long-absent, mute grandfather who survived a tragic event of his own. Oskar is aided on his journey by his many hobbies, including inventing, starring in Shakespearean plays, and letter-writing. He’s a brainy, daydreaming, worrywart whose story is scattered with black and white photographs, slangy kid-speak, and inventive uses of text like a two-page apology typed in numerical code. Jonathon Safran Foer is an extremely inventive and incredibly original writer, and sad though his story is at times (and there’s beauty there too), young Oskar is an irresistible narrator.

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle, 1994, Penguin Books (Fiction)

Paddy Clarke is a ten-year-old kid running rampant through the streets of Dublin suburb Barrytown with a pack of like-minded hooligans. Paddy and his mates Kevin, Liam, and Aidan write their names in wet cement, play cowboys and Indians, and hold funerals for dead rats. They tease Paddy’s brother, Sinbad, since it’s a requirement that big brothers hate their little siblings. Paddy is a hard nut to crack; though he seems the typical rough and rowdy, wannabe tough-guy boy, his thoughts, dreams, and observations of life in working-class Ireland in the 1960s reveal a keen power of observation and insight. At night, after Paddy and his gang have run amuck through the neighborhood construction sites that are their playgrounds, Paddy listens for the sounds of his parents fighting. He’s grown-up enough to know that their marriage is on the outs, and still childish enough to believe that if he stays vigilantly awake while they argue, his da won’t leave his ma after all. That combination of grown-up awareness and boyish innocence is what makes Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha so charming, along with author Roddy Doyle’s infamous and by now well-loved use of Irish slang and speech patterns, use of dark humor, and his vivid portrait of a little boy’s unique point-of-view. First published in 1993 in the U.K., Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha won that year’s prestigious Booker Prize.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker, 1992, Harcourt Books, originally published 1982 (Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

The heroine of author Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is Celie, a young black girl in the deep south of the early 1920s. When the story begins, Celie is little more than a child, a fourteen-year-old who has already lived a life harsher than that of most adults in her time. Celie only escapes the rape and abuse of her stepfather when she is sold off as child-bride to the widowed “Mister,” a cruel man who expects her to raise his children and serve as his own private punching bag when he’s not off with his blues-singing, independent-minded mistress Shug Avery. Yes, this is a brutal story, but Celie (and the reader) find hope and comfort in the letters Celie writes, first to God (she has no one else to turn to) and later to her sister, Nettie, who’s been taken to Africa by a missionary family. The letters between the sisters form a striking contrast. Celie is poverty-stricken and writes in a limited—but ultimately expressive and hopeful—vocabulary, while Nettie has received an education and relates stories of a meaningful life in a faraway land. Words can only do so much to inspire Celie, but as the years pass, Celie is about to forge an unlikely and inspiring relationship with an unexpected friend. As Celie struggles to grow from childish, helpless victim to independent, free woman, her narrative voice becomes stronger and ultimately elegant in spite of—or perhaps because of—her natural uneducated, barely literate dialect, which Alice Walker renders in truly gracefully prose. The Color Purple is a painful story, but it’s a redeeming one as well.

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Werewolves by Karen Russell, 2006, Knopf Books (Fiction/ Short Stories) 

Karen Russell’s ten short stories in this collection are narrated by children. And oh, what strange little children these are. In “Haunting Olivia,” Timothy Sparrow and his brother Waldo Swallow take turns wearing a pair of pink goggles to search Gannon’s Boat Graveyard for the ghost of their dead sister, Olivia Lark, while their parents escape from grief and marital problems by touring Third World countries. Jacob, in “from Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration,” is the son of a Minotaur. When his family decides to move west, they hitch dear old dad to the wagon and set out for the great unknown, where Jacob’s father performs legendary feats of strength and usefulness on the trail, and is then accused of spreading lice to the children and titillating the cows. And in the whimsical title story, the daughters of werewolves are taken from their caves, renamed (GWARR! becomes Jeanette, for example), and taught how to behave in polite society, though there’s a part of them that would still rather run and howl and bite and scratch and snarl. Odd, quirky, and fanciful, these stories are still full of all the stuff and drama of real life. Things are not easily resolved in these stories; growing up is not a straight-forward, straight-laced business after all. Russell’s children are misfits who live in macabre worlds that are part myth; the stories they tell are strange and wonderful and entirely original. Even though the tales in St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Werewolves are fantastic in nature, they perfectly reveal the insightful glimmers of real life and the overwhelming imaginative powers that all children possess.

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