The covers of the Underland Chronicles do them no end of disservice. Since my policy is to judge a book by its cover, it took reading The Hunger Games...moreThe covers of the Underland Chronicles do them no end of disservice. Since my policy is to judge a book by its cover, it took reading The Hunger Games to convince me to pick them up. I had always assumed they would be machine generated chapter books with mythical creatures protecting or seeking some ring or sword, or who knows what, that has some symbolic meaning - or doesn't. Suzanne Collins, however, is in no way machine-generated. She is Dostoyevski for the young-reader crowd. While she uses the quest trope in each of the Underland stories, her reflections of politics and international history are both gentle and unflinchingly horrifying. Kids have to learn about genocide somehow . . . I guess.
In comparison to other popular child-soldier (or children-save-the-world) stories, the Underland Chronicles are not comforting in the way Harry Potter and Twilight are, nor are they as morally-outraged and uncomfortable as Ender's Game, but I found them more honest than all of those. Collins never seems overcome by her own power as an author, self-indulgent in her story-telling, or worried that her audience won't understand her overall message. That may be the mark of a good editing team, and if so, A+ to them. Her writing is not as lyrically beautiful as Kate DiCamillo's (whose is, for that matter?), but, like Dostoyevski's, it is very effective in reflecting doubts about human nature and, at times, touching. It makes me wish, once again, that Dostoyevski was able to edit well. (less)
I spent about a year in an awkward situation that started out with accidentally babysitting two adorable little kids. Bundles of joy are those two, an...moreI spent about a year in an awkward situation that started out with accidentally babysitting two adorable little kids. Bundles of joy are those two, and I'm not even being ironical. Mommies and daddies, when you ask nice single gals of even age with yourselves if they'll do you a favor and watch your kiddos while you go wine tasting for a night, do you usually mean, "Will you be my nanny?" I hope not. It is very uncomfortable to get out of that kind of situation. Anyway, Olivia was an invaluable friend during that year.
Last Christmas, I went shopping with the grandma of the kids, who we'll call "Mima." Mima told me that she had been Christmas shopping that day with the girl, and they had come across something that made the girl exclaim, "Mima, that's Miss Meri's favorite!" (This family requires Miss and Mr. before any adult names, which I personally find really creepy. Most kids I know call me Mers - pronounced "Meh-rs" not "M-er-s." When I told the girl she could call me Mers, she replied, with some attitude, "Why would I call you Mers? That's not your real name." I had to shamefully admit she was right, and we compromised with Miss Meri.) Back to the story - Mima suggested they buy this favorite thing for me as a Christmas present, and the girl agreed.
When Mima told me about the present, I spent some time trying to guess what it could possibly be and hoping it wasn't a princess dress, but I'm a bad guesser. Unfortunately for surprises, when I was dropping Mima off that night, I helped her carry in a bag of presents. As I was setting it down, it fell open, and seeing what was inside I involuntarily exclaimed, "Hey! That's my favor- . . . wait a second!" Yes, as you may have guessed, it was a stuffed Olivia doll. She's wearing her Christmas outfit, which is pretty spectacular. Olivia is my favorite, it turns out. I think it's because she's good at lots of things.(less)
As a rule, even though I probably do it too much myself, I think comparing two books that are literally similar tends to do neither book any favors. S...moreAs a rule, even though I probably do it too much myself, I think comparing two books that are literally similar tends to do neither book any favors. So, unless you’re trying to crush something despicable in one of the books, pitting one against another doesn’t make that much sense to me. Thoughtless comparisons have ruined stories for me because sometimes something beautiful in a story is so easy to crush by association with something blunt in another. All of this preface is a warning because I am going to compare this book to another book, and it makes me nervous. This book is delicate and beautiful and inspiring, and the book I’m going to compare it to is blunt and awkward and stifling. What I want to say is that I think Breadcrumbs is in many ways reaction to this weirdly true and simultaneously deeply false culture of that odd book He’s Just Not That Into You. I don’t think I can talk about this without spoilers, so consider yourself generally warned.
Breadcrumbs is a story of a little girl, Hazel, who is on the verge of growing up, and must save her best friend, Jack, from magic that poisons and freezes Jack’s heart and turns him against Hazel. Even though grownups around her tell Hazel that Jack is just not that into her, that she should just let him go if he’s not nice to her, Hazel knows Jack and she knows something wrong is going on. More than that, she knows she can be a warrior and save Jack from the loneliness and isolation of this evil magic. So, in a lot of ways, it is delicate to talk about this book because I think if you’re a girl, and you’re Hazel, you could be completely correct and brave and self-aware – or you could be a crazy person who keys cars when boys break up with you.
There is that new documentary, Miss Representation, which I haven’t seen yet. The trailer makes it look amazing, though. It seems like it is mostly about the representation of women and girls in the media and how that contributes to us not participating in society. One of the trailer’s statistics, which has stuck with me and made me really sad over the past few weeks, is that (and I might get the ages slightly wrong here) an equal number of girls and boys under age 9 say that they want to be President when they grow up. Then, once you get to around age 15, almost no girls say that anymore. How much does that suck? It says to me that once girls reach adolescence, we realize that the world was not made for us, it was made for boys.
And I think that is one of the disturbing things about the book He’s Just Not That Into You. The underlying assumption (and even, in many ways, the explicit message) of the book is that girls are and should be insatiably driven to find a steady relationship with a boy, any boy, no matter who he is, but boys must be struck by lightning to find That Special Girl. So, a girl is a crazy person if she is patient with a guy who doesn’t want to impregnate her within the first five minutes of meeting her. (Underlying assumption being that girls should be super excited about that guy.) But, girls are just waiting around at girl factories for guys to magically find the right one, and the chosen girl will be so grateful just to be picked. The world was not made for girls: girls are just one accessory in a world made for boys. On the other hand, I do know at least one girl who is a crazy person and more likely than not to burn down a guy’s house if he’s not into her, so for that girl I think there might be a place for the creepy not-into-you message. For the rest of us, I think a more pertinent message would be, “What are you getting out of this?”
As a sidebar, I think the expectation that girls should be continually dying for a relationship, aside from being perpetuated in culture, comes from ye olden days (and ye present days) when women were not able to make money or own property and need/ed relationships for survival.
Anyway, the way Breadcrumbs deals with this is really pretty. Hazel hears all of these messages, but then she listens to her own heart instead and thinks of what she knows of her friend Jack and she believes that. Much of the book, Hazel’s encounters with a world of fairy tales, seems symbolic or even coded as a girl’s journey to trusting her own evaluation of the world and learning to be braver, and thereby more compassionate, from those lessons. I really like that, and it was so fun to picture a little girl reading the book and being scared and inspired with Hazel and the different versions of love she encounters.
But, there is still a future looming over Hazel that made me ambivalent. Hazel is 9 or 10 in the book, and I saw the Miss Representation trailer while I was in the middle of Breadcrumbs. The white witch warns Hazel in the end that someday Jack will grow up and actually reject her, and she won’t always be able to save their relationship. That’s not exactly what she says, but it is what I heard from her message. It made me think of how, when girls are children, they still want to be President, but adolescence takes that away from them: it becomes a boy's job to reject or accept a girl. Will Hazel not be able to save Jack once he is older and rejects her? She will have to just lose her friend and the most supportive person in her life then? Is it only little girls who can be warriors, and then when we grow up the world stops being ours and we are crazy people if we don’t just let our friends walk away from us? On the one hand I loved that the white witch told Hazel that, and that Hazel meditated on it as the book closed, and on the other hand, I hated it. I loved it because it is true: Jack probably will reject her again in the future, and when that happens, will it be worth it to Hazel to go after him again? Maybe not. But I also hated it because it seemed to anticipate that it should not be worth it to Hazel when she grew up.
I don’t know, maybe I have had too much time to dwell on this from not wanting to post a review because I have felt weirdly vulnerable lately and because my thoughts on this book say things about me that make me uncomfortable in my skin. I have never seen a romantic relationship, my own or anyone else’s, that I thought was worth going through what Hazel went through in this book. I’m super sorry, relationship people, because I do love you, and maybe when some dude is struck by lightning in a non-creepy way about me, I will feel differently, but I have never seen a romantic relationship that I, personally, envy. But, I have had plenty of friendships, as a child and as an adult, that I think are worth what Hazel did. And also not. I guess I like that is open ended whether Hazel would do it again, when, as I think the book anticipates, she and Jack fall in love. But it also leaves me with an unsettled feeling that there is no real answer about whether it is objectively worth it to go through all of the forgiveness and rebuilding it takes to remind a friend that they love you and should be nice to you. Life is hard, kids.
So, ultimately, I guess I like that Hazel tells the just-not-into-you people to shove it because their message does not apply to her friendship with Jack. And, I also feel a little tragically about how that message may or may not apply to her in the future – nobody knows. I guess, for Hazel’s sake, I always hope that the Jacks will be worth the sacrifices. Part of the sad thing about the just-not-into-you message is that it is universal enough for that message to become a best-selling book that friends think a romantic-interest dude is not a nice enough person to be worth a girl’s energy. What is up with that?
There are many facets to the experience of reading a book beloved by a friend. There are probably others that these, but the ones I can think of right...moreThere are many facets to the experience of reading a book beloved by a friend. There are probably others that these, but the ones I can think of right now are the friend, the friendship, society, the book itself, and the reader. The experience of reading seems tied up in all of those parts, but also, I think they are all individual experiences. I read this book because it is beloved by a friend, and I love the way it lets me know that friend better and what it says about our friendship that she would want me to read it. So, when I talk about this book, and how I did not enjoy it, I’m really only focusing on my experience with the book itself. I felt like I needed to make that clear before I start tearing up the dance floor.
This left me with a feeling of . . . huh. It was partly magical, partly sad, and above all else very, very troubling. Reading this book reminded me of this time when I lived in New York, and one of my roommates said to me, “Is everyone in Oregon like you, or are you weird there, too?” It was very alienating and, again, troubling. This book tells the story of a girl who, most of all, more than anything else, struggles with her weight because the people around her are obsessed with her weighing five pounds more than the normal weight for her age. There is also a fox in here, and maybe the fox has PTSD. I found it . . . really odd and, again, troubling. There is a 95% chance that I didn’t get it.
The basic plot of this story, like I say, is that everyone around Abigail Walker is really, really mad about how much she weighs, she meets a magical fox with PTSD and a man with PTSD, and then she learns to ride horses, cast off her fears, and be happy. But, there are a lot of things that happen along the way that were (if I haven’t already said this) really, really troubling to me. And there are some other things that were just confusing. I guess I’ll talk about the confusing things first, then the troubling things.
1. These are my awards, Mother. The PTSD man explains to Abigail that he met his ex-wife in Peace Corps, and then he decided to go into Army because he thought it would pay for college. But, you have to have an undergraduate degree to go into Peace Corps, and I’m pretty sure that’s been a requirement for a long time, so that was weird. And it kind of undermined that whole character to me. Why did that guy really go into the army? And why did he say he was in the Peace Corps if he didn’t have an undergrad degree? Suspect.
2. Bread makes you fat??!!. Abigail’s family is emotionally abusive about her weight, which is 105 lbs. and appears, from the internet, to be five pounds over the normal weight for girls her age. FIVE POUNDS! So, we’re not talking unhealthy, even. But, the parents are so creepily fixated on it that her dad doesn’t take pictures of her anymore and stares her down across the dinner table. So, the one time the family eats dinner in the book, Abigail’s mom makes pizza.
(Sidebar: that is another sub-level of confusing for a mom who is a history professor and always lost in her books and detached from the reality of the family, but, whatever, maybe she also loves to cook and isn’t just trying to be more stepford-creepy than she otherwise appears to be, despite being educated and scholarly. I don’t object to the idea of a professor being a Stepford wife, but I kind of wanted more description about how that actually worked. Also, I’m not meaning that cooking is creepy, just that the mom is kind of creepy in, well, A LOT of ways. “Don’t fight, now, kids! Fighting bad.” “You MUST go to the mean girls’ house, Abigail!” “Your father just yells at you about dieting because he loves you!” brrrrr.)
Anyway, the mom makes cheese pizza for Abigail and sausage pizza for the rest of the family. And it’s like the part in Silence of the Lambs where he keeps saying to the girl in the pit, “It rubs the lotion on its skinnnnn.” The whole family fixates on her, warning her away from even reaching for a regular salad dressing. It eats the cheese pizza and no other pizza!!
But, that’s weird, right? Because how much healthier is plain cheese pizza than sausage pizza? Answer: not at all healthier, and they have basically equivalent calories. So, chill out, Mom and Dad, you creepy assholes!
3.How am I supposed to get into Harvard if I have no wilderness skills?! After Abigail ditches her creepy friends, who also want to watch it rub the lotion on its skinnn, she makes friends with a nerdy computer girl. There is this confusing subplot about how Abigail needs to research all of the animals Lewis and Clark saw on the Oregon trail for the PTSD man, and the nerdy computer girl helps her. Mostly, the nerdy computer girl helps her because Abigail is incompetent at googling. The nerdy computer girl warns her, however, that she will NEVER GET INTO COLLEGE if Abigail doesn’t learn how to google from said nerdy computer girl.
Okay asshole: again, chill out. You are in SIXTH GRADE!! You might get into Harvard, even if you have no wilderness skills. If not, I’ll take you upstairs, throw you out the window, and if you catch the branch of a tree, I’ll be your witness.
So, those were the things that made me feel like, who are these creepy assholes??? Confusing. Next, I’m going to talk about the things I thought were actually troubling, not just confusing.
I don’t have fancy gifs for this part. This part is just about how the overall premise of the story seems somewhat messed up.
1. Bullying. I remember once, in fourth grade, I didn’t want to be friends with this girl anymore because she would only talk about boys, and because her dad freaked me out. I, being a fourth grader, didn’t deal with it really well, as you might imagine, and at one point the situation culminated in a group of girls sort of making a wall around me and telling my friend that I didn’t have to talk to her if I didn’t want to. I remember feeling both like, “This seems accurate. I shouldn’t have to talk to someone if I don’t want to,” and also like, “This seems really mean and extreme, and I don’t know how to diffuse this situation.” The girl was so upset that her parents talked to the principal about it, and I think my parents ultimately got called into the school because of it. Years later, I would run into her every once in a while, and I always wanted to apologize for that, but, does that make it any better? We were really mean to that girl, even though to us there was some kind of self-preservation aspect to it, but it wasn’t really okay. But, what do you say to apologize and does an apology only make it worse?
I’ve been watching Buffy with my roommate, who is a PhD student in early intervention in special education. When Cordelia first came on the screen, my roommate commented that it’s so funny how TV always shows characters like Cordelia, when, in real life those situations don’t ever really happen. Like, people who have as little social inhibition as Cordelia probably have Asperger’s, and probably don’t have a lot of social power. But, in Buffy, Cordelia is such a great character because she is a shorthand for a mean girl, but also she is a caricature, so her mean-girl power is completely undermined. I think that creates a really great social message because, yes, it sucks to have someone be an asshole, but assholes only have as much power over our lives as we give them, and the Buffy gang doesn’t give Cordelia any power.
So, partly I think it makes sense to simplify an experience of bullying, but that was not what I felt was going on here. (I have to admit, though, that I read A Monster Calls right before I read this one, and I thought the way that discussed bullying was so beautiful it made my brain self-destruct, and I am making an unfair comparison between the two books, my own experience, and Buffy.) Nevertheless, in Abigail Walker, it felt like the mean girls were some kind of physical manifestation of a person’s own self-loathing thoughts. All the lurking and skulking around Abigail’s house, and then the weird plan to videotape Abigail eating candy. It was so weird and pathetic that I’m struggling to really wrap my brain around anyone being scary who was stupid enough to want to do that. I mean, the girls are creepy little assholes, but all of the threats seemed like things that would be scary when you thought them in your head, but if you actually said them out loud (or wrote them down) you’d realize how stupid and not scary they were and how uninterested everyone ever would be in watching a video of a girl eating candy.
My point is that I don’t get these bullies. They don’t seem like characters to me, and to the extent they are physical manifestations of somebody’s personal demons, I really don’t like the idea of giving them so much voice in this story. I mean, everyone has to fight their own monsters in their own way, but giving your monster the dominant social voice in your book seems like a way to nurture your monster, not fight it.
2. Being Normal. Probably the dominant theme of this book is that it’s okay to not be normal, which is a wonderful theme. The way it was executed, though, was another troubling thing to me. Abigail feels like she is not normal because she is five pounds over the normal weight for her age. So, that in itself is tainted with all the creepy assholes around her and seems super creepy in itself. She makes friends with the PTSD man’s son, who also feels not normal. The boy feels not normal because his dad keeps him on this farm and won’t let him leave the boundaries of the farm for any reason because he might get hurt. He is homeschooled by participating in the great Lewis and Clark study.
At one point, the son compares his situation to Abigail’s. He says that Abigail's mom is wrong for saying she’s not normal because she’s too fat. And then he comments that maybe his own mother is similarly wrong for wanting him to be in a school instead of being homeschooled in the country with his mentally ill father. Sooooo . . . . That raises a lot of issues for me. Like, this kid’s mother was a Peace Corps volunteer, and somehow in a custody battle her mentally ill husband got custody of their son? What is up with that? And, like, really? It’s the same to be five pounds overweight as to be trapped in the country acting as a caretaker for a mentally ill person??? This is kind of outrageous to me.
I realize it is a kid who makes this statement in the book, but the kid has a pretty strong voice within the story and is sort of built up to be wise. When he says maybe he and Abigail are actually both okay even though they are not normal, you can tell that statement is supposed to carry the weight of wisdom. I just have a big problem with both the comparison and the idea that it is okay for this kid to be trapped on a farm caring for his father. Very stressful.
3. Weight. I guess I kind of want to talk more about weight, but I’ve probably talked long enough. Maybe all I will say is that I think this book perpetuates the idea that being fat or thin is based on a mindset or emotional change. Abigail walks up the hill to the PTSD man's house the first time, and she huffs and puffs. The second time, though, she is less sad and self-condemning, so she can just run up the hill with no problem. I feel like that is a really negative message to perpetuate. I think that taking care of our bodies is like taking care of anything else and involves responsibility and eating enough food for our bodies, not just eating less food. I feel like the idea is not rare that if you have a healthy sense of self, being athletic and thin will become easy. That really bothers me both because it's clearly false, and because I think it creates this idea that good people are thin and bad people are fat, which is a very troublingly false idea, as well. Also, I've been using the website myfitnesspal.com to lose the weight I gained in school, and I've come to believe that with people who perpetually gain weight, overall it's probably not so much that they eat to much food, but probably more that they eat too little, sending their bodies into storage mode for when they eat too much. That has at least turned out to be true for me. The way the entire world in this book only wanted Abigail to eat less, not for her to be healthy, was really troubling.
I think those are all of my issues. I found this story very distressing to read. While Abigail seemed to have a somewhat strong sense of self despite the creepy monsters around her, I couldn’t really get where that sense of self was coming from. She clearly had no adult or peer support, so when she would make some kind of self-possessed statement, it always felt shaky because how does a sixth grader resist wanting to punish her body when everyone around her clearly does? A lot of this seemed like the written manifestation of imaginary monsters, and that freaked me out not a little. I don’t generally enjoy an author exorcising demons through writing, and doing so in a children’s book, in a way that felt more like nurturing than exporcising, makes me feel even more uncomfortable. This one was not for me.
_________ The publisher provided me a copy of this book, but I did nothing in return.(less)
I’m one of those annoying people who, when someone else waxes nostalgic about a previous decade or century, is always like, “sexist, racist, no hot ru...moreI’m one of those annoying people who, when someone else waxes nostalgic about a previous decade or century, is always like, “sexist, racist, no hot running water, cobble stones are annoying, smelly, wild animals, Hitler, and no zippers.” I dig simplicity, but that’s pretty much in the eye of the beholder, you know? For example, I could run around town, trying to find somebody who wanted to listen to my opinion about this book, or I could just post it on the internet, and see if anyone cares. The latter option seems much more simple to me. When people say they’re abandoning technology to simplify, I feel suspicious. I do not think life is simpler without technology. But, maybe they are not trying to be fashionably retro-counter-culture, and they just mean that they love enough people who they see in person that it is overwhelming to look beyond that. That seems nice.
Anyway, this book is a beautiful story that illustrates what I think about the “simple life” not being all it’s cracked up to be. It starts out like a funny, silly chapter-book experience. Like, Oh no! They fell in a river! Mamma, what are cow pies?! That kind of thing. Then, it goes pretty seriously into . . . well, life. It goes into how people suck and growing up sucks. It doesn’t do that in a whiny way, but it does do it in a somewhat adult way. The kids buy a dead man’s hand. There is swindling and rejection and murrrderrr. This is such a good book.
I think Holm does an excellent job at maintaining the Voice of May Amelia, while she obviously grows and changes. Her voice stays the same, but it grows with her. And it does that thing that old documents do, where they capitalize the first letter of words that seem Important. A friend of mine in law school always nerdily laugh about that. Like, whaaa, James Madison? Do you want us to notice the word Jurisdiction there? May Amelia does that, too. At first, it wasn’t my favorite, but it really grew on me.
I don’t know if I would have liked this when I was young. I think I would have. But, I like it now. It was a really simple, beautiful way to talk about being a girl in a world that doesn’t always love girls.
I received a free copy of this book from a book fairy. Thank you!!(less)
I want a puppy so bad!!! But, I think if I had to go through all the drama of this book in order to get a puppy, that might not be worth it to me.
But...moreI want a puppy so bad!!! But, I think if I had to go through all the drama of this book in order to get a puppy, that might not be worth it to me.
Sad puppy wants its own girl:
Like Mark, I can’t have a puppy right now. Unlike Mark, I do not spend every waking hour researching puppies. I don’t think I have the devotion or sense of responsibility that Mark seems to have, but maybe when I grow up, I will, and then my mom HOA will let me have a puppy.
This story is in verse, and it is very sweet, and (SPOILER ALERT) it has a happy ending. It seems like it would be a fun book for a new reader who also has a new puppy. Probably not a good book to get a kid if you don’t want to buy said kid a puppy. There’s that Shel Silverstein poem about Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony, where Abigail says she’ll die if she doesn’t get a pony, and then she doesn’t get a pony and she does die. I think this could be a similar experience, where if you’re a kid and don’t have a puppy, you might die after reading this book. Just a warning for concerned parents. _______________________ I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for nothing. (less)
This is such a great book, but weird at the same time. On the one hand, It’s kind of depressing to read, over and over, how much more successful than...moreThis is such a great book, but weird at the same time. On the one hand, It’s kind of depressing to read, over and over, how much more successful than me the undead are at romantic relationships. On the other hand, this guy really does try harder than me, so I shouldn’t complain, and this is a sweet book. But, back on the first hand, it’s a sweet picture book for kids about a zombie, sooooo . . . Do we really want to be teaching our children about how endearing zombies are? I ask you.
No, I do not ask you: I tell you! This is no way to prepare children for the zombie apocalypse! Children need to know that zombies are terrifying, flesh-eating monsters. That is really the most important thing they need to know about zombies. There are a few other things that might be helpful, though, so, kids: #2: If you grow up to be an activist, do not release lab animals if they look crazed. #3: If you grow up to become a scientist, do not develop a zombie virus. (Trust me! It’s not worth it!) #4: Shoot for the head or neck. #5: Even if it’s your friend, don’t hesitate to shoot.
Those are the most important things I can think of. This book takes a different track, which I can . . . respect. It took the zombies-are-huggable track. It seems like a suspect moral message to me. But, it is such a cute book, and the illustrations are so great! I am torn. Just because it is fiction, though, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an obligation to warn kids about the dangers of the zombie apocalypse.
A book fairy gave me a free copy of this lovely book. Thank you! (less)