Posts tagged ‘coming-of-age’

August 2, 2013

the secrets of parenting with books

This was a YA book I could NOT put down. I think EVERY SINGLE parent needs to read it right now. And most teens, too. I chose this book for its title and cover. This might make me shallow, but it totally worked. Because Aristotle and Dante DO discover the secrets of the universe, or at least some of them, and they do it in a really realistically teen way.

aristotleanddanteTitle: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
: Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Genre: Fiction, Realistic Fiction
Age: 12 and up

And the cool thing about the parents? Well for starters, they aren’t dead! When is the last time you read a kids’ book where the parents were still alive? Still thinking about that one? Exactly. ALL FOUR parents are involved, and all, despite various issues they might have, are phenomenal role models, or at least doing their best. (And not in a cheesy, role-your-eyes I can’t believe my mom is making me read this book kind of way. Not that your kid would EVER roll his eyes…)

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a compelling story about two teenage boys. Both are Mexican-American, which is already an identity with which they struggle, in different ways. And both are discovering sexuality, and again, they discover their own in really different ways. Aristotle is rough around the edges, completely silent inside and out (which makes him a really unique 1st person narrator–he doesn’t understand himself well enough to tell you all the details). Dante is more refined, more talkative, inquisitive. He wants to save the dead bird in the street.

Aristotle and Dante become fast friends and what happens next is nothing less than the story of all boys who grow up. It will, in particular, speak to those teenage boys who are finding out that their own sexuality might be different than the status quo, but I believe this is a book whose teenage angst will speak to all of us: gay, straight, young, and old.

And like I said, this is a book for parents. If you are having a hard time talking with your kids about growing up, having friends, or being gay, please read this book. Give it to your kids to read. And, like Ari’s father, sit down at the kitchen table one day and just start to talk. You might be surprised where it gets you.

If all books were like this, EVERYONE would read kids’ books, everyone would read with their kids, and this blog would be totally irrelevant.

And you don’t have to take MY word for it. This book won the Michael J. Printz Award, the Stonewall Book Award, and the Pura Belpré Award. Seriously. It has three medals on the cover.

If you like this one, I would suggest: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, and An Abundance of Katherines by John Green. All are great coming-of-age boy stories with a real MC and real problems in a real world.

January 14, 2011

Part-time identity

I’ve been meaning to read this book for some time, so I was excited when I was semi-forced to read it by two coincidental things.  One, I started my book challenge, and this counts as an “X” author.  And two, I was doing an article for a school magazine and interviewing a teacher about teaching this book, so it made sense to read it first.  It was great!  A really fast read–I was done in one night and a wonderful weekend afternoon while my husband played with our son.  The book covers a lot of issues, mostly about culture and American identity, what it means to be a native American in the modern world, and what it means to find yourself.  It’s a coming-of-age novel for a kid who thought he’d never come of age to be anything other than poor and drunk.

Title: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Author: Sherman Alexie
Genre: Fiction
Age Group:
12 and up, Young Adult

Summary and Review:

Junior is growing up on an Indian reservation outside of Spokane, Washington.  It isn’t an easy life—he sees absolutely no hope for himself and no future for anyone he knows, other than to become poor and drunk.  He hangs out with his best friend Rowdy whose father is abusive and neglectful.  And then, during one of his first days in high school on the reservation, he looks at the copyright date on his math book and notices its the same book used to teach his parents.  He is outraged at how little he and his people has and throws the book in anger, accidentally hitting the teacher.  The teacher, though, has an unexpected response, and counsels Junior that he can have a future, and that he should transfer to a school off the reservation.

Junior takes his suggestion, and is immediately seen as a traitor to his people.  He hitchhikes or walks most days to the school, some 30 miles away, except on the rare occasions when his dad manages to (a) get the car running, (b) find enough gas money, and (c) remember to take him to school.  He is immersed in a white world where he must learn new rules of teenage society and try to fit in.  At the new school, he feels like an outsider, but when he comes back to the reservation each night, he is treated even more like one.

Junior, now called “Arnold”, his official name, manages to make some friends at his new school, and even joins the basketball team.  The dramatic games he plays against his former teammates and reservation friends highlight the tension between the Native American world and the white world right outside.

The book is an excellent portrayal of the tragic fate of Native Americans in this country and will make any kid think about it.  It’s also a wonderful book about growing up and finding out who you really are—and what defines that.  Junior’s search for a future is something anyone will identify with, and something all young adults will benefit from reading about.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book and can’t wait to read more Sherman Alexie.

Follow-up with the kids:

There are months of conversation you could have about this book, and where you want to go with it probably depends on who you are and who your kid is.  A classroom or kids in a homeschool environment could read this book and have some great discussions about ethnic conflict, the history of Native Americans in this country, what it means to be an immigrant, and how circumstances really unlevel the playing field when it comes to the “American Dream” which for the kids Junior knows, is just a myth or a truth for people other than themselves.

If you are reading this at home with your kids, you can still talk about that, and I would encourage you to, but you can also take the conversation on a more personal level.  Ask your child what their dreams are.  What holds them back or pushes them forward?  Is there a way in which they are an outsider or an immigrant themselves?  How does that define who they are?

A great activity to do when talking about who you are is to draw a series of concentric circles.  Then brainstorm a list separately of adjectives that describe you (male, teenager, black, white, soccer-player, nerd, dog-lover, son, brother, etc.) and then put those adjectives in the circles, with the one that means the most and describes the most profound part of you in the center circle and working out accordingly.  This is an exercise that can mean a lot to kids and teens and help them think about their place in the world and where (and who) they want to be.  Sometimes they will surprise themselves at the adjectives they put close to the center and you can ask them about what it means to them to define themselves in such a way.  (For example, a kid might put “brother” as an identifier and be surprised when he realizes how important that piece of him is.  Why does he define himself as a brother so strongly and what is it about being a brother that shapes who he is?)

Possible Issues:

This is a young adult book told from the point of view of a ninth grade boy.  It’s honest.  He talks about masterbating (a lot), boners (also a lot), and some minor girlfriend lust, although they never actually do anything physical together.  There is also a lot of talk about drinking on the reservation and what alcohol has done to his family and his friends.  It’s all pretty minor stuff, and nothing unusual for a YA novel (unless it’s unusual for having LESS sexual content than many I’ve read).

January 10, 2011


I’m not sure how old I was when I realized that I didn’t have to save the world to have a meaningful life, and to be honest, I’m still not sure how I feel about that realization or whether or not I actually agree with it or think it’s a cop-out.  Am I relying on others saving the world, or just hoping that if we all do our part, something will happen?  I’m not sure, but I loved the message in this book of just-graduated high school seniors on a road trip, one of whom is going through a very existential crisis: he’s been a child prodigy all his life, something he reminds us is very different than being a genius, as prodigy implies that terrifying of terrifying things: potential. Well, he isn’t a child anymore.  So what is he?  And what happens to “potential” when you grow up?

Title: An Abundance of Katherines
Author: John Green
: Fiction
Age: Young Adult, 12 – 18

Summary and Review:

Colin Singleton is a half-Jew child prodigy who thinks, upon graduating from high school, that he’s all washed up.  After all, he can’t be a child prodigy if he’s not a child anymore.  Not it’s time for him to prove his worth and accomplish something.  But what?  After being dumped by his 19th Katherine (yes, that’s right, he’s had the dubious honor of ONLY dating–and only being dumped by–girls named Katherine), he decides to invent a mathematical theory that will predict the course of a relationship.  With this theorem in hand, he reasons, not only will he have fulfilled his long-studied potential, but he will also know when the heartbreak is coming before it comes.  Somehow, he thinks this will be a good thing.

He’s hanging out with his best friend, a devout Muslim and fellow outcast, who (at least until this road trip) is completely sworn off drinking and women, and whose lifelong goals include lying on the couch and watching Judge Judy.

Together, they embark on a road trip that takes them to a small town in Tennessee where adventures with their first jobs, two local girls, neither of whom are named Katherine, and a small factory-dependent community, the two boys unwittingly learn a little bit about life.

Follow-up with the kids:

If your kid is a math genius, you can ask him or her to decode the formula for you.  Apparently, as it exists and evolves in the book, it actually works according to the rules and histories of the characters and relationships experienced in Colin’s life.  Despite helpful footnotes and a lengthy explanation at the end, this was math beyond my level of comfort.  Maybe I could have handled it fifteen years ago (that’s a scary thought), but that part of my brain has more recently been sacrificed.  On the plus side, I can now change diapers and wipe noses, which going back to the idea of fulfilled potential, should be some encouragement.

There’s also something to be said in this book about what it means to have potential and what it means to fulfill it.  We all have potential to do a lot of things.  In no way are we going to fulfill all of it, so how do we choose?  And my favorite question, if we have the potential to do something, are we thus obligated?  I think a lot of kids grow up today thinking this way, and that’s why the book has rung so true to so many of them, even if they aren’t child prodigies studied by development experts and put on TV game shows.  If they have the potential to be a great piano player, is it okay if they choose to be a mediocre guitar player instead?  If they have the potential for an ivy league school, is it okay if they choose to travel the world instead?  And pick up their education ten years later at a state university?  Well, I know what I think the answers are for my own life.  But what is your answer, and does it agree with your child’s?  And if not, is the disagreement putting a strain on your relationship or your child’s own view of his or her self-worth?

These are tough things to think about and tougher things to talk about.  But I was just told by a friend of another high school suicide.  Star athlete, the whole shebang.  I don’t know the story of why.  I don’t know that, in this case, it had anything to do with potential, realized or not.  But I do think these things are important enough to be work the effort of conversation and understanding.

September 14, 2010

Learn to sail, conquer a fear, meet your family–all while WANDERING

If you haven’t started reading your children’s books for yourself yet, this one would be another great place to start.  Sometimes, I think adult fiction gets too carried away in its seriousness, almost as if it feels like unending depression and angst, forbidden sex, and deceit are the only truths in our lives.  Either that, or you’re reading a “fluff” piece about a girl who shops and tries to find Mr. Right.  Either way, with exceptions for a few of my favorite adult authors, I just can’t take adult fiction anymore.

But sometimes (usually, I hope) life is just about living with your family, growing up (and no, I don’t think we ever stop growing up), making mistakes and correcting them, being scared and chasing your fears, arguing and then wishing you didn’t.  This is why in a lot of ways I feel kid lit is sometimes closer to the real thing.  Which brings us to today’s book.  I loved it, and it only made me realize that I haven’t read enough of Sharon Creech’s honored work.

Title: The Wanderer
Author: Sharon Creech
: Fiction
Age: Upper Elementary and Middle School, 8 – 12

Summary and Review:

Sophie is the only girl on the sailboat.  Together with her two cousins and three uncles, they set sail for England in a journey toward their grandfather.  As an adopted member of the family, Sophie struggles at times to be accepted and also to accept herself on this journey.  As a girl, she struggles to be taken seriously.  And as a 13-year-old, she struggles to understand her place on the boat, in this family, and in the world.  The adventure is cleverly narrated by both Sophie and Cody, one of her cousins.  This duel narrator gives a great depth of understanding to both the journey and the characters aboard.  You get to hear stories from two different points of view and the reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions.

A lot of the subplots in this book are really just in-depth character development, told in wonderful ways.  The characters on the boat are real: Brian, the third kid on the boat and the one left out of the narration, is awkward and nerdy, something that Sophie and Cody both struggle to understand and at times very much dislike.  But their dislike is honest and explored in their own narratives–kids reading this story will very much relate, no matter which side of the popularity line they are usually on.

Another character-based storyline is the relationships between both Cody and Brian’s and their fathers, who are brothers.  Cody strives to show his hard-to-please dad that he merits serious consideration while Brian’s dad, immensely proud of Brian’s ability to spout facts at the drop of a hat, doesn’t understand or appreciate Cody’s attitude or joking around.

Sophie’s story, though, is the one to follow as she reveals more about her own journey, her reasons for wanting to go on the trip, and her own relationship with the grandfather that, as Brian likes to point out, isn’t her real grandfather. *SPOILER ALERT*  On the journey you learn that Sophie’s birth parents were killed in a boating accident, and that she is taking this trip because it’s something she feels she has to do, has to get over.  She tells stories to the rest of the crew about her own life and the life of the grandfather she’s never met, and they begin to understand that her stories, which are told in the third person, are actually her, and that the stories of her grandfather, which they think she must be making up, are also true, learned in letters he’s written her.  The theme of a family coming together, an emotional journey alongside a physical one, is real.  It’s good literature, and it makes a strong point for kids to follow.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

Definitely talk about the three kids, Sophie, Brian, and Cody, and their differences.  What makes them each click?  What do they each like and dislike?  What are their strengths and weaknesses?  Why do Sophie and Cody dislike Brian so much and what helps them understand him better?  Ask your child if they have friends or classmates like any of these three–help them to see that a group of people with different strengths can really help each other.

A classic topic also are the numerous rifts on the family theme that this book inspires.  Why do the uncles argue if they like each other?  Why do Cody and his dad have such a hard time and what is it that finally brings them together?  Maybe relate these stories to stories in your own family.  Use the time to remember family reunions or big family dinners.  Every family has strife, and some kids can be more bothered by that than others.  Why do families fight and how does a child know if its serious or just part of what happens when a lot of different people get together?  Especially people who love each other so much–doesn’t that just intensify our feelings?  That can be hard for a child to grasp.  But let’s be honest–it can be hard for us to grasp, too, right?