Posts tagged ‘young adult’

December 31, 2010

Grown-ups who read kids’ books

Here’s what I think.  Yes, technically this blog is for parents to recommend books to their kids, or read along with them, but there are a lot of adults reading children’s books out there, whether their kids are reading them or not.  And not just Harry Potter and Twilight (oh please, not Twilight).  But a lot of other good stuff, too.  And I wanted to celebrate that!  Take the cover off the book you read on the train and come out from under the covers at night.  I think these are great reads for adults!

Middle grade books are my favorite.  I’ve always taught middle school, with a few forays into elementary and high school, but I always come back to middle school, so maybe whatever it is that draws me to these kids also draws me to these books.  But I really do think that middle grade books often tackle much more complex issues than adult books and tend to be much more honest. The Golden Compass, anyone?  Who has read an adult book lately that talks about stripping our souls away from us?  (And for more thoughts about what it means to take away your soul, just look at Harry Potter‘s Voldemort.)  And what about The Hunger Games?  Katniss is such an honest character—she’s tough and likeable, brave and resists authority like any Tom Clancy hero, but she’s also unsure of herself, unsure of love, and unsure of her role as a heroine.  She’s a real, complex personality.  And Ender’s Game?  Ender is only six when the book starts, but his journey is one we can all learn from.  And all of these books have a lot to say about our own society as well.

Almost every time I read adult fiction, which is rare, but I make an exception once in awhile for a notable book (most recently for A Reliable Wife), I regret it.  In A Reliable Wife, for example, the writing was superb, the plot interesting and complex, but the characters.  “Ah humanity,” as Bartleby would say.  Oh good lord.  None of them were at all likeable.  I get it, the world has evil people in it.  They do weird and bad things.  But please, it’s almost as if to be considered good adult fiction it has to be dark and subversive—happiness is thought of as a childish emotion and not part of reality.  (Frankly, I loved Gretchen’s Rubin’s point in The Happiness Project that happiness is actually very hard to achieve in the modern world and people who do so are usually shot down by the rest of us, who take the easy, cynical route, and take it too seriously.)  There’s plenty of dark, subversive things to be found in kids’ books, but kids’ authors don’t have to put on a hoity-toity pretense that it isn’t good writing if someone doesn’t get raped or murdered.

Honestly, I think the characters in kids’ books, because they are going through that awkward time in their lives where they so outwardly try to “find themselves” are much more honest portrayals of reality.  Because really, has any of us actually found ourselves?  No, I didn’t think so.  If I’m going to read an “adult” book, it usually has to be nonfiction.  Or a Jonathan Safron Foer book.  Maybe Jonathan Franzen.  Or the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.  Because seriously, Ma Ramotse is a great character.

October 19, 2010

Is that your organ or mine? A compelling dystopia with cloning, slavery, drugs, and other things we bring upon ourselves

I had to read this novel.  It was for school.  I was about to assign it to my kids, 7th graders, for a dystopia project, on the advice of a librarian, so I needed to read it first.  What an awesome assignment!  I loved it.  It’s a page-turner.  It’s adventurous.  It’s emotional.  It makes you think about where the world today is going.  All things I love when I am reading a great book.  And it’s why I think young adult and children’s books are often so much better than adult books.  Wasn’t it the author of The Golden Compass who said that you can deal with so much more in a kid’s book?  Well, this book is a great example of that.

Title: The House of the Scorpion
Author: Nancy Farmer
: Fantasy/Science Fiction
Age: Middle School and High School and lots of Adults

Summary and Review:

The main character, Matt, is a clone.  He lives in the country of Opium, between the United States and another fictional country of this dystopic future.  In his society, clones are created and their minds altered with at birth so that they have none of their own emotions or thoughts.  They are treated like animals, or worse.  But Matt is a special kind of clone.  He is a clone of the country’s dictator, who demands that his brain be kept intact.  But this isn’t a gesture of good will–the dictator will kill Matt when the time is right, because Matt exists to keep the dictator’s life eternal–when he needs a new organ, Matt will be there ready, as have many clones in the past.

Matt must first understand that he is not a human at least as far as others see him, and then relearn his humanity with the help of a few caring souls.  He does eventually escape his horrible fate in his own country, but only to join a fate as a child slave laborer in the next one.  The book is full of issues that mirror today’s society, and this, combined with likable characters and a compelling narrative, makes it a great read.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

A lot of kids have trouble understanding what a “clone” is.  They know the term mostly from science fiction stories and snippets they hear, mostly out-of-context in the news, and so they don’t really get the full story.  As a result, I found some kids would read this book and have trouble understanding why a clone wouldn’t be treated differently.  So this is an important starting place for a conversation.  Make sure your child knows what it means to be a clone.  Basically, that the DNA is taken from one individual, put into an embryo, and a baby develops.  That baby is no different from any other baby, whose DNA happened to come from two individuals via an egg and sperm, but some students have a hard time understanding that.  Sometimes I relate the issue to identical twins.  Clones are no more alike than identical twins–in other words, they will probably look like the person they are cloned from, and probably have some similarities, but they will be their own person.  Getting kids to fully understand the implications that Matt is fully human is an important first step to understanding this book.  (After all, in today’s society, many children start out as “test tube” babies, and this, while different and controversial in whole new ways, is, from the point of view of the kid who is born, very much the same.)

Older middle school students and high school students can relate this to stem cell research as well.  I don’t think there are many people out there who would argue that it’s okay to “grow” a human being and then kill it for your own purposes–that’s the equivalent of saying we should be able to do anything we wanted with our own children.  However, there is a debate about what it’s appropriate to do with embryos that are created in the process of trying to help someone get pregnant and one their way to be destroyed.  Should scientists first be able to research on them for the good of those already alive, or is that wrong, since they have the “potential” to become human life?  Or should we not be allowed to create such things in the first place?  Books like this can help students wrap their heads around issues that otherwise seem too big or too irrelevant for them to understand.

If your child is reading this book, I would highly recommend reading it with them.  It will help you identify issues that are most important to you and your child and help direct a conversation even further.  Plus, it’s a great read.

October 11, 2010

There is a lot of gold, but the darkness is there aplenty

Okay, let me be honest.  I hated this book.  At least, once I was done with it I did.

But let me be honest again, while I was reading it, I couldn’t put it down.  So the relationship was not simple.

And let me now be really honest.  (Because it’s not honesty until you actually reveal something about yourself, instead of just about the book alone.)  The main reason I hated the book because I couldn’t handle it.  Some things are too painful to read, at least for me with my over-active imagination and brain that won’t turn off, even if I want it to.  It’s not that I shy away from tough subjects or even painful subjects in books, in fact, sometimes I am drawn to them, but something about this–maybe the use of animals (I am a vegetarian of the most sentimental kind) or children (I am a new and pregnant mother) or the religious overtones (I consider myself very religious and spiritual)–REALLY got to me.  Which again, is why it’s also such a great book–it’s powerful.

So I guess it’s most honest to say that while I was reading it, I wasn’t sure about it.  When I was done, I hated it more than anything I’d ever read.  Now that time has passed and I’ve had a chance to reflect on its meaning, I’ve come to rethink things.

So why would I write about it?  I was clear that this blog is only to talk about books I consider “page-turners”, books that I liked.  I’m not here as a reviewer.  Well, here’s the deal.  Months after reading the book, I still think about it.  I am drawn to its theories, to its plots, to its characters.  I want to learn more, but I don’t know if I am strong enough.  I thought I would never, ever read the sequels.  But I think I am wrong about even that.  I think someday I will have to.  The pull is just that strong.  So even though the part of me who wants to escape sometimes into a rosy world resists the horrific imagery that at times appears in this book, there is more of me who knows why the author did that, who agrees with him, and who wants books and stories like this to live on until humanity figures it out on its own.

Title: The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, #1)
Author: Phillip Pullman
: Science Fiction / Fantasy
Age: 12 and up

Summary and Review:

Lyra is a out-of-place in her world.  Left alone by a mother and father she doesn’t remember, she is raised in a university by academics and their staff.  She has little formal education, other than what seem like infrequent meetings with the scholars, but is bright and curious.  She spends most of her time flying through the streets of the city, playing rough-and-tumble games with the other children.  We see her curiosity at the beginning of the book as she and her daemon (an that is connected to her by a strong, invisible force, a physical representation of her soul, and something all humans in this world have) sneak into a study and witness an almost-poisoning of (ostensibly) her uncle, Lord Asriel.  After saving him and getting involved with a mysterious woman, she becomes a runaway and joins a party of “gyptians” in a high-stakes adventure to the arctic, where she believes her uncle has headed, and where she and others believe that children who have been kidnapped have been taken.

The story is rife with delicious imagery of her collegiate environment, the busy town surrounding it, and the fantastical worlds up north with flying witches and armored bears.  But the real power lies with the kidnapped children and the story of what is happening to them.  A horrific research project, funded by an all-powerful church, is experimenting with the children, leaving many of them dead in a painful way that is foreshadowed earlier in the book by interactions between Lyra and her own daemon.

On the downside, which is part of the reason I had trouble with at first, I found Lyra to be a strong character who doesn’t necessarily affect things around her as much as she is affected by them.  This isn’t universally true–she makes some important decisions, but she is played as somewhat of a pawn.  On the same note, Lyra is an important part of a prophecy (which is why she is partly played as a pawn by those who know it), and part of this prophecy gets a lot of hype but I felt falls rather flat at its conclusion.  However, in the end, the allegory about religion and the ways in which we treat our souls (and ourselves) eventually spoke to me too powerfully to put down this book for good.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

(For the short version and a quick question, skip to the end.)

Wow.  I mean, wow.  First of all, don’t start off the conversation the same way so many people talk about this book, which is how this is “too deep” for a children’s book and/or “deep enough” for an adult book.  I mean, throw up.  Are children stupid?  Have the adults who say these things never spoken to a middle school or high school student?  Most of them speak much more eloquently about the meaning of life than their adult counterparts who are way too deep in their search for financial security to even remember they once cared about such a question.  Pullman understood that a children’s book would be the best way to raise such profound questions, and for that, I truly admire him.

This book would raise a lot of great questions in a classroom setting.  Too bad our messed up ideals about children’s education would never allow them to read a book that speaks so poorly of organized religion.  (It’s interesting, isn’t it, to even think that?  I mean, it’s obvious a school would never read this book.  But why?  Because religious parents would be afraid that one book was going to bring down thousands of years of religion?  I’d rather think that one book could entice students to think about religion, to think about what it means to them, and in the end, change the way they look at their own religion, probably giving them more authority over their own thoughts and making their own beliefs even stronger.  But alas, our society is too weak for that.)  However, in my fantasy world in which this could be read in a classroom, or in a world in which you are an especially enlightened home-schooling parent who wants to present a myriad of viewpoints to your child, or in a world in which you actually have these kinds of conversations over the kitchen table with your teen who somehow didn’t get the apathetic-towards-things-his-parents-care-about gene, then here you go:

What do the daemons in Lyra’s society represent?  Is there a parallel in our world?  Why do you think daemons are the opposite sex of a person?  Why do a minority of people have same-sex daemons?  Why would removing someone’s daemon release energy?  Why would the church want to eliminate daemons, at least in their natural form?  What is so scary to the church and religious people in general about an alternate world, a world in which living things are different than they are in this one?

If you are the average parent with an average teen and just want to get a chance to see what they thought of the book and maybe have a short but hopefully meaningful conversation, try something like this:

So, do you think the daemon’s are people souls?  Or their desires?  Or did you have another idea?  (If they do, go with it and ignore the rest of what is written here.)

If not, and they agree with the soul-thing, keep on that, and don’t necessarily use the church as the enemy, even though that really is what the book talks about, but maybe something more generic like “adults” or “authority”.  That way, your teen can talk about things that are more relevant in his own life.  Unless, of course, oppression by an organized religion is an issue in his life, in which case, knock yourself out.

As a follow up, if they agree with the soul-thing, you can ask: “why would the adults want to experiment with cutting away souls?  Do you think adults do anything similar to kids today?”  (And if your teen answers that making her go to high school is the same as cutting away her soul, don’t argue; just listen.  She’s probably trying to tell you something important.  Kids often feel like they are trying to be pressed into cookie cutters that are not the right size and shape for them.  See if this conversation can lead you to understand if your child feels that way and if so, if they can tell you who is doing that to them (parent, teacher, coach) and what they feel is being taken away from them.  (And please listen.  I mean, if they argue you are taking away their individuality by not buying them a car, you don’t have to take them too seriously, but at least hear what they are trying to say!)

SHORT VERSION: Don’t even bring up religion.  Use the daemons not as a representation of souls, but as a representation of human desire.  Does your teen ever feel like adults are trying to take away his or her natural desires or instincts just like the experimenters in this book?  Umm, yeah, I’m willing to bet so.  That’s a conversation right now.

October 6, 2010

Is anything about a teen’s life not TANGLED?

Is there an experience out there more intimate than reading?  Sure, television and movies can give you more detail, but the connection between you and the characters is sometimes lost by the guy chewing popcorn next to you or your toddler throwing things at the screen.  So I like to stick with books.  With books, it’s just me and the words, and with a good book, after a few paragraphs, it’s just me and the language in my head, which in the end, is really just me.  And there’s nothing more intimate than that.

Title: tangled
Author: Carolyn Mackler
: Realistic Fiction
Age: Upper Middle School and High School, 12 and up

Summary and Review:

Carolyn Mackler’s tangled is one of those intimate reading experiences.  There are four main characters.  A slightly awkward, half-Jewish girl, a definitely not awkward tall blond young actress, a so-awkward-his-parents-put-him-in-a-camp-that-teaches-social-skills guy, and that same guy’s very non-awkward football-playing older brother.

These teens go through everything (well, except school, there’s not a lot of that).  There is the death of a girlfriend, family break-ups, first sexual encounters (nothing crazy, just some touching in case you worry about that kind of thing), serious depression and suicidal thoughts, and first crushes.  Through it all, they are completely misunderstood by their parents, each other, and perhaps most importantly, themselves.

The story is told in four parts, with each one narrating his or her part from his or her point of view.  Sometimes, they are telling about the same time period and you get a better understanding of what actually happened when you see what two different people thought about it.  Sometimes, they move the story forward in time, talking about events entirely their own.  Always, they tell the story with their own believable, unique voices.  You would have thought that Carolyn Mackler just got out of high school herself with how accurately she seems to portray their thoughts, desires, and fears.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

So, if you are so inclined, you can talk about the physical parts.  There’s a great lesson in this book because one of the characters falls for a hot boy, only to realize she really doesn’t want to be fooling around with him (he puts his hand down her shirt and she doesn’t like it).  Later, she finds love in her own way and in a way far better suited to who she really is.  Some parents, I suppose, might find that horrific.  It’s possible, actually, that I am one of them, but I don’t really know yet, as my problems are still in the tantruming and please-use-your-fork-at-the-dinner-table stage.  But the beauty is how this character takes care of the problem herself, grows from it, and moves on.

If you think you can do it without preaching, this book could be used in that way to talk to a teenager about physical contact and what to do/expect.  However, I would really, really, stress that you should do it without preaching (preaching has, I doubt, ever had a positive effect on a teen), and I think using the context of the book and the characters–and sticking to that–would be a good idea.  I.e., don’t turn this around and say “so, what would you do if that boyfriend of yours tried something?”  But instead use the names and situations of the characters.  You’ll learn just as much by asking questions about them, and you’ll likely get further in the conversation, and thus learn even more.

The true beauty of the book, of course, is the way the four lives weave together, even though they are four very different characters.  In middle school and high school, kids can feel fairly isolated from peers that are different from them.  Talking to your kids about how different kids are involved in their lives, or how they experience similar things, might be a first step to getting them to think outside their own social clique.

September 21, 2010

The devil’s here…and he’s the least of the problems

I saw this book on the ALA’s 2010 list of best books for young adults.  The title alone is enough to pick it up, but the reviews were also tempting.  There was a lot of stuff I loved about it, and it’s definitely a good book, although I’m not sure it’s my kind of read.  But after thinking about it, I decided it still falls into the category of books you want to stay up late and read (and I did that with this one), so it definitely deserves a spot on the blog.

Title: Soul Enchilada
Author: David Macinnis Gill
: Fiction/Fantasy
Age: Middle School and High School

Summary and Review:

“Bug” is a high school dropout, an orphan three times over, whose problems seem big–keeping a regular job and paying rent in a nasty apartment.  Then the devil’s sidekick comes to collect on a debt her grandfather owes.  Apparently, he sold his soul to buy a Cadillac and has now disappeared.  The plot twists again (although they let you know this on the back cover, so it’s not really a spoiler, although I wish they didn’t) when she fights to save the car and realizes that her soul was put up as collateral.

The story takes a lot of turns, which many reviewers seemed to have trouble believing, but didn’t actually bother me that much.  Basketball games and pizza delivery races with the devil?  Hey, I’m there.  I like a book like that.  But for me, I wanted a bit more in the characters.  Bug is feisty and strong, an independent woman to a fault.  But shouldn’t she have some other side?  You see it a little when she remembers her mom–I would have just liked to see a little more.  Of course, maybe I’m being sexist here–if this were a male action hero, would I be asking the same thing?  I certainly hope so.  Same with the other characters–they are interesting and likeable, but I wished I got to know them better.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

The book doesn’t necessarily lend itself to deepness: that isn’t a fault, it’s just not the point of the book.  But if your kid is reading it, there are things you could talk about.

First, there’s the whole making-a-deal-with-the-devil thing.  Who would do it?  For what would you make a similarly large sacrifice?  Is there a modern true-life equivalent of selling one’s soul?  What would that be?

Before she realizes her soul is up as collateral, Bug fights to keep that Cadillac–despite the presence of a stinky, powerful demon now in the passenger seat.  Why would anyone put up such a dangerous fight for an object?  For Bug, the car is not only a prized possession, but the last remaining memory of her grandfather.  Are there things in your life that mean that much to you?  Why?

September 16, 2010

It’s both sweet and savory and if it were PIE, I’d order more

I went through a mystery phase in middle school.  Nancy Drew (yes, all of them), Hardy Boys (almost all of them), Agatha Christie (a lot of them), and Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who… series (definitely all of them).  And that was it for me.  No more mysteries; I just wasn’t as interested anymore.  Until I saw this book on the shelf of my local (independent!) bookstore recently.  It called to me.  It said “you think you don’t like mysteries anymore, but you know you are going to like this one!”  Look at the gorgeous, intriguing cover.  A dead bird and a postage stamp.  And the title?  Love it!  And the reviews?  It was like love at first sight without that awkward first date.

This is a book for absolutely anyone older than twelve.  Adult mystery readers will love this book.  And middle school and high school girls will like it, too.  So please, let me begin.

Title: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Author: Alan Bradley
: Mystery
Age: 12 and older, Middle School, High School, Adult

Summary and Review:

In the opening scene, young Flavia is locked in a dark closet, breathing stale air through her nose as she tries to free her tied hands and gagged mouth.  But just when you think the book is starting off more intense than you imagined for a story of a young girl, she frees herself, runs down stairs, waves to her father, and begins to plan her revenge on her two older sisters.  The scene, after much more sibling turmoil, ends with these words:

I leapt up from the table and fled the room in tears.  I didn’t actually think of the poison until next morning at breakfast.

As with all great schemes, it was a simple one.

And we are thus introduced to Flavia, a very different, very isolated 11-year-old girl whose mother has died leaving behind a Father who has nothing to say to his children and two older sisters who taunt her cruelly (although she’s no less mean in her retaliations).  In the grand old manor in which they live, Flavia spends most of her time in the attic’s old chemistry lab, a relic of a passionate ancestor.  Her older sisters might have the edge of age and memories of their mother (which she is tormented not to have), but she has a chemistry lab and she knows how to use it.  It is this chemistry that helps her solve a mystery that begins with a dead bird on the doorstep with a rare stamp on its beak and intensifies when Flavia watches a man take his last dying breath, whispering a secret only she can hear.

Solving the mystery takes Flavia, her bicycle, and her sharp mind on a journey to understand her father’s past and, as she struggles to prove her father innocent, gets her in more trouble than she could ever predict.

I once read somewhere that the best way to learn about a place is to read mysteries set in that place.  Apparently, the kind of research and writing that tends to go on in a good mystery novel just seems to bring out the geography of an area.  Sweetness certainly does that–transports you to the English countryside in a wonderfully vivid way.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

I love one of the quotes by the author in the back of the book.  “[Flavia]’s eleven but she has the wisdom of an adult.  She knows everything about chemistry but nothing about family relationships.”  And that, right there, is what makes the book so good.  That’s what I would talk about.

This is one of those books that actually has book group questions in the back.  I love book groups; I hate book group questions in the back of my book.  Of the twelve questions, there is one that I like and I think would make an interesting conversation with a middle or high school student.  “Like any scientist, Flavia expects her world to obey certain rules, and seems to be thrown off kilter when surprises occur.  How much does she rely on the predictability of those around her, like her father and her sisters, in order to pursue her own interests (like solving the murder)?”

The second Flavia de Luce mystery, The Weed That Strings The Hangman’s Bag, is already out in hardcover and the third, A Red Herring Without Mustard, will be available in February 2011.

September 10, 2010

A girl among the stars

Title: Stargirl
Author: Jerry Spinelli
: Fiction
Age: 12 and up

Summary and Review:

This book will remind you of being in high school.  If you are in high school, it will illuminate some of the toughest things about high school.  The self-named and formerly home-schooled Stargirl is the new kid in class and everybody notices her.  How could they not?  She gets out her ukulele in the cafeteria and sings, even sings Happy Birthday to kids she doesn’t know.  She has a pet rat in her shoulder bag, and puts a vase of flowers on her desk in every class she goes to.  The story is a typical high school one, but not very typically told.  She is first avoided, then popularized (even made a cheerleader), later worshipped and copied (ukuleles appear on campus, for example), and then, suddenly and inexplicably (but predictably) shunned.  Given the worst silent treatment a campus could plan.

There are many things that make this a great book, but one of them is the unusual point of view from which the story is told.  We never get to see Stargirl’s feelings or thoughts–we can, like the rest of the confused high school students, only guess them.  Instead, the story is told from the point of view of a boy, and a popular one at that.  He becomes a love interest in the story and watching the battle of popularity through his eyes gives the novel such a refreshingly honest perspective.  We see this absolutely ordinary teenager struggle with his desire to be with this usual girl and yet his (even greater?) desire to be accepted by the mainstream.  The hypocrisy of the narrator’s feelings are played against the hypocrisy of the student body and serves to brilliantly remind us of our own hypocrisies.  I appreciate any book that can point out my flaws in such a beautifully, readable way.

The story of Stargirl is hard to put down; you are immediately wrapped up in the characters and their lives, hoping they will make the right decision and knowing from your own life experience that they might not.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

Read the book.  You’ll be glad you did; it’s enjoyable and reminiscable, even if the latter is technically not a word.  That will give you most of what you need to know to talk to your kids.  Well, daughters, really, because let’s be honest, male narrator or not, this is mostly a girl book.  If only because the only boys who will read it are avid readers, and unfortunately there are not many of those at the young adult level.  Sigh.

But if you are stuck about what to talk about, or haven’t read the book, ask your daughter if she knows anyone like that at school and what she thinks.  How were they treated?  Did your daughter have any kind of relationship with them?  Maybe your daughter was more like Stargirl than the others.  Or maybe your daughter has been in a position like the narrator–caught between friendships that cross the traditional boundaries of social groups.  Maybe she knows what it’s like to have to make a decision like that.  At some point, don’t we all make those kinds of decisions all of them time?  Didn’t you?

If you have a reluctant talker, make the issue about people outside of your daughter’s immediate circle of friends.  Or discuss issues from a couple of grades ago–you’ll still get the point across, but your daughter won’t feel like you are probing into a private area she doesn’t want to discuss right now.

September 8, 2010

An enthralling, exciting, fantastical, and very real BRAVE story

Title: Brave Story
: Miyuki Miyabe
: Fantasy
Age: Older and wiser middle schoolers, Grades 7 and up

Summary and Review:

Wow.  I mean seriously WOW.  This book was a LOT to read.  In a good way.  But also in a deep way.  A dark way.  A profound way.  And a very REAL way.  This book is not for the light at heart.  It’s for students who want their books to represent their world, not sugar-coated, and probably (hopefully) much darker than the one they inhabit.  It’s the kind of book parents want to think their children aren’t ready for and the kind of book that those same children probably need to read.  I loved it, but I admit, I loved it even more in retrospect than while reading.  It is long; it is complex.

The dark moments are far outnumbered by lighter moments, but they are there and they are not likely to be forgotten.  The main character, Wataru, is a young boy whose parents are getting divorced and the boy is going through very real feelings of loss and guilt about that. Simultaneously, he discovers a portal to a fantasy world through which a friend of his–or rather a popular boy who he wishes was a friend–has also traveled.  That fantasy world imitates in many ways his favorite video game, a fact which at first irritated me because it seemed so fake, but which I came to love as a metaphor for him inventing this world as he goes, trying to make sense of the real world back home through challenges and parallels he discovers in this new, fascinating, and imaginative world.

The fantasy world is equipped with everything you want a fantasy world to have: great characters, interesting and very different towns, warring peoples, and complex politics.  Our young hero starts out with very little power or strength but begins to find his own.  The world is full of surprises, challenges, and certainly some scariness.  And somewhat intense parallels to Wataru’s situation at home.

The book certainly touches on deep subjects.  Wataru’s father is leaving his mother for another woman, and while he sees his father as the culprit in a very black and white way at the beginning of the book, he later learns that his father originally left this woman for his mother and starts to wonder what it all means. The conversations are real, something that kids will especially appreciate.  When he and his dad finally sit down to talk about the separation, his dad says “Convictions are important decisions, the kind you can’t go back on.” And Wataru thinks, but doesn’t say “So abandoning me and Mom was an important decision.”  But then he asks his father “So what are your convictions, Dad.  I mean, Mom is really sad, and Grandma’s furious, and all Uncle Lou does is hold his head in his hands and moan.  How can convictions be worth all that?”  In other words, Wataru asks what a lot of kids would want to ask.  The conversation goes further.  Wataru’s dad says that “You only live once/”  and that “If you think you’ve made a mistake, you have to fix what can be fixed.” But Wataru doesn’t know the whole history and doesn’t understand.  He thinks to himself “Dad’s life was a mistake.  So…what does that make me?”  He tries to ask these questions to his father, but just like in real life, they get stuck in a generation gap of understanding.

At one part of the book, his friend wakes him up when his mother has turned on the gas in their apartment in at attempt to kill both herself and him.  This is a parallel story to something that had already happened to this same friend.

I know some people will be turned away by the darker aspects of the book, and others by the unfamiliar cultural setting–the book was translated from the Japanese.  If your child is honestly too young to handle material like this, then that’s probably a good decision.  But most children can handle more than their parents think–and there are many children who would benefit greatly from reading a book like this.  Besides, I firmly believe that children, like anyone, will get out of a book what they are ready to get out of it, and very little more.

But you know that boy in school–there are many of them–who bury their heads in fantasy novels, rarely read a book less than 500 pages, invent complex games or stories of their own, and might even have parents who are divorced?  Please buy him this book.  And get it for a lot of other kids, too.

The book’s English edition won the American Library Association’s Batchelder Award in 2008.  The author, born and raised in Tokyo, worked first at law offices and has previously written crime novels, which gives this project some more context.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

This is one to read alongside your child.  The darker aspects will have you wanting to engage in a conversation immediately and often–what do you think about this?  Isn’t it awful?  You’ll want to reassure your children that the world isn’t (always) like this, and likely your instinct will be to hope they don’t really relate.  But hold back.  Let them experience it for themselves.  Let them ask you questions.  Let them know you’ve read it, too, and you understand.  But let your kids guide you through this one.  Otherwise you take most of the magic away.

If you like, here are some possible questions to ask when they are done (although, please, put them in your own words, or you will be met with eye-rolling):

What was the importance of Mitsuru’s character?  Why do you think he was portrayed as someone more popular than Wataru, someone Wataru looks up to, but also someone experiencing many of the same things as Wataru?  Mitsuru seems to be a symbol of something.  What?

How does this family deal with divorce?  What have you noticed about any of your friends who are going through this?  Does this make you think about it any differently?

What does Wataru learn about himself?  How does he learn it?  How does the contrasting character of Mitsuru help illuminate what Wataru is learning?

How do you (or your friends) use fantasy to escape or explain your own reality?  (This could be a week-long conversation.)  Help your child understand that when they go online to play a game or social network (especially those kids who social network and try on different personalities, which is definitely the fad now), they are using fantasy worlds in almost the same way as Wataru, even if it’s much less obvious.  See if you can get them to tell you why they and their friends like to do that.  And then you may have solved the mystery of the online generation!

Good luck with that!