Periodically, we invite other book lovers to guest post on the Book Jam. Today, we are thrilled to welcome back an outstanding Children’s Librarian — Beth Reynolds (or Ms. Beth to many kids in our town). We love the fact she serves as our own children’s librarian extraordinaire. She is the type that calls a child to let them know they have a book on hold, even when they didn’t request it, just because she knows that particular child will love that particular book. Those of you lucky enough to visit or live in Norwich can find her working at our fabulous Norwich Public Library most week days, and the Norwich Bookstore on many a Saturday. So without further ado, some recommendations of children’s books about friendship from our dear friend Ms. Beth.
Many readers in Vermont are very familiar with Understood Betsy, the only children’s book written by the beloved Dorothy Canfield Fisher. Though she wrote several novels for adults this enchanting chapter book about a young girl in Vermont was her only published work for young readers. This one book phenomena also occurred with the adored editor, Ursula Nordstrom. She helped produce amazing books, ones that most everyone holds dear in remembrances of childhood: Harriet the Spy, Charlotte’s Web, Goodnight Moon, Where the Wild Things Are. It’s a noteworthy list. And yet, Ursula herself was responsible for writing one of my favorite children’s books, though not nearly as well-known as the books she edited. The Secret Language, the story of two girls at boarding school and based on the author’s own experiences, was a book that I reread over and over. When I started working for a bookstore in my twenties I tracked down a copy and it’s become a book I have given to some of my dearest adult friends. The paperback copy I have is tattered and pages are falling out. It originally sold for 35 cents and opening it now to most any paragraph brings back a flood of memories: wanting to have a friend so we could dress as ice cream cones for Halloween, or communicate with a secret language, or finding someone who would be my companion during the long nights at school far away from my family. (The Book Jam is sorry to say this book is currently out of print.)
I guess I was looking for such a friend when I left home and went to college. Living in a very small, rural mining town before the creation of the internet, books were the way I learned about the world. I discovered what it was like to have friend—and how to be one— in good situations and difficult ones. And in some ways the books of my childhood are the basis for the contemporary books I read today. No matter the setting or circumstances, I think a good kid’s book should contain fully-realized characters. In some cases, they are so well-drawn that they feel they might leap off the page. As cliché as it might sound, I believe a talented author can instill this exact hope. (Who wouldn’t like a five minute chat, hug or handshake with Harry Potter or Percy Jackson?) I also like to be surprised by a character’s reaction to certain situations. I find it easier to make a connection with a character who contains multitudes, one who doesn’t wear a white or a black hat and has some depth to their emotions. I appreciate an empathetic character, but I find it so much more valuable when those characters evoke empathy in my readers.
In the spirit of newness—pencils, classes and friends—here are a few chapter books guaranteed to get you off to a great start with your reading.
The Question of Miracles by Elana Arnold – I picked this one up for the title and the image on the cover. Iris and her family moved to Seattle in the wake of a tragic accident. Her new school and her new life require a bit of an adjustment. The loss of her friend clouds everything else, but she finds an unlikely friend in Boris. He’s a mouth breather and a know-it-all, but he teaches her Magic the Gathering. This is not something that sparks an interest, but it does help to pass the time. When she meets his family she discovers he was a miracle baby, meaning his very existence is a medical mystery. Iris starts to wonder if miracles are possible and how to find one for herself. In return for Boris’s gaming advice, she instructs him in social etiquette, which brings about some interesting interactions. I found Iris’s life to be well-drawn and fully-realized. She has a loving set of parents. Her dad works from home with a hairless cat named Charles for a companion. Her parents call her Pigeon, take the time to explore their new rainy surroundings with her and genuinely seem to care for one another. Having characters who seem almost human and interact with each other in a kind, considerate manner even in the face of tragedy is just one of the reasons to pick up this delightful book. (Mrs. Kassab the pregnant bus driver made me smile.) The friendship between Boris and Iris is fraught with differences but the fact that they learn from each other and come to enjoy spending time together just proves that life can be good again when you have friends. ~ Beth Reynolds
Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate – Applegate earned a bit of notoriety with her award-winning novel, The One and Only Ivan. The essence of sincerity and kindness of that book follows through to her latest offering. Jackson lives with his sister Robin and his parents. Life has started to get tricky again, not the least of which involves the reappearance of an overly-large imaginary cat. Crenshaw came into existence years ago but then vanished as most imaginary friends do. But he’s come back into Jack’s life at a crucial point, it looks like his family might have to sell everything they own and start living in their mini-van again. Homelessness is not a topic address often in kid’s books, though if this subject interests you then definitely pick up Blue Balliett’s Hold Fast book. Applegate examines this issue through the lens of friendship. Jack has lost friends due to their moving around and it helps him to have the support of a friend whose known him for many years—even if that friend is imaginary. Losing your home also means saying goodbye to things, but when given the chance to put a few items in their treasure bags, both kids pick a book. A Hole is To Dig (coincidentally edited by Ursula and almost called Stars and Mashed Potatoes) for Jack, and Robin picks Lyle, Lyle Crocodile. These companions have been with them for most of their lives. When they read each aloud, you could see they provided a bit of stability. Having the support of friends and the comfort of treasured possessions helps create a resiliency that can get you through the rough times. Crenshaw is someone I would want on my side when the chips were down. ~ Beth Reynolds
Auggie and Me: Three Wonder Stories by RJ Palacio – For everyone who loved Wonder, Palacio allows usback into Auggie’s world. He is however a minor character in these three stories. Julian the bully tells his story first. We see Auggie’s familiar story but from a completely different perspective. For many readers Julian was the bully and the character that evoked feelings of anger and a sense of injustice. Palacio turns the tables here and lets us see Julian’s fear. He does end up leaving the school for his unkind acts towards Auggie, but it’s not until he spends time in France with his grandmother that he’s able to see his acts for what they were and their impact. The second story takes someone Auggie has known since he was a toddler and shows us a deeper look into his world, one that doesn’t involve Beecher Prep. Chris has his own problems at his school, but it’s his friendship with Auggie that allows him to navigate these tricky times with his parents and his band dilemma. The third story shows us more about Charlotte, one of Auggie’s welcome buddies. Charlotte auditions for and is accepted into a dance troupe. She finds herself interacting on a daily basis with two other girls. Their afterschool practices actually bring them closer despite their differences. There is also the mystery of a homeless man a situation that tests their new-found friendship. Auggie is a touchstone and a marker for how Charlotte behaves and treats her friends. Each of these stories will delight those who wanted to know more about Auggie’s world while showing different, unexpected sides of some characters they thought they knew and understood. ~ Beth Reynolds
Fish in a Tree by Linda Hunt – Ally has always been labeled slow and a loser. She can’t read and though that has become a real barrier to making friends, she doesn’t let that stop her. There are other activities that engage her, but she knows that learning to read is the key to moving forward. She can’t figure out how to make that a reality until she gets a new teacher, Mr. Daniels (He clearly went to teacher school with Mr. Terupt.) But her teacher isn’t the only surprise this year, Know-it all Keisha and Albert–the big kid who wears the same shirt everyday and has a fondness for facts—become her closest friends. This book is filled with the day to day life of school, with its highs and lows. There are bullies and triumphant moments that should be celebrated. For me that means the moment when Ally’s older brother, Travis, comes in to ask for help with his own reading. But for others that might mean Ally becoming class president or doing so well on a Fantastico Friday challenge. Or when Albert stands up to the bullies. But I absolutely loved the day when Ally and Keisha show up wearing special shirts to show that they are Albert’s friends. To me it’s one of the sweetest moments in the book and a real standout from all the books reviewed here. I know it’s one I’ll think about for years to come when things might be a bit challenging in my own life. ~ Beth Reynolds
All of these books address big issues, but they should not be defined by them. I wouldn’t pick any of them up and say “Here’s a book about the death of a friends, the threat of homelessness, or this one about bullying or the devastation of dyslexia.” Like a good friend they are not black or white, there is much to think about, ponder and laugh about. Any one of these books would make a great addition to a child’s library or a perfect choice for a parent/child discussion or book group. The characters are complex and intriguing, and the stories are written by authors who truly care about their audiences. Ursula actually wrote a sequel to The Secret Language, but she didn’t like the ending so she burned the manuscript. I’m glad that these authors were brave enough to put their books out into the world for all of us.