Saturday, April 30, 2005

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume

OK, now we're in true classic territory in my survey of Judy Blume books.

This is the story of Margaret Simon, daughter of a Jewish father and Christian mother, who struggles with determining what religion (if any) she believes in. As far as the title and the synopsis is concerned, that's basically the plot. But of course, the book is really about buying her first bra and waiting for her first period, and other classic traumas of sixth-grade femininity.

Like with the other books by Blume I've been reading, I have mixed feelings about this one. This was landmark stuff when it came out and it manages to avoid getting too pedantic at the difficult moments. But, once again, Blume is on a mission to deliver a message and the plot and the characters are pretty incidental to that mission. And then, there's the unmistakable style that she has whereby Margaret sounds like every other character from a Blume novel (even like the boys). That gets a bit tiring. I'm reminded of Phyllis Naylor's Alice series and of the smart move that Naylor made at just having the same character throughout, thus avoiding any problem with having so many allegedly different kids sound the same.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Multiple Choice, by Janet Tashjian


Hadn't read a good book in a while. I mean, I really good book.

Multiple Choice is the story of Monica who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. She develops a game to try to help her overcome her compulsions but instead it makes her life much much worse.

There are a couple of things I like about this book. First of all, it doesn't have a happy ending, although it ends on an optimistic note. Not everything gets solved and her path to recpvery will definitely take longer than the story allows. Second, the subject matter is original and interesting. I felt a strong personal interest in the problem (I have some compulsions of my own so I could sympathize with her fears about making mistakes and her need to do things right all the time). I found myself being drawn into her issues.

And any book that draws me in and won't let me put it down is a definite keeper!

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Deenie, by Judy Blume

Having suffered through a mile case of scoliosis myself, I figured that I'd be able to relate to this story of a girl who has to go through the stigma of wearing a brace (although I thankfully never had to wear one). What I didn't realize is the real reason that people read the book.

Given that the book was written in 1973, mentioning masturbation in a children's book was pretty advanced stuff, and discussing it several times made it more than just a gratuitous inclusion.

Again, however, Blume's writing hasn't aged well. Putting aside the references to full-service gas stations and department stores, Deenie and her friends are just a bit too wide eyed and innocent for the 7th graders they are. Phyllis Naylor and her "Alice" series has covered the same topics in the midst of IM and email with a similiar innocence.

The problem I think comes down to putting adult thoughts into children's minds. On one hand, they are portrayed are these innocent creatures, but then they are also fairly technical and clinical about their bodies. It's an odd juxtaposition. Almost as if the author is saying "hey, here are the sexual facts stuff" rather than trying to portray how adolescents understand sexuality.

To some extent, that was Blume's attempt of course -- to give girls (mostly) a safe way to find out correct information about sex, but it makes for a pedantic story. Because, in the end, Deenie's curiosity about masturbation and sexuality really don't have much to do with the rest of the story. One could argue that maybe that just is the way life actually IS, but again I think YA lit has come a long way in 30+ years.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Jacob Have I Loved, by Katherine Paterson

So, it's a classic. It won the Newbery in 1980 and a ton of awards. It's the story of Sara Louise, or "Wheeze" who grows up in a crab harvesting community in Chesapeake Bay in the 1940s. The book is largely about sibling rivalry with her sister Caroline -- the brilliant and talented.

It is a good book. But probably just not my type of good book. The writing is not outstanding in itself, although there are a few wonderful strong moments. And the story has a broader scope (travelling with Sara all the way through to her adulthood, marriage, and child). In fact, the story doesn't really seem to know how to end, and major characters are lost and forgotten about by the end. So, since I tend to derive my greatest satisfaction from strong characters who acheive some sort of change or development, I was left a bit disappointed.

That said, it is a good book. But not one that will move you in a strong emotional way. It simply is.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

A Song for Jeffrey, by Constance M. Foland

This is a book in the American Girl Fiction series and, being part of that commercial line, I didn't have high hopes for it. However, it has a few good points.

First of all, it is a mildly educational book about muscular dystrophy and the troubles that children with it go through, both physically and emotionally. It is also a warm experience to watch how the heroine Dodie matures as she deals with the fact that her friend has MD and is dying. The author could have taken a lot of cheap steps to pull on heart strings and she avoided that.

The problem with the book is that it really tries to do too much. rather than focus on Dodie and Jeffrey's friendship, Foland also throws in the parental separation angle, as something of an oversight. This leads to several excruciating dialog scenes between daughter and parents about why her parents can't live with each other, and an overly sweet and tidy resolution (of sorts) to their problems.

And then there's the overly writing. Wonderful plot devices, great writing, until we get to the dialogue that just sounds flat and a bit fake. Too much preaching, vocabulary (and conversation) that's entirely age-inappropriate. Foland understands children and how they think, but she just doesn't get the way they talk down on paper.

A mixed review. Better than one would have expected, but suffers from the preachy and shallow nature of most AG works.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Catalyst, by Laurie Halse Anderson

Set at the same High School as Anderson's Speak, this is a somewhat similar (but different) story about a high school girl who has hit the success path with a grinding abandon that too many adults do. She works especially hard to be the "Good Kate" who excels at all her classes and extracurricular activities, until it all falls apart. And, of course, learns that there is more to life than excelling at education.

In a subtle moment, there is a gratuitous moment where the heorine of Speak and Kate actually meet and share a few words. But thankfully that moment is kept tastefully short. But the two girls are also surprisingly similar: overachievers with communication problems. They succeed at everything they do, except for talking about their needs with the people they love. That is sad (and a recurring theme of YA literature) and also discouraging because Anderson never shows her characters really overcoming their problems. They fix their immediate problems, but their fears that hold them back are never really overcome. That's the way modern novellists like to work (avoid the tidy ending) but in reading these stories you really wish the girls had grown in that way as well.

In this book, it is particularly frustrating: you really want things to work out somehow, but problems are unresolved at the end (with resolutions merely hinted at). I longed at the end for Kate to come up with some sort of summary about her experience and how she had changed.

But perhaps the fact that I wanted it so badly is indicative of the quality of the book. With too many other books, I could have cared less. So, I'd recommend this one and giving yourself a chance to get as frustrated over Kate's choices as I did.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Then Again, Maybe I Won't, by Judy Blume

Continuing the survey of Judy Blume books....

This little book is a ways off of my usual. First of all, the character is a boy and he's not a terribly insightful character. Secondly, the book is terribly dated (references to fancy hard top cars, expensive $30 baseball gloves, etc.). The book is about a teenage boy, but the problems he faces are terribly quaint in retrospect.

This is an early Judy Blume book and one of her attempts at trying to write about growing up from a boy's perspective. Some of the material rings true (being embarassed about getting erections during school) but some of it is just out there. The kid lives a fairly sheltered charmed life where kids still call adults "sir" and "ma'am". The most traumatic thing that happens to this kid is that his friend shoplifts. This send our pretty perfect boy into such a fit that he has an ulcer and has to spend ten days in the hospital (you can tell this was long before managed care!).

Perhaps I'm just not as interested in boys, but I think this one just falls flat. Young Tony just isn't very insightful about his life or his feelings -- not an inspiring picture for kids looking for role models in much more complicated times.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Missing May, by Cynthia Rylant

I guess that I get so used to "issues" stories, that I forget that YA literature is full of simple beautiful stories about...well, not very much. Missing May is one of those simple stories. A lot like Patricia Maclachlan's books, this story takes on the grieving process. Summer is a young girl whose elderly stepmother has died. She and her stepfather, along with a kooky neighbor Cletus, discover how to "turn the buggy around."

The story is set in West Virginia and felt very familiar. Not that I grew up in poor Appalachia, but the culture is similar to what I did grow up with so I recognize the lingo and the mannerisms.

It's a short sweet tale, the type that has me choking back tears. No major life lessons here, but wonderful lyrical material.