Monday, May 21, 2007

Four Really Good Books

It struck me, after I posted my list of current and recent reading, how heavily weighted my reading is right now toward children's literature but also to literature for older children and young adults. I guess that makes sense. I spend a lot of time in the children's section of the library, and I tend to gravitate to the older children's (juvenile/mid-grade) literature. New books in this section frequently catch my eye; some I've heard of (and purposefully look for) but others just intrigue me. Since I happen to think some of the better children's and mid-grade books are the best books being written today period, I think it's likely good for me (as reader, writer and parent) to spend some time reading them.

It's hard for me tell the difference anymore between mid-grade and young adult work: a lot of what our library puts on the "juvenile" shelves (usually meaning readers of the 7-13 year old variety) feels awfully young adult to me. Maybe kids are being forced to grow up faster, so are being given more sophisticated fare at a younger age. Depending on the level of sophistication (and more, on whether or not the story deals well with real subjects) that can be good or bad. I hardly ever go into the actual "YA" collection at the library, which is housed in another area. Maybe that's good, as I was a bit freaked out by my quick perusal of the YA shelves the last time I went into an actual Barnes and Noble store (lots of garish covers, lots of unwholesome looking topics, and lots of tired looking plots and writing).

Well, for what it's worth, four of the best books I have read in the past six months -- meaning best books of any sort, and books I have truly enjoyed -- have been written for young people. Each one is very different from the others, and all of them -- the stories, the writing, the authors -- give me hope about the state of literature for children in this country.

If you haven't read them, I highly recommend them:

Enthusiasm by Polly Shulman
Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson
Bella at Midnight by Diane Stanley
Rules by Cynthia Lord

Shulman's Enthusiasm is an amazing debut novel written as a romance/moral and manners novel (a la Jane Austen) for the 21st century. Far better than any homage to Austen's work I've ever read for adults.

Larson's Hattie Big Sky deservedly won a Newbery Honor. It's satisfying historical fiction, bringing to life the latter part of the homesteading era in the American plain states (WWI era). It also gives us a wonderfully human heroine.

Stanley's Bella at Midnight is one of the loveliest fariy-tale/fantasies I've read in ages. It's got a gorgeous classical fairy-tale feel to it, yet there are definitely some echoes of Tolkien and other fantasy writers. Bella is another heroine I'll be pleased to introduce my daughter to one day, especially since this book (written on a much simpler reading level than Lord of the Rings) will pave the way for her to love and appreciate a character like Eowyn when she finally gets to meet her.

(Side note: my husband and I are already debating how early is too early to read LOTR out loud to our daughter. We love it so much! Any reflections on this appreciated... I think we've agreed we'll start with Narnia first. In fact, we've already read LWW out loud to her, at least in parts, on a car trip last year. I say in part because I think she slept through part of it...still a bit young for it then. Maybe this winter...)

Lord's Rules is another terrific debut novel. I think this is one of the first of what will probably be many books written about families and autism. It's creative, realistic, funny and poignant. Just an all-around good story.

My longer reviews (posted at Epinions) can be found at the links above if you're interested in hearing the longer version of what I enjoyed about each of these terrific books.


Erin said...

Well, I definitely struck gold with Enthusiasm after you recommended it, and no doubt I will with the other three too! :)

As for LOTR, my dad read it to me in sixth grade. Well, started - it took half a year to get through Fellowship, two years to get through The Two Towers and another half for Return of the King, so he finished it just in time to give me my own copy of Lord of the Rings as an 8th grade graduation present... He started me out on The Hobbit around 4 or 5 though...

Beth said...

Ah, now that's what I should have asked...when did you first hear the Hobbit? I'm happy to hear you got it so young. D. and I were debating that one the other day. I am thinking we may go with Narnia (at least the first 2 or 3 books) this winter, and then perhaps save the Hobbit for next summer, when she's nearing 6.

I know you've probably already read all the reviews I posted links to here... :-) I've been sort of "link happy" lately, for some reason!

janet said...

I would wait on LOTR. I tried reading it to my son around 2nd or 3rd grade, but doing so made me realize how dense the language can be. It just didn't work. He wouldn't let me finish.

I didn't let him see the movies when they came out. In 4th/5th grade, when he wanted to see them desperately, I insisted he read the books first. I still think it may have been too early for him to really appreciate them.

So I would say... wait.

Beth said...

Thanks, Janet. That was our feeling too...that we need to wait, although there's a part of us that would love to begin reading them to her in the early elementary years. I have to remind myself that "good books will keep."

Out of curiosity, when did your children begin reading (or hearing) the Harry Potter stories?