Winter’s Picks for Young Readers

Thanhhà Lai
Listen, Slowly
(HarperCollins, 2015)

Thanhhà Lai reverses course from Inside Out and Back Again, her previous dazzler written in poetic-verse, in which a family of Vietnamese refugees acclimate to their new home in Alabama after the fall of Saigon. Listen, Slowly, written in teenager-speak, follows a modern day, second-generation Vietnamese-American girl as she and her grandmother travel back to the small village where her late grandfather was last seen alive before the Vietnam War swept the country. The results from this return journey are no less transporting.

California-raised Mia is every bit the American teenager, besieged with frenemies, hopeless crushes, Facebook, dreams of the perfect summer vacation. But at home she’s Mai, daughter of accomplished parents and dutiful granddaughter to her beloved, if foreign-seeming Bá. While the family upholds some Vietnamese traditions, the majority of what Mai knows about her family’s country of origin is derived from a PBS documentary.

She arrives at a rude awakening however, when an overseas detective discovers the name of a guard who held her grandfather prisoner before he disappeared. Mai had always thought everyone simply believed her Ông to be dead, but all these years, Bá has held the hope that he might be found alive, or at least to discover how he lived his final days. The tip from the detective was the most promising lead the family had received, and all of Mai’s dreams of spending the summer chasing her crush on the beach are tossed to the wind. Horrors mount once in Vietnam when her father, a doctor, is called away to a remote part of the country to perform surgery on a child, leaving Mai to accompany Bá to her family’s village alone to await word from the guard. Surrounded by myriad aunts, uncles, cousins, and mosquitos, all who poke and prod at her, Mai’s tells herself over and over, “Ông will not be there to greet us, we will cry and light some incense, then home home home.” Much to her dismay, things are not quite that simple.

The successes of this book are many. It’s no easy feat to write a teenage character who is both real and likable, as so many are reduced to shrill stereotypes or bear no resemblance to actual teens. Mai is smart, sarcastic, high-strung, and curious. Obsessed with SAT words but littering her sentences with “OMG” and “Nooooo!”—the mix of factors that make her up are believable. She shows streaks of battiness, but who wouldn’t while being drained by mosquitos and homesickness? She’s a funny, sassy travel companion.

But there’s more complexity to this story than your average Westerner as fish out of water in a developing nation type. Lai doesn’t condescend to the Vietnamese characters by making them teaching tools for her main character instead of people. Mai is bewildered by the Vietnamese people, but she maintains respect for them and their practices, however they may confuse her. In a particularly thoughtful turn, Mai is dragged along to a sewing class, and following a random chain of thought, informs the gathered women of the necessities of thong underwear. The women enthralled, and unsure of how she even got on the topic, Mai suddenly finds herself sewing pairs of the risqué undergarment for all the ladies.

The scene is hilarious, as the Vietnamese women waddle down the street, obviously uncomfortable with their new lingerie, but Mai misses the humor, suddenly mired in guilt and ambivalence over having so altered these women with one careless comment: one of many sensitive moments examining the ways in which cultures rub off on one another.

Incredibly detailed and immersive, this emotional journey takes readers half a world away to discover concepts of family and home.

 

Alice Hoffman
Nightbird
(Wendy Lamb Books, 2015)

Magic assumes many forms in children’s literature: the free, ever-ready, needs-no-recharging sort cast in Harry Potter; the elemental, rift-opening kind that exacts its toll in The Wizard of Earthsea; the roaring, deity derived type that scorches earth in the Percy Jackson series.

Alice Hoffman’s magic is none of those things, and in many ways, is all the more tantalizing for its grounded accessibility. In Hoffman’s work and the world of Nightbird, magic and the ability to inflict magic comes from within those who feel most deeply, who love the fiercest, who have been most gravely wounded. Their tools aren’t legendary wands or unicorn tears. It comes from the well-tended herb garden, a generations-old recipe, a carefully seasoned cast iron pot: the items themselves seem not to hold shine, it’s the effort and intention of the practitioner that endows them with enchantment. That such transformative power could spring from something as commonplace as heartbreak is what makes endless television reruns the of 1998 film adaptation of Hoffman’s novel Practical Magic so irresistible.

Teresa “Twig” Fowler’s family bears a curse and a secret. Two hundred years ago in the very same town of Sidwell, Massachusetts, Twig’s ancestor Lowell Fowler fell for the beguiling Agnes Early. Young love was cut short by war, however, a promise of marriage was broken, and the scorned Agnes cast a spell on her lover, damning all the men of the Fowler family to be born with black wings. The hex carried on through the generations all the way to present day, confining Twig’s charismatic older brother James to the attic for fear of exposure. But by night, James takes to the sky, stretching his wings and soaring through a darkened world he’s only viewed through glass. Murmurs of a “monster” in the woods ripple through town, items go missing, mysterious graffiti appears.

As James’s restlessness reaches its peak, Agnes Early’s descendants return to Sidwell, hoping to restore the long abandoned, dilapidated cabin that was “The Witch of Sidwell’s” home. Amongst the Earlys are Julia, who befriends Twig, and Agate, Julia’s otherworldly older sister. It isn’t long before Agate and James are pulled into one another’s orbit and it becomes clear that the tragic events that doomed the star-crossed lovers of centuries ago are about to repeat themselves.

The story is told from Twig’s perspective, but while she has her own narrative and much of the action is carried out by her and Julia, Agate and James are the central players in the drama that unfolds, their forbidden love creating the stakes that set the plot in motion, and Hoffman’s done something interesting by keeping us one step removed from them. Agate herself could have been the narrator, we could have been privy to every detail, but instead we spy on them through the bushes with Julia and Twig. We pour over love notes not meant for our eyes, guessing at details left unarticulated. The younger girls vow to defend and keep secret the love being shared between their older siblings, and we feel their longing for something that’s just slightly beyond the grasp and understanding of their age. The romance becomes a story within the story, mirroring the way we understand the histories of those who came before us; they’re characters more than people, distant, soft around the edges, representatives of something larger.

Swift and engrossing, Nightbird’s spell hits its mark.

 

Pam Muñoz Ryan
Echo
(Scholastic, 2015)

With remarkable speed and ease, this hefty volume from the beloved author of Esperanza Rising and The Dreamer plunges readers into the story of three lives connected by a thread of fate, and one maybe-enchanted harmonica. With Echo, Pam Muñoz Ryan has given us a globe-spanning, historical tour de force.

A shy boy with a prominent facial birthmark in Hitler’s Germany, two orphans struggling to survive in Depression-era America, a girl from a Hispanic family of migrant farmers in California during the Japanese internment camps; spread across the world, their stories are united when each for a time become the bearer of a particular harmonica which, for better or worse, alters their circumstances.

The tale opens in Trossingen, Germany, where Nazism is just beginning to get its legs. While Friedrich’s birthmark has ensured him a difficult life, his elder sister Elizabeth is brimming with potential. Recently returned from nursing school in Germany, she’s become a strident follower of Adolph Hitler and his movement, starry-eyed with the bright future this impassioned leader offers those who are “fit” to follow him. Within the canon of World War II literature, Echo paints an intimate and far more provocative picture of the creeping insidiousness of Hitler’s message, its alluring promises. Elizabeth grew up too fast after their mother died; she was left to care for her bullied younger brother while their father fell into grief. Now in “The League of German Girls” she finds place and purpose through community service and national pride, an opportunity to serve something bigger than herself. Her father’s warnings of where Hitler’s obsession with “purity” could lead fall on deaf ears. To understand the roots of Nazism, to see some Nazi supporters as a people in search of hope who were terribly lead astray into monstrous acts teaches us more about this history and ourselves than reducing them all to faceless, evil monsters.

This first act, breathlessly tense and anguishing, is the strongest of the three, its dangers the most precipitous, its rendering the most nuanced. In the subsequent acts we meet Mike and Frankie, orphaned brothers desperate to stick together who find themselves the wards of a wealthy woman with questionable intentions. And then Ivy, a young girl desperate to be validated by her harried parents as they move from farm job to job, finally landing as the caretakers of a property whose owners have been confined to a Japanese internment camp. While the second and third act may offer less in drama and moral complexity, Ryan’s skill at immersing the reader in the perspective of her characters and making the stakes for each of them felt is remarkable. She deftly ties the broad events of the historical backdrop to the comparatively small fears and desires of the characters, creating an epic that is at once expansive and very personal. Their vantage points on the era, their shared hopes and common spirit braid together, and yes, echo throughout one another.

While a Germanic fairytale in the style of the old Grimm yarns opens Echo, and its happily-ever-after epilogue may feel a bit too fortunate, what comes between is a thoughtful and resonant work of white-knuckled historical fiction.

Contributor

Jordan B. Nielsen

JORDAN B. NIELSEN received her master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Edinburgh. She has been reviewing children’s literature since 2008, and is currently the children’s book buyer for The powerHouse Arena, an independent bookstore in Dumbo, Brooklyn.

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