May 24, 2005 > Footnotes: 05/24/2005
by Joyce Peters
Since closing Giant Steps Bookstore and moving on-line, I have much more time for pleasure reading. I still enjoy children's books because the good ones tell a terrific story without a lot of padding. It's an art finding the right words (within a limited vocabulary) to enlighten a less mature audience or someone more jaded like myself.
I do miss personally matching that perfect book to a particular young reader. I remember one of our young customers was so thrilled that Lemony Snicket (Series of Unfortunate Events) was talking directly to him. It was also fun to see kids tackle their first big book with the Harry Potter series. A thick book heavy with plot and characters can fly by while a thin boring one is leaden. I hope that the many adult Harry Potter fans who discovered that children's books are not just for kids will try some new ones.
Some of us from Giant Steps, staff and customers, meet regularly to discuss books. We will share them with you in the coming months. We'll also review adult books that we recommend for teen readers.
Hope everyone had a great Mother's Day. And now a word about those other moms...
Mothers are expected to manage home, kids and often jobs with or without the help of fathers. Despite the image of the idealized middle-class American family popularized in the 50's, families have always come in many different forms. When we move beyond the mystique of motherhood, we recognize that mothers are not always good, not always all-knowing and maybe not always there. Children's books reflect that dynamic showing parents with all their frailties. There is a place for stories with "perfect" families and for stories with families that are human. The latter help us appreciate that good mothering is not an innate ability but a choice.
Bucking the Sarge by Christopher Paul Curtis. Fifteen year-old Luther T. Farrell is the only private in his mother's army. He manages her slum properties and takes care of the elderly men in her residential home; all while being a top student. After Sarge was widowed, she tried legitimate ways to make a living but figured she could get ahead by being a shady business woman. She is constantly deriding her son for having weaknesses, like compassion and honesty. Luther is a smart, young black male in a bad situation, yet he maintains an inner goodness.
The setting is modern day Flint, Michigan which is somewhat infamous as the hometown of Michael Moore of "Roger & Me" and" Fahrenheit 911" fame. It is a depressing, former company town with a large poor, black population. To his friends, his is a life of privilege (he gets to drive at 13) but to Luther it's just work, work, work as he is bullied by Sarge's no good, hood of a sidekick. If he just holds on until he can finally tap into the wages his mother has been banking for his college fund, he'll be free.
Although all the characters in Bucking the Sarge are African-Americans, it is easy to imagine them being another ethnicity that happens to be poor. It's always wonderful to meet characters that are just comfortable to be in their own skins. The language is both street smart and surprisingly non-offensive. The talk is full of funny putdowns with a natural flow.
Anyone who knows boys will not be surprised by the risqué or gross; for others, be prepared. Boys (especially reluctant readers) will find that this is no "lame" book. And girls will see that it's not easy being a guy. This is such an unusual young adult book that the adult reader might be slow to warm up to the characters. There are funny scenes and plot twists that will make it worth the wait. (Random House, $15.95)
Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Munoz Ryan They tell me that being a grandparent is better than being a parent. You get to do fun things without having to enforce the rules. But in some families, when parents are unable to parent, the grandparent must. Luckily for Naomi Soledad Leon Outlaw and her brother Owen, Gram was there when their mother skipped out seven years ago. Life in Avocado Acres Trailer Rancho in Lemon Tree, California, is happy and peaceful until their mother reappears to stir up all sorts of questions.
The ensuing custody battle forces Gram, Naomi, Owen and a neighbor couple to make a hasty trip to Mexico to look for Santiago, the children's biological father and a well-known wood-carver. After a physically and emotionally exhausting search, they finally find him at the annual Christmas festival in their ancestral village. All of the characters are well-drawn, and readers will share Naomi's fear of being uprooted right up until the judge makes the final decision about her future.
Pam Munoz Ryan ("Esperanza Rising') has tapped her Mexican and Oklahoman heritages to bring this warmly-written, moving novel to life. (Scholastic Press, $16.95)
For more book reviews, see www.giantstepsbooks.com. If you would like to suggest some good reads for our group or to join us, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.