WHIRL (What Have I Read Lately) Books is a site for readers to find books for themselves and their book clubs. Liz at Literary Masters runs book groups and literary salons where we "dig deep" into literary treasures.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

When You Reach Me

When I was a child, A Wrinkle in Time was one of my favorite books. But here's my problem--I rarely remember a book. I just remember--quite clearly--how I felt while I was reading it. And I remember feeling wonderfully enthralled while reading Madeline L'Engle's tale of time-travel. Now I've just read When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, a book that is getting lots of "buzz"--Newbery is often mentioned in conjunction with the title--and I enjoyed it so much, I want to go back and re-read A Wrinkle in Time. Stead acknowledges the "astonishing imagination and hard work of Madeleine L'Engle" and When You Reach Me often refers to A Wrinkle in Time, so I think it would be fun to read one right after the other. I might suggest reading L'Engle's book first, though.

When You Reach Me is chock full. It's chock full of adventure, of plot and sub-plot, of characters, of themes. The narrative device is unusual and there is a mixing of genres. Best of all, there is mystery and the story is written with enough suspense to keep the reader turning the page. So, what about my three criteria when choosing a book for my Mother/Daughter Book Groups?

1) The Story: This is one of those books that I think the moms will enjoy reading as much as the daughters, especially if they have already read A Wrinkle in Time. Miranda, the protagonist, is a likable sixth-grade girl living in 1979 New York City with her single mom. Miranda's mom has just been selected to be a contestant on the TV show The $20.000 Pyramid. This would be exciting enough--they could really use that money to buy all sorts of things they need--but Miranda also is confronted with the fact that someone--she doesn't know who--has predicted that her mom would be chosen. And this isn't the only prediction that the stranger has made, and that has come true. In mysterious and secret notes, this stranger has told Miranda about things that will happen before they do, and he's been right every time. Now he says it's a matter of life and death that she help him--and keep it secret from her mom and her best friends. But who is he and how can she help?

This book has a lot going on, but the author ties it all together in the end, and I think it works. The girls will have to be thinking while they are reading, which I always see as a good thing, but they may not even realize how hard they are thinking because the story is so gripping!

2) Questions: This book poses a lot of questions, both the little and the big kind. I hadn’t thought much about time travel until I read this book, but now I find it fascinating to ponder!

3)Life Lessons: My favorite theme of the book is connections, the thread that connects every action to every other action and every person to every other person. And every time to every other time. It’s very thought-provoking, and worth reminding ourselves of. Remember E.M. Forster?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Hundred Dresses

Mother/Daughter Book Groups. Hmmm…for second-graders. Hmmm…which book to choose? I have the perfect one for you: The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes.

There are lots of readable books out there, but when choosing a book for a Mother/Daughter Book Group, I keep three things in mind:
  1. The Story: No matter what, at the end of the day, what a reader of any age wants from a book is a great story. We want to enter the book, fall into the story, run around with the characters, even become one of them. We want to escape this world for another. Or…if the story is a scary one, we huddle close to each other while reading it, grabbing our stuffies, sooooooo glad that we are not in that world, but rather safely in our own!
  2. Questions: I love novels that get me wondering, get me thinking, get me asking questions. Some of these questions are the unanswerable kinds—you know—the mysteries of life kind. I don’t think having all the answers is as important as searching for them. Reading, to me, is a continual journey of searching…it’s kind of like life in that way.
  3. Life Lessons: If I can learn something valuable from a story, well then, all the better. It’s not a requirement; it’s more like a nice-to-have. Then again, what great literature is out there that we don’t learn something valuable from? The wise reader learns from the experiences of the characters in books, and avoids a lot of life’s pitfalls that way. There is so much truth in fiction, more than in non-fiction, but that’s a subject for another blog post, another day.
The Hundred Dresses meets all three of the above criteria. The story is wonderful, and my adorable seven-year-old group took to it with gusto. The story is packed with different layers, and the girls were tuned into most of them. It’s a story of friendship, of prejudice, of cowardice, and of hope, to mention a few themes that came up in our conversation.

We asked each other lots of questions, too. Was Peggy, the rich girl who had “fun” with poor Wanda each day, really a mean girl? Was she a true friend to Maddie, her “best friend”? Did Peggy really think she had helped Wanda with her “game,” or was she just telling herself a story so she wouldn’t feel guilty? Did Wanda know she was being made fun of? These are just a few of the topics we bounced around, and we didn’t definitively answer all of them. I love it that way; perhaps the girls will re-read this book at a later date and see the questions, and some of the answers, in a different light.

There’s a huge life lesson in the book, too. What would you do if you saw someone—your best friend!—making fun of someone else? Would you stand by in silence, relieved that someone other than you is the target? Or would you say something in defense of the victim? All the girls agreed that they would stand up and say something to stop the teasing, even if they were risking their friendship with their best friend. And all the moms agreed that this would not be an easy thing to do!

I highly recommend The Hundred Dresses for your Mother/Daughter Book Group, for grades first through fourth.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Book of the Month: A Mercy

Toni Morrison considers her writing in this beautiful book to be at its height, and I couldn’t agree with her more. Whether you are new to Morrison or a devotee, or somewhere in between, you are in for a treat when you read this captivating and poetic story about the early days of America- before ‘slavery’ and ‘black’ became inextricably entwined, when there were slaves of varying colors and names, and when the Europeans and Africans colluded in bringing about what Margaret Atwood has described as “one of the most viciously anti-family institutions human beings have ever devised.”

Told from different perspectives, the story asks universal questions, requiring reader participation in answering them. Some of the themes running through this novel are: community versus individuality, the responsibility of each of us for our fellow human beings, and the fictive nature of religion and history. A Mercy offers the reader much to ponder and it will offer any book group much to discuss.